Ireland is rich in folklore, and has a strong oral storytelling tradition. Many stories, like that of the Hag of Beara, are even tied to the landscape.This is the tale of the Cailleach Beara – the Hag of Beara. She’s also known as the witch or (pagan) goddess of winter.
Ancient Irish legends tell the tale of the Hag of Beara, often associated with the regions of Cork and Kerry in the Irish southwest, though stories of her also exist in counties Sligo, Clare and Meath. As with most oral traditions, there’s more than one version to the tale. But all versions agree on a few things.
Interested in Irish folklore? This is part of an Irish folklore series telling the stories of some of Ireland’s most interesting and intriguing folklore, myths and legends.
The Hag of Beara is one of Irish folklore’s oldest mythological characters.
Born on November 1st during the ancient festival of Samhain, the origins of Halloween in Dingle, the Hag of Beara, or the Cailleach as she’s called in Irish, is said to grow younger and more powerful throughout the winter until the spring feast at Bealtaine (May 1st), when she is a beautiful maiden. However, during summer, her powers wane, and she grows old again. Tradition states that this divine hag is thought to bring winter, forever a time of great struggle in Ireland.
Ireland is known for its great ancient books (the Book of Kells is the most famous). A lesser-known book, the book of Lecan from the 1400s, records that the Hag of Beara was once the preeminent goddess of the Corcu Duibne clan in southwest Ireland. Her physical appearance is that of a “divine hag” or “old crone,” carrying winter with her.
Bearing similarities to the American myth about Punxsutawney Phil, the shadow-seeing groundhog, the Hag of Beara’s legend states that if the weather on February 1st (St Brigid’s Day, the first day of spring on the Gaelic calendar) is poor, it means that the Callieach of Beara is asleep and winter will soon end. If the day is bright, however, she’s awake and collecting firewood to make winter last longer. So for one day a year, the people of Ireland actually hope the weather will stay poor.
Though often associated with the southwest, there are tales of the Cailleach (‘hag’ or ‘witch’ in Irish, pronounced /kal-lay-ah/) across Ireland, from counties Cork and Kerry in the southwest to Sligo and Clare, on the west coast and Meath and the rest of the Midlands, and more.
Ireland is full of stories, and it’s even more amazing to note that many stories are firmly rooted and ingrained in the landscapes and their names.
Legend has it that the Megalithic tombs at Carrowmore and in the Dartry Mountains got there because as she flew over the region with her apron full of stones, she accidentally dropped them and they scattered across the region. In Sligo, the passage tombs on the Coolera Peninsula are associated with her – one of them deep in the Dartry Mountains is even called the Cailleach’s house.
Other places are associated with the Cailleach, like the southernmost tip of the Cliffs of Moher, called Hag’s Head. The stones that she accidentally dropped over Co. Sligo supposedly came from the Megalithic tombs at Loughcrew in northeastern Ireland, (Co. Meath), found atop the ‘Hag’s Mountain’ (Slieve na Callieach). A nearby rock is dubbed the Hag’s Chair.
Our Bike Tour of the Kerry Peninsulas cycles through the southwest regions where the folklore of the Hag of Beara still percolates through Cork and Kerry. From the lush green valleys of the Beara Peninsula to the wild uplands of the Caha Mountains, her presence is everywhere.
Alternatively, search for the Cailleach, and her lost stones on the Coolera Peninsula at the Carrowmore tombs and beyond on either our or our private departure, Biking & Yoga Escape
The locals both feared and respected the Hag of Beara – as the goddess of winter, she held the fate of the people in her hands, including the power of life and death – during Ireland’s harshest season.
In many ways, people in Ireland are still haunted by her presence. To stay in her good graces, people leave offerings like coins, trinkets, and other items for her.
The Hag of Beara was at one point a woman who was later turned to stone. In fact, legend has it that she became the stone that rises over Coulagh Bay on the Beara Peninsula, in the southwest of Ireland.
The stone version of the Hag of Beara is said to be forever awaiting the return of her husband Manannan, the God of the Sea. Today, because she is a strong and powerful female personage, she is said to represent the women of Ireland.
Even without paying homage to her stone, her existence is ingrained in local culture, in the power and perseverance of local people, as well as their approach towards life and death.