Lament of the Seantainne Bérri

This 9thC CE Irish poem – often referred to (perhaps erroneously) as ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’ exists in a couple of manuscript versions (referred to by Gerard Murphy as ‘X’ and ‘Y’ versions) in the collection of Trinity College Dublin (TCD MS 1337). The interchangeable use of ‘Seantainne’ and ‘Caillech’ to describe the narrator in the original text as well as her given name ‘Bui’ makes us fairly certain that the legendary Cailleach is the intended protagonist.

I have copied the following translation  (From G. Murphy’s Early Irish Lyrics pp.74-83) from Mary Jones’ CLC website and have replaced the ‘Old Woman of Beare’ with the relevant original names. The original poem is untitled:

“The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare” TCD MS 1337, p. 42 (olim H. 3. 18)

The Seantainne Bérri said this when senility had aged her:

Ebb-tide has come to me as to the sea;  old age makes me yellow;  though I may grieve thereat,  it approaches its food joyfully.

I am Buí, the Caillech Bérri;  I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed;  today it has befallen me, by reason of my mean estate,  that I could not have even a cast-off smock to wear.

It is riches  you love, and not people;  as for us, when we lived,  it was people we loved.
Beloved were the people  whose plains we ride over;  well did we fare among them,  and they boasted little thereafter.

Today indeed you are good at claiming, and you are not lavish in granting the claim;  though it is little you bestow,  greatly do you boast.

Swift chariots  and steeds that carried off the prize,  there has been, for a time, a flood of them:  a blessing on the King who has granted them!

My body, full of bitterness,  seeks to go to a dwelling where it is known (?):  when the Son of God deems it time,  let Him come to carry off His deposit.

When my arms are seen,  all bony and thin! -the craft they used to practise was pleasant:  they used to be about glorious kings. When my arms are seen,  all bony and thin,  they are not, I declare, worth raising around comely youths.

The maidens are joyful  when they reach Beltain;  grief is more fitting for me:  I am not only miserable, but (a) Seantainne.

I speak no honied words;  no wethers are killed for my wedding;  my hair is scant and grey;  to have a mean veil over it causes no regret.

To have a white veil  on my head causes me no grief;  many coverings of every hue  were on my head as we drank good ale.

I envy no one old,  excepting only Feimen: as for me, I have worn an old person’s garb;  Feimen’s crop is still yellow.

The Stone of the Kings in Feimen (Ed: the Rock of Cashel), Rónán’s Dwelling in Bregun,  it is long since storms (first) reached their cheeks;  but they are not old and withered.

I know what they are doing:  they row and row off (?);  the reeds of Ath Alma, cold is the dwelling in which they sleep.
Alack-a-day (?)  that I sail not over youth’s sea!  Many years of my beauty are departed,  for my wantonness has been used up.

Alack the day (?)!  Now, whatever haze (?) there be,  I must take my garment even when the sun shines:  age is upon me; I myself recognize it.

Summer of youth in which we have been  I spent with its autumn;  winter of age which overwhelms everyone,  its first months have come to me.

I have spent my youth in the beginning;  I am satisfied with my decision:  though my leap beyond the wall had been small,  the cloak would not have been still new.

Delightful is the cloak of green  which my King has spread over Drumain.  Noble is He who fulls it: He has bestowed wool on it after rough cloth.

I am cold indeed;  every acorn is doomed to decay.  After feasting by bright candles to be in the darkness of an oratory!

I have had my day with kings,  drinking mead and wine;  now I drink whey-and-water  among shrivelled old hags.

May a little cup of whey be my ale; may whatever may vex (?) me be God’s will;  praying to thee, O living God,  may I give . . . against anger.

I see on my cloak the stains of age;  my reason has begun to deceive me;  grey is the hair which grows through my skin; the decay of an ancient tree is like this.

My right eye has been taken from me  to be sold for a land that will be for ever mine;  the left eye has been taken also,  to make my claim to that land more secure.

There are three floods  which approach the fort of Ard Ruide:  a flood of warriors, a flood of steeds,  a flood of the greyhounds owned by Lugaid’s sons.

The flood-wave  and that of swift ebb:  what the flood-wave brings you  the ebb-wave carries out of your hand.

The flood-wave  and that second wave which is ebb: all have come to me  so that I know how to recognize them.
The flood-wave,  may the silence of my cellar not come to it (?)!

Though my retinue in the dark be great,  a hand was laid on them all (?).
Had the Son of Mary  the knowledge that He would be beneath the house-pole of my cellar!  Though I have practised liberality in no other way,  I have never said ‘No’ to anyone.

It is wholly sad  (man is the basest of creatures)  that ebb was not seen  as the flood had been.

My flood  has guarded well that which was deposited with me.  Jesus, Son of Mary, has saved it  till ebb (?) so that I am not sad.
It is well for an island of the great sea: flood comes to it after its ebb;  as for me, I expect  no flood after ebb to come to me.

Today there is scarcely  a dwelling-place I could recognize;  what was in flood  is all ebbing.

SOURCE Murphy, Gerard. Early Irish Lyrics: Eight to Twelfth Century. Oxford: OUP 1956

The themes are of age, sovereignty and the ebb and flow of the tides which bring youth and fertility in flood and then carry it away again in ebb. It is understandable that (given the oceanic themes of the poem) scholars have interpreted ‘Bérri’ as referring to the Beare peninsula – the rocky coastline shared between Kerry and Cork at Ireland’s southwest extremity. However, given that the more widespread names of the Cailleach give her a similar appellation: Bheur and Vear (Scotland), Berry (Ulster and the Isle of Man) it seems likely that these are derived from a (corrupted) stem-epithet which has nothing to do with Beare as a place of her origin.

The interchangeable use of Seantainne (‘Shontanna’ – old woman/old aine!) and Caillech (‘Kallik’) in the opening verses and the poem’s repeated use of allusions to the renewal of veils or clothing in its allegories (a metaphor for the seasons who the Cailleach represents) provide further supporting evidence for the name Cailleach meaning ‘veiled one’. The echoes of Aine’s name in the epithet ‘Seantainne’ is also interesting, but what ofBui’?

Bui (pronounced ‘wee’,’bwee’ or ‘boy’ as in Athboy, near the Samhain-affiliated hill of Tlachtga) means ‘yellow’, and is in this poem used as a bardic convention in describing something aged, just as Samhain represents the ageing of the year. However, yellow is also the traditional colour of spring and early summer – yellow flowers were used to celebrate Beltain (sometimes called ‘Yellow Beltain’) throughout the Celtic provinces: There is an essential juxtaposition throughout the poem of age with youth. The Seantainne boasts that her arms once embraced kings but are now skeletal, thin and withered: She alludes to the ancient form of sovereignty where the King was married to the land of the people: The ancient Celtic Heioros Gamos between sovereign and the Bean Sidhe of his Tuath that was once celebrated by the bards.

The poem itself does not lament the ageing and coming passing of this old ‘woman’ – the poem’s essentially christian narrative holds no hope (for her) of redemption or regeneration for the old lady.  Instead Christians look forward to an otherworldly regeneration with no recourse to the world of the living. The poet is well-aware that his main character is to be represented as a being of the past.

Another major theme that preoccupies the poem seems to be that of clothing: the poet mentions it in regard to the Seantainne at least 9 times, matched only by the allusions to floods and waves and age/youth. The drochcaille (‘mean veil’) that she wears is important to her identity, and its lack of renewal significant of her waning influence. In the last lines of the poem, the Caillech supposes that she will be going to the ‘new’ afterlife of Jesus and Mary… The references to the Christianity reach their climax in these passages suggesting the poet wishes to express its ‘triumph’ over what appears to be the Old Goddess!


One thought on “Lament of the Seantainne Bérri

  1. Pingback: Multidimensional aspects of the Cailleach | The Atlantic Religion

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