Women In Arms

Women in Arms, is a re-telling of the core stories of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology.

When the play was nominated for the Susan Smith-Blackburn Memorial Prize for women playwrights in 1985, I attended the prize-giving ceremony in the Garrick club in London, very excited and pleased with myself. I fell into conversation with Beryl Bainbridge, who was one of the judges. When she identified who I was and what I had written, she said in genuine bewilderment, “But, my dear, when you can write, why on earth do you want to write that stuff?” Beryl, it seemed, had little time for the doings of our bronze-age ancestors, or the myths that had sprung up around them. I felt like the mountaineer who was asked why he climbed mountains and answered, “ Because they’re there.”

I still feel the same way today, when I am asked to rationalise a re-telling of these stories to a 21st century audience. We don’t have to justify the existence of Mount Brandon. It is there in all its splendour to be explored and celebrated and enjoyed. And so it is with these myths. They are there and they are ours.

These ancient narratives speak to different generations in different ways. For Lady Gregory, the heroism of the warriors was an inspiration for the struggle for nationhood. In my case, it was perhaps inevitable that as woman writing at the latter half of the 20th century, I should focus on the power of the female protagonists of these stories. This is not to say that I wrote the play as a feminist tract but I did enjoy shifting the focus from the swaggering men to the women.

This in no way involved distorting the stories, just coming at them from a different point of view, and expanding on them. Nessa, Macha, Deirdre and Maeve were the fundamental shapers of the history of Ulster in their time but for the most part they are summarily dealt with. Even in the epic which is the Tain,

Maeve’s role in initiating the raid is subsumed by the combative feats of the warriors. Women in Arms redresses this balance and gives the women their rightful prominence.

Nessa is an intellectual, and oddity in her own time, who is brutally persecuted because she dares to be different. She wreaks revenge on her enemies using all the means at her disposal, including political manipulation, which secures the throne of Ulster for her son, Conchobar. He becomes Ulster’s most illustrious leader, through the implementation of his mother’s policies.

Conchobar’s first political blunder is to cross Macha. She is the powerful mother figure, a goddess who having been mistreated by the king, places catastrophic curse on the men of Ulster. There is a poetic justice in the form that the curse takes which is typical of the ironic humour that permeates the Ulster Cycle.

Deirdre is the catalyst whose beauty brings about the sexual passions that lead to chaos and civil war in Ulster. She herself is innocent, her only crime being that she was born. It is the duplicity and corruption of Conchobar that destroys the state. This is a story which rivals Romeo and Juliet in its poignancy.

Maeve is the larger than life, willful queen, whose insistence on proving her equality with her husband leads to war and the wanton destruction of The Tain.

The imagery of these stories packs a powerful punch. Macha, pregnant with twins, being forced to race against the king’s horses, Nessa discovering the massacre of her tutors, Deirdre and Naoise walking into Conchobar’s trap, Maeve setting out on her disastrous campaign, all have the power to make the hair on the back of our necks stand up. But most of all, what distinguishes these stories from the myths and sagas of other countries, is their humour, their quirkiness and their lust for exaggeration.

Why tell the stories now? Of course the very human characteristics of the protagonists are recognisable in our contemporaries. Of course it is interesting to look at them from a female perspective. Running through the play, as a leit-motif is the story of the two pig keepers, in a way the strangest story of all. It tells how two pig keepers who were close friends, became enemies and pursued their quarrel in different guises over generations, until they finally destroyed each other. It is easy to see George Bush and Osama Bin Laden as our pig keepers and the chilling end of their story as an inevitable fate. But these are not the reasons to revisit these stories. The mediaeval monks who transcribed them, knew they were not “relevant”, to the ethos they were preaching or the new society they were establishing. However they recognised that these tales were of vital cultural significance and must on no account be lost. We are in their debt for having preserved a pre-Christian Ireland, full of snakes and sex, blood and guts.

To me they represent a rich and exotic inheritance, to be enjoyed by every generation in turn. They are not the preserve of museums or anthropologists, but are there to be taken out, reinvigorated, refreshed and relished.

Mary Elizabeth Burke Kennedy

...the acting and singing by the ensemble as well as the live music were excellent...” - Joan Mento

Women In Arms

Wilde Irish Women (c) 2022