In the mountains of Cork I came seeking my ancestors, and She responded – the Spirit of the mountains, of those who came before, and of the spaces between here and the Otherworld.
“Three great ages: the age of the yew tree, the age of the eagle, the age of the Cailleach Bhéara.” – The Vision of Mac Conglinne
My family is from Glengarriff, on the coast of the Beara Peninsula. Here, have a couple of pictures that prove it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world (even though all the tourists miss it out and go straight up to Kerry. The dolts).
On the second day we were in Ireland, my mother decreed that we were going to “an island with a cable car”. SJ and I had plans involving remote stone circles, but it was a lovely, clear day. A little reluctantly, we agreed. The place, it turned out, was Dursey Island – and I met a goddess there.
When they say ‘cable car’, they should be clearer about a couple of things. The first is that it’s the only way on and off and this island, which is separated from the mainland by the very dangerous Dursey Sound. The second is that this cable car looks like it was built in the 1950s and appears to be attached to nothing but a couple of huts that each hold a one-person ticket office. Oh, and only six people (or three sheep) get to ride at once – which means standing in a queue for a long, long time. But that’s fine, because as soon as you’re a few hundred metres above the lethal rocks of Dursey Sound in a swaying rickety cable car, you’ll be sure you’re going to drop to your inevitable doom anyway.
And the island is worth every bit of the near-death experience.
I’d been reading references to her in a guidebook I’d found in our rented cottage – this mysterious (maybe-)goddess of the wild variously called Bui, Baoi or Bhéarra (the island is known as Oileán Baoi in Irish Gaelic). I didn’t connect her to the Cailleach for several days, by which point I’d been to several places in Beara that have connections with her, and was getting the sense of a great, wild, powerful presence. She followed me all week, from the stone circle under Cnoc Bui to the rocky mountains around my family’s ancestral home – the rocks, legend says, that fell from her apron as she walked, shaping the mountains.
Cailleach Bhearra is closely associated with the Beara Peninsula – Bhearra and Bui/Baoi may have been her original names, with ‘Cailleach’ (which means ‘veiled one’) a post-Christian addition. There aren’t many associations with winter for this ‘version’ of the Cailleach – that comes mainly from her Scottish counterpart’s legends, as the queen of winter. And there is a darker, older side to her that I’ve encountered since winter dumped its rain and snow and darkness on us… but this is also a goddess who, once a century, becomes young again by washing her face in one of her lakes, at May-time. Her myths suggest links to the prosperity of the land, as well as to its wildness. There’s an idea there, in common with the myth of Macha, that if humanity works in harmony with the land, agriculture and life will be prosperous – and if we don’t, if we try to push it too far and grab all the resources we can, the land will suffer and so will we. She seems, to me, to be a goddess of the whole cycle of the land from spring to winter, including the harvest.
And to explain that part, I need Gobnait.
Water from one of St Gobnait’s holy wells is currently sitting in a little bottle on my shrine to Cailleach Bhéarra. There may be a connection between them, but it’s tenuous. Still, I love the idea that there might be. But you’ll have to wait for that part of the story… probably until the letter ‘G’.
So. One Cailleach, or many? I like Ó Crualaoich’s theory that Cailleach Bhearra came first. In Scotland she’s sometimes known as Cailleach Bheur, which folk etymology claims is a reference to the cold weather she brings (‘bheur’ means ‘sharp’), but he thinks that’s a later explanation – ‘Bheur’ could have been ‘Bhearra’ originally. I have days when the hard polytheist in me wants to see ‘Cailleach’ as just a title, given to land and prosperity goddesses in a number of areas, without there necessarily being a connection between any of them. And then the sociologist in me reads the folklore again, and sees how much crossover there is. She may even be rooted in Norse concepts of the forces of the wild, so she might have travelled a long way, through lands and folklore. Deities are complex, and the people who create their myths are even more so.
To me, she is a creatrix, a land-shaper. She is the wilderness that will eat you alive, the tenuous grip you have on the land when your tribe’s prosperity comes from agriculture – so don’t ever get too comfortable. She formed the lands of my ancestors from the flooding waters of the underworld, and the mountains fell out of her apron-pockets. She’s a storm-bringer, in summer and winter alike, in these islands where storms can rise up from nowhere, just when you think you’re safe and warm. She is ancestry, maybe evolution itself. She is seership and the Otherworld. She’s both young and old, a veiled hag in black and a laughing young girl in a white dress, running barefoot across the world, lochs and mountains taking shape under her step. She is as ancient as the land: she was old before the Tuatha De Danann set foot in Ireland, and her youth is renewed through the land itself. She is the forces of nature. ‘Goddess’ is too small a term for her. I am in awe of her. Hail, Bhéarra.
Ó Crualaoich, G. (2003). The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer. Cork: Cork University Press.
Ó Crualaoich, G. (1988) Continuity and Adaptation in Legends of Cailleach Bhearra. Béaloideas 56:153-178.
Hull, E. (1927). Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare. Folklore 38.3: 225–54.