Sheela-na-Gig aka Jeanne Rathbone

Galway Women part 1 Nora Barnacle, Augusta Gregory and Rita Ann Higgins.

Posted in Galway Women part 1 Nora Barnacle, Augusta Gregory and Rita Ann Higgins by sheelanagigcomedienne on June 6, 2017

I am writing this piece in reaction to the two songs entitled Galway Girl – one written by Steve Earle and the latest by Ed Sheeran in the Irish tradition of songs about women from a male perspective. They are often fetishised descriptions of hair colour, wearing black velvet band, rosy cheeks or lily white skin, wearing bonnets, carrying baskets, tripping along called Mary, Rose Eileen and , of course, placenaming Galway, Tralee, Mooncoin etc.  This fetish is exemplified by the Rose of Tralee beauty pageant where the Roses parade in front of the Prime Minister – an Taoseach ogling the cailini.

My original blog was in response to the blow-in Earle who has returned to the states but when I heard that Sheeran had written one also with the same title, was happy to admit that 400 million people of Irish descent would be interested in it, shamelessly acknowledging that he did it for financial reasons and not bothered by a plagiarism challenge.

The hype in Ireland, particulaly in Galway,  about it was OTT especially when the video starring Saoirse Ronan as the Galway Girl appeared.  saoirse ronan

The Earle black-haired/blue-eyed disappeared after the one night fling after they had a walk on the Salthill prom presumably because she didn’t fancy him in the sober light of day. Stewart Lee, cynical comedian, has sung it on the grounds that his wife’s folk – comedienne Bridget Christie – hail from Galway.

There is a version as ghaeilge.  A cover version of the song by Mundy and Sharon Shannon reached number one and became the most downloaded song of 2008 in Ireland, and has gone on to become the eighth highest selling single in Irish chart history.

So Ed Sheeran thought he could cash in the popularity of a song called Galway Girl.   The Sheeran Galway girl it turns out was based on fiddle player Niamh Dunne who is a member of Antrim-based folk group Beoga that collaborated with Sheeran on the track.  However, she is not his love interest nor married to an Englishmen and is from from Limerick. But they did spend a night on the tiles in Dublin Irish dancing, Guinness, two Irish whiskeys – Jameson and Powers, Van the Man, a rendition of Carrickfergus, Grafton Street – the usual kind of ingredients of a commercial modern Irish song.  Of course, he is eligible for an Irish passport, ginger hair etc. And that makes him Irish. He even has a photo of him as a teenager busking in Galway next to the statue of Oscar Wilde.Ed Sheeran in Galway



So now I feel compelled to write about Galway women. The first thing to note about Galway women is that they are women not girleens. I am one.  There is some interesting imagery of women in Galway songs. For a start, you had the women making hay and probably in the uplands digging pratees speaking a language that the English do not know. The woman featured in the song a Galway Shawl wears ‘a bonnet with a ribbon on it’ but ‘she wears no paint nor powder,  no none at all’.

Further name check of Galway songs produces the Queen of Connemara which transpires is a boat, Sweet Marie refers to the name of a horse in the Galway Plate race of the Galway Races. There’s the Lass of Aughrim which featured in James Joyce’s Dubliners. There is Pegeen Litir Mor telling how she attracts not only the poet but men from different districts. And so it goes on.

Even our bard Seamus Heaney got in on the act with his Girls Bathing Galway.

No milk-limbed Venus ever rose
Miraculous on this western shore;
A pirate queen in battle clothes
Is our sterner myth.

…in swimsuits, Brown-legged, smooth-shouldered and bare-backed
They wade ashore with skips and shouts.

This will always remind my generation of the proclamation of disapproval by the very conservative Bishop Browne about women in Salthill wearing two piece bathing costumes which prompted a letter in response from some Galway women inquiring which piece of the swim suit did his Lordship wish them to remove.

Galway women come in varying shapes, sizes, temperaments, ages and colours. They are emigrants, daughters, mothers sisters, wives, lovers, poets, authors, entrepreneurs, singers, dancers, artists, politicians, teachers, workers, lawyers, doctors, nurses scientists, administrators, shop assistants, etc

I would like to introduce you to a few Galway women.  I have decided on fourteen reflecting the number of the tribes of Galway. It is a random choice from poets, to Nationalist activists. I emigrated in 1965 when I was still a teenager and so my choice of women of Galway reflects that as I am now an old pensioner, pagan stranger in the City of Tribes. I have selected Nora Barnacle, Rita Ann Higgins, Michelle Sheehy Skeffington,  Siobhain Mac Kenna,  Lady Augusta Gregory, Patricia Burke Brogan, Garry Hynes, Alice Perry Civil Engineer, Ada English psychiatrist 1903 UCG, Alice Cashel. Margaretta Darcy, Maureen Kenny, Dolores Keane and Frances Rehel. A younger person would have chosen a different set of Mná na Gaillimhe and it would go on fb and I hope they do.

I will divide this into five separate blog posts.

1)Nora Barnacle is a favourite Galwaywoman role model.

Nora Barnacle

Nora Barnacle the muse and lover of James Joyce and the inspiration of some and his greatest works — Greta Conroy in The Dead, Bertha the common law wife in Exiles and Molly Bloom in Ulysses — all share some of Nora’s character and experiences. Molly’s soliloquy.  Please do read it out loud whether there is anyone there or not.

Nora Barnacle was born in Galway Workhouse 21 March 1884 father, Thomas Barnacle, a baker in Connemara, was an illiterate man who was 38 years old when she was born. Her mother, Annie Healy, was 28 and worked as a dressmaker.

Between 1886 and 1889, Barnacle’s parents sent her to live with her maternal grandmother, Catherine Healy. During these years, she attended the Convent of Mercy .In the same year, her mother threw her father out for drinking and the couple separated. Barnacle went to live with her mother and her uncle, Tom Healy, at 4 Bowling Green, Galway.Nora barnacle's home

Nora Barnacle left Galway early in 1904. She worked as a chambermaid at Finn’s Hotel She was 20 years old, a strong-willed girl running from a tyrannical uncle who disapproved of her latest boy friend. Within weeks of her arrival in Dublin she would become the muse and lover of James Joyce.

“I mistook him for a Swedish sailor – His electric blue eyes, yachting cap and plimsolls. But when he spoke, well then, I knew him at once for just another Dublin jackeen chatting up a country girl.”

The numerous erotic letters they exchanged suggest they loved each other passionately. Joyce seems to have admired and trusted her, and Barnacle clearly loved Joyce and trusted him enough to agree to leave Ireland with him for the Continent

In October of that same year Nora and Jim would elope to Europe and in due course step on to the pages of literary history. She would return to her native city only twice during her 47 years of exile.

This is from an article by Padraic O Laoi in The Galway Advertiser.     

In Galway, Nora visited her mother and sisters in Bowling Green where the precocious Lucia charmed the Barnacle ladies and their neighbours with her Continental exoticism. Joyce meanwhile, feeling lonely in Trieste with their son Georgio, decided on a whim to join Nora in Galway.

They watched the regatta at Menlo, went racing in Ballybrit and sailed to the Aran Islands. Joyce was eager to see where Synge had conceived his great western plays. Joyce who was prone to sickness in Trieste, was healthy and content, even cycling to Oughterard and back.

All the while the children were fussed over by the Barnacle girls and their Uncle Tommy, a tram conductor on the Salthill route. Nora also showed the writer where she had courted Michael Bodkin, Michael Feeney and the Protestant William Mulvaghy the relationship that had so enraged her guardian.

Nora with her children visited the nuns in the Presentation Convent where she had been a laundress after leaving school at 12. The Nuns welcomed her and her children, unaware that their parents were unmarried.

Joyce and Nora married in a civil ceremony in London, after they had been living together as man and wife for nearly 27 years in Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France. After Joyce’s death in Zurich in 1941, Nora decided to remain there and she died in of renal failure in 1951, at age 67


It took many years before the significance she played in the life of one of the most  influential and important authors of the 20th century was recognised. Joyce’s adult life was spent abroad,  his fictional universe centred on Dublin, and is populated largely by characters who closely resemble family members, enemies and friends from his time there. But Nora was the adaptable cosmopolitan one of this couple. Nora governed a succession of unruly households in Trieste, Paris, and Zurich, holding him and the family together through the force of her own formidable pluck. Most importantly for Joyce’s work, Nora served as his “portable Ireland,” his living link to the homeland he used as the basis for his masterpieces.

His short story The Dead which was made into a film by John Huston was based on what Nora told Joyce about the two young lads whom she had courted Michael Feeney and Michael Bodkin both of whom died very young and were buried in Rahoon cemetery. Joyce wrote his poem She weeps over Rahoon which features in the Galway Poetry Trail  on the entrance to the cemetery. ( My parents Tommie and Eithne Egan are also buried there).

Rahoon She weeps.jpg

Nora, the muse, was a down-to-earth woman whose devotion was always total and never blind, whose deep rich voice was heard in cafes across the Continent scolding her drunken husband, ”Jim, you’ve had enough.

2) Lady Augusta Gregory.

Lady Augusta Gregory

Lady Augusta Gregory née Persse 1852 – 1932 was an Irish dramatist, folklorist and theatre manager.

Gregory was born at Roxborough, which was  a 6,000-acre estate located between near Gort, the main house of which was later burnt down during the Irish civil war. She was educated at home, and her future career was strongly influenced by the family nurse/nanny, Mary Sheridan, a Catholic and a native Irish speaker, who introduced the young Augusta to the history and legends of the local area.

She married Sir William Gregory , a widower with an estate at Coole Park, near Gort 1880. He was 35 years her elder, had just retired from his position as Governor of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), having previously served several terms as Member of Parliament for County Galway. He was a well-educated man with many literary and artistic interests, and the house at Coole housed a large library and extensive art collection, both of which Lady Gregory was eager to explore. He also had a house in London, where the couple spent a considerable amount of time, holding weekly salons  frequented by many leading literary and artistic figures of the day, including Robert Browning, Lord Tennyson John Everett Millais and Henry James.

Barely two years into her married life, and a young mother, she fell totally in love with a serial seducer, Wilfrid Scawn Blunt. The affair lasted a year, and ended by a mutual pact in the summer of 1883. On the morning after their last night together she gave him 12 perfectly composed sonnets outlining her utter passion and complete surrender to him.

Their only child, Robert, was born in 1881. He was killed during the First World war, while serving as a pilot, an event which inspired Yeats’s poems “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” and “Shepherd and Goatherd.”

With Yeats and Edward, she co-founded the Irish Literary theatre and the Abbey theatre, and wrote numerous short works for both companies. Lady Gregory produced a number of books of retellings of stories taken from Irish mythology. Born into a class that identified closely with British rule, her conversion to cultural nationalism, as evidenced by her writings, was emblematic of many of the political struggles to occur in Ireland during her lifetime. George Bernard Shaw , John Millington Synge and Sean O’Casey. They and many others carved their initials on the Autograph Tree, an old Copper beech still standing in the walled garden today. The Yeats poem The Wild Swans at Coole was inspired by the beauty of the swans in the turlough at Coole Park. Yeats’s home at Thoor Balylee was just 3 miles away; he also wrote “Coole Park, 1929”, a poem that describes the park as a symbol for the revival of Irish literature. The “big house” at Coole was demolished in 1941. In the late 1960s, Coole was opened to the public for amenity use (which my uncle Canon Quinn was later instrumental in developing), served as an important meeting place for leading Revival figures, and her early work as a member of the board of the Abbey was at least as important for the theatre’s development as her creative writings.

She bequeathed Arus na nGael in Dominic Street where I attended Irish dance classes in the fifties when Mrs Simpson from Athlone taught there and spawned so many dancers and choreographers like Peggy Carty and Celine Hession.



Her first publication was Poets and Dreamers (Dublin, Hodges & Figgis/London, John Murray, 1903), containing translations of Raftery, folk-tales, and translations of short plays by Douglas Hyde. This was followed by Gods and Fighting Men (With a Preface by W.B. Yeats. London, John Murray, 1904), based on mythological cycle of the Irish Kings; A Book of Saints and Wonders (1906), which narrates in Kiltartanese the lore of St Brigit, St Patrick, St Columcille, the voyages of Maeldun and Brendan, and the Old Woman of Beare.

Lady Gregory book

She began writing plays by helping Yeats with the peasant dialogue of his plays and in effect co-authored his early plays, including Cathleen Ni Houlihan.

Her first play was Twenty Five (Dublin, The Abbey, 1904). Altogether she wrote nineteen original plays and seven translations for the Abbey between 1904-1912, including as The Doctor in Spite of Himself (1906), The Rogueries of Scapin (1908), The Miser (1909), and The Would-Be Gentleman (1923), included in Irish Folk History Plays (1912); her comedies include Hyacinth Halvey (1906); The Image (1909); Damer’s Gold (1912), and MacDonough’s Wife (1912), written aboard ship en route to America.

She published The Kiltartan History Book (Dublin, Maunsel & Co, 1909); The Kiltartan Wonder Book (Maunsel & Co, 1910); and issued a history of the national theatre as Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter in Autobiography (New York, G. Putnam’s Sons, 1913).

On a second tour of America in 1915, she wrote Shanwalla (London, Putnam, 1915); and Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, 2 vols. (New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920).

Her monologue, An Old Woman Remembers (1923), was recited by Maire O’Neill in the Abbey. Her late plays include The Story Brought By Brigid (Abbey 1923); Sancha’s Master (1927) and Dave (1927).

Lady_Gregory by Judith hill

Landlord, nationalist, entrepreneur, stage manager, playwright, poet and patron, stoical in enduring operations for breast cancer under local anaesthetic, a woman whose life, as she said, was “a series of enthusiasms”, she died after walking for the last time through the rooms of the house she loved so much in May, 1932.

3) Rita Anne Higgins poet.


Rita Ann Higgins is a native of Ballybrit, Galway. She was one of thirteen children in a working-class household. She married in 1973 but following the birth of her second child in 1977, contracted tuberculosis, forcing her to spend an extended period in a sanatorium.

While confined, she began reading, and took to composing poems. She joined the Galway Writers’ Workshop in 1982. Jessie Lendennie, editor of Salmon Publishing, encouraged her and oversaw the publication of her first five collections.

Jessie herself is another Galway woman to be lauded as she supported, nurtured and published the poets of the city.







The first book of her poems I bought was Goddess on the Mervue Bus and I got her to autograph it when I gigged with her 20  years ago in Derry when I was performing as Sheela-na-Gig. I told her she was a comedienne but she denied it. The reference is about where I got my name – born on the feast day of  St John of the Latin Gate. (probably didn’t exist as he got pushed off the calendar by St Martin De Porres on May 6th).

From her poem Ireland is changing mother.ore this mother,

your sons were Gods of that powerful thing.

Gods of the apron string.

They could eat a horse and they often did,

with your help mother.

Even Tim who has a black belt in sleepwalking

and border lining couldn’t torch a cigarette,

much less the wet haystack of desire,

even he can see, Ireland is changing mother.

Listen to black belt Tim mother.

One of Rita Anne’s poem is included in poems for Galway.

-Rita-Ann-Higgins-plaque 13-150x150


Higgins’s voices are so distinctive and real that a whole world of semi-rural Irish poverty rises around the reader with the jolting acuity of an excellent documentary…an hilarious, absorbing and thoroughly disturbing experience’ – Kate Clanchy, Independent





Galway was jubilant after being awarded 2020 European City of Culture, but it is unclear if the EU jury that awarded the €1.5m prize got sight of an explosive poem about the City of the Tribes that was commissioned as part of the bid process.

But the organising committee got more than they bargained for when Rita Ann sent them her work. They had, perhaps, been expecting a paean to the many glories of Galway extolling its manifest virtues as a gateway to the Atlantic coast, and an unrepentant bastion of the arts, the native language, music, dance, theatre and literature.

What they got instead was a devastating critique in which she rips into her native city.

Ms Higgins has always been an anarchic and provocative voice, but the poem Our Killer City is perhaps her most inflammatory.

Her poem rails against the car parking charges in the city hospitals, events in the local courts, the whiff of sewage on city streets and bias against Travellers.”This is pity city, sh**ty city. Sewage in your nostrils city. This is Galway. City of expert panels. City of Slickers and slackers who name call Travellers knackers.”

And she also casts a cold and angry eye on the treatment meted out to local artists using irony and sarcasm in equal measure to describe their exclusion.


Galway’s bid to win capital of culture
is all twenty twenty give the horse plenty.
We’re in with a great chance.
until they hear about
the legionnaire’s disease outbreak
in the fire station,
where our life savers need saving.

The birds are tweeting
about the arrival of the jury this July .
The word is out they’ll rule on the bid.
Best to keep them councillors out of sight,
with the malarkey they go on with, in city hall.
Govern, govern my arse
they wouldn’t govern a sly fart on a runway.
We’ll end up crowned the capital of fools.
Accusations of nepotism, potassium .
a host of other isms chisms, chasms and schisms.
I sent you that letter by mistake
said the CEO, buckling under pressure.
You are not actually co-opted
onto those committees ,
FYI, you are co-workered off .

My ogyny, your ogyny, misogyny.
We laugh about it at bus stops.
We say, aren’t some of our
elected representatives a laughing stock.
We’ll never get Capital of Culture
if they look through that window.

Some people live their lives
so they can die on a trolley
in Galway’s A&E.
Just wait and wait and wait
and you’ll die waiting.
Eighteen million on a new block
and not a new bed in site or on site.
The car park police in the hospital grounds
are a culture shock unto themselves.
Don’t die on a trolley in the bidding city
the forbidding city
before you have paid your parking
or we will kill your next of kin
with the weight of their parking ticket.
Culture capital or no culture capital.

The swans in the canals all know,
we underpay our nurses
we underpay our teachers.
We overpay our consultants
and we don’t know why.
This is fair-play city, or unfair play city
if you are a woman working for years in NUIG
and hoping for a promotion.
They’ll sue the blog off ya,
but won’t they look silly,
don’t they look silly.
This is pity city, shitty city.
Sewage in your nostrils city.
This is Galway
city of expert panels.
City of slickers and slackers
who name call Traveller s’ knackers.

If you want the odour of outrage
ask the students at GMIT
who have to re-sit exams.
Allegations of cheating.
Oh no not this again.
They are coming in July to rule on the bid.
We’ll hide that bit of news about the GMIT
and the gender discrimination in NUIG
In the parlour that never gets used,
to that we’ll throw the new block,
the bedless block at University Hospital Galway.

This is Galway slicker and slacker.
Have your home burgled
by your favourite nephew,
while you are at his other aunts funeral.
He didn’t know it was her house
and he didn’t know taking her jewelery
without her permission was stealing.

This is Galway the bidding City
the forbidding city.
Where the woman in court apologised
to her man for putting him through this.
The judge asked her, did he apologise to you
when he was sticking that screwdriver
in your forehead?
No but he wasn’t feeling himself that day
your honour.
Someone in City hall, not a councillor this time,
is yowling about the capital of culture bid.
If the bid book isn’t ready on time
says the yowler,
I’ll send you all to the fire station
or the picture palace.
She is pepping and prepping and side stepping.
Her side -kick got side kicked. No impact.
Complaining is the devils work.
Stick in a few more theatres’ there
that we don’t have, stick in a gallery or two.
How will they know if it’s true?
How will they know if it’s not true?

This is Galway, city of tools.
A man brings a cleaver into hospital with him.
The judge coming down with a migraine,
reached into her bag a yokes.
What got into you, she said,
pleading with the plaintiff?
I heard the chops were tough your honour,
nothing more, nothing less.
But you were seen chasing the back
of a poor man’s head, with a cleaver.
It wasn’t me your honour, and he wasn’t poor.

What about local artists?
Someone dared to ask,
not the yowler from city hall
or her side-kicked side-kick.
To hell with local artists
what do they bring the city?
nothing but scruffy dogs
and ripped jeans,
hippies with hobbies the lot of them.
As for the buskers, wanting to fit in
with the odor of outrage.
Move them on, hide them in GMIT,
or the picture palace.
Don’t mention local artists at all.
Let it be like they don’t exist
Raise the rents is the best way
to keep the ripped jeans gang out,
like it’s always been.
Artists me arse.
This is Galway, the bidding city
the forbidding city.
City of thieves or is scribes or is it tribes?
The jury are coming this July,
the word is out they’ll rule on the bid,
for capital of Culture
twenty twenty
give the horse plenty.
We have a great little city here,
a pity little city, a shitty little city.


Tongulish, her 11th book of poetry, finds Higgins as intensively inventive and deliciously subversive as ever… The rebellious, innovative Higgins is one of his [James Joyce’s] distinctive heirs. Like Joyce, she knows just how to beat up the English language and her use of mythology, Irish language and Ireland’s past put her own inimitable stamp on her bang up-to-date present.’ – Martina Evans, The Irish Times

Rita Anne- Galway’s prolific and honest bard-should become our poet Laureate some day.