See here for the introductory post to this little series.
1) A basic introduction to the deity
An Chailleach Bhéarra. The Hag of Beara. Sentainne Berri. Baoi/Bui. Here is the post I wrote about the earliest experiences I had with her.
My Cailleach Bhearra tag is here – all the posts I’ve written that reference her.
2) How did you become first aware of this deity?
I’ve been visiting the Beara peninsula, to see my family, for years. I’ve always been interested in Irish myth, and have picked up lots of books of it over the years. Usually books of the standard stories – Lugh and the sons of Tuireann, the Children of Lir, that sort of thing. Great stories, but not ones that I connected with on any deep level. I’ve done a lot of myth-reading on buses from Dublin to Cork!
Well, my first introduction to Baoi wasn’t in a book of nationally-recognised, internationally-loved myths. It was a reference in a travel guide. Oh, I’d heard of her before that – you can’t go to Beara without knowing about the Hag of Beara stone – but that was ‘the Cailleach’ and I didn’t relate to her, or so I thought. So I’d picked up this travel guide, describing walks you can take around the Beara Peninsula – one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland, by the way. And it mentioned a goddess of the wild, Baoi (whose name may mean ‘white cow’), who was the patroness of those parts. And I, recently Pagan and interested in the local gods, and always very interested in the peninsula, had my interest sparked.
So I got to know her through the land well before I encountered her in the stories (although, really, the two are inseparable in Beara). I spent a few days visiting the places she’s associated with – Dursey Island (where it was an incredibly beautiful day, and I walked significantly further than I’m meant to)…
And the hills and coastlines all along the Peninsula.
(I have not yet visited the Hag of Beara stone. I’m waiting for… something. I’m also keen to see Slieve na Calliagh, the Hag’s Mountain, where her stone chair of legend is found – although that’s where she starts to become someone else, someone not of Beara. I’m waiting till I can attempt to wrap my head around that, too.)
I had met Baoi’s husband, the sea-god, years before. (In the Peninsula she is said to be married to Manannan mac Lir. It’s a thing that almost only makes sense in the Peninsula, but it does.) The god of the sea encircles and caresses the lady of the land. And when they fight, oh boy do they fight.
It was Dursey Island, said to be the home of Cailleach Bhearra, that had the biggest effect on me. The winter solstice sun sets off the end of world there. As the local tourist agency describes it: “Dursey Island, at the end of the ancient known world, lies closest to the setting sun on the winter solstice, the direction of the prehistoric afterlife. [On the Winter Solstice] off Dursey the sun will set and end its annual cycle.” It does feel like the end of the world, watched over by a very, very ancient patroness, who first laid the great stones that became the mountains.
And then the stories found me again. I ran into the book of poetry by Leanne O’Sullivan, ‘Cailleach: the Hag of Beara’. Everyone who’s interested in this Cailleach, Baoi, should read this book. It references some fantastic stories, reconceived, including Baoi’s life as she is born from the rocks, lives and returns to the rocks to die, before being reborn again; her relationship with the sea god (sometimes reconceived as an ordinary fisherman, at least in this lifetime, who eventually returns to the sea); and many of the more well-known tales re-interpreted, like the funeral of the friend (which becomes a reflection on the clash of Christian and pre-Christian worldviews in the tales). These poems are just stunning, simultaneously representing the hag and the sea god as people and as the landscape:
This is the sea at the end of it;
the sky and the sea’s tangled cries flooding
inwards, then out to the grey reflection of itself.
I am lost in this encircling.
Your head behind mine comes to rest
in the crook of my shoulder…
– From ‘The Meeting Place’, Leanna O’Sullivan, 2009
So then I started listening. I’m still listening. I want to hear more stories, from the mouths of the children of the tribes that considered Baoi their mother, and the ones that considered her their foster-mother. I want to experience her land more. I want to know her better. In story and song, in the history and current lives of her children, in the rocks that she shaped into mountains – these are the places where she is found.