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.

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.

Join me next time, when I’ll be discussing the women poets of Ireland.


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Mythology and Folklore | What’s the Difference?

This was something which confused the hell out of me when I first got into Irish mythology; what’s the difference between mythology and folklore, does it matter, and who cares anyway? They’re just a bunch of old stories, right?

Ancient text
Ancient text

The Oxford Dictionary defines mythology as…

“A collection of myths, especially one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition. A set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, especially when exaggerated or fictitious. “

It describes folklore as…

“The traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. A body of popular myths or beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.”

Still confused? So much for the Oxford Dictionary. Clear as mud! I think the best way to do this is by giving you some examples.

But first, a bit of background; in Irish mythology, there are four collections of stories known as the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. These can be found in three 11th century and 12th century manuscripts called  Lebor na hUidre, the Book of Leinster, and the rather un-romantically named Rawlinson B 502. There are also many other ancient texts, but these are considered the most important.

Despite their relatively late date, the content of these documents has been identified via linguistics studies to originate as far back as the 8th century and the 6th century. Christian monks assembled these stories from the oral tradition of the Irish storytellers they were listening to at the time, to try to provide a history for Ireland, and so the tales were finally committed to writing.

Whilst we should be very grateful for their efforts, we must also be mindful that in so doing, many of the stories were ‘Christianised’ in line with their own beliefs, as they tried to stamp out pagan culture.

The Dagda, warrior, chieftain, druid.
The Dagda, warrior, chieftain, druid.

And so to my first example: the Dagda. According to mythology, he was a Druid and a High King of the Tuatha de Danann. He was the father of Bodb Dearg, Cermait, Midir, Áine, Óengus Óg, and Brigit. Bres and Ogma were his half-brothers, and his father was Elatha of the Fomori, his mother was Eithne of the Danann.

He had a staff called the lorg mór, a cauldron known as the coire ansic (one of the Four Treasures of Eirean), and a harp named uaithne. Of course, these were all magical items:  the staff was said to be capable of killing nine men with one swing, whilst with the handle he could restore life to the dead; the cauldron was said to leave no one unsatisfied, and the harp possessed the power to rearrange the seasons, and control the order of battle.

Replica of the Dagda's Cauldron on display in the Newgrange Visitor Centre
Replica of the Dagda’s Cauldron on display in the Newgrange Visitor Centre

In Irish, the Dagda means ‘the Good God’, because it was believed he protected the crops. He was also known as Eochaid Ollathair ‘All Father’, and Ruadh Rofhessa, ‘the Mighty Red One of Great Knowledge’. You can see from all this that he was considered powerful, wise and knowledgeable, and that he was looked up to, admired and revered.

In fact, according to a text known as Cóir Anmann, or ‘the Fitness of Names’, translated by Mary Jones, the Dagda is described as…

“He was a beautiful god of the heathens, for the Tuatha Dé Danann worshipped him: for he was an earth-god to them because of the greatness of his (magical) power.”

And then we come across this story; in preparation for the Second Battle of Moytura with the Fomori, the Dagda is sent by King Nuada to parlay with them.

“He was not a pleasant sight to behold: A cape which hung only to the hollow of his elbows; a brown tunic around him which only went as far as the swelling of his rump; a ragged hole in that tunic; two shoes on him of horse-hide, with the hair turned outside, and his private parts dangling in the air.

“He saw a fine-looking woman and of good shape, with tresses of beautiful hair on her head. The Dagda lusted after her but he was impotent because of his heavy belly. The girl began to mock him and to tussle with him. She hurled him so hard that he sank to his rump in the mud.”

Huh?

When I first read this, I did a bit of a double take. It just did not fit with any of the other things I had read about him. I realised that this piece could be a bit of ancient propaganda, designed to belittle and discredit the Dagda, and in fact all of the Danann.

But why? And by whom?

Well, the Christians were doing everything within their power to convert the masses to Christianity, and destroy the pagan Gods. This is a tale of greed, lust, slovenliness, weakness, certainly not a portrayal of a noble Danann god, and may have served some moral purpose, as well as mocking the Dagda.

Equally, it could have been an ancient folk tale. The Fomori were beaten in that battle by the Danann, and practically annihilated. The Dagda was High King at that time. Perhaps when the Fomori went home, it was a story they told themselves to feel better over their defeat… it would be quite a natural thing to do, to ridicule your hated enemy’s chieftain.

But of course, that’s speculation.

Let’s look at the Fenian Cycle; here we have a collection of tales concerning one of Ireland’s greatest mythological heroes, Fionn mac Cumhall. He was a mortal, a noble hunter-warrior, leader of the Fianna, and close friend of High King Cormac mac Art.

He was famous for catching the Salmon of Knowledge and cheating the Druid, Finegas, out of achieving all that knowledge and wisdom. As a boy, he single-handedly saved Tara from being burned by the fire-fairy Aillen mac Midhna, when no-one else could, and thus he was awarded his birth-right to lead the Fianna by Cormac.

There are many, many stories of his adventures with the Fianna, of his battles and heroic exploits.

Giant's Causeway By Chmee2 - Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972
Giant’s Causeway By Chmee2 – Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972

And then we have the story of Fionn as a giant; he creates the Isle of Man by throwing a clod of earth into the sea, and builds a pathway across the sea to Scotland, which we know as the Giant’s Causeway. He is married to a woman named Oonagh, and dresses up as a baby and hides in a cradle to avoid an even bigger giant named Benandonner, who charges over the newly made pathway from Scotland to fight him.

Hmmm… again, we have here a story which clearly does not fit with the mythology of the Fenian Cycle. Finn is portrayed as a coward who would rather masquerade as a baby than face up to his enemy, even though he is inflated to the size of a giant.

What’s interesting, though, is that this story is attached to a particular location, and can be seen as an attempt to explain something the people could not understand, the creation of local landmarks, ie the strange columns of the Giant’s Causeway, and the Isle of Man.

And this is a typical feature of Ireland’s folklore stories; that a famous character would be taken out of context in a particular community and used to explain the unexplainable, or to highlight desirable/ undesirable behaviours and traits in a society, perhaps as a way of teaching moral conduct to children, for example.

Autumn Equinox sun dawning over cairn T at Loughcrew
Autumn Equinox sun dawning over cairn T at Loughcrew

My final example concerns a location closer to home, for me: Loughcrew, also known in Irish as  Sliabh na Caillaigh, meaning ‘the hag’s mountain’. At it’s highest point is the largest mound of the complex, known rather poetically (not!) as cairn T. At its base is a huge throne -shaped kerbstone called ‘the hag’s chair’, and it was from here that the ‘hag’ was said to have sat and surveyed her landscape.

Local folklore claims that the cairns of Loughcrew were formed when the hag, a giant witch, was carrying stones in her apron. As she leaped from one hilltop to another, she slipped and fell, the stones tumbling from her apron and scattering across the three hills to form the complex of monuments we can still see today.

Again, we see the same pattern repeated here; a community borrows a well known figure from mythology, in this case a Goddess of Winter, in an attempt to explain a prominent local feature in their landscape, and community. Note that she has also been elevated to the size of a giant, whilst at the same time, denigrated from Goddess to old hag.

Charming.

So… crystal, or still mud?


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The Curious Phenomenon of the Irish Fairy Tree

Sounds like a sweet little piece of nonsense, doesn’t it? A fairy tale to amuse the kids. Well, not in Ireland. We take our fairy trees, and our fairy tales for that matter, quite seriously. So seriously, in fact, that we delay the building of a motorway by 10 years, and then end up completely re-routing it so that we avoid harming a well-known fairy tree.

Wait… what? Really?

Absolutely. You can check out the story right here, if you don’t believe me. Having spent some time in Co Clare this year, and last year, walking the Burren Way, I can confirm that it is a very magical and mystical place steeped in ancient lore, and it’s impossible to be there, and not be seduced by it. As with many of Ireland’s ancient places, there is magic there waiting for you.

So, what exactly is a ‘fairy tree’?

Well, they look like this…

Fairy tree at Loughcrew
Fairy tree at Loughcrew

You will often find one at an ancient pagan site, or a holy well. They are usually hawthorn trees, but not always. People leave prayers, gifts or a personal token of some kind attached to the trees branches in the hope of receiving healing, or good fortune, or having their prayer answered. It can be fascinating viewing the strange objects people leave; children’s toys, socks, photos, ribbons, messages scrawled on scraps of paper, balloons, even strips of fabric torn from their clothing.

The lone hawthorn standing in the middle of a field was treated with much respect, and some suspicion by farming communities. Whilst it was thought to be auspicious, bringing good fortune and prosperity to the landowner, it was also thought to belong to the magical folk of the Otherworld, the Sidhe. As such, it was never to be cut or harmed for fear of bringing their wrath upon the perpetrator.

This tree in the centre of a field has had boulders piled against its trunk to protect it from accidental harm.
This tree in the centre of a field has had stones piled against its trunk to protect it from accidental harm.

In fact, some farmers would go so far as to pile boulders around the base of the tree so as not to accidentally cause damage to the trunk whilst ploughing or reaping around it.

So, a little bit of background about the hawthorn itself: the hawthorn is a small, bushy tree which grows up to six metres in height, which can live to a grand old age of four hundred years. It is native to Ireland, where it is mostly used to mark field boundaries, and roadside hedgerows.

In Irish, the hawthorn is known as Sceach Gheal, from sceach meaning ‘thornbush/ briar’ and geal meaning ‘bright/ lumnious/ radiant’. According to the ancient Brehon Law, it was classified as a Peasant tree. In Ogham, also known as the Tree Alphabet, the hawthorn is represented by the sixth symbol called Huath(pronounced Hoo-ah).

But how did the hawthorn come to be regarded as a fairy tree? Well, because it flowers in the Spring, it was associated with the festival of Bealtaine, a sacred time to the ancient Irish and to the Sidhe (the fairy folk, but don’t ever let them hear you call them by the F-word, they’d be most insulted, and I’m sure you’d rather live out your days as a human rather than something… else! 😂).

As a tree sacred to the fairies, the hawthorn was never to be messed with, damaged, or cut. Ill fortune would surely befall the fool who took such a chance, and offended the tree’s owners. Poised thus between the Otherworld and the physical world, the hawthorn eventually came to be regarded with fear, and it was said that witches made their brooms from its branches.

The fairy tree at St Co
The fairy tree at St Co

According to Druidry.org, this is what can happen when one destroys a fairy tree…

“Earlier in this century, a construction firm ordered the felling of a fairy thorn on a building site in Downpatrick, Ulster. The foreman had to do the deed himself, as all of his workers refused. When he dug up the root, hundreds of white mice – supposed to be the faeries themselves – ran out, and while the foreman was carting away the soil in a barrow, a nearby horse shied, crushing him against a wall and resulting in the loss of one of his legs.

“Even as recently as 1982,workers in the De Lorean car plant in Northern Ireland claimed that one of the reasons the business had so many problems was because a faery thorn bush had been disturbed during the construction of the plant. The management took this so seriously that they actually had a similar bush brought in and planted with all due ceremony!”

Consider yourself warned!

Did you know: Wands made of hawthorn are said to be extremely powerful. The blossoms are said to be highly erotic to men… which perhaps explains why Ireland did such a roaring trade in exporting hawthorn flowers in the past. May poles were originally made of hawthorn.

The hawthorn was often seen as a gateway into the fairy realms. Thomas the Rhymer, a Scottish poet in the C13th claimed to have met the Fairy Queen by a hawthorn bush from which a cuckoo was calling. She led him into the Otherworld for a short visit, but when he emerged, he found that seven years had passed.

Be careful if you are ever out walking in the countryside and think you may take a nice little nap under that inviting shady hawthorn tree… you may wake to find yourself whisked off to the Otherworld, and it’s highly likely you won’t find your way back…


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Equinox at Loughcrew

On Sunday morning, I visited Loughcrew (in Irish Loch Craobh) to greet the dawn of the autumn equinox. It was still pitch black when I left the house, and I was glad to see the stars shining bright and clear. It meant there would be a good chance of seeing the sun rise.

There was just enough tremulous starlight to guide my way up the hill. I couldn’t help feeling that by following in the footsteps of our distant ancestors I was enacting some kind of ancient ritual, winding my way through the still velvety darkness as they would have done, perhaps earning the right to be there by participating in that steep, breathless climb at such an early hour of the day.

Meanwhile, the faint stain of dawn was already caressing the horizon in the east, and I wondered at the mysticism of the event I was about to witness.

Although the tiny car park was full, I wasn’t prepared for the amount of people waiting in anticipation, as I rounded the stony bulk of cairn T. They were queuing all the way around it, and the hum of their chatter and laughter seemed loud in my ears after all that silence.

There were people everywhere; photographers with huge cameras on tripods, dogs on leads, children running, men climbing on top of the cairn, even people on horses. Above our heads, a remotely controlled device flew around buzzing noisily and flashing red and green lights; it probably contained a camera. I felt uncomfortable, restless. I’m not one for crowds at the best of times.

I watched a small group perform a pagan ritual. No doubt it was disconcerting for them that a small crowd had gathered to watch their ceremony, but when they dress in long robes and cloaks, and process around a public place carrying wooden staves, they have to expect they are going to draw curious onlookers, I suppose. They seemed somewhat lacking in confidence.

The sun rose, but hid her face behind a thin veil of cloud that refused to budge. Still, people waited. I suspected that if there was even a hint of a sunbeam, there would be a mad rush to try and get into the cairn chamber, and I did not want to be a part of that. The cairn was open, so I asked to go in.

It was dark and empty, except for one huge spider. I shone the light from my phone on the familiar symbols, and relaxed. It didn’t matter if the sun entered the chamber or not, or how many people there were waiting outside for something stupendous and glorious to happen; this was where the magic happened, and this was what it was all about, in the dark, on my own, with the symbols and the ancestors.

Others followed me in, but I didn’t stay long. I didn’t need to. I’d paid my respects, as I always did every time I visited, not just once or twice a year at the equinox. I realised how lucky I was; I could come here any time. If the cairn was closed, I could even get the key. This is Ireland, after all. We don’t fence our monuments off and forbid people to touch and experience them.

The ‘wrongness’ that I felt lifted as I walked back down. It came to me that the reason it all felt wrong, was that there was no peace on the hill. I had always felt comfortable there, but the crowd had unnerved me; I was used to having the place almost to myself. Was I being selfish, possessive, or just protective?

Because in ancient days, inevitably a crowd would have gathered to witness rituals and the dawning of the sun. But they would have had a common purpose, a shared goal and belief, and they no doubt understood their place in it all better than us, even if they couldn’t explain the mystery.

Today’s crowd didn’t have that. We were a gathering of individuals, some walking our dogs, some riding our horses, some celebrating our rituals, some curious, even part of a drunken wedding party straight from the reception, stinking of booze and out for a laugh.

We all came for the same thing, the dawning of the equinox, but we all wanted to experience it in our own way. That’s not a bad thing; we should be celebrating our diversity. I have probably been quick to say that no one cares any more about our ancient sites, but here I was proved wrong.

Whatever their motivations, whether it was honouring the ancestors, or mother earth, or just curiosity, people had got out of their beds before the dawn and climbed up a steep hill to be there. Nothing else matters but that. I don’t know if any of us got what we wanted, but I hope that at least some of us did.

It was a beautiful, perfect morning. At the foot of the hill, I got a fabulous coffee in the new Loughcrew Megalithic Centre, before driving home. You can read more about Loughcrew here.

Sacred Trees of Ireland | The Yew

Sacred trees of Ireland | The Yew http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

The Yew tree, one of Ireland’s native evergreens, enjoys a high status in Irish mythology. In Old Irish, it’s name is Ibar, but in modern Irish it is known as an Iúr.

The yew is a long-lived tree; it is thought it can survive to the ripe old age of 9500 years, although it is hard to accurately date due to the unique way in which it grows. Branches reach earthward to touch the ground, forming new stems which entwine around the main central trunk, which is often hollow, eventually becoming inseparable from it.

I visited the yews at Loughcrew Gardens this weekend. Loughcrew was the birthplace and home of St Oliver Plunkett, Ireland’s most recent saint. These magnificent specimens were planted in the 1660s.

Yews have soft dark needles, twisted gnarly trunks and flaky bark. They are very tactile. The male trees produce cones, the females produce red berries, each one containing only one seed.

Interestingly, the leaves, bark, wood and seeds are highly poisonous, and yet the very substance, taxol, which makes them so toxic has also been found to have beneficial effects in treating cancer. Taxol inhibits cell growth and division, but it would take ten 200 year-old trees with trunks ten inches in diameter, to produce enough taxol sufficient for a single dose.

The yew was revered by our ancient ancestors for its longevity, and because it remained green and vibrant, thriving in the harshness of winter when all other trees succumbed.

In those times, it was more plentiful and grew in mixed woodland. The deep shade beneath its dense needles and branches combined with the toxins secreted through its roots ensured not much grew within its vicinity. These natural open spaces were perfect locations for conducting pagan ritual and ceremonies. Thus the yew was seen as a ‘holy’ or sacred tree, and in time was adopted by the Christians, who built their churches and abbeys around them. We still see yew trees growing in churchyards today.

The yew tree fell out of favour as cattle and livestock became more important as an indication of wealth and status. Only a tiny amount of poison from a yew was enough to kill a cow or horse, and so many of the trees were eventually destroyed.

The three oldest trees in Ireland happen to be yews. The yews of Crom Castle, Co Fermanagh are said to be over 800 years old.

At Maynooth College, there is a yew which is said to be between 700 -800 years old, and the yew at Muckross Friary in Killarney is 670 years old.

The oldest yew tree in Ireland, (Plmerstown, Dublin), was thought to be over a thousand years old when it finally fell during storms back in the 1880s. Dublin boasts another famous yew tree; it is located at the Old Glebe, Newcastle, and is named The Dean’s Tree after the writer Jonathon Swift (1667-1745), who would sit penning his works beneath it.

In Irish mythology, the yew was one of five sacred trees brought into Ireland from the Otherworld when the land was divided into its five provinces. It was protected under Brehon Law as one of the seven Chieftain trees.

The Druids chose yew from which to make their wands, or staffs. Being so long-lived, and yet also so toxic, it was seen as having powerful magical properties, a tree associated not just with death, but also longevity and rebirth.

Poets also used staves of yew as memory aids when learning long incantations and poems. It is said that these rods were very long with eight sides, each one inscribed with ogham characters.

In a version of The Wooing of Etain, the Druid, Dalladh, divines that Etain is at the court of King Midir by making two rods of yew wood and inscribing them with ogham spells.

In the beautiful and tragic love story of Baile and Aillinn, a yew tree grows from Baile’s grave which bears the likeness of his face in its bark. You can read Jane Dougherty’s haunting version of this story for free in the book that she and I wrote together, Grá mo Chroí, Love Stories from Irish Myth.

Here is a series of Twitter poems (#gramochchroi) I wrote back in May in honour of the legend;

He lies beneath a weight of stones

in the shadow of love and loss

and from the hill a yew tree grew

now aged and covered in moss

 

Sacred apple, fruit of womb

falls from the branch like tears

while silent in his cold dark tomb

her lover sleeps away the years

 

Yew boughs twined together

Lovers’ limbs interlace

Twisted, tattooed with ogham

In the bark, an image of a face

 

From that tree a branch was took

his story for to tell

of life and love and death and loss

and the woman who loved him well

There is a strange story about a yew tree in the Historical Cycle of mythology. An old yew tree, said to have been wrought by Sidhe magic,  stood in a place called Ess Magh. Three brothers, Mac Conn, Cian and Eogan, fell under its spell and greatly desired to own it. They took their dispute to King Aillil, who awarded it to Eogan. Consumed with jealousy and anger, Mac Conn fought two battles with Aillil over his poor judgement. Many brave warriors were killed, including Mac Conn himself, and all of Aillil’s seven sons. Mac Conn’s daughter, Sadbh, was poisoned by the yew tree’s toxins. What became of Cian and Eogan is not told. I guess the moral of this story is not to mess with the Sidhe and their property, nor to underestimate their magic.

It should be noted that the name Eogan actually means ‘born of the yew’, so it’s not surprising Aillil gave the yew to him.  The yew has given its name to many places in Ireland. Co Mayo, for example, comes from the Irish Magh Eo, meaning ‘Plain of the Yew’. The village near where I live is called Virginia, but in Irish its name is Achadh an Iúr, which means ‘Field/ Meadow of the Yew’.

Incidentally, the townland I live in is called Billis, which in Irish is na Bilí, meaning ‘sacred tree’. Just down the road from my house is the hugest yew tree with the broadest trunk I have ever seen. It stands on private land, so I knocked on the owner’s door, hoping to find out a little of its history, but no-one was home. Could it possibly be the sacred tree Billis is named after?

Yew Billis

Irish Mythology | The Rough Month of the Cuckoo

scairbhinThe Scairbhín ( pronounced skara-veen) is an Irish weather phenomenon I know only too well, but until very recently, did not know it had a name. It translates as ‘the rough month of the cuckoo’ from the phrase garbh mi na gcuach, and refers to the period comprising the last two weeks of April, and the first two weeks of May.

These few weeks are often rampant with changeable extremes of weather patterns. In Ireland, we say you can expect to experience all four seasons in one day, and this is certainly true of the Scarbhín.

Our ancient ancestors who worked the land and were much closer to the seasons knew this as ‘the hungry time’ of the year. This is because they were busy planting and tending their crops which were too young and immature to produce food as yet.

But the Scairbhín was actually nature’s way of ensuring the crops success. Initial ‘unseasonal’ warm weather would enable seeds to germinate, a sudden cold snap would then serve to ‘harden off’ the young plants, and the howling gales which followed would distribute pollen.

So what has this to do with cuckoos?

Well, the Scairbhín coincided with the return of the cuckoo. The call of the cuckoo is often heard when the bird itself cannot be seen, which lends it an air of mystique. It was therefore seen as something of a herald of early spring and the milder weather which was sure to come, but which had not yet quite appeared.

Of course, the ancient Irish had quite a store of cuckoo lore; it was considered lucky to hear its call whilst out walking, but if you were to hear it whilst lying in your bed, you were sure to experience illness in the family before the cuckoo departed Irish shores for the winter.

If you heard the call whilst you had no money in your money, you were likely to remain poor for the rest of the year. Hmmm… so that explains it; I hear cuckoos most often whilst out walking with Indi, and I never carry money on me when walking the dog…

There are places in Ireland which have acquired their names through their connections with the weather. One of my favourites is Magha an tSamraidh, which means ‘the Plain of Summer’, and is located in Co Kerry within view of the twin peaks of the Paps of Anu, I believe. Incidentally, Tir na tSamraidh means ‘Land of Summer’, and is the name of one of the Otherworld lands… heaven on earth, perhaps?

Cnoc Firinne in Co Limerick means ‘Hill of Truth’, and is so named for the accurate weather predictions made on it over the millennia, based on cloud cover and formation, visibility,  and such like.

Closer to home, Loughcrew, also known as Sliabh na Caileach in Irish, or ‘Mountain of the Hag/ Crone’ is the site of a quaint Spring legend. It is said that if Imbolc (the Goddess Brigid’s feast day and first day of Spring, February 1st) dawns fine and bright, it means that winter has not yet relinquished its cold wet grip, and the crone is out and about collecting firewood to keep her warm. If, on the other hand, Imbolc dawns cold, wild and wet, it is a good sign, for it means the crone has no need of extra firewood, and is sleeping in her bed.

Irish Mythology | Friday 13th… Unlucky for Some?

moon
The moon is associated with the divine femine as the feminine cycles were linked to the phases of the moon. In Ireland, Aine was Goddess of love, growth, cattle and light. Her name means “bright” as she lights up the dark

There is a deep-rooted fear in many cultures that Friday 13th is a very unlucky day, yet no one knows where this superstition has come from, or why it is so widespread.

It is certainly true that some pretty rotten things have happened in the past on this day, which have earned it such a terrible reputation. For example, on Friday 13th October 1307, hundreds of Knights Templar were rounded up and put to death in France.

In the Bible, Judas was the thirteenth person present at the Last Supper. Jesus was crucified the very next day, which was a Friday.

In numerology, the number 12 is considered to be a number of ‘completeness’; there are 12 months in  year, 12 hours in a day followed by 12 hours of night, there are 12 signs of the zodiac, etc.

In comparison, the number 13 is seen as irregular, imbalanced.

There is a Norse myth which tells that twelve Gods were dining in the great hall of Valhalla, when the trickster-God Loki turned up uninvited. He proceeded to convince the blind God of Darkness, Hoder, to shoot Baldur the Beautiful, God of Joy with a mistletoe-tipped arrow, thus we have another example indicating why the ancient people may have believed the number 13 to be unlucky.

By contrast, the ancient Egyptians actually believed the number 13 to be very fortunate indeed. They thought that man experienced twelve phases during his mortal life, but the 13th was to ascend to eternal after-life, which was considered a joyous event, even though achieved through death.

In the C19th, a man named William Fowler set up the Thirteen Club, in an effort to disprove the fear of Friday 13th. They met in groups of 13 for dinner, walked under a ladder before sitting down to eat in Room no 13, which was decorated with open umbrellas, ensuring much salt was spilled on the table, which no one bothered to throw over their shoulders. Their first meeting was held on Friday 13th January 1881. Interestingly, there is no record of anything remotely unlucky having ever happened to any of the club’s members.

Although the origins of this superstition cannot now be traced, some say it goes right back into our distant pagan past. Ancient pagan religions were matriarchal; they believed in the Goddess and Mother Earth, and venerated the ability of the female to bring forth life. The year was counted by lunar cycles, unlike today’s Gregorian calender, of which there were thirteen, and also thirteen menstrual cycles in a year.

As the priests of the new religion, Christianity, tried to wrest control from the pagans, they suppressed the power of the female; fertility and the sexual act was seen as unclean. Where childbirth was once seen as joyous and miraculous, the new religion considered the new mother unclean and she was not allowed into the church until she had been ritually purified forty days later.  I’m pretty sure the thirteen menstrual cycles were seen as unclean, as well!

Over time, this dislike of the number 13 may have adopted a more sinister tone, as the pagans associated with it became thought of as evil devil-worshippers.

For the ancient Celts, everything was interconnected, even numbers. All numbers had meanings, or associations, here are just a few;

No2 represented service and commitment, ie the loyalty as shown by Fionn mac Cumhall’s two hounds, Bran and Sceolán.

No3 we know was considered a very sacred number, and seen in such concepts as birth-life-death; mind-body-spirit; beginning-middle-end; sun-moon-earth; thought-word-deed; past-present-future, and of course the Triple Goddess maiden-mother-crone.

No4 was connected with wholeness, as represented by the four seasons; the four winds; the four directions; the four elements, and even the four provinces of Ireland.

To the ancient Celts, trees were very important, and were also associated with particular qualities which could be interpreted to be of good or bad fortune. The oak and the hazel were considered trees of knowledge.

There were nine hazel trees around Nechtan’s Well at the Source of the Boyne. They would blossom and bear fruit at the same time. These fruit, the hazel nuts, would drop into the water where they would be eaten by waiting salmon. If one was to eat the flesh of the Salmon of Knowledge, one would acquire all of his wisdom, but they weren’t easy to catch. The old Druid Finegas tried in vain for many years, only to be cheated out of his reward by the boy-hero Fionn mac Cumhall.

The ash and the rowan were esteemed for their powers of protection. Eating rowan berries were thought to induce longevity, and brought youth and happiness. In old Irish, the rowan was called Fid na nDruad, ‘Tree of the Druids’. Later, Christians adopted the habit of putting branches in their homes on Good Friday to ward off evil.

Fairy Tree on the way up to Loughcrew.
Fairy Tree on the way up to the burial mounds of Loughcrew.

The hawthorn tree was thought to guard the entrance to the fairy realm, and it was thought to be very bad luck to cut one down. Even today, you will often find hawthorns known as ‘fairy’ or ‘rag’ trees at holy wells and other ancient sites, where people leave a small gift, rag or prayer attached to the tree as a votive offering to the ancient gods of that place.

Today’s popular saying ‘Touch wood’ to invoke good luck stems from this ancient Celtic respect of the trees.

Many cultures still consider the rabbit to be a symbol of good luck, and this goes back also to Celtic times. In Ireland, the rabbit was thought to have special powers to thwart those of the Tuatha de Denann, as like them, it lived below ground. Therefore,  carrying a part of a rabbit, such as its foot, on one’s person at all times was considered to ward off fairy evil. Not so lucky for the rabbit, I think.

There are many examples of the hare having connections with the Otherworld in Irish mythology and folklore. Hares are associated with spring, thus with the Goddess of the season, and represented love, fertility and growth. In Europe, that Goddess was Eostre, after whom Easter is named, but in Ireland Brigid is the Goddess of Spring, or Imbolc, which starts on February 1st. February is when the hares start racing through my garden, driving poor old Indi wild!

I came across a story of a huge red-eyed hare which used Loughanleagh as its entry point into the magical realm. Oisin was once said to have hunted a hare, wounding its leg before it disappeared through a doorway into the ground. He followed it through a long passage, eventually emerging in a great hall where he found a beautiful woman bleeding from her leg. Not only does this story show a connection between the Sidhe and the hare, but also indicates a belief in transmigration.

Apparently, in order to ensure victory, Boudicca was said to have carried a hare into battle under her cloak, from where it proceeded to scream like a woman (or perhaps a banshee?) throughout the duration of the conflict.

Eventually, Christian superstition was to work its transformative magic over pagan traditions yet again, for the threatening spring hare was reinvented as the much less fearful Easter Bunny… although the notion of a bunny laying chocolate eggs around the garden seems infinitely more scary to me.

black-cat

When it comes to the black cat, messages are somewhat confused. We all know how highly the ancient Egyptians thought of their moggies, but around the rest of the world, it was a different story. Once, the cat was much admired for its independence, stealth and hunting prowess. In medieval times, this love of cats, particularly black cats, was considered a sign of witchcraft, and the cats were burned alive, along with the women who owned them, or were thought to own them.

The mythical Cait Sidhe is a large black cat said to be the size of a dog. It was thought that witches could transform themselves into a Cait Sidhe eight times, but that on the ninth, they would remain in their cat form. Thus we have the origin of the cat with nine lives, and the fear of black cats and their associated witchy owners.

So this Friday, keep away from witches, black cats, and spring hares; don’t tempt fate by walking under ladders, spilling salt, or opening your umbrella before you leave the house; try carrying a piece of wood around with you instead of a rabbit’s paw, and you might, just might, avoid any bad luck that’s whirling around in the ether.

May the luck o’ the Irish be with you!


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