How the Cailleach Lived On

Rebooting Randomdescent! Unfortunately my column with the North Clare Local ended in 2017 with the hiatus of the paper. This piece appeared in March 2017. 


In this cartoon from The Freeman’s Journal in 1881, Ireland is represented by a young woman, lamenting mass emigration. The old woman to her left, however, is a good representation of the Gaelic Revival Cailleach. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Last month I wrote about the Cailleach, the ancient crone goddess of the Celts. Regrettably, I ran out of space before I could discuss her symbolic relationship with Irish nationalism. This month, I’ll remedy that.

As mentioned last time, the Cailleach was an ancient, elemental goddess who controlled nature and the seasons. Her strength was immense. Loughcrew Cairns, a megalithic burial site in Meath, was said to be built by the Cailleach with her bare hands. The hills are also said to be her footsteps.  There are countless examples of her strength and size in myth and legend, but as Christianity took hold of Ireland, these tales diminished.

Needless to say, Christianity, with its focus on a male god, could not allow a powerful elemental goddess capture the hearts and minds of its adherents. By and large, the introduction of early Christianity in Europe was a gradual and subtle process, allowing pagan people to sublimate their beliefs within the new system. In Ireland, this meant the survival of fairy belief, pattern days and holy wells. The goddess Brigid, being associated with spring, beauty and benevolence, easily became St Brigid. What could you do with the Cailleach, however? She was old and frightening. Sheela-na-gigs found in her likeness hinted at a type of disturbing sexuality that Christianity couldn’t countenance. Above all, she was powerful.

The Cailleach became an old woman, a witch, an ancestor of the terrifying death herald, the Banshee. She would never again have the sort of power she wielded in the pre-Christian era. Nevertheless, she became an important figure in Irish nationalism.

The roots of this begin in the Beara peninsula in west Cork/Kerry. The peninsula was home to a very powerful Cailleach. Her stone form is said to look out to her husband, Manannan, the god of the sea. There are still offerings left to her all along the peninsula.


A famous Sheela-Na-Gig at Kilpeck Church, Herefordshire, England. The Sheela-Na-Gig represented the kind of female sexuality later Christianity was uncomfortable with (via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the oldest surviving Irish poems, the 9th century The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare is written in the voice of the Cailleach, lamenting her extreme age, the loss of her children, and the youth of today. On one level, it is a straightforward elegy by an old woman in her twilight years. Given the history of the Cailleach, and of the Beara peninsula, it’s hard not to read it as the bitter cry of a goddess who has been relegated to the status of a mere crone, bemoaning her loss of power and worshippers.

The poem never fell out of currency and the Gaelic Revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries revived its fortunes. Irish nationalism, in common with nationalism across Europe, was on the rise. National personifications were a hot trend, sparked off with the French Revolution, which gave us the ever-popular Marianne, and stoked further with the Napoleonic Wars, when England’s John Bull really took off. The US Civil War gave the world Uncle Sam, and the now mostly forgotten Johnny Reb and Billy Yank. While national personifications were not new- Britannia, for example, dated from Roman times- the increasing importance of the nation state gave them new life.

The British gave Ireland Hibernia. While many Irish nationalists had no objection to the descriptor Hibernian, they did not appreciate the British media depiction of Hibernia as Britannia’s weak, simpering little sister, constantly being threatened by dastardly rebel men drawn in the Punch Irish yahoo mode. Fortunately, the Irish had no end of female figures. The national representations of Ireland were either Róisín Dubh types, young and beautifully doleful, or the Cailleach.


A scene from a performance of Cathleen Ní Houlihan (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Cailleach was now Cathleen Ní Houlihan, or the Sean Bheán Bhocht. She lamented her lost sons and lands. She wasn’t powerful like her Celtic antecedent. She was weak, and needed her remaining sons to fight for her. She could never be called Cailleach or Hag at this point in history; the words are too loaded, at least in English. Padráig Pearse does use the word Cailleach in his original Irish version of the 1912 poem Mise Éire, but Ireland in this poem is older than the hag, not the hag herself. She appears in WB Yeats and Lady Gregory’s play Cathleen Ní Houlihan, where she transforms into a young maiden following the sacrifice of a brave young man. This mirrors the Cailleach’s transformation into Brigid in some myths. The Cailleach became the old woman mourning the loss of her “fourth green field” in the song Four Green Fields.

Given these works were written at a time when women’s rights were almost non-existent, and Ireland itself was a downtrodden, browbeaten country, the Cailleach retains almost none of her original power. She is almost a pathetic figure. Beautiful as this art is, it is hard not to feel a twinge of sadness for the fall of this powerful goddess.

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