Sunday, 30 October 2016

Tales from the Cailleach: The Lament of the Old Woman at Samhain.

I am known to my neighbours as the mad one who talks to the fairies and it is said I walk the roads 
whilst others sleep.
These same neighbours come to me for help with the troubles of country living; a sick mare, a lame cow or the strange event that preys upon the mind.
At these times I make the tea, stand the pot on the hearth and let the silence brew. 
I suggest a simple explanation for the opening door, the chill at the fireside or a room the dog won’t enter. 
Most times they are satisfied.
With others a pinch of truth is all that’s needed to recall piseogs and buried knowledge that goes on long into the night.

So I live amongst these people, not quite accepted by them, for I do not go to mass as they do 
nor hail the priest as father.
I keep to my own ways, spirit unbounded by men with rules and robes.
Now and then I catch a sharp glance from some busy farmer as I visit mound and thorn but they do not guess my secret.

Three times a year I leave my home in darkness, needing neither broom nor steed, I rise from bed 
to fly above the sleeping townland.
Whitethorn scent may rise to meet me or, as tonight, turf smoke greets my flight across grey fields.

Image by Peter Gordon at

Skimming winding river I am observed but not by human eyes. 
Deer, owl and hare all know my ways, the night is ours.

Over hidden valley and bald mountain top I rise to settle on the tumbled cairn. 
Below land stretches away in shades of darkness undisturbed.
A sigh, long and deep, escapes me. 
Eyes close to invoke Samhain long past when the people knew and held us close.
Heart heavy with old memories, sorrow gnaws at my breasts and I nurse it. 

Alone, unloved, forgotten in this modern world.

Bitter wind shakes me from the past. 

Keen-eyed again, I stretch my sight to spy the distant horizon. 
Far off, a shift, a smudge, disturbs my vision.
A wisp of smoke.   A soar of sparks.   Now a flare of yellow red. 
Tlachta’s fire is kindled !

One by one other heights reply; 

Teamhair, Cruacháin, Uisneach, Sliabh na Caillí, Cruachán Aigle and Binn Ghulbain. 
Sliabh gCuillinn, Sliabh Dónairt, twin fires upon Dá Chích Anann. 

Hill top beacons burst with fire. 
In valleys tiny flames wake as dormant village cross-roads ignite. 

A million flames, a rosary of fire across the land.

The old ways are remembered!

Three calls from sharp-mouthed Raven cleaves the silence, The Great Queen rises from her cave. 
Beneath Brí Éile Brigid’s forge is lit anew as one by one, across the night, mounds open 
and those who have never left return.

Here, upon the Height of Ireland, I stand tall again and at my side Manannán shares his secret smile with me. 

The tide has turned.

Samhain greetings to you all!

This story was inspired by reading ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’, an Irish poem written in the 10th century,
which led me to wonder if The Cailleach lived amongst us and if so, what sort of neighbour would she be?

This virtual film relates a version of the poem translated by the Celtic language scholar Kuno Meyer. 

In the ancient past the Samhain fire was ceremonially lit by the Druids on Tlachtga, the Hill of Ward in Co. Meath. 
It is believed that answering fires were also lit on other prominent places across the landscape.
In more recent times the Tlachtga ceremony has been rekindled and this short film shows part 
the ceremony in 2015. 

Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Cailleach - Hag of the Mill & Mother of the Herd.

Cailleach an Mhuilinn, The Hag of the Mill, a new painting.

For much of last winter and earlier this year I have kept company with the Cailleach, the Old Woman, the Hag, who appears in many guises in folklore, landscape and myth. 
Her great age, her ability to fly, to shape shift into animal form, her role as a Sovereignty goddess and her links to wild animals marks the Cailleach as a supernatural being, an ancient goddess. 

As Hag of the Mill she is associated with grinding corn and the harvest.

In many places the last uncut stalks of corn were plaited, cut and hung above the door at home as protection. 
This action was known as ‘cutting the cailleach’. 
In others areas it was believed she took the form of a hare who sheltered in an uncut corner of a field to avoid the scythe.

I was commissioned to paint her in her guise of The Hag of the Mill as she appears in Buile Suibne,
‘The Frenzy of Sweeney’, a tale recorded in the 1670’s. 
Rather than illustrate her part in the tale literally, I wanted to portray her energy and wildness. 

You can read the text of Buile Suibhne, translated by JG. O’Keefe HERE

Briefly Suibhne is described as the king of Dal Araidhe in the north east of Ireland. 
When news reached him that St. Ronan Finn was building a Christian church on his land and chanting psalms the pagan Suibhne, having no time to dress, left his home naked and expelled the cleric.

After throwing the psalter into a nearby lake Suibhne is cursed by Ronan to constantly wander Ireland, flying naked throughout the land until killed by a spear.

So he spends seven years leaping from hill to hill, living amongst trees and existing only on watercress. Suibhne appears to lose his sanity but he is eventually caught and left in the care of his kinsman, the miller Loingseachan.  

Suibhne is locked in a bedroom at the miller’s hostel until one day, during the busy harvest when all hands are needed, he is entrusted to the care of Lonnog, The Hag of the Mill. 

She is ordered not to speak to the captive but Lonnog has her own plans. 

She teases the king about his madness and he responds with tales of his freedom and the great leaps he once took across the hill tops of Ireland. 
Finally the Cailleach challenges him to make one more leap, this time through the skylight of the room. Suibhne does so and pursued by the Hag, is free once more. 

Detail - Teach Duinn, Donn’s House of the Dead, identified as Bull Rock, off the coast of  Co. Cork.

They visit Teach Duinn in the west, then travel across the landscape, with the Mill Hag driving him on, revealing to him his past life as a ‘madman’.

Detail - The Cailleach as bringer of winter, mother of the herd.

During their time together Suibhne recounts his meetings with the famous stags of Ireland, remembering his great adventures in the wild and although the king despises the Hag for bringing him back to his old ‘madness’, he recognises Lonnog as an ancient one, the progenitor, Mother of the great herds of deer.

“ O mother of this herd
thy coat has become grey,
there is no stag after thee
without two score antler-points.”

Finally, to be rid of the Hag, Suibhne leaps to Dunseverick on the Antrim coast where he jumps again, followed by the Hag of the Mill.

Detail - cliffs at Dunseverick, Co. Antrim.

The king survives by falling into the sea but the Cailleach lands on a cliff, her body broken, 
she falls into the water. 

After many more adventures St. Ronan’s curse descends upon Suibhne, he is killed by a spear wound and at death the pagan king is given the Christian sacraments.

But what of the ancient Cailleach ?

Later her body washes up on a beach and at that liminal place, between sea and land, 
she is carried away by her Otherworld kin, “the devil’s crew”. 

To this day the Hag, The Old Woman, is remembered and honoured at wild, lonely places across Ireland and at this time, when the harvest is over and winter is almost upon us, perhaps she haunts those places still.

Harvest offerings to the stone Cailleach, The Old Woman of Beara, who looks out to sea from the Beara Peninsula.