Finding The Cailleach

It’s midwinter here on the shores of Roaringwater Bay. It brings hard frosts (above – Rossbrin), clear days and spectacular skies – we caught the one below in 2020:

Winter is the time of the Cailleach.

. . . The Cailleach is the goddess of the winter months and is said to control the weather and the winds as well as the length and harshness of winter. Depicted as a veiled hag or an old crone, with one eye and deathly pale skin, she is said to have a bow-legged leaping gait, striding across mountains with a power to shape and transform the landscapes as rocks fall from her gathered apron . . . The Cailleach, or the Hag, has been feared and revered across Celtic cultures in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, for hundreds of years. She is called Beira in Scotland, and has strong associations with the Beara Peninsula in Ireland, which straddles County Cork and County Kerry . . .

The Hag of Beara petrified in Hag Rock (above): she forever looks out across the Beara. Below – this is the Hag’s permanent view over her landscape.

Lest there be any doubt about the Hag’s longevity, this is instructive:

. . . There is a tale of a wandering friar and his scribe who came to the old woman’s house. He inquired as to her great age, which he had heard stories of. She replied that she didn’t know, but that every year she killed an ox and made soup from the bones—and perhaps they could gauge her age by the number of ox bones thrown up in the attic. The young scribe climbed the ladder and threw the bones down one by one for the friar to count. The friar duly made a mark on his paper for each bone, and a great pile of bones grew until he had run out of paper. He called up to the young scribe, who replied that he had not even cleared one corner of the pile of bones, such was the great age of the Cailleach . . .

Above – The Wailing Woman (courtesy of Ronan Mac Giollapharaic) – dramatically depicts another Hag rock, overlooking the Skelligs on the Iveragh Peninsula, Co Kerry. It is a given that Cailleach is one of Ireland’s most ancient inhabitants. Even older, in fact, than Cessair, Noah’s grand-daughter, who we know arrived on our own West Cork shores some five thousand years ago. With her in her Bronze Age crew were her father – Bith – and Fionntán, together with ‘a large company of women’ whose combined purpose was to repopulate the world after the Great Flood.

. . . Legend has it that Fintan the Wise of the hundred lives accompanied Noah’s granddaughter, Cessair, to Ireland before the great Biblical flood. He thought himself the first to set foot on the island but found Cailleach living there, and could see she was far more ancient than himself. He is said to have asked of her, “Are you the one, the grandmother who ate the apples in the beginning?” but received no answer . . .

The Cailleach rules over the the dead of Winter (above – Rossbrin Cove in that time). If you research the Schools Folklore Collection you will find over 830 entries referring to her: many are recorded in Irish.

. . . An Cailleach Béarach according to tradition was supposed to be a witch who is believed to have erected most of the round towers and castles in this country. Tradition tells us that she built each of those buildings with three pocketfulls of stones. As well as being a famous builder, she is believed to have been a great mower. At the time of her death, it is said, she was 121 years and one day . . .

Schools Folklore Collection – Informant Mrs J Peyton Aged 58

. . . The Cailleach Béarach started one day mowing with a score of men. The men led off & she took up the rear. After an hour’s work, she caught up to the man who was last and mowed off his legs from above the ankles. She continued the work until she caught up to the man who was second last & she cut off his legs also. This procedure continued until all the men but one had their legs cut off. At this stage, they went to their dinner . . .


The most frequently occurring references to the Cailleach are her feats in sculpting the landscape. Many features in the west of Ireland are attributed to her work.

. . . There is a hill in this locality called Keash Hill. Caves at the back of this hill are still pointed out as places where giants lived. Nearby there is a hollow with a flag flooring which is called the “Giants’ Table” and likely it is here they cooked and eat their food. Running parallel to this hill and at the back of it is a place called “Dun Ui Bhéara” where the Cailleach Bhéara is supposed to have lived. Old people tell stories of a fight between the Cailleach Béara and one of the giants. He stood on the summit of the hill and fired stones down at her. She lifted stones and earth and fired them up at him. The stones that reached the top of the hill form a “cairn” which is still to be seen. The place from which they were taken formed a small lake which remains to the present day. Some time ago if children were bold their mothers threatened to tell Cailleach Bhéara and immediately they got quiet. She was able to walk across Lough Arrow and the waters at their deepest part just reached her arm pit . . .


. . . When the Summer came the Cailleach Bhéara drove the bull out to the grassy parts of Béara. One day when the bull was being driven out, he heard a cow lowing in Kerry, so he started off towards her. The Cailleach went ahead of him, but he jumped into the tide and started to swim for Kerry. The Cailleach struck him with her wand and as she was doing it, the bull called the cow, and her calf with him, and they form the Bull, Cow, and Calf rocks now . . .

SCHOOLS FOLKLORE COLLECTION – INFORMANT Danial Houlihan, Croumphane, Eyeries

Finally, we must not overlook a poem written by Pádraig Pearse, one of the leaders of the Easter Rising in 1916. Pearse was executed on May 3 in that year – aged 36 – for his part in this ‘rebellion’. In this photograph, Pearse can be seen reading the oration at the funeral of the Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa on 1 August 1915. I am completing this post with the words of Mise Éire, written by Pearse in 1912.

Mise Éire:
Sine mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra

Mór mo ghlóir:
Mé a rug Cú Chulainn cróga.

Mór mo náir:
Mo chlann féin a dhíol a máthair.

Mór mo phian:
Bithnaimhde do mo shíorchiapadh.

Mór mo bhrón:
D’éag an dream inar chuireas dóchas.

Mise Éire:
Uaigní mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra.
I am Ireland:
I am older than the Hag of Beara

Great my glory:
I who bore brave Cú Chulainn.

Great my shame:
My own children that sold their mother.

Great my pain:
My irreconcilable enemies who harass me continually.

Great my sorrow:
That crowd, in whom I placed my trust, decayed.

I am Ireland:
I am lonelier than the Hag of Beara
Mise Éire – Patrick Pearse – 1912

21 thoughts

  1. Here on the banks of the Ilen near Turk Head our town land is called Poulnacallee, which appears to be an anglicisation of Poll na Cailli. I think this may mean the haven/harbour of the Cailleach. I’ve been told locally it means the “Hag’s hole”, there is a small natural inlet on the shore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Conor – It’s all good food for debate. For anyone who is unsure of ‘dindseanchas’, I believe it means ‘Lore of place’. And – yes – I think many places claim their own Cailleach!


  2. I am waiting for delivery of the book ‘The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise Woman Healer’ by Gearóid Ó Crualaoich. which I ordered some time ago. Your post is a good aperitif!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Although this from Co. Meath:

    John O’Donovan a field surveyor for the 1836 Irish Ordnance Survey wrote in letters back to his boss (published later in the 1920s; I quote the volume for Co. Meath) about his progress, and recorded a verse about the Hag of the Slieve na Calligh:

    Mise Cailleach Bhéurtha bhocht
    Iomdha iongadh d’amharcas riamh
    Chonaiceas Carn Barn Bán na Loch
    Gidh go bhfuil anois ‘na shliabh.

    ‘I am Calliagh Vera, poor,
    Many a wonder I have seen
    I have seen Carn-bane a Lake
    Tho’ now a mountain green!’

    O’Donovan says the local people repeat the verse, and then says: “What a pity that she is not alive now to throw light upon Geology!” He did not provide a source or anecdote, but the legend was probably generally known. In an old article on the cairns I discovered a longer poem:

    “That this enumeration of the cairns was very imperfect, we shall see presently; and it may not be uninteresting in this place to allude to some broken stanzas with which I have been furnished, having the following local tradition associated with their authorship. Mr. Wins low, a gentleman of antiquarian tastes, was living im the early part of the last century near Fore, about seven miles west of Sliabh-na-Cail lighe. On one occasion he invited Dean Swift, who was then sojourn ing with his friend, Dr. Thomas Sheridan, at Quilca, in an adjoin district of the county of Cavan, to join him in visiting Sliabh-na-Cailighe, in order to collect the fables related about the place, and the monster woman-Garvogue-who formerlv reigned there. Sheridan, who was of the party, availing himself of his knowledge of Irish, acted as interpreter; and Mr. Winslow prevailed upon the Dean to turn into verse the legends collected on the ground. The following is all that could be deciphered from the manuscript of Thomas Farrelly, who was gardener at Quilca at that time:

    “Twelve giant elks, trained to the car,
    Had brought the warlike dame from far Bengore-
    where reigned the dreadful war.

    When morning dawned, the board was spread
    With creases, nuts, and berries red;
    And Garvogue left her heather bed.

    Black Ramor, Crewe, and glassy Sheel
    Sent up the bream, the brac, and eel,
    At mid-day for her ample meal.

    Twelve haunches of the fattest elk,
    Twelve measures of the richest milk,
    Twelve breasts of eagles from the height,
    Composed the meal for eve or night

    Ere Finn and Gall had raised the spear
    Era Caolta chased the mountain deer
    Titanic Garvogue held her sway
    The feast at night-the chase by day.

    Her pack just numbered threescore ten
    No fleeter ever crossed a glen:
    Red Spidogue, with her broad, full, chest,
    And Isogue, round ribbed, and the best.

    Determined now her tomb to build,
    Her ample skirt with stones- she filled,
    And dropped a heap on Carnmore;
    Then stepped one thousand yards, to Loar,
    And dropped another goodly heap;
    And then with one prodigious leap
    Gained Carnbeg; and on its height
    Displayed the wonders of her might.

    And when approached death’s awful doom,
    Her chair was placed within the womb
    Of hills whose tops with heather bloom.”

    “I have also heard these lines attributed to Miss Brooke, daughter of Henry Brooke (a pupil of Dr. Sheridan’s), who was then living at Mullagh, about two miles from Quilca. As possessing local interest, I submit them; although I suppose they have been corrupted since they were originally written. (Conwell 1864-66: 357-358).”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! Thank you for that lengthy and informative comment. The poem is particularly interesting – possibly from the pen of Dean Swift – someone who I’m studying for a future post.


  4. Here in Scotland one of the descriptions of Cailleach means the hooded or veiled one and after Christianity arrived became the accepted name for a nun, with reference to the hooded wimples worn by nuns.
    Information from Stuart McHardy, writer, storyteller, folklorist, historian, lecturer, musician and poet.


  5. Thanks, Robert. I’ve been reading a lot on the Cailleach and Pearse’s poem is an excellent finale to this post. Can anyone help: Why was the word cailleach applied to nuns?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Here in Scotland her name can mean the hooded or veiled one and after Christianity arrived became the accepted term for a nun. The idea of Cailleach meaning nun is a simple reflection of the hooded wimples worn by nuns

      I have been researching Celtic myths and legends as preparation for a textile art project and this information comes from Stuart McHardy, writer, storyteller, folklorist, historian, lecturer, musician and poet to give him his full title.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Margaret. That sounds like a very reasonable explanation. Thinking out loud…However, I think the wimple was part of medieval female attire so not particular to the religious. Also, did nuns wear such ‘costumes’ in more ancient (pre-medieval) times, viz. is that an anachronistic assumption, I wonder? As there have been nuns in Ireland/Scotland going back to the beginnings of Christianity, one would assume a name for them which predates the wimple. Michael

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve searched for written and visual descriptions of nuns and none of them show/mention a veil. Always a head covering, but that was a universal female thing. Also there doesn’t appear to be an older word for nun than cailleach, so I think we can safely assume it was used from the outset.


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