Given that I’m re-launching this blog with a more Gaelic recon-type approach, I thought ‘C is for Cailleachan’ wasn’t a bad place to start. There’s more than one Cailleach figure, and I thought I’d take some time to explore the differences between ‘my’ Cailleach and some of the others. The nice thing about the (plural) word ‘Cailleachan’ is that it emphasises the potential separateness of these goddesses and their different cultural origins. They’re not all the same.
When people call the Cailleach a winter goddess, they’re talking about the Scottish goddess, who is said to wash her plaid in the lochs and shake it to bring on snow. The Irish Cailleachan are quite different. It doesn’t snow much in the west of Ireland, and over there the Cailleachan are known more generally as weather goddesses, rather than specifically as winter figures. The Irish figures are also strongly linked with mountains, stones and cairns, and the sovereignty of the land (possibly with cows and harvest themes in there). The Irish Cailleach tales are odd stories that present these figures as simple (if sometimes magical) old women, but which preserve themes of sovereignty and the harvest, if you look closely enough.
I sometimes get irritated with the modern approach to the Cailleachan – subsuming many local goddesses under one identity, even when the cultures of each area are very different, just because they have some features and stories (and a title) in common. This approach mainly comes from some North Americans, who seem to think that Ireland and Scotland are homogeneous. So there’s the idea that there’s one Cailleach who is ‘just’ Gaelic, both Irish and Scottish, which can erase the vast differences between local cultures/local landscapes, and their stories. Partly this is the fault of academics, some of whom talk about them one minute as though they are many, and the next minute as though they are one figure. It’s their way of dealing with the cross-fertilization that has taken place between some of these goddesses – the way the stories move across areas, influence each other, and may have some common origins. It’s not always culturally helpful, though. I’m still finding it incredibly hard to work out which Irish Cailleach stories come from Cork and which come from Kerry and which from elsewhere in Ireland, partly because of the way stories are collected together as just being ‘about the Cailleach’, without always clearly identifying where they come from. And it can be hard enough separating the Scottish stories from the Irish to begin with…
In terms of local folklore, I’m most familar with Cailleach Bhéarra (from west Cork), although I also know a bit about Duibhne (from Dingle). In local folklore, Cailleach Bhéarra is also called Buí, Boí, or Baoi. She’s associated with Dursey Island, an island just off the Beara Peninsula (both of which are named for her – the Irish names for Dursey are Baoi Bhéarra and Oileán Baoi). I believe the earliest name we have (recorded) for her is Sentainne Berri. She has some well-known legends, like being turned into the Hag of Beara rock overlooking the cliffs near Eyries, and some less well-known local stories, like how she waits there for her husband Manannan mac Lir. Some scholars think her origins were in County Meath, further north, and that her stories travelled with moving tribes, although others disagree. In medieval myth, Bui (or Bua) is a wife of Lugh and is said to be buried in Co. Meath, but we also have the problem that we don’t know how far myth has influenced local thought on the subject, and so it’s hard to say what her origins are. O’Cathasaigh thinks she’s a goddess of sovereignty and death. Ó Crualaoich focuses more on her land-shaping aspects.
It’s possible that Bhéarra is the same goddess as her Kerry-based neighbour Duibhne, just using different names – but I’ve also read that Duibhne was subsumed into the Cailleach figure later. I think this is possible – that several local sovereignty goddesses of different tribes were linked under one archetype. There’s an inscription on a stone in Kerry that reads ‘Corca Duibne’, which means ‘the people/seed of Duibhne’ – she was a local goddess of the tribe. Her name is sometimes anglicised to Dovinia, which may be an earlier name. I have a relationship with Duibhne that I’m only just starting to get my head around. She’s an… interesting one.
I wrote a bit about the possible links between Bhéarra and other local harvest goddesses in these two blog posts. The Cork-based harvest goddesses who interest me in connection with her are Lasair, Latiaran and Inion Bui, a triad of harvest goddesses who are each in charge of a different stage of the harvest. It’s hard to find out about them, though, and they may be back-formations from later saints, rather than actual pre-Christian goddesses. They’re interesting, though!
Some sources on the subject:
The best source, though, is going to Cork itself. You’ll see Bhéarra everywhere in the landscape there – from place names, to stories, to the land she is reputed to have shaped. She’s very much a goddess of the land.
Oh – and happy Imbolc/Lá Fhéile Bríde to anyone who celebrates it!
*Apologies that this is largely a re-post of a post I made at the Cauldron forum a few weeks ago. I’m moving, and have no energy left. Also, recycling stuff is a good idea when you’re moving. :D
 With thanks to Stephy for the idea of writing about Cailleach Bhéarra this week!
 These stories have been collected by the Irish Folklore Society, but they’re mainly in Gaelic – but Ó Crualaoich has translated some of them in his book – The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise Woman Healer, 2006. Which I strongly recommend. A fantastic collection of folklore!