Sunday, 1 April 2018

TALES FROM THE CAILLEACH - Enough Old Women around for the magic to survive.

Outside a predatory wind circles, indoors the fire is red and I have company to share the long hours with.
“ I’ve made the tea, you take in the brack and butter. We’ll sit by the hearth.”

Soon a comfortable silence blankets the room as we gaze into orange depths.

“Why are you smiling, Granny?"

“Ehh. Oh I was just thinking about my sister, mo chroí. 
She was a woeful show-off back in the day, still is. 
This one time I caught her out, good and proper. Took her centuries to live it down.”

“Go on, go on, tell me what happened.”

This tale will take a while so I add more turf and take a good sup of tea. 

“Well this was donkey’s years ago, when we roamed all over, wild we were, only settling now and then when the mood took us.
My sister, Garavogue, was full of mischief and wherever we lived she delighted in taking eggs from the neighbours’ hens and stealing milk from their cows.
Skilled in charms she was and I remember she only had to chant the words “All the butter to me” three times and butter would fly from the churns into a bucket she held.
She caused some trouble I can tell you.

Anyway, this one evening an old farmer comes to my door looking for help.
He sat on the hearth like you are now and explained that his cows were giving less milk each day, 
his wife could no longer make butter to sell and he worried for the children.
A couple of his neighbours reported seeing a hare scampering amongst the herd at dusk and as soon as he said that I knew who it was.

Taking the shape of the hare comes easy to us and drinking milk straight from a cow was just her style, so I thought it was about time she had a taste of her own medicine. 

I told the farmer to go to the field with his friends that night and take their dogs with them. 
They were to hide and wait for the hare and when she came to the herd they were to let the dogs loose. 

I stood at my door at sunset.

I didn’t have to wait long either, as soon as the moon came up there was barking loud enough to be heard in the next parish.
The hare circled the field followed by the dogs, faster and faster they ran until one managed to sink his teeth in her leg. 
That spurred the hare on even more and soon she bolted from the field and ran up the boreen opposite.”

I poured a hot top on the tea and helped myself to brack.

“What happened then?”

“Well, the men called off their dogs and the farmer hurried along in the tracks of the hare, down the boreen to the old cottage. 
He burst through the door and what did he find?

Only my sister Garavogue, collapsed in her chair. 
She was nursing her leg, wrapping it in moss to stop the bleeding.
Not a word was spoken. 
She’d been found out and that was enough to put a stop to her shenanigans.
The next morning when I opened my door there was a basket of eggs and a bottle of poitín on the step, payment from the farmer.”

“What about your sister? Did she know it was you?”

“Ahh well, that evening Garavogue herself came over. 
Her limp was only slight, we Old Women heal fast. 

“Any news ?” she asked

“No, nothing strange or exciting” I told her as I put out plates.
“You’ll have your tea of course, there’s eggs on the boil and a drop of poitín while we wait.”

She spied the fresh bottle and she knew, I saw the twinkle in her eye.
She smiled at me and raised her glass ‘Sláinte!’

She got her own back of course, played many a trick on me and the others over the years.”

“Tell me more granny, please.”

“Not tonight, it’ll be time to sleep soon.”

“But just tell me … do all grannies do that? Turn into a hare and run about the fields?”

“ Not all of them, mo croi, but there’s enough Old Women around for the magic to survive.”


This tale of The Cailleach and her sister is based upon folklore from Co. Louth.
A wealth of collected Irish folklore is now available online at Dú

Images & Words © Jane Brideson.