Maeve Callan, Sacred Sisters: Gender, Sanctity, and Power in Medieval Ireland, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019.

Maeve Callan. Sacred Sisters. Gender, Sanctity and Power in Medieval Ireland. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2020. € 109, ISBN: 9789463721509, pp. 308.

Reviewed by: Tracy Collins, Aegis Archaeology Limited, July 2020


This book explores gender, sanctity and power in medieval Ireland through the written lives (vitae) of selected early medieval saints, mostly the ‘sacred sisters’ of the title. It is an ambitious task given the sheer number of Irish female saints.[1] Following an introduction is Saint Patrick (the irony of beginning with a male saint is not lost on Callan) and then a chapter each on four women: Darerca (d. 517); Brigid (d. 524); Íte (d. 570), and Samthann (d. 739). Chapter six discusses some lesser-known female saints (Lasair, Attracta, Cranat, Gobnait, and Dígbe—not a saint but a female poet). A conclusion completes the volume. The text is supported by five appendices, A-E, of which B contains translations of the saints’ lives, a bibliography of primary and secondary works, and an index.

In the preface Callan explains why she chose this topic, in part motivated by some previous scholarship that included the ‘worst misogynists’ (p. 11). Her own reading of the texts revealed a celebration of women ‘not in spite of their sex but sometimes because of it’ (p.11). The introduction begins with the well-known story of Saint Canair meeting Saint Senán on the shore of Scattery Island in the Shannon Estuary, which sets the scene for Callan’s engendered discussion. Callan states her focus is the experience(s) of Irish women in the medieval sources. She rightly acknowledges three caveats: first, these stories have been written and re-written by men and male agendas will undoubtedly have had an effect on their messaging; second, saint’s lives were not accurate to lived experiences, yet, it is possible to ‘look behind’ the miracles to view these women differently; and, third, these long-enduring stories are ‘not the past’ or accurate history, but can be used to gain an understanding of that past based on interpretation of the evidence available (p. 16–17).

The book spans the fifth to the twelfth centuries and uses primarily three collections of Latin lives throughout. Callan suggests that the original sources on which these collections were based were likely written in the seventh to ninth centuries, and that these later collections ‘indicate a degree of co-operation between the native Irish and English colonists’ (p.30). She does not expand on how this co-operation may have been made manifest. Following a brief mention of the putative episcopal role of Saint Brigit (p.32) Callan discusses the status of women in the modern Roman Catholic Church and their possible future role as ordained clergy, arguing that ‘such approaches are less a radical innovation than a return to medieval Catholic roots at least developed in certain places at certain times’ (p. 39).

Chapter 1 identifies Saint Patrick as a primary partner in the creation of vowed religious women in Ireland. Callan suggests that the two texts credited to him, Confessio and Epistola, allow religious women to be heard through their encounters with Patrick, though relatively few are named (p. 45). Many women followed Patrick despite objections from their families and Callan suggests that they were in control of their own fates. Violence and death befell many of these women followers in the text. Lisa Bitel has interpreted this trope as the resentment of society towards these holy women, but Callan disagrees, noting that the women rarely remained dead, their revival affirming that ‘their lives were highly valued’ (p. 49). Gender relations are explored through a discussion on the occurrence of syneisaktism in early Ireland which included both single males and females, and religious married couples in mixed communities. These ‘double monasteries’ are expanded upon in Chapter 3. The fear of scandal was never far away in such communities and Callan provides several examples of how the players were dealt with. Ultimately syneisaktism, while being a practical solution for religious living, also provided a method of fortifying the self, putting oneself in moral danger and in most cases coming out the stronger for it.

Chapter 2 covers the anonymous life of Darerca of Killevy, Co. Armagh (also known as Moninne/Monenna). Callan postulates that this is possibly the oldest Irish vita, written as early as AD 600–625 (p. 65), and argues that Darerca was ‘a pioneer for women’s rights to pursue the religious life’ (p. 81). Callan highlights Darerca’s diverse roles as foster mother, teacher, and leader. She travelled widely across Ireland, perhaps as a peregrinatio or voluntary exile. She accepted diverse women into her communities—wives, mothers, virgins, widows, students, and recluses—while also working with men, principally Bishop Ibar. Her success is measured in the longevity of her religious establishment at Killevy which lasted until the sixteenth century. Darerca has been portrayed as a virago, ‘a manly soul in a woman’s body’ (p. 75). This was manifested in her manual labour—unique according to Callan—and symbolised by her relics of hoe and spade.

Chapter 3 discusses Brigid of Kildare who has a special place in popular piety, as the premier female saint of Ireland. Unlike with Darerca, there are several medieval vitae of Brigid (the most well-known is Cogitosus’ seventh-century version). Callan’s discussion of Brigid is necessarily limited due to the sheer volume of material about her. She concentrates on Brigid’s possible pagan origins from a female deity, her many ‘miracles’ such as meeting women’s needs in providing abortion, and her putative position as a female bishop. Was Brigid a pagan deity who, amongst other things, tended a perpetual fire and morphed into a Christian saint: ‘a goddess made mortal but without incarnation’ (p. 85)? Or was she a real person—or indeed several people—presiding as abbess over a double monastery (pp. 97–100)? The Brigid as bishop debate is discussed through a spectrum of views from Ryan in the 1930s to Torjesen in the late 1990s and Macy in 2008 (pp. 94–97). The chapter concludes with a discussion of all four female saints and the description of two of them, Íte and Samthann as Secunda Brigida which Callan prefers to interpret, with reasons she explains, as second after Brigid rather than a second Brigid. Parallels are made throughout this chapter with Ireland’s 2018 abortion referendum and the place of women in the modern Roman Catholic church.

Chapter 4 presents Íte of Killeedy, Co. Limerick. She is best known as foster mother and teacher to other saints, such as St Brendan. Killeedy has been described as a double monastery, but Callan prefers to see it as a female-only establishment with a few male visitors and students. Íte is strongly associated with poverty throughout her Life, which Callan labels ‘proto-Franciscan’. Ironically, one of the purposes of hagiography was as propaganda to assist the saint’s cult to increase its donations (p. 119). Callan expands on this poverty theme through an exploration of Íte’s ascetism, which Callan shows revolves largely around food: fasting, feeding and feasting. Indeed the saint, originally named Deirdre, became Íte (from the Irish íota, thirst) because of her thirst for God’s love (p. 127). Callan uses the seminal work of Caroline Walker Bynum, which focused on the religious significance of food to later medieval women, as a lens through which to view Íte’s ascetic relationship to food, spiritual food and the Eucharist (p. 129). This leads to an analysis of the Irish poem ĺsucán (Little Jesus), attributed to ĺte, in which Mary sends the Christchild to her for nursing. While it is unlikely that Íte herself wrote it (Callan dates the poem to the ninth century), the poet may have been a woman.[2]

Samthann’s Life is discussed in Chapter 5. She stands out from the other saints as her family has no role in that text, and she did not establish her own community. She embodied extreme personal poverty, but the monastery to which she belonged was wealthy due to the number of donations she attracted. She miraculously fed a large number of people, not with beer, but rather milk. The non-alcoholic beverage is favoured in her Life, Callan suggests, due to Samthann’s association with the austere monastic Céli Dé (servant of God) movement, to which a number of early medieval monasteries adhered, such as Tallaght and Finglas, Co. Dublin (p. 140, 148-154). Callan paints a picture of Samthann as a ‘no nonsense, fierce’ saint, saving souls from Hell and helping them through purgatory—a concept which was established in Ireland as early as the seventh century (p. 145-146).

Chapter 6 explores four more elusive ‘sister saints’, none of whom have their own Life: Lasair (p. 161-164), Attracta (p. 164-167) Cranat (p. 167-170), and Gobnait (p. 170-174). A fifth person, Dígde, possibly a woman, was the writer of the famed early Irish poem The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, which possibly dates to about AD 800.[3] Callan uses Dígde’s poem as a lens in her discussion of this group (p. 174-185). Gobnait in particular is highlighted due to her continued veneration at Ballyvourney, Co. Cork and the Sheela-na-Gig located on the church there.

In conclusion, Callan reminds us that perceptions are all important in reading these texts—pure objectivity is difficult, if not impossible to achieve. Furthermore, ‘hagiography is a form of faith-based propaganda’ (p.191) which can both reaffirm and subvert social norms. Nevertheless, with careful reading, sometimes ‘between the lines’, returning to the sources and visiting the sites, medieval women and women’s issues can be revealed.

Callan’s book helpfully draws together information on the better-known female saints in Ireland. It is structured in a broadly chronological way with each saint highlighted in turn. Comparisons are made between the saints throughout, but it would have been beneficial to draw these interesting comparisons and contrasts together into a distinct section or chapter. While historical context is mentioned throughout, no substantial overview is provided until the conclusion; this section would have been better in the introduction, especially for those unfamiliar with the detail of Ireland’s long history with England, particularly in the twelfth century. A number of digressions from the main theme—for example, the Roman Catholic church’s current view on the status of women within its institution (introduction), the discussion of Adomnán’s Law (chapter 5), and perhaps the inclusion of the poet Dígde (chapter 6)— may have been better positioned in the conclusion.

The primary sources provided in Appendix B are a useful guide as is the feast day list in Appendix C, which is followed by a glossary and pronunciation guide. More reference to Appendix A (map and photographs) might have been made throughout the main text, while the inclusion of county boundaries and saintly associations on the map would have been very useful. The inclusion of Mainistir na Calliagh Dubh (also known as St Catherine’s, a thirteenth-century Augustinian nunnery near Shanagolden, Co. Limerick) on this map and also as the fine cover image, may be in keeping with the book’s broad theme, but it is a little incongruous on chronological grounds. Despite these observations, Callan is to be commended on her latest book, which introduces Ireland’s ‘sacred sisters’ to a new generation of readers, and encourages those already familiar with medieval Ireland’s female saints to take another look.

[1] For a comprehensive biography of all Irish male and female saints see Ó Riain, P. A Dictionary of Irish Saints. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011.

[2] Nuns caring for the Christchild occurs in the later Middle Ages. See for example: R.D. Hale ‘Rocking the Cradle: Margartetha Ebner (Be)holds the Divine’ in M. Suydam and J. Ziegler (eds), Performance and Transformation: New Approaches to Later Medieval Spirituality. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999, pp. 211-239; M. Dzon, The Quest for the Christchild in the Later Middle Ages. Pennsylvania: Penn University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

[3] See B.K. Martin ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’: A Critical Evaluation, Medium Ævum, 38(3), 1969, pp. 245-261.