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  • Transexual Medieval Irish Abbot September 3, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    Beachcombing brings you to the south-east of Ireland, very close to where Dublin stands today, in that distant and slightly unreal past when all Irish folk stories are set. Our hero is the abbot of the monastery of Drimnagh. The time Easter. And this, being a fairly loose establishment, the abbot is a young married man. The reader is probably most surprised by a married abbot. However, the veteran of Irish tales will have noticed a far more significant detail – Easter. The time of the changing of the seasons and magical events…

    After the preparation of the [Easter] banquet the abbot left the hall and climbed a high and very beautiful hill that was next to the village. And here is how the young man was dressed. His hair was all elegant and… a shirt of purple satin covered his white breast, a bright and very elegant tunic was over that, a dark brown coat hung off him and a sword of office with its golden handle rested in his hand. Then, after having arrived at the top, he stretched out and fell asleep.

    Yikes, doesn’t the well-dressed abbot know that you should never go to sleep on an Irish hill-side at Easter!? Beachcombing feels like the guy with popcorn in the cinema willing the girl in the celluloid not to go upstairs and check those noises in the attic.

    After having woken from his dream, the abbot reached for his sword but there was a woman’s weapon in its place, that is to say a spindle. And he was himself dressed in a skirt that covered his legs; and around his head there was the material of a woman, a hair band made of elegant and delicate lace. Then he passed his hand over his face and he found neither bristles, nor beard, nor stubble. And when he put his hand between his thighs he found that he was a woman there too.

    Immediately after a certain large woman passed by. She was an ugly, swarthy hag with a horrible face and long, grey hair and sunken eyes. And she said to him. ‘How is it my girl with blonde hair, so beautiful and fresh, that you are alone on this hill at the end of the day as night is arriving?’ [The abbot] was sad and desperate and said to her: ‘I do not know what to do or where to go because if I go home no one will recognise me and if I wander around it is dangerous for a girl to be alone and without protection. But it is better for me to go through the world because it is God who has brought this judgement on me and it is he who changed my sex and appearance and inflicted this deformity and this sad maidenly-state on me.

    With these pious words the young ‘woman’ marches down the other side of the hill to the monastery of Crumlin; a monastery that is today lost somewhere under the concrete and tarmac of southern Dublin.

    As soon as she passed into the grounds of this monastery a handsome young man appeared who ‘felt a deep love for her’. Beachcomber the prude is thankful that the storyteller draws a veil over the following minutes, but, ‘after they had lain down for a while’, this young man reveals that he is the herenach of Crumlin. [The herenach was essentially the administrative boss of a Gaelic abbey.] And he also tells the girl that he is looking for a wife. They marry ‘and for seven years [the abbot of Drimnagh] was wife and woman and she gave seven sons in that time.’

    After these seven years messages came to the herenach from Drimnagh [the abbot’s original home] inviting him to the celebrations for Easter: and she went together with the herenach towards the hill where her sex had been changed. And she felt sleepy on that hill [and lay down to sleep] leaving the  herenach to go with his people towards Drimnagh. And when the young girl woke up from her sleep she was a man again. And these were his exact words: ‘Oh almighty God, I’m in a real mess now!’

    The abbot walks down the hill home and somehow convinces those at the feast of his amazing experience. And this story, that was at first such an enjoyable romp through a fantasy Ireland, finishes on a very serious note. The abbot is restored to his office. But who gets to keep the seven children? ‘Judgement was made between the abbot and the herenach. And what was this judgement? They were to divide the children between them and the child left over was to be given to the herenach

    Are you wondering what is going on? Beachcombing comes to the rescue with a borrowed but credible explanation. Irish historians suspect this tale was produced by the monastery of Crumlin in the Middle Ages to explain its relations with Drimnagh. As well as some cheap digs at a rival monastery – ‘one of your abbot was a woman!’ etc. – the tale carefully gives precedence in importance to Crumlin: in the final judgement it is the herenach of Crumlin who is given four of the seven children. It has even been suggested that this tale was written to explain the end of an alliance between the two monasteries sometime in the Middle Ages: in that case the ‘children’ refer to the division of monastic lands.