Last week I made a pilgrimage to the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, with the excuse of doing some research for a book I’m writing. I needed to see for myself the country of An Chailleach Bheara: the Hag (or Wise Woman) of Beara. ‘She is older than time’, a local guidebook says of her, and indeed she is the creator of the wild landscape – especially of mountains and rocky places. She was also known as a healer.
On the peninsula of Kilcatherine, north and west of the village of Eyeries, sits a boulder in a small, fenced-off patch of land. This is An Chailleach Bheara herself, so one of the legends tells us. Here she sits, overlooking the shore and (according to that local guidebook again) ‘waiting for the cosmic tides to turn’. Here she sits, seen from her ‘good’ side.
An official plaque near the boulder offers up the following story to explain her presence:
‘An Chailleach Bhearra (the Hag of Beara) is one of the oldest mythological beings associated with Ireland and she is particularly associated with Kilcatherine in the Beara Peninsula, where she mostly lived. She was considered a goddess of sovereignty, giving the kings the right to rule their lands. According to legend, she had seven periods of youth one after another, so that every man who had lived with her came to die of old age. Her grandsons and great-grandsons were so many that they made up entire tribes and races and as a result she was known in many parts of Ireland and up along the west coast of Scotland. She considered the arrival of Naomh (Saint) Caitiarin, who preached Christianity in Kilcatherine and the surrounding districts, as a threat to her powers. One day, after gathering seaweed along the shore of Whiddy Island in Nabtry Bay, the hag returned to Kilcatherine to find the saint asleep on a bare hillock. She approached him quietly, grabbed his prayer book, and ran off. A cripple who lived nearby saw what happened and shouted at Naomh Caitiarin, who then woke up and saw the hag running off. The saint ran after her, caught up with her in Ard na Cailli, and recovered his prayer book. He then turned her into a grey pillar-stone with her back to the hill and her face to the sea. There she remains to the present day.’
So they say, those of the patriarchy who tried to overthrow the old ways. So they say – but there are other stories, and better. The older stories tell that she sits there, patient as time itself, looking out to sea, waiting for the return of her husband, the sea-god Manannan Mac Lir. There she sits, waiting for one last kiss before the world ends. How could you not sit with her for a while, and tell her some of your own story to help her pass the time?
The boulder and the surrounding ground are strewn with gifts left by others who have come to visit her. A colourful scarf, a bangle, shells, and many copper coins. And so I left a gift of my own: rummaging deep in the many pockets of my old jacket for something to offer, I found a polished piece of lapis lazuli. I have no idea why it was there, or when I’d put it there. But I knew what it was for. On the other side of her face I found a hollow that might well be an eye-socket. It was there that I placed the lapis lazuli stone, so that the sea and the sky might be reflected in her eye and she might see him more clearly, when he comes. And so a hag with one blue eye sits now on the rocky shores of Beara. I shared her long vigil for a while, sat with her as I had often sat with her on the rocky western shore of another island. I kissed her, as you must always kiss the hag, and then I left.
They might try to tell you that she is dead, the Wise Woman of Beara, but I can tell you that she lives on. That afternoon I lost myself in a hag-ridden hidden valley over which towered a sun-drenched mountain called The Tooth. I found her there, and as I approached she opened her mouth and breathed on me, and a mist fell over the mountains and a sudden fierce wind blew it down into the valley.
Propped up against a giant boulder, I waited out the brief storm, and watched until the mist vanished and the sun began to creep out once again.
Then, hill-blind, I left.