By Eugene Daly
One of the goddesses of early Ireland was the Cailleach (hag), a wild woman who wore a veil to signify her mystery. She had powers over the land, the birds and the beasts and could take on various forms.
The southwest of Ireland was associated with the otherworld, especially that of the dead. Donn, the old Irish god of the dead, was said to live on an island off the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. The Cailleach is usually known as ‘An Chailleach Bhéara’ (The Hag of Beara) and was said to live there also. Her name was Boí which is connected with the word bó (a cow); at the tip of the Beara Peninsula is Inis Boí (later, Oileán Baoi) which was said to be her residence.
The Cailleach was venerated in place names and shrines throughout Ireland and Scotland where she was known as ‘The Old Wife of Thunder’. She was to be feared and respected because whe was also the goddess of winter, which gave her the power of life and death over communities that were more than a few square meals away from starvation.
She was ‘the daughter of the sun’ who grew more powerful as the days grew shorter and the weakened sun was lower in the sky. She wielded a slachdán (wand of power) with which she could control the weather. As the sun regained its strength the Cailleach would lose hers, before she was finally overthrown at the spring equinox in March, which was the ancient New Year’s Day.
The Cailleach appears to be connected with the Irish banshee and the ‘Welsh Hag of the Mist’, both of whom could be heard wailing on the wind when someone was about to die. Distant relations of these supernatural beings were the wise women who, until relatively recent times, would provide their communities with herbal remedies, spells and potions.