Why a Celtic Mary Magdalen?

By Elizabeth Cunningham

I am not Irish. That is why I am writing this essay: to explain how someone who is not Irish can be captivated by the Irish spirit.

Of course, it is possible that I may be Irish, at least an eighth or so. My grandmother, born in the United States in 1888, the same year and month as the famous blizzard, was adopted as a newborn infant from an orphanage by two women, one of whom had been disinherited by her family for studying medicine with the Blackwell sisters, but that is another story. In that gilded age, many Irish women were in domestic service to families of steel, rail, or coal magnates and may have been pressed into other services by sons or masters of the house. At least that is how my grandmother believed she came into existence. (And the curse of Macha who afflicted the Ulstermen with labor pains for five nights and four days be upon the memory of any man who molested my great grandmother—be he or be he not my great grandfather.)

You might reasonably suppose that Mary Magdalen was less Irish than I am and that Jesus was not Irish at all, although the Irish saint (or goddess) Brigid was reputed to be his foster mother and the midwife to the Virgin Mary. But then as Maeve remarks—(here I mean Maeve, the Celtic Magdalen and the narrator of The Maeve Chronicles)— "Everyone is a little bit Irish."

Despite her name—more on that later—it is not clear that my Maeve is Irish either. She is born on Tir na mBan (the Land of Women) an island in the Celtic Otherworld. When I did research for the novel, I went to the Hebrides and Wales. In Daughter of the Shining Isles, the prequel to The Passion of Mary Magdalen, Maeve and her pal Jesus (aka Esus) do not meet in fabled Glastonbury but on Anglesey (Mona) the site of the druid college that was sacked in 61CE by the Romans. It was only a short journey from Mona to Ireland, with Mona a strategic stop for traders in the gold mined from Ireland’s Wicklow Hills. Those druids were no fools. But my Maeve does not go to Ireland, except once in an Otherworldly vision.

I have been in Ireland only once when I was seventeen years old, foot loose and otherwise loose, living on a diet of whisky, chocolate, and bar peanuts, which I sang for—literally. I’d spent most of the summer in Scotland, first at a youth camp, then hitchhiking in the Highlands. I decided I ought to see Ireland, too. Despite having read W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, Lady Gregory, and James Stephens, I did not know what to do with myself or where to go. I am not sure I encountered the Irish spirit, per se, whereas the Scottish spirit, rugged and forbidding as it is, seemed to clasp me to its craggy bosom. After pub-crawling in Dublin, I hitchhiked to Galway. I remember very little of the trip except a ride with a sinister man who wore one black velvet glove and lectured me unceasingly on the dangers of hitchhiking, detailing the horrors of what could happen to rash young girls like myself. I was terrified that he might demonstrate but, thank whatever spirit was looking out for me, he forebore. In Galway I fell ill with stomach flu and was turned away from one B&B because of my unhygienic appearance. Apart from being greeted in Irish by an old man on a country road, I remember little else about my time in Ireland.

So why a Celtic Mary Magdalen? The character who evolved into Maeve first arrived in my life as a line drawing of an ample woman sitting naked in a kitchen. Mouthy from the beginning, she told me her name was Madge. She soon took on color, Madge-ick marker being my artistic medium, demanding a shade called "neon fiery orange" for her hair and using up marker after marker labeled "peach" or "flesh" because she did not like to wear clothes very much. (Does she begin to sound like some primeval Irish goddess to you?) It turned out Madge was a painter who supported herself as a prostitute. She was not interested in being a character in any of the too-conventional novels I proposed.

"Look," she said. "First I want my own book of cartoons, then we’ll talk." Not that she ever stopped talking. And so the Book of Madge came into being, chronicling her adventures as a peace prostitute in the Gulf War, founder of such subversive organizations as T.W.A.T (Tarts with Attitude Triumph) and W.I.T.C.H. (Women Inclined To Create Havoc). Thus I fulfilled her first requirement.

It was under a full moon in February that it happened. It was a mild, even balmy night, so warm I could lie on the bare ground—always a risky thing to do under a full moon. It was not long after Brigid’s day, and perhaps she was having some influence, at least on the weather. In her native land Brigid inaugurates Spring in February, something difficult for a Northeastern North American to grasp. I was thinking idly of how I’d often toyed with the idea of writing a novel about Mary Magdalen, but I’d always dismissed it as too hokey, too like bad Hollywood. Then suddenly I made the connection. Madge…Magdalen…Holy shite! Is that who….? Yep, she said. I thought about her, her fiery hair, her irreverence, her inability to shut up or stay out of trouble. Why, you’re, you’re a Celt! I said. You’re the Celtic Mary Magdalen!?! "You finally figured it out," she said. You want to be in a novel about the Celtic Mary Magdalen? "That’s the one." Big smile. Thumbs up.

So thinking Yeats, thinking The Chieftains, thinking lovely swirling Celtic knotwork, I set out to do research on the ancient Celts. I was soon appalled. The Celts, I discovered, had a reverence for severed heads. Patriarchal warrior hordes, they had rampaged across Europe sacking cities and occasionally depositing the odd sacrificial body in the bog. Are you sure you want to be a Celt? I asked her. She was. So I persevered. There were things I couldn’t help liking about the Celts. They relished words and believed in their power to cure or kill. In single combat, the verbal challenge, a lengthy affair, was as important as any other martial art. Celtic warriors often rode naked into battle terrorizing their enemies with hair and body art and the wonderful, terrible sounds they could make. The unifying force among the frequently skirmishing tribes was the druids, men and perhaps women (opinions differ) for whom extensive training in the art of poetry was a requirement.

Also, it seemed possible that the Celts who ended up in the far Western reaches of Europe (Ireland, Western Britain, Brittany) encountered an older indigenous culture, possibly more matriarchal, and, instead of merely conquering and trampling, they also fell into a kind of fearful love and incorporated the older deities, like the Cailleach or the Old Woman of Beara, into their pantheon. It may be the persistent influence of that older people that gave rise to the Celtic Otherworld where a wanderer may still lose herself today. When I read the stories about an Otherworldly Isle of Women, home to warrior witches who trained the best of the Celtic heroes, I knew my Celtic Magdalen had found her place of origin.

Thus our Maeve, as she comes to be called, has eight mothers, one womb mother and seven foster mothers who "all succeed in their determination to lactate," all eager to teach her everything a hero ought to know. When she is born, they give her a childhood name, to protect her from being stolen by the beansidhe, although, as one of them remarks, "for all intents and purposes, we are the beansidhe." When their darling reaches menarche, they begin her sex education with tales of the infamous Irish Queen Maeve of Connacht who delighted in offering the men of her choice "the friendship of her upper thighs" and had never been "without one man in the shadow of another." In a dream-like Otherworldly encounter, the Queen of Connacht bestows her name on our Maeve with the stirring words: "Keep fighting for our sovereignty. Without it, there can be no balance between men and women. No blessing, only battles."

So if I had ever wondered—and I tend not to question the Muse; the more bizarre her instructions, the more likely I am to follow them—here is an answer to the question: Why a Celtic Mary Magdalen? Like her namesake, Maeve embodies sovereignty, being not the disciple, not the follower but the companion and partner of her cosmic counterpart. In the spirit of Celtic hero-women, Maeve even gets to be his savior—literally. Could she have been who she was without this, let’s call it Irish, spirit? Surely there are stories of hero women all over the world, in every culture, in the Bible, too. For whatever reason, (and maybe it’s the spirit of my unknown Irish great grandmother reclaiming her own sovereignty) in seeking her true name, Maeve and I turned towards Ireland.