‘Planters of Great Civility’: Female Patrons in Medieval Ireland

Rachel Moss, Trinity College, Dublin, rmoss@tcd.ie

Over the past twenty years or so the contribution of medieval Irish women to the arts c. 1200-1600 has been acknowledged in a number of texts, with a particular focus on visual expressions of piety and church patronage. Some of this activity found its reward in a prized, often highly visible intra-mural burial place, adorned with a carved effigy of the patroness. Depictions of medieval Irish women tend to represent them in unfashionable clothing, to the extent that an image of them as an unsophisticated provincial population has developed. However, this initial impression is at odds with surviving evidence, both in the historical and archaeological record, of the degree to which Irish women imported both objects and craftsmen from abroad. For example, in the early 16th century Margaret Fitzgerald whose ‘provincial’ effigy is preserved in St Canice’s cathedral Kilkenny brought weavers from Flanders to teach the local craftsmen how to weave and make ‘Turkey carpets’. The now bleak, defensive aspect of Greencastle Co Down gives little hint of the long list of luxury items imported there from Florence in the mid-14th century by the Countess of Ulster – from large tapestries for more public display to items used for personal devotion. This paper will examine the degree to which women, more than male patrons, were responsible for introducing new ideas and skills to Irish medieval art. It will focus in particular on evidence of works purchased or commissioned for domestic spaces and for personal use, areas which have previously received only scant attention.