who was the old woman of beare?
Updated: May 13
The legend of the veiled one
Who was the Cailleach Bheara? She appears as a mysterious and shadowy figure hovering around the edges of Irish folklore and myth, yet very little is known about her.
The word cailleach has come to mean ‘hag’, or ‘crone’, yet in Old Gaelic it actually means ‘veiled one’. This conjures up images of early Medieval Christian nuns, yet it is possible that the word has more ancient origins and could refer to the wise-women or female Druids of pre-Christian and maybe even pre-Celtic times.
The legend of the cailleach can be found not only in Ireland, but in Scotland and the Isle of Man, too. She is associated with Winter, and the creation of the landscape.
In Scotland, it is said that if St Brigid’s day (1st February) dawns clear and bright, it is because the Cailleach is out collecting firewood to keep herself warm through a long, cold and stormy winter to come. But if the day dawns wet and wintry, the Cailleach is still sleeping, and therefore the winter will be a short one. Sound familiar? US friends may see something of Groundhog Day in this myth.
the goddess in the landscape
In Ireland, the cailleach lends her name to many features of the landscape. For example, Loughcrew is known in Irish as Sliabh na Caillí, meaning ‘the Hag’s Mountain’. It is said that the cairns were formed as the cailleach leaped between the three hill-tops, carrying rocks in her apron. When she stumbled and fell to her death, the rocks tumbled out creating the ancient ruined structures which cluster upon the three hills as we know them today.
She is also commemorated in the Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare, where one cliff is named ‘the Hag’s Head’ (Ceann Caillí in Irish); ‘the Hag’s Cliff’ (Aill na Caillí) in Co Galway; the Calliagh Birra’s House, which is another cairn on Slieve-Gullion in Armagh; the Labbacallee Wedge Tomb in Co Cork, known as Leabhadh Chailligh, meaning ‘the Hag’s Bed’, and which is said to be her burial place (although she is also said to be buried at Loughcrew).
It is amazing that, for a character so elusive, her presence is so prevalent in the naming of the landscape.
But who was she? A Goddess, a Queen, a witch? And why is she associated with so many passage tombs and cliffs?
Well, as Goddess of the dark half of the year, she can be seen as the opposite twin to Brigid; perhaps they are even opposite aspects of the same deity. However, as most Irish goddesses are said to have a triple aspect – maiden/ mother/ crone (Brigid’s triple aspect is related to her skills, not her femininity) this idea does not quite seem to fit. I guess there will always be exceptions.
Female deities are popularly associated with fertility, or sovereignty, yet the cailleach, as an old hag, is associated with the dark and decay of winter. From the darkness of the womb, the light of life is born, and the dark, silent inner chamber of the cairn can be likened to the womb; in fact, sometimes these burial mounds are actually referred to as ‘womb tombs’.
Perhaps the dead were carried into these tombs to the cailleach to allow their bodies to decay while their souls were reborn. However, ashes found in many of these cairns suggest that the dead were usually cremated prior to interment.
To me, it would seem more fitting if the womb tombs were associated with the bountiful maiden of spring, of growth and regeneration and rebirth, rather than the barren old hag of decay and cold, dead winter. And yet they are not.
It is interesting that, consistent with the notion of womb tombs, some designs carved into the orthostats of some of these cairns have been interpreted as female symbolism. The elliptical carvings at Loughcrew, for example, have been described as vulvas, yet I have also heard others speak of these same symbols as boats.
Why would we have water symbolism at the top of a hill like Loughcrew? It is true that Goddesses in Ireland are often associated with rivers: Boan and the River Boyne; Sionan and the River Shannon, but there is no river at Loughcrew.
Personally, ever since I saw the complex patterns of cup marks in these stones, and then heard of the tiny little chalk balls originally found on the ground beside them, I thought the makers of the tombs were monitoring the stars. The elliptical carvings reinforce this, in my opinion, as they represent the elliptical orbit of comets around the sun. But I digress…
what’s in a name?
The cailleach of Loughcrew was named Garravogue (Garbhóg in Irish), which is also the name of a river in Sligo. Originally, this river was called An Sligeach, meaning ‘the place of many shells’, and is one of the oldest attested place-names in Ireland. The town which grew up along its banks in the thirteenth century was named after it, and later, also the county.
So, although we now have an association of the cailleach with a river, we know that Garravogue is a more recent naming of the river, and so cannot be associated with a pre-Christian Goddess.
Other names by which the cailleach has been known throughout history include Milucra in the Fionn mac Cumhall tale, ‘the Hunt of Slieve Cuilinn’; Biróg, in the tale of ‘the Glas Gaibhnenn’; Buí/ Bua(ch), who was also the wife of Lugh, and Digde, from the beautiful eighth century poem, ‘The Lament of the Old Woman’.
Was one woman known by all these diverse names in different regions of Ireland, or do they represent a collective of many different wise old women? A religious order, perhaps, be it Christian or pagan.
the cliff-top queen
Some stories say that at the end of winter, the cailleach turns into a great grey rock beside the sea. Others, that if she reaches the sea in time and bathes in it, she will not be turned to stone. There is a great deal of language relating to the sea, and much sea imagery in the poem ‘The Lament of the Old Woman’, corroborating her role as a creator of the landscape.
But why the sea in particular, and why the hilltops and cliffs?
Yet the meeting of sea and land, or sky and land, is a liminal space, a dangerous place, a place where magic can happen. Beyond the sea, over the ninth wave lies the way to the Sacred Isles, Manannán’s Land, the Otherworld. Where else might a seasonal Goddess go, once she has relinquished her power to her opposing force?
Her association with cliffs then makes some sense.
the poetic muse
‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’ is a very (long and) beautiful old poem. Here are a selection of my favourite verses, but you can read the full version here.
Ebb-tide has come to me as to the sea; old age makes me yellow; though I may grieve thereat, it approaches its food joyfully.
I am Buí, the Old Woman of Beare; I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed; today it has befallen me, by reason of my mean estate, that I could not have even a cast-off smock to wear.
When my arms are seen, all bony and thin! -the craft they used to practise was pleasant: they used to be about glorious kings.
The maidens are joyful when they reach May-day; grief is more fitting for me: I am not only miserable, but an old woman.
I have had my day with kings, drinking mead and wine; now I drink whey-and-water among shrivelled old hags.
I see on my cloak the stains of age; my reason has begun to deceive me; grey is the hair which grows through my skin; the decay of an ancient tree is like this.
Some things, it seems, don’t alter with the passing of hundreds and thousands of years. As a woman who has just turned fifty, I can appreciate how women of a certain age lose their value in society, effectively becoming invisible.
So it is with the author of this poem. James Carney places this poem in the mid eighth century, and we know that in medieval Christian Ireland, women were not well thought of. Understatement of the year! A woman past childbearing age had no value whatsoever. The author is clearly lamenting the toll of age, not just on her body and beauty, but on her status and wealth also.
I love how her bony thin arms once clasped kings, and how pleasant this was to her. Not a singular king, mind you, but plural. Many. Clearly not a chaste Queen and demure Christian woman. Was she a courtesan, a prostitute, or simply a noblewoman who was free to take lovers as she pleased?
She fixates on her association with kings. She drank mead and wine with them. In other words, she caroused with them at a time when women were expected to be demure, chaste, and did not take part in male feasting rituals. In Celtic times, only those of highest elite status drank wine. One only has to look at the Celtic burials of Vix and Hochdorf to appreciate the importance of wine and mead drinking as evidenced by the spectacular huge vessels used for wine mixing, and the array of high quality vessels and tools required for its consumption. That she took part in such events indicates her power and status.
Clearly, she was desired by kings, and she makes no secret of her beauty, or of her sexual liaisons. But is beauty enough to explain why all these kings wanted her? I suspect not. Beautiful girls were as ten a penny then as now, I’m sure. There has to be more. Annoyingly, the secret is not revealed in the poem.
Image (c) Carri Angel Photography
There seems to be no shame or stigma regarding her sexuality. In fact, her regret seems not so much to do with the promiscuity of her heady younger days, but with the lack of kingly consorts and the sexless void of old age. In any case, neither option fits with the era in which the poem was written, so could it perhaps have been based on something older?
Two striking features of the poem are the persistent metaphor of the tides of the sea with the inexorable advance of old age – I include only one verse showing this here – and the explicit declaration of her identity – Buí, the old woman of Beare.
We have already discussed the importance of the sea, but who was Buí (pronounced Bwee)?
Well, she was the wife of the God Lugh, and her burial mound is at Knowth; in Irish, it is known as Cnocba, meaning the ‘Hill (or burial mound) of Buí’.
She was the daughter of either Daire Donn, known as the King of the World, who led a great battle against Fionn mac Cumhaill in the C3rd, or of Donn of the Milesians, who later came to be known as Lord of the Dead.
She was said to have had an affair with Cermait Milbél (which means ‘honeymouth’), a son of the Dagda. Lugh was so furious that he challenged Cermait to a duel and killed him. Cermait’s three sons decided to avenge their father’s death, and killed Lugh in, or beside the lough named after him on the top of the Hill of Uisneach. A cairn was raised over his body there.
If this wasn’t tragic enough, Óengus Óg who was Cermait’s half-brother, discovered that Lugh’s poet, who is not named, had told Lugh a malicious lie; Buach and Cermait had not slept together, after all. He avenged the deaths of his brother and Lugh by killing the poet. What became of poor Buach is not known.
So, what does Buí’s story have in common with the old woman of Beare? Um… good question. Sex, affairs and infidelity, and kings for sure. Perhaps, in the end, poor old Buí sought refuge in the nunnery in Cork where this poem is said to have been written.
Grateful thanks to Carri Angel Photography for the kind use of their stunning image Join me next time, when I’ll be discussing the women poets of Ireland.