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.
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.
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?
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 : )
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