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  • Ben Hellman

The Protester and the Power of Ancient Ireland

Updated: Jan 12



Portland protester, photographed by Dave Killen, Oregonlive.com and a Sheela-na-Gig (Lavey, Cavan) found in a churchyard in 1842 and housed in the Cavan County Museum, photo courtesy of the National Museum of Ireland.


When an anonymous nude woman, wearing only a mask and hat, confronted scores of equally anonymous, but armed and armor-clad federal agents in Portland this summer, she carried with her the power of the medieval Irish kings. The protester, a woman in her thirties, said in an interview in a Portland podcast she felt provoked in a “feminine place,” when she saw the line of men, who bore the label police, but had donned the look of soldiers in a war zone. She withdrew to a closed shop entrance, doffed her clothes and before long was photographed from behind sitting on the pavement with her legs spread wide in the attitude of sheela-na-gig, a medieval religious warning that the kings of Ireland co-opted as a sign that they ruled by right of the Irish mother goddess and no one had better cross them.


A sheela-na-gig is a medieval figural carving of a woman with an exaggerated vulva. Such carvings have been found in churches across Europe, but the Irish name has stuck. Sheela-na-gig is a relatively modern term for the figures, not making its way into print before 1840. It is not known what the carvings were originally called. The name has been translated various ways: Sheela of the beasts, Sheela on her hunkers, but Sheela of the vagina seems nost straightforward to me.


I first reposted the image of the nude protester in Portland facing off against federal agents in July and suggested that the image and attitude fell within the sheela-na-gig tradition, but I wanted to find an expert to respond to the image and give an educated opinion. Last week I reached out to Dr. Eamonn P Kelly, author of Sheela-na-Gigs; Origins and Functions (Town House and Country House, 1997) and retired Keeper of Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, and he graciously responded to my request for an interview.


Dr. Kelly was delighted by the protester’s decision to defy police with her nakedness and saw the similarity I saw in the viral photo. “Comparisons with sheela-na-gig certainly seem apt,” said Kelly. In good Irish fashion, Kelly also supported an underdog able to stand up against the power of a state. Kelly said that female sexuality has remained a powerful symbol and he could only imagine what the Federal officers thought when faced by the woman’s nudity: “It must have been intimidating as hell for them. Good luck to her and well done! If only all riots could be ended this way.”


It turns out that the image of sheela-na-gig, at least in Ireland, has always been wedded to power, but its message has changed over the ages. Kelly said the carvings of exhibitionist females arrived in Ireland with the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century, who used the image to warn against the dangers of lust. If this strikes you as a particularly misogynistic message, wait for the Irish response. Kelly described Irish attitudes towards sexuality as traditionally, “more laid back” than the English and they had a different attitude to women and power. By the 14th century, areas of Ireland affected by Anglo-Norman rule had returned to their Irish roots and the English Christian message of sheela-na-gig, against sex and women, almost flipped on its head, with the figure representing a reverence for the female divine and pride in her exposed body. At this time, “The figures begin to be associated with the goddess of sovereignty,” said Kelly.


This Irish mother goddess played a role in the secular power structures of pre-Christian Ireland, with kings of Irish kingdoms wedding or sexually consummating a relationship with the land itself as a representation of the mother goddess. As native leaders established more control, sheela-na-gigs began to appear on fortified tower houses, non-religious native structures with symbolism that saw feminine sexual power as a part of a kingdom’s power, rather than a danger to the human soul. Kelly said that this attitude held until the 17th century when Cromwell reconquered Ireland.


If the Irish kings used the image of exaggerated female genitalia as a symbol to project the physical power of the mother goddess then this protester-used the same symbol for a very similar purpose. Interviewed on the Unrefined Sophisticates podcast, she said she saw the armored soldiers, whom she described as adopting a warrior stance: heads up, chests out, legs apart. “At that moment I was provoked. This really feminine place within myself felt provoked and fired up.” She had already been struck in the foot with a pepper ball fired by an officer and saw the line of men she confronted being reinforced by vehicles meant to detain the protesters when she made the decision to bare herself even more completely: “I got down on the pavement and I spread my legs and put my elbows on my knees and my hands up, facing my palms upward, and it was like, shoot this. I mean, look at this. You really can’t say I have a weapon now. Other than this yoni.” (Quotations courtesy Unrefined Sophisticates).


While the protester did not acknowledge a desire to reference sheela-na-gig, she clearly meant to confront the show of violent masculine force with a display of feminine sexual power. In using her genitalia as a projection of power she seems to have shared the intention of people who used sheela-na-gigs to confront. To my mind though, her display most aligns with the Irish kings and an Irish goddess who was unafraid to reveal herself in human terms.


As a New Englander with ancestors tracing back to the Irish diaspora, I was surprised to learn that the Irish who remained have an altogether calmer response to sexuality and the female nude. The Anglo-Normans tried and failed to colonize the religious sensibility of Irish culture, which Kelly said only took on a Victorian English prudishness and devotion to attending church during the Irish Potato Famine, when competing religious authorities took advantage of a starving population. Kelly said modern Ireland has returned more to its relaxed attitudes toward religion. I told him that my family still retains that puritan streak toward sexuality, and I wouldn’t dare share the image of sheela-na-gig with my mother. This made him laugh. “The (American Irish) are conservative as be-damned. They think we’re a bunch of heathens!” Kelly told me that his family had a more skeptical view of the clergy (and other traditional figures of authority, including the police.) We laughed at the irony that the oft-colonized Irish took over the local governments and power structures of several American cities, including my local Boston.


I told Kelly I’d read about sheela-na-gigs being defaced and seeming altogether to be in danger in modern Ireland and assumed prudishness led to attacks on the figures. Kelly surprised me by telling me that they were more in danger of being looted from Irish shores. He was actually once approached by the FBI in an investigation of the theft of an Irish sheela-na-gig by organized crime in Boston. Its intended destination? The very Irish Catholic Boston College!


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