A Letter from Ireland:
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Are You a Descendant of the Queen of Connaught?

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Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome once again to your Letter from Ireland. The weather is mild enough and there is even a “stretch in the evenings”. How are things in your part of the world? I’m back on a glass of water from the well as we chat – but I do hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy, and join me for today’s Letter.

Last week I asked you to share some stories from your family history, and I got a lot of very interesting replies. One of the stories came my way from Heather and Tom Reynolds. Their letter contained many fascinating ancestral anecdotes, but one in particular caught my eye – it was a story about their ancestor, Helen Reynolds. You see, that surname suggests that she may have been a direct descendant of a very particular “strong woman” of ancient Ireland.

Queen Maedbh of Connaught. 

In last week’s letter, I mentioned the “long puck” competition held in our parish, and tied this to a mythical character of Irish folklore, Cú Chulainn (pronounced Koo-Kullann). Have you heard of him before? He was a hero of Ulster, and assumed his name, the “hound of Cullann”, when he honourably replaced Cullann’s guard dog after accidentally killing him.

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Knockarea, County Sligo

At the time the story of Cú Chulainn took place, the two strongest provinces in Ireland were Ulster (to the north) and Connaught (to the west) – and both were constantly at war with one another. The ruler of Ulster was Conor Mac Nessa while the ruler of Connaught was one Queen Maedbh.

What we know of Queen Maedbh, Connor Mac Nessa and Cú Chullain mostly comes from old Irish mythical histories such as “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”. Queen Maedbh had her base in Cruachan in modern County Roscommon and she is reputed to have led her army into battle many times from the front while riding her chariot. On the other side was the hero of Ulster, Cú Chulainn.

Maedbh is reputed to have had many husbands, lovers and children. However, we also learn that she had three main criteria for all relationships – the man should be without fear, meanness or jealousy. And the final one – lack of jealousy – was the most important to her. My guess is that she had to look far and wide!

According to the stories, Maedbh lived a long and eventful life and is buried on top of Knockarea just outside the modern town of Sligo. She is placed upright to defiantly face her enemies in Ulster. This reputed final resting spot is a lovely place – well worth the hike up from the town for the views alone. Maybe you have been already?

A Descendant of Queen Maedbh? 

It was 1883 in Queens University, Kingston, Ontario – and Helen Reynolds was feeling some of the “jealousy of men” for herself. I introduced Helen at the beginning of this letter – she was the ancestor of our readers, Heather and Tom Reynolds.

Helen’s grandmother, a widow, arrived in Canada with six small children about 1841. Helen’s father, John, was one of these small children. The family came from County Leitrim – within the boundaries of Queen Maedbhs ancient Kingdom of Connaught.

But let’s have a closer look at their Irish surname. The surname “Reynolds” comes from the Irish “Mac Raghnaill”. The Mac Ragnaills were chiefs of the Muintir Eolais people who were based in the south of County Leitrim for many centuries.  In turn, the Muintir Eolais were part of the larger “Conmaicne of Connaught” tribe, which traced their lineage all the way back to Queen Maedbh. So, you could say that Helen Reynolds is a descendant of that same queen – or so I like to think! At least she seemed to encounter the same jealousies that Queen Maedbh so despised. Let me explain.

You see, in 1880, Queen’s University allowed women to study medicine within their walls for the first time. Helen Reynolds enrolled the very next year, but by 1882 the male students and some professors were making life difficult for the women in their classes. These women complained to the authorities but it was the women who were expelled from the University! Jealousy indeed.

However, Helen and her classmates had their supporters among friends and the press, and it may have been this support that encouraged them to persist. Helen went on to finish her medical degree at an alternative college and later went on to practice as a doctor in British Columbia. Queen’s University did not reopen its medical degree to women again until 1943.

So, thanks to Heather and Tom Reynolds for sharing the facts around their ancestor – Doctor Helen Reynolds – a real pioneering woman. And not surprising for a descendant of the mighty Queen Maedbh of Connaught! Do you have any strong Irish women in your family (now, that’s a leading question!) – feel free to leave your comments and questions below.

Slán for now,

Mike and Carina : )

  • Medb (Maeve) Duffey says:

    My father named me after Queen Maedbh, but gave me what he thought was the Gaelic spelling (Medb). I like the spelling you’ve used, but have seen quite a few versions. Any clarification on that? I was in Ireland for the first time this past June and am coming back in August. Would love to get to see her resting place. I had an incredible connection to the land, especially when we were in Connacht! Cannot wait to return 🙂

    • Mike says:

      Thats very interesting Medb! The typical modern spelling is Maeve in English as you suggest (but there are no v’s in Irish). In older Irish, the h was typically hidden buy inferred – and so you had Meadb or Medb. So, in this case I’m just spelling Meadbh in the modern style.Mike.

  • Skylar says:

    Hello – do you know anything about relatives of the Dimmitt family ancestry in Ireland? A Thomas Dymett came across on the America.
    My family branch is traced via males all they way back. The English search ends – and I’m wondering whether the Irish information traces properly.
    Myrvin Dimmitt was my grandfather.

    Thank you.

  • Tina DeFinis says:

    Just thinking the Widow Reynolds wasn’t a descendant of Queen Medb as it was her married name, not her maiden name.

  • […] Letter 1: Are You a Descendant of The Queen of Connaught? […]

  • […] Click here to read the story of Heather Reynolds and Queen Maedbh of Connaught. […]

  • […] Individual stories show up many universal truths. Here are the stories of one ancient and one modern woman – and how they had to fight to be accepted in a man’s world. Click here to read the letter. […]

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