There was a woman here long ago that they used to call An Chailleach Bhéarthach and she never shed a tear and she never drank or ate anything, hot or cold, only cow’s milk, always.
- Folk-tale from Galway, cited in O Crualaoich
And what she had to eat was:
Real, pure madhbhan* from Whiddy
Duileasg* from the harbours of Cape Clear.
Fish from above in the Laune
And wild garlic from Beleach Bheimis.
- Folk-tale from the Beara Gaeltacht, cited in O Crualaoich
*Types of seaweed.
8) Variations on this deity (aspects, regional forms, etc.)
9) Common mistakes about this deity
10) Offerings – historical and UPG
8 & 9:
There are many Cailleachean in Ireland and Scotland. I think that they’re not the same – except when they are. Many of them have enough in common that they may have roots in common,1 which is why it’s easy for people to (mistakenly) talk about ‘the Cailleach’, as though there were only one. Usually, when they reference ‘the’ Cailleach, people are talking about the Scottish lady, and her seasonal associations. But there are others. All tied to the land, in my experience, but not all winter deities.
I’ve already talked about Duibhne, who is also known as the Cailleach Corca Dhuibhne (or, in English, the Cailleach of Dingle). She appears to me most often as a young woman, and it may be that she was only syncretised with the concept of the ‘Cailleach’ later2 – she may have been an independent land goddess first. There are Cailleachean in Sligo (I really want to read this book), and at the megalithic tomb in County Meath, and up north, in County Clare. And of course, there are the Scottish Cailleachean, of whom I know very little.
But just because there are Cailleachean all over Ireland, doesn’t mean they’re all the same. While I don’t know the others well (except for Duibhne), I know that Bhéarra is the embodiment of her land and its culture. A song like ‘Bantry Girls’ Lament’ is not about all of Ireland – it’s about Bantry, the little harbour on the edge of the Beara peninsula that has seen famine, oppression and loss, as well as joy of its own. ‘My’ Cailleach is all of these things and more — everything the land and its people have experienced.
Bantry Bay – photo by Visit Cork, flickr
Bantry village. Photo by Jim Vaughey, flickr
Grey seals in the harbour at Bantry Bay. Photo by Jos van der Heiden, flickr
As a fertility-of-the-land and harvest goddess, I offer her ‘fruits of the land and sea’ a lot (mentioned in her myths) – fruit, vegetables, nuts, fish, grain. That always seems to go down well. Grain-based products are particularly good – oat-bread and porridge are mentioned in one tale. So are sea foods, in another, from seaweed to lobster.
Given that Baoi’s name may mean ‘white cow’, and that she has a bull, I really like the story that says she never ate anything except dairy products. I’ve only just started offering Bhéarra dairy products, and so far, my personal thinking is that she seems like them, but not as much as some things. I’d like to try offering her beef, too.
She seems to like whiskey. Like, really like it. I have no textual provenance for this idea – it just felt like a thing to offer her, so I do. I try to find whiskeys local to Cork, which is a bit tricky – I can usually only find those when I’m there. (The owner of the off-licence in Bantry has looked at me weirdly several times when I’ve asked for the most local whiskey he has, which is usually the cheapest!)
In the next few posts, we’ll start moving into serious UPG territory. Advanced warning!
 O Crualaigh argues that Bhéarra is the root, the figure from which all the others came. I’ve read other interpretations that say that the Scottish lady came first, though. I think we’ll probably never know, but it’s interesting to speculate.