Cailleach ‘Biorar’

Alexander Carmichael: Carmina Gaedelica Volume 2, Notes: “Cailleach uisce” (n.b. – Western Isles, Highlands of Scotland, 19thC)

“…According to some people, ‘Cailleach’ as a period of time is the first week of April, and is represented as a wild hag with a venomous temper, hurrying about with a magic wand in her withered hand switching the grass and keeping down vegetation, to the detriment of man and beast. When, however, the grass upborne by the warm sun, the gentle dew, and the fragrant rain overcomes the ‘Cailleach,’ she flies into a terrible temper, and throwing away her wand into the root of a whin bush, she disappears in a whirling cloud of angry passion till the beginning of April comes again…”

Carmichael’s account is paralleled by that of John Gregorson Campbell, who writes (The Gaelic Otherworld – John Gregorson Campbell’s Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland(1901) and Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands and Islands. Ed. Ronald Black, Pub. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2005, p.544):

A’ Chailleach‘, The Old Wife (?Part of the month after the Faoilleach month)

This old wife is the same as the hag of whom people were afraid in harvest (the last done with the shearing had to feed her till next harvest) and to whom boys bid defiance in their New Year day rhyme, viz., ‘the Famine, or Scarcity of the Farm’. In spring she was engaged with a hammer in keeping the grass under.

Buailidh i thall, buailidh i bhos, Buailidh i eadar a dà chois

(“She strikes here, she strikes there, she strikes between her legs”)

but the grass grows too fast for her, and in despair she throws the hammer from her, and where it lighted no grass grows.

Thilg i e fon chraoibh chruaidh chuilinn, Air nach do chinn gas feur no fionnadh riamh.

(“She threw it beneath the hard holly tree / Where grass or hair has never grown.”)

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) - In Gaelic, the name is Cuillean (Manx: Hollin). Its piercing spines and shiny evergreen leaves made it a tree associated with the Otherworld. 'Bir' in Old Irish means a 'sharp point' or 'spear' (eDiL)

Holly (Ilex aquifolium) – In Gaelic, the name is Cuillean (Manx: Hollin). Its piercing spines and shiny evergreen leaves made it a tree associated with the Otherworld. ‘Bir’ in Old Irish means a ‘sharp point’ or ‘spear’ (eDiL). Some Manx people used to burn their Christmas holly wreaths and formerly the old harvest babbin on the fire at Easter.

The legendary occupying ‘hag’ of Sliabh gCuillinn (Slieve Gullion) in St Patrick’s ‘home’ province Co. Armagh, Ulster, was called Cailleach Biorar in Nicholas O’Kearney’s in-depth account of the Irish goddess Aine, published in 1853 (Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, Volumes 1-2, p.32). He translated this name as ‘Old woman of the waters’. On Slieve Gullion, her home was supposed to be the spectacular chambered cairn (the ‘South Cairn’), also known as ‘Cailleach Beara‘s House’, which gets a popular mention among writers about the goddess.  This Cailleach Biorar, O’Kearney reminds us, also went by the name of Milucradh/Miluchradh and was described as a sister the goddess Aine and a main characterin the Fenian tale known as ‘Feis Tighe Chonáin Chinn Shléibhe’ (The Festivities of the house of Conan of Ceann-Slieve).

‘Feis Tighe Chonáin Chinn Shléibhe’:

This Fenian tale was derived from a relatively late copy in a post-MacPherson 18thC manuscript by a Waterford scribe named Foran, although there are fragments from manuscripts some 200 years older. It appears to contain some interesting detail as to the identity of Fionn, as well as the Cailleach Biorar or Milucradh. O’Kearney translated and published this in the journal of the Ossianic Society in 1855.

In a memorable part of the tale Conan asks Fionn how his hair came to be white. He tells them a tale known as ‘The Chase of Slieve Gullion’ in which the sisters Miluchradh and Aine, daughters of Cuailgne of the Tuatha de Danann wish to seduce Fionn, but set to arguing. Aine boasted that her husband’s hair would never turn grey (a boast of her sexual prowess, no doubt) and this enrages the Cailleach (Miluchradh) who bids her hosts build them a magical lake on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. Any man who bathes in the lake is doomed to old age! Milucradh tricks Fionn by shapeshifting into the form of a grey fawn to whom Fionn and his hounds give chase. She is cornered on the banks of the lough and transforms into a beautiful maiden who then tricks Fionn into diving into the waters in order to retrieve her ring (a theme common to the 12thC fairy romances, loaded as it is with sexual allusions). After Fionn emerges ancient and decrepit from the lake, she dives into the waters never to be seen again…

There is a small lake at the top of Slieve Gullion near the cairns, but the Cailleach’s lake doesn’t just exist in the physical sense, being of fairy construction. The lough in the story almost appears to function with an opposite effect to the mystical subterranean wells of regeneration (Segais, Nechtain, Connla etc), associated elsewhere with Cailleach-related legends, sometimes involving capstones that are forgotten about (see later!). It was believed that rivers flowed eventually to the Otherworld, only to return mystically through chthonic wells in hills or sidhe places. These then manifested above ground as ‘holy wells’.

What is the significance of Slieve Gullion?

Slieve Gullion lies just inland from Dundalk on the southern Ulster coast, within sight of the great Carlingford Lough on the Irish Sea, whose name derives from the Old Norse and translates to Irish as ‘Lough Cailleach’! ‘Gullion’ derives from Cuillean or Guillean – supposed to be a famous blacksmith who was employed by legendary king Conchobar mac Nessa, and from whom Cuchullain was named in the Ulster Cycle legends. It is also the name of the holly tree in Irish, Scots and Manx. The words ‘Cuillean’ and ‘Caillean’ are quite similar – just as ‘Cuillean, ‘Chullain’ and ‘Cumhal’ seem so close…

Moninne:

With the ‘coming of Patrick’ all of Ireland’s Cailleach sites (such as Cruachan Bri Eile etc) required a Christian female to replace the resident goddess, and to this end, Slieve Gullion acquired the services of St Moninne, daughter of ‘King Machta’. She was also known as Darerca of Cill Sliebhe Cuillin  or  Blathnaidh/Blinne and had a church/monastery at Kileavy (Cil Aoibhe) on the slopes of the mountain, the remains of which are still there to visit. Astute observers of names associated with the pagan goddess will immediately notice that ‘Mo-ninne’ might be a version of the character known in medieval Arthurian romances as Niniane, the ‘Lady of the Lake’. ‘St Ninian’ also appears as an important evangelist of the Irish Sea region in the early middle ages.

‘Eavy’:

Why Kileavy? It probably means ‘Beautiful Church’, but the other possibility is a church or religious house named after a founder other than Moninna: The name Aoife (Aoibhe or Aífe) is one much associated with the ‘fairy queen’ or ‘banshee’ in legends and placenames, particularly among the Dál gCais of Munster who called her ‘Aibell’ or ‘Aoibheal’ of Craig Liath – the name sounds like an epithet, of which the Gaelic goddess had as many as she had children.

In literature, the early Irish tale Aided Óenfhir Aífe, Aífe (also sometimes spelled Aoife or Aoibhe) was the mother of Cuchullain’s tragic child Connla (‘Connla’s Well’ anyone?), and in the Ulster Cycle tale Tochmairc Emire she is the opponent of Cu’s warrior-woman mentor Scáthach (another ‘epithet’ figure who, although given a Hebridean provenance in the TE, seems to be the same ‘peist’ character defeated by St Senan on the eponymous ‘Scattery’ Island in the mouth of the Shannon on the west coast).

Blathnaidh:

Moninne’s other name Blathnaidh is the Irish equivalent of the Welsh Blodeuwedd – name of the treacherous magical wife of Lleu Llaw Gyffes who was made for him out of flowers by magicians in the fourth branch of the Mabinogion. Lleu is supposed to be equivalent to Ireland’s famous god-son, Lugh. Interestingly, the Moninne legend tells that she and her nuns adopted a widow whose son was named Lug. In Ulster Cycle mythology, Bláthnat is wife of the central figure, the Manannan-like Cu Roi. In the Moninne legend, the saint is guided by St Ibar mac Lugna, supposedly Ireland’s first bishop and a staple of Patrician legends. The Munster fairy queen Clíodhna (who controls the tides of Glandore harbour) is associated with the legend of the ‘Blarney Stone’ on Blarney Castle near Cork, which may be related – a stone of similar shape and dimensions appears on the grave of St Moninne at Kileavy…

'Grave' slab of Moninne at Kileavy, Slieve Gullion in Armagh. Another 'Blathnaidh' stone for the muse of poets?

‘Grave’ slab of Moninne at Kileavy, Slieve Gullion in Armagh. Another ‘Blathnaidh’ stone for the muse of poets?

Darerca:

St Darerca of Ireland is another mysterious legendary holy woman who shares a name with Moninne – they are likely the same. This other Darerca is made to appear as a ‘great mother’ of many saints and bishops and was supposed to be Patrick’s ‘sister’ (Tripartite Life etc).  Interestingly, her festival is celebrated at the Spring Equinox/Paddymas period (March 22) and she is claimed as the mother of St Mel, legendary purveyor of womens’ millinery goods. As well as gifting Brighid of Kildare with her veil, this curious hypostasis of Manannan (Mel – ‘Melinus’ in Jocelyn’s 12thC Vita Patriciae portrayal of Manannan, otherwise called ‘St. Maughold’) also managed to procure a miraculous fish which he supposedly ploughed up from a field, somewhat in the spirit of ‘The Voyage of Bran’! On the subject of galloping over water, ‘Darerca’ is credited in Brittany with being the mother of legendary King Gradlon! In the Breton legend, Gradlon married the sorceress ‘Malgven’ and was given a horse which could gallop on water (as if it were land) – his ‘evil’ daughter from their coupling was the Groac’h Ahes, Brittany’s answer to the Cailleach. ‘St. Malo’ was another Breton ‘Christian Manannan’.

Is this blowing your mind yet? If the answer is ‘no’, then it is because you believe that hagiographies and church stories of early saints are ‘true’ and about ‘real people’. Otherwise, it may be because you believe that Ireland literally had many multiple gods and goddesses of which the medieval Christian scribes and poets told true accounts… The truth is somewhere else!

Back to ‘Biorar’:

The eDiL (Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language) gives some interesting etymologies for the Old Irish word ‘Bir’ and its variants – the root of Biorar in ‘Cailleach Biorar’, and possibly the origin of the common variants – Beare and Bheur – although there are many more besides (I’ve included the references this time):

1 bir
Forms: biur; ṁbir; beura;
Meaning: Stake, spit; point; spear;
DIL 2012 B 103.52

2 bir
Forms: beru; B.;
Meaning: Mainly in glossaries and B. na f. and expld. as water; spring, well, stream:;
DIL 2012 B 104.36

Birra
Meaning: having springs or wells (2 bir):;
DIL 2012 B 105.49

Also: Bearnán is a more modern word sometimes used to in the sense of ‘plant’.

As can be seen, the words for pointed or penetrating things and for springs of water have a connected etymology in Gaelic. In springtime this meaning is deeply connected with the rebirth of nature, reforged underground and in hidden places as if by a magical smith or crafter. Shoots penetrate the ground to bring new life and the flood of springs and wells gush with new waters. Pools in bogs are start to be perforated by reeds, rushes and magical plants representing this process such as the Caltha Palustris (Marsh Marigold, Kingcup, Bwillogh,as Bearnán Beltaine/Bhuide), the Menyanthes trifoliata (Bogbean, Bearnán lachan, Pónaire Chapaill), and the ubiquitous Veronica beccabunga (Brooklime, Biolar Mhuire, Biolar Uisce, Folacht (‘hidden’) etc) whose gaelic names – like that of the Bogbean – hint at the ancient mythological significance of these plants to water and regeneration in springtime and early summer in the Atlantic religion.

Caltha Palustris and other 'piercing' plants emerging in 'Curragh'

Caltha Palustris and other ‘piercing’ plants emerging in ‘Curragh’

Menyanthes Trifoliata emerging from Curragh pool in springtime

Menyanthes Trifoliata emerging from Curragh pool in springtime – reborn from water!

Brooklime and watercress appear as if by magic from pools and streams in the springtime

Brooklime and watercress appear as if by magic from pools and streams in the springtime

All text © 2014 The Atlantic Religion, except where stated.

 

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