Who was the Old Woman of Beare?

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).

These are just a few examples; if you google her, you may find more. It is amazing that, for a character so elusive, her presence is so prevalent in the naming of the landscape.

mistaken identity

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.

feminine symbolism

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 8th 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 shriveled 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 carroused 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.


Beare

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 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.


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52 Comments on “Who was the Old Woman of Beare?

  1. Pingback: Were There Women Poets in Ancient Ireland? | aliisaacstoryteller

  2. I love they mist and mystery of your stories Ali, the dark and feminine, the meeting of sea and sky, and Bui has a counterpart in winter’s Persephone though she sounds to have been a tad friskier in her day and much more interesting!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful post, Ali. I love the myths and your interpretations around the poem and the power and wisdom of the feminine. A friend of mine mentioned that we had entered the “crone” period of our lives, and I looked at her like she was crazy! What? Crone? Are you kidding me? I’m opting for the wise woman stage. 😀

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    • Haha! Well I turned 50 last month so I guess I’ll join you! I know it sounds like an insult, but actually back in the day I don’t think it was; I suspect it was just a word which described a woman in the later phase of her life which was misappropriated through the centuries and now has horrid negative connotations. Although I have to admit, I prefer ‘wise-woman’ myself too! 😉

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  4. Me again… how are you? Are you taking summer classes or is school out for you for a couple months? I’d love to catch up with you!

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  5. Hey Ali!!! How did I miss this? I’m so glad I stopped by here tonight. Such a wonderful and awesomely informative post, as always. This is all new to me, I now have much to think about. And I love your speculations, that’s brilliant what you said about the elliptical depressions in the rock and following the stars. I agree, that really seems to be the most sensible explanation.

    That the cailleach and Brighid could be twin aspects of the same deity… I wonder if it really could be possible? There are stories about Brighid appearing as an old crone near a well who would then turn into a maiden if a passerby saw through to her real identity. In one of my own personal experiences, Brighid as a young teen was leading a line of people, running, with flower peddles either falling or springing up behind her as she ran. She then appeared in pursuit of the line as a remarkably strong but frail-looking, slightly bent-over very old woman, and was carrying a knife to symbolize the destructive aspect of life rather than the creative aspect. Some druids worship Brighid primarily as a goddess of the land… I wonder if this dual nature of her got conflated somehow with Brighid the smith, poet, and healer… or is an older aspect of her, or there might be another explanation. I agree that would be quite surprising in many ways, but I feel it is definitely possible.

    The poem you shared is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for that.

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    • Hi Éilis! Funny, I was just thinking about you last night, and now here is a comment from you on my blog… coincidence? Yes, the myths about Brigid are intriguing, because they are so different from all the other aspects of the female deities. Most striking to me is that her triple aspect revolves around her skills, not her femininity, as with the other Goddesses – maiden-mother-crone, which are also linked to fecundity and reproduction. Brigid is attributed with poetic inspiration-smithing-healing, and so she is instantly more ‘alive’ and real to me. She has a value totally unrelated to reproduction, something which is unique to her, and makes her unique among all others. I haven’t heard of a female deity, or any deity actually, having a double aspect. But life and death are two sides of the same coin, as with many things, love and hate, joy and sorrow, etc, so why not? Thanks for sharing your vision, very interesting. I had never thought of her in that way before. And yes, the poem is lovely, it really touched me the very first time I read it. Strange how something written so long ago still has such relevance today. ☺

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  6. Hi Ali,
    I much appreciate your feature on Cailleach Bheara. How great is the fact that Cailleach Bheara´s presence is prevalent in the naming of the landscape, particularly when it comes to the sea, hilltops and cliffs, as you say!.
    As I read your descriptions, I thought of Old Odin (Hermes´norse mythological equivalent)… Mainly given the attributes linked to darkness and old age… Also of Chronos, the old god of time who turned the wheel of the heavenly constellations.
    As to female figures in Greek Mythology, you reminded me of Demeter (Persephone´s mother). She is strongly linked to the changing of the seasons and often connected to the image of the Dark Mother in winter. The myth tells us that when Persephone was abducted by Hades, Demeter’s grief caused the earth to die for six months, until her daughter’s return.
    In this sense, I hear you when you say that “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”. Demeter was the Goddess of of the harvest and agriculture, who presided over grains and the fertility of the earth. However, in this case, “the dark, winter phase” is mostly associated to the Loss-seeking of her daughter.
    I loved the poem ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’… 😉 Excellent and very interesting post, dear Ali… Sending love & best wishes!

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    • Thank you for stopping by, Aquileana! It was rather a long post this week, because even though there is so little known about the Cailleach, there is still so much to say. ☺ I wonder sometimes at all the similarities between the different pantheons of Gods and Goddesses. It makes you wonder if they do all indeed share a common root at some time too far back to identify. I love your story of Demeter; I can well understand that kind of grief, though I have never experienced it, and hope not to. There can be nothing deeper or more bitter than a mother’s grief. And that’s what I love most about all these ancient stories, that no matter the times in which they were written, they bind us all together, we are all human, our experiences have not changed over the centuries, we still share the same passions and emotions, and they teach us so much about how to be. I think today, we miss that, because we are too busy looking at the fantasy and strangeness which they are wrapped up in. Have a great week, lovely lady!😍😘

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    • Well, thank you, Shirlee! I think that’s one of the nicest things anyone’s ever said to me! I still have so much more to write about, why did the days have to be made in chunks of only 24 hours? Could do with a few more!

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  7. Very interesting Ali, particularly loved the poem. Old Woman …. we still have a lot to contribute and I am enjoying life but yes the clock is ticking and my body is misbehaving – hormones all over the show. Sometimes I wish I was a man but only for a moment!

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  8. So interesting. I hadn’t ever heard of an association with Brighid. Though I have heard of a sort of cross-over with the Greek pantheon and Hecate being an aspect of Brighid and/or handing her the light half of the year (like a Holly King/Oak King type idea). Fascinating about the feasting and status. Seems that poem has a lot to tell (and a lot hidden…)?

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    • Yes, a lot hidden, I feel that too. I had never heard of an association between Brigid and the Cailleach either. I think we have to be wary, though, because so much of what we think we know comes from the antiquarians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, who interpreted everything in the only way they knew how, ie through the lense of their classical educations and the Greek and Roman myths and Gods. Irish and Celtic stuff is different, although the European Celts were keen to acquire the perceived sophistication of the Greeks and the Etruscans, with whom they traded. Also, a lot of what the Romans wrote has been accepted as fact, but they had an agenda, they wanted to conquer Europe, so they created the Celts as noble savages with Druids who wore white robes and committed frenzies of human sacrifices, purely for the titillation and support of the citizens back home. But look at me, getting all heated and wandering way off track lol!

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    • Thanks, Michelle. I agree, much is hidden, although I’m not sure how deliberate that is. It might well be that in the times the poem was written, there was a common understanding of certain things that didn’t need explaining to the contemporary audience. It is only now, to us who have lost that knowledge, that things seem veiled and mysterious. Possibly. 🤔

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    • Thanks Rachele. 😊 Yes, it’s been ages, February I think. It has actually been quite hard to get back into it, which I didn’t expect. I think blogging is probably a bit like riding a bike… you get a bit rusty if you don’t do it regularly, but you never really forget how. No pressures this time though; I’ll just see how it goes. 😊 Hope all is well with you.

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    • Hi Sue. I was told by an OPW guide that when Cairn T was first ‘discovered’ and entered in the eighteenth century (I think!) there were lots of tiny little chalk balls lying on the ground in the entrance. No one knew what they were at the time, and like many archaeological artefacts at that time, they just disappeared. As you go into the cairn, on either side there is an orthostat with a LOT of tiny cup holes carved in them. It is likely they would have held the tiny chalk balls. I imagine these were ‘interactive’ boards for tracking the movements of stars or other celestial bodies, that they could move the balls around on the map according to their observations. Its just a guess though.

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          • The info we were ‘given’ looked at the carvings as maps, with the a white stone as a marker. Whether the maps were of stars, resources, landscapes or energies I have yet to discover, though perhaps it worked for all of them.

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            • That’s interesting. Well I’m convinced these are maps, and assumed stars but you’re right of course, they could be maps of anything. Although the fact the chalk balls are mobile suggests its a plan of something that’s not fixed, but there must be a pattern if the balls can fit into each others places. Oh, I just had an impression that its not anything physical at all but tracking the progress of individuals through time? That sounds mad. I’m not actually sure what I’m trying to say there! 🤣

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            • Yes, that sort of ‘off the wall’ theory is the type of thing we get a lot…hard to put into words, but makes sense in your mind 🙂

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            • I just came back to delete that comment because it sounds so crazy but saw you ready replied. Thanks for not laughing! (Or maybe you did!)

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