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 . . .


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cailleach

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 . . .

https://www.irishcentral.com

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 . . .


https://www.irishcentral.com

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 . . .

SCHOOLS FOLKLORE COLLECTION – INFORMANT MRS J PEYTON AGED 58

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 . . .

SCHOOLS FOLKLORE COLLECTION – INFORMANT MR James Benson, Kesh, Co Sligo

. . . 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

First Foot

‘…According to local folklore the first foot was planted on Irish soil at Donemark on the shores of Bantry Bay in 2680 BC…’

Ireland's first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

Ireland’s first arrivals passed by this pebble beach on their way to Donemark

This statement (from Fuchsia Brand’s leaflet on Heritage) was guaranteed to send me scurrying for my history books. And – yes – I found many references to the event: an event which, to my mind, was surely one of special significance for Ireland: the first human ever to have set foot in this land – it must have deserved commemoration… Surely, there must at the very least be a plaque marking the spot? For a moment I wondered if this could be the long sought explanation for the enigmatic piece of Rock Art that’s on display in Bristol’s Museum & Art Gallery – the carving is about the right age…

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol's museum

Bronze Age Footprints in Bristol’s museum

So, a similar example of Petrosomatoglyphia is what I was hoping to find on the shores of Bantry Bay, a mere stone’s throw from our home here in Cappaghglass. But – before that expedition – let’s just go back to the history for the moment. Back – in fact – to the Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland), which was written down in the 11th century and – allegedly – based on earlier source material. It takes a bit of wading through: I used a commentary edited and translated by R A Stewart Macalister and published by the Irish Texts Society in Dublin in 1938, but it’s well worth the effort. There’s a lot I had never understood before about the earliest history of the people of Ireland.

lebot gabala book frontispiece

It’s a long story… The book is a collection, in five protracted parts, of all the poems and traditions which had been written and learned by the Bards, telling the history of their nation. There’s a lot of repetition: like the Gospels there are several versions of each episode and it’s a bit dizzying to try to get a clear overall picture of events. So, settle down and imagine the visiting Bard you have given hospitality to in your tower house on a winter’s night is regaling you with tales of your ancestors.

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall

A Meeting of Bards (at Boscawen-Un Stone Circle, West Penwith, Cornwall)

Everything has to go back to Noah, who was only allowed to take with him on the Ark his own sons and their wives. One of his sons, Bith, had a daughter – Cesaire (or Cessair). As she had to stay behind so also did her father, but they built their own ships, three of them, and set sail with two other men and a large company of women, looking for a land which ‘knew no sin’ because it had never been populated: there they would settle and aim to re-found the human race in a green and fertile place. Their voyaging took them to many parts of the known world and they came eventually to the north of Spain – which we know today as Celtic Galicia. Cesaire knew that this wasn’t the Utopia they were seeking but she climbed to the top of a very tall tower and, in the far distance, she spotted Ériu – ‘…where no evil or sin had been committed, and which was free from the world’s reptiles and monsters…’

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain...

Cesaire would have needed a tower like this to catch a glimpse of Ireland from northern Spain…

And so it was, forty years before the Great Flood engulfed everything, Cesaire’s expedition sailed up to the mouth of the Mealagh River, passing on the way the most beautiful landscapes they had ever seen – landscapes that we are fortunate to see every time we set out to explore our own new horizons.

Bantry Bay - the landscape today

Bantry Bay – the landscape today

Now it was time to glimpse for ourselves this remarkable site – Dún na mBarc – the place of the boat – (Donemark -Dunnamark Townland) in the parish of Kilmocomogue. We drove up the unremarkable N71 through Bantry town and turned in to its attractively situated golf course, then made our way down to the shore. Disappointingly, that is also unremarkable: it’s got a brooding, although not unattractive atmosphere about it. We came there at low tide and saw mud-flats – alive with foraging birds, including a very fine Old Nog – the huge stones of a disintegrating quay, and distant views to the Sheep’s Head and Beara Peninsulas.

Landing Place? At Donemark

Landing Place? At Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

Old Quay at Donemark

.

Alas, there were no footprints, no plaque, no signification of the very important history of this site: there was only our imagination to fill in the gaps. I could envisage Cesaire’s Bronze Age boat (only one survived the full journey) making its way up the azure waters admiring the emerald green of the landscape and passing by some of Ireland’s most dramatic scenery. They landed on ‘…a Saturday, the fifteenth day of the moon at Dun na mBarc…’

Kerry Mountains

Mountains of West Cork

We did find a single commemoration of this event: in the tranquil gardens of the National Learning Network Centre, which is not far from the mouth of the river. It is a work of art, made in 2013 by the students of the Centre, under the guidance of Michael Ray and the auspices of the West Cork Arts Centre – you may remember both from this recent post. Voyage of Stories’  recalls that pioneering arrival in the form of a boat sculpture made of steel, copper and glass and set up over a pool. The glass tiles tell of invasions and emigrations both ancient and modern in Irish and English. It’s a good way to commemorate the journey and those early settlers, we thought.

'Voyage of Stories' at Donemark

‘Voyage of Stories’ at Donemark

Now, Finola – at my side and wearing her Archaeologist’s hat – is tutting at my unquestioning acceptance of the dating of this milestone in Ireland’s history, bearing in mind that the passage graves at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth appear to be some 5,000 years old and – she says – there were people living in Ireland earlier than that! But my view is that there’s history, and there’s story… Well, perhaps history is always someone else’s story but give me a good tale any day, especially one woven with adventure and romance and told at the fireside.

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845)

Family Life (Caleb Bingham 1845) New Orleans Museum of Art

So now you know all about Cesaire, who was the first to step from that frail vessel which had travelled all the way from Egypt in those far off days. But perhaps I should also tell you a little more: the three men on that voyage faced the prospect of serving no less than fifty women between them if they were to populate this new land. The Lebor Gabála Érenn is quite frank about this: ‘… Ladra, the pilot, from whom is Ard Ladrann named he is the first dead man of Ireland before the flood. He died of excess of women, or it is the shaft of the oar that penetrated his buttock. Whatever way it was, however, that Ladra is the first dead man in Ireland…’ while Bith – Cesaire’s father – was already aged before the voyage and also passed away soon after. That left one man – Fionntán – who was so frightened by the prospect of facing all those women alone that he ran away and hid in a cave. There he changed into a Salmon and survived the Flood which, sadly, overcame Cesaire and her companions. The shape-shifting Fionntán went on to live for five and a half thousand years (by my reckoning that means he’s still alive!) and recorded all of Ireland’s history (including at first hand the account of Cesaire’s voyage) – which he then taught to the Bards of Ireland so that it would be taken out into the world…

But all that is for another day!

made harbour