As with most Irish myths, she was a bit of everything.
This is part two in a series telling the stories of some of Ireland’s most interesting and intriguing folklore, myths and legends. Read part one about Finn McCool and the Giant’s Causeway here.
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 one detail: 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.
Born on the ancient festival of Samhain (Nov. 1 just after Halloween – today known as All Saint’s Day), the Hag, or the Cailleach 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 begin to decrease and she grows old again.
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.
As the story goes – not too far off the American myth about Punxsutawney Phil, the shadow-seeing (or not!) groundhog – if the weather on Feb. 1st (called Lá Féile Bríde) is poor, it means that the Callieach 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 fir one day a year, people hope the weather will stay poor.
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.
Though often associated with the southwest, there are tales of the Cailleach (‘hag’ or ‘witch’ in Irish, pronounced /kal-lay-ah/) in counties Sligo, Meath, Clare, and more. 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. 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.
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 Coast to Coast Cycling trip 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 Hiking & Sea Kayaking Adventure or our Cycling & Yoga Escape in Sligo.
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.
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