Medieval warfare was traditionally thought to be the preserve of men. However 14th century records illustrate gaelic Irish women participated in warfare acting as spies moving between the Anglo Norman colony and Gaelic Ireland.
Through the course of the late 13th century, society in Ireland became increasingly violent. Wicklow and the surrounding regions were one of the places worst affected. High in the mountains gaelic society had survived the norman invasion relatively intact. From the 1270’s onwards the Gaelic Irish O Tooles, O Byrnes and Mc Murroughs were driven to raiding the Norman colony by frequent famines. In the following decades the Norman Colony in the Vale of Dublin, Kildare and the Barrow Valley were often decimated by raiding. Accounts of settlements on the fringes of Wicklow at the time are reminiscent of Deadwood.
Despite the widespread violence intermarraige between the two communities was common and many Gaelic Irish men and women lived in the colony working as servants and peasants. This gave the rebels conducting raids information and logistical support within the Norman colony. From surviving records it appears women in the colony worked as spies as they were easily able to move between the Gaelic Irish territory and the colony. Between 1302 and 1311 several women were convicted of spying or aiding rebels and the punishments were varied and harsh.
In 1302 Isabella Cadel and her servant Fynewell Seyeuyn were accused and convicted of “coming from the felons of the mountains accused that [they art] (sic) and part with said felons and are spies for the country for them”1. The torn loyalties of people living between the Anglo Norman and Gaelic Irish worlds was revealed in the case when it emerged that Isabella’s husband was Gaelic Irish – Dermot O Dimpsi (Dempsey). This case was not isolated by any means. In 1311 Gaelic Irish women Fynyna Octouthy and her daughter Isabella who was married to Thomas La Valle an Anglo Norman were convicted of harbouring felons William and Tadg Octouthy, presumably relations. .2
Finally the case of Grace le Deveyns originally an O Toole who had married an Anglo Norman shows the precarity of life in one of the most dangerous areas in medieval Ireland. In the early 14th century Grace was recorded as aiding other colonists as she “is accustomed…..at the request of faithful men of the peace to go the mountains to search for cattle carried off by her race”3
However it appears Grace also used her ability to move between the colony and the Gaelic Irish held areas to pass information. Eventually Grace was arrested, tried and convicted of having spied and that “by her spying the men of Saggart were robbed by the Irish of the mountains of divers goods”.
The price for such activities were heavy. Grace le Deveyns, Fynyna Octouthy were hanged, Isabel Ocouthy was pregnant when found guilty and was given a stay of execution until the child was born after which she was also hanged. Isabella Cadel and her servant Fynewell Seyeuyn were spared because of the praiseworthy service of Isabella’s deceased father and because “simplicity of the women in this affair”. This is presumably an excuse not hang Norman women.4
1Cal Jus Rolls Vol 1 pge 368
2Cal Jus Rolls Vol III pge 231
3Women in Anglo Irish & Gaelic society pge 40
4Cal Jus Rolls Vol 1 pge 368