Three great ages, and other things

18 Feb

Some lore about the Cailleach here, excerpted from the notes of Kuno Meyer’s Aisling Meic Conglinne, or The Vision of Mac Conglinne. She is mentioned in passing during the main text as “a white nun, of Beare,” (on page 6), and Meyer brings together some lore and commentary regarding her later on. He refers to a quatrain that the Cailleach herself is said to have recited, and in it she comments on just how old she really is:

‘Mise Cailleach Bhéara bhocht,
iomdha iongnadh amharcas riamh,
chonnarcas Carn Ban ‘na loch,
cidhgo bhfuil sé ‘nois ‘na shliabh.”

“I am the poor old woman of Beare,
Many wonders have I seen,
I have seen Carn Ban a lake.
Though now it is a mountain.”

Of the reference to her in the Vision itself, Eleanor Hull comments: “One of the earliest mentions we find of the Cailleach Bheara is in the twelfth-century satire called the Vision of Mac Conglinne, where, in a poem recounting the names of eight persons in Armagh who were “proclaimed for their deeds” in poems, we find the Cailleach Beara ban or “White Nun of Beare” associated with such fairy or pagan personages as “the Dark One of the two Tribes” (Dubh da Thuath), “The Dun Raven,” “Garbdaire, son of Samhain” (“Rough Oak, son of Hallowe’en”), and Becan, Becnait, “Little Man, Little Wife,” who are said to be “Father and Mother of Marban” the Dead Man,”–clearly all fairy people. It is singular to find the names of eight fairy people proclaimed after midnight in the central church of Irish Christianity, but we must remember that we are dealing in this poem with a scathing satire on the church, and we must beware of pushing its statements beyond their legitimate limits.”1

The following excerpt is a little longer, and Meyer credits a Father O’Growney for collecting the lore, sayings and tales from ‘a friend’ near Slyne Head:

Three great ages: the age of the yew tree, the age of the eagle, the age of Cailleach Bhéara.

The habits of Cailleach Bhéara: She did not carry the mud of one pool beyond the next pool. She did not
eat when she was hungry. She did not go to sleep until she was sleepy. She did not throw away the dirty water until she had clean water in the house.

Her advice: One night she was on the sea with her children. The night was still and dark, and it was freezing. The cold went to their very marrow. She told them to make themselves warm. ” We cannot,” said they. “Bale the sea out and in,” said she. “Take the scoop, fill the boat, and bale it out again.” They did so and made themselves warm until the morning, when they found opportunity to go ashore.

She had a bull called Tarbh Conraidh. There was no cow that heard him bellow and had not a calf at
the end of the year. Wherever the grass was best and sweetest, there she would drive her cows and the
bull. One day the bull heard the lowing of a cow. He ran from the Cailleach until he reached the cow, and the Cailleach after him. She followed him until they came to Mainin. He swam across a small creek that lay in his way. When he reached the dry land, the Cailleach had leaped across the creek, struck him with her druid’s rod, and turned him into stone. The bull-shaped stone is to be seen to this very day.

Meyer, Aislinge Meic Conglinne: The Vision of Mac Conglinne, 1892, p133-134.


1 See Hull, Legends and Traditions of the Cailleach Bheara or Old Woman (Hag) of Beare in Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Sep. 30, 1927), p229.

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Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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