In a previous post I mentioned a quatrain attributed to the Cailleach, which describes her great age. It mentions a mountain, ‘Carn Ban’ (Carnbane), which the Cailleach says she knew as a lake before it became a mountain. In this following tale, the Cailleach is seen to be associated with the shaping of the mountain – if not the mountain itself, then the cairn upon it. There are many many tales of this kind, and in most cases it is ‘supernatural women’ – goddesses or spirits – who are responsible for the making of them; mountains, river, lakes, cairns and so on.
Before we get into the tale itself I’ve extracted the preceding paragraph to give a little context to where the story takes place. Further posts after this will also concentrate on how the Cailleach, or her associates, are responsible for shaping the land.
But the Cailleach Bheara is most closely associated with the great cairns at Loughcrew, about two miles south-east of Oldcastle, Co. Meath. The Hill called Sliabh-na-Caillighe is 904 feet high and a prominent feature in the landscape. It has three main peaks, two of which are covered with tumuli and cairns, while the third had a large tumulus on it which was broken up by the landowner to make walls round his property. The “Hag’s Chair” is the most conspicuous, though not the largest monument. The cairn is 126 yards in circumference, 21 yards from base to summit, and is surrounded by 37 stones laid on edge, varying in length from six to twelve feet. It faces the north; and, set about four feet inwards from the circumference, is a stone nine feet long, three feet high, and two feet thick with the rude seat hollowed out in the middle called the Hag’s Chair. The back appears to have fallen away, but it is in its present state nearly two tons in weight. A rude cross has been carved in the centre of the seat, probably in recent times.
The legend, which was commonly related in the neighbourhood up to fifty years ago, was that a famous old hag of antiquity called Cailleach Bheara came one day from the North to perform a magical feat, by which she was to obtain great power if she succeeded. She took an apron full of stones and dropped a cairn on Carnbane; from this she jumped to the summit of Sliabh-na-Caillighe, a mile distant, and dropped a second cairn there; then she made a third jump and dropped a cairn on another hill about a mile distant. If she could make a fourth leap and drop a fourth cairn, the feat would have been accomplished; but, in making the jump, she slipped and fell in the townland of Patrickstown in the parish of Diamor, where the poor old hag broke her neck. Here she was buried, and her grave was to be seen in a field called Cul a’mhóta, “Back of the Mote”, about 200 perches east from the mote in that townland, but it is now destroyed.
Hull, Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare, in Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Sep. 30, 1927), p245-246.