Emerald Isle

An Cailleach

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from Irish Gods and Monsters

An ancient witch of the earliest days, the Cailleach

An Cailleach or the veiled woman is among the most ancient deities venerated in Ireland, she whose realm lies in the ice and cold of winter. Once it was said that she ruled all the world, when the green things slept for untold aeons beneath her thick icy cloak, until she was given cause for great sorrow and wept floods of tears across the land, her heart melting to a thaw and letting loose the rivers.

As she wept she dropped many large rocks from her apron which became mountains and hills, and her hammer shaped the valleys below. Some even go so far as to say that from her sprang all the spirits and Sidhe of the old world!

She is known by many names far and wide, an Cailleach Béara for her home in Cork and Kerry, Digde and Milucra, Brónach which means sorrow, Queen of the Little Sun, and it was herself that was said gave Fionn Mac Cumhaill his grey hair. When Fintan the Wise of the hundred lives came to Ireland before the flood he thought himself the first but found Cailleach living there, and knew her to be far more ancient than himself.

He asked of her, “Are you the one, the grandmother who ate the apples in the beginning?” but she gave him no answer.

She grows old in autumn and becomes younger as the winter passes, until in spring she relinquishes her hold and lets the summer flowers blossom. The first farmer to take in his crops at harvest time would make a little poppet of the crop's last sheaf and throw it into his neighbour's field, who would then hurry to take in their own crops and throw the doll into the next field. The last farmer to take in his crops had to feed and house the Old Lady, and fierce were the struggles to avoid having to accommodate that wintry guest!

The last sheaf of all was feared by young women, for if they tied it they believed they'd never be married but live alone like an Cailleach. Thankfully, feeding the last sheaf to a sheep would avert the spinster's fate.

Countless lone standing stones throughout Ireland and Europe are said to be sacred to her, as when she was done bringing the winter she'd cast her staff beneath a holly tree or gorse bush and turn into a stone until the spring.

She lays claim to the creatures of the wild and cold places, the red deer and the wolf, the leaping salmon and the springing goat, warding them and watching over them. She it was who decided which would live and which would perish in the storms of winter, and for this she is also known as the Hag of Storms.

An Cailleach lived (and rumour has it, lives still!) in the Beara jut in the south of Ireland, and a wandering friar came to her house, for he had heard tell of a woman of great age, so old that even she herself had lost count of the years. Her house was small enough and he didn't think much of it, but she made himself and his scribe welcome.

“If it's no harm,” he asked, “may I know your age, as there are those who say you're older than the road I walked to get here, and the fields around it, and the hills in which they lie!”

“No harm to me at all,” she answered, “for I've little to say about it, knowing even less! But I do kill an ox every year and stew up the bones for my soup, then throw a leg bone up into that loft above your head. If you send your young lad up he can make a tally.”

Well the friar's lad went up a the narrow ladder to the loft and began throwing bones down as there was no room to do a count up there in the dimness, and for each one the friar made a mark in a thick book he bore with him. At length the book was full of marks and the friar was weary with totting, so he shouted up to the lad to ask was he almost done.

The lad stuck his head out and said he hadn't even one corner cleared yet, so the friar looked askance at the old woman and bid him come down out of it, for he was up to his knees in bones. He spoke to the lady and learned of some of the wonders she could recall, and they were strange tales indeed that hardly made much sense. But for all that he didn't write them down as his book was already full.

The Beara peninsula is marked on the map below, and rich are the legends the people of that place could tell you.

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