Women of Irish Folklore: Neasa, Warrior Queen


I almost don’t want to tell you about Neasa, because I’ve been hoarding her as a namesake for a book character/future child. I still might be doing that; after reading up on her for this post, I’m tempted to write a book called Neasa the Gloriously Delightful or something. Watch out for it.

But it was just Paddy’s Day—I’m continuing my new pattern of coming late to the writing-about-holidays party—and I think you all need to hear about one of my favorite women of Irish mythology. She was the mother of Conchobhar Mac Neasa, one of the great kings of Ulster, but she was also a foundling, a warrior, and a queen in her own right. If The Mists of Avalon’s Morgan Le Fay and, like, Beyonce had a love child, she would be Neasa.

I told you she was a delight. Get ready.

a59d52c3bca6fca011a32c7f99e65919So, as with any folktale, there are many versions of Neasa’s story. Most of them, however, start when she is abandoned as a young child, and then found and fostered by a band of fianna, the roaming warriors of ancient Ireland. All twelve of her new foster-fathers adore and dote on her. They give her the name Easa because of her sweet and loving nature; it’s pronounced “Essa” and means “gentle.” Pretty name.

She wouldn’t keep that name for long, however. Cathbad, the druid leader of another band of fianna (and, in some versions of the story, Easa’s brother by birth), murders all of her fathers. He’s stealthy enough that none of the local authorities can identify him as the killer.

So Easa, the sweet and gentle princess-among-rogues, decides to deal with Cathbad herself. She brings together her own group of fianna and exacts bloody vengeance on Cathbad’s army. Her ruthlessness as a fighter becomes so renowned, in fact, that she’s renamed Neasa: “not gentle.”

This story is just begging to turn into a movie or, say, a YA novel or something, right?

MachaDespite her own and her warriors’ prowess, however, one day Cathbad catches Neasa alone and unarmed. The only way he’ll let her live, he says, is if she marries him. (Remember that in some versions he’s her brother, just to add another layer of evil to his already murderous, rapey character.)

Neasa agrees and lives to see another day, but a woman named “not gentle” is hardly going to be so easily beaten. Soon after their marriage Cathbad asks her to bring him a drink of water from the river, but when she brings him a cup he sees that there’s a worm in it, so he tells her to drink it instead. We’ll have to move into Mythology Symbol-Logic for this one, but because Neasa drinks the water, it’s the worm, and not Cathbad, that gets her pregnant.

(If getting pregnant by worm-water is a bit much for you, in other versions Neasa simply keeps a lover who happens to be one of Cathbad’s rivals. Either way, the stories make it clear that her son is not Cathbad’s son, and she’s never the least bit blamed for any infidelity. Which is good because Cathbad, as previously mentioned, is the obvious villain here—but you might be surprised how many fictional ladies get blamed for these things nonetheless.)

So Neasa gets pregnant, is the point, and she goes into labor while they’re travelling along the banks of the river Conchobhar (pronounced “crahoor,” for some godforsaken reason that no one has been able to explain to me). Another druid rushes up to her and tells her to wait a day, because if she does her child will share a birthday with the still-in-the-future Jesus Christ.

So Neasa just stops and HOLDS IN HER BABY so that he can be born on Christmas.

maeveWhich, I mean, I’ve never been in labor, but that seems like a superlative act of willpower and pelvic floor strength to me.

Anyway, Conchobhar is born, Cathbad dies under mysterious circumstances (although my friend Not Gentle and I have our theories) and now that Neasa has supposedly given birth to his heir, she becomes the undisputed lady of Cathbad’s lands.

But she’s still not finished: a few years later, the High King begins to court her, and Neasa knows a good opportunity when she sees one. She tells the king that she’ll only marry him if he lets her seven-year-old son Conchobhar be king for a year, so that his future children may call themselves the children of a king. The king consults his advisors, who tell him the child will be king in name only, and how much harm could it do?

Which seems like really bad advice from King’s Advisors, but whatever. Through her son, Neasa implements such popular policies during that one year that at its end, the people of Ulster insist on keeping Conchobhar as their king, and they threaten revolt if the old king resumes power. The old king shortly dies, probably of being really bad at predicting things, and Neasa and her son live happily ever after.

I mean, I can’t not write a book about this woman, right?

Happy late St. Patrick’s Day, everyone—and remember, it’s always spelled Paddy’s Day, never Patty’s. Just pretend you have a Boston accent while you write it.

2 thoughts on “Women of Irish Folklore: Neasa, Warrior Queen

Leave a Reply to Amy Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *