Although this book is not directly about psychotherapy in any way, it addresses a subject of such fundamental importance to the psychological life of women that I feel it should certainly be read by any therapist who is seriously concerned with the effects of social oppression. The particularity of the study to Irish history adds to its value for Irish therapists. Indeed I would go so far as to say that the book is at its most interesting and lucid in dealing with the special qualities of Irish history and society in relation to women, a subject which still suffers considerable neglect. (A recent publication on Irish history, JJ Lee’s Ireland 1912 – 1985 – Politics and Society, has in all its seven hundred and odd pages only 14 references to women and none at all to feminism, women’s movement, Cumann Na mBan!).
The opening chapters, The Age of Eve, cover ground which would be very familiar to anyone interested in women’s issues, but they do so clearly and concisely. Condren briefly addresses the ways in which Judaism and Christianity disempowered women:
“The sacredness of birth would be replaced by a form of power that took on meaning only after death. The proprietors of this power, the Christian priests, would be effective only in sofar as they were not at the mercy of their biology and resisted the temptations of women. God the Father was quite distinct from the Mother Goddess.
“ She draws some important distinctions, however, between the nature of patriarchy and matrifocal society:
“It is important to point out that, although women were held with great respect, matri focal societies were not matriarchal, that is societies where all power rested with the women. A matricentred society was not simply the reverse of patriarchy where public power does indeed rest with men.”
In contrast with some quasi-historical publications on this subject, Condren resists the temptation to fantasise about such societies and instead goes on to concentrate closely upon the loss of matrifocal, and matrilinear qualities in the evolving power structures. It makes a fascinating read. Suddenly all sorts of facts that are quite well-known but have been perifer al become critical factors in the formation of the structures we live with today. I found it wonderfully challenging to have female saints such as Catherine of Sienna referred to as “holy anoretics”, who “used their bodies as ways of defying male authorities.” The problem of so- called female masochism has haunted the psychology of women from the time of Freud and it was most refreshing to read an account of history which let some light in upon it. The inter-relation between the individual psychology and the social paradigms is endlessly fascinating and Condren’s analysis of the power struggle of Irish history provides a compelling basis on which to think about it. For example, she says:
“The accusations levelled against the witches symbolise vividly the crucial issues at stake. Witches were accused of causing painless childbirth (indeed, midwives themselves were con sidered to be the worst sinners of all)…..”
The fact that this religion actually intended women to undergo pain and suffering for being women casts quite a startling light on the convenient construct of female mosochism.
The Cult of the Hero
As Condren carefully argues her way through Irish history, pointing out that the Celts (so often eulogised because they were pre-Christian) were actually fiercely patriarchal and developed the cult of the Hero which defined the role of women quite specifically:
“The lesson is clear: giving birth to a hero can only take place under conditions where the men are in control. Heroes can only be born when the fatherhood of the child has been clear ly settled and where paternity is beyond dispute.
“ She cites the curse of the goddess Macha, whose cry to the men of Ulster as they fought their heroic and bloody war was: “‘A mother bore each one of you ….possibly the last symbolic attempt to appeal to motherhood as the basis for public social ethics.”
From this time, Condren suggests that whenever men might wish to ridicule a weakling, ”they would say with all the contempt of the triumphant philosophy, ‘He was as weak as a woman in childbirth.'”
In the succeeding Christian period, the social repression of women went through a number of twists and turns:
“Women in early Ireland have travelled an ominous path: once revered symbols of creativity, they have become signs of danger and pollution: transformed into virgins, they now need to be ‘protected’.”
With considerable subtlety, Condren suggests the personal pain and degradation, the losses of self-authority, the misery of self-loathing which this regime could create in women:
“Many women effectively became ‘holy anoretics’ in that they used their bodies as ways of defying male authorities. Often commanded to eat, they would appeal to a higher author ity, that of ‘God’s will’ or to a personal communication with God to resist the authority of a confessor or a doctor. The lengths to which these women would go, while extreme and painful, gave them a power they would not otherwise have had: immediate access to God through the sufferings of their bodies and a tangible sign of their holiness. These women wrested control of the system in a perverse act of autonomy that ultimately issued in their own deaths.”
It seems to me that such a thorough analysis of the ways in which the position of women in society has been eroded and then corrupted under the various systems of patriarchy in Irish society can provide therapists with great help and insight into some of the issues which are bound to confront them in practice. The most striking and moving quality in Condren’s book for me was certainly the compassionate way in which she summoned the pain and confusion with which women necessarily respond to the discriminations against them on grounds of their sex alone. Often I found myself recognising various hooks and catches which trouble me today when I think about the fact of being born a woman, lots of moments when I felt ”Aha!”, as Perls would say. And Condren concludes with a chapter which I think expresses clearly the anxieties about the effects of the oppression of women, and by extension of nature:
“The paradoxical and tragic view of life in the form of the Serpent-Goddess was overthrown in the search for a God who would grant eternal life in return for morality. Yet now we are faced with the greatest paradox of all: the more we attempt to control and enforce this morality on the rest of the world, the more precarious the basis of human existence becomes.”