Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

“The lament of the Old Woman of Beare”—Contrasting the passage of life

Basil Brooke
Johannesburg, South Africa

Hag's Head (Ceann Cailli), © Bob Jones, licensed under Wikimedia CC-BY-SA 2.0
Hag’s Head (Ceann Cailli)
© Bob Jones

It is well for an island of the great sea:

flood comes to it after its ebb;

as for me, I expect
no flood after ebb to come to me.

Today there is scarcely
a dwelling-place I could recognize;
what was in flood
is all ebbing.

From “The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare”,
c. 9th century, trans. from Old Irish by Gerard Murphy

There is a peninsula in Ireland between Bantry Bay and the Kenmare river estuary. It is sometimes called Beare (Beara, Béirre, Béarra) after the Spanish-born wife of Eógan Mor (Owenmore), a legendary king of Munster. The Beare peninsula is also the home of the mythical sovereignty goddess Cailleach Bheirre, the Hag or Old Woman of Beare. She is represented by a stone on the peninsula looking out to sea, but comes to us as deeply human through Irish and Scottish folklore and from one of the best known examples of early Irish poetry—“The lament of the Old Woman of Beare.” This poem was written in the ninth or tenth century by an unknown author who Christianized this previously pagan goddess under the banner “Cailleach,” which can mean “nun,” but usually refers to an old woman or hag.

Cailleach is pronounced as “Kallach” in which the first “a” is pronounced as in “cat,” the second “a” as in “about,” and the “ch” as in “Bach.” In folkloric tradition, she has appeared to knights and heroes as a hideous old hag in search of love. If she received love, she transformed into a beautiful young maiden. According to the great scholar of Celtic mythology Kuno Meyer, she enjoyed seven periods of youth during which she married, and ultimately outlived, seven husbands. She was mother and foster mother to at least 50 children who expanded her mythology in scale by becoming the founders of tribes and races.

It is speculated that the poem’s author is a man who took on the persona of a woman in order to allegorize the unusually close relationship between a king and a bard. In this scheme the Old Woman, Cailleach, is actually a bard who saw service to several kings or chieftains during his career. In his old age, however, he was ultimately left to the life of an impoverished Christian monk. A great many medieval and modern Irish poems—some of which are associated with nationalist sentiment and insurrection against British imperialism—include this gender-swapping element. In these poems Ireland was presented as a woman whose beauty is inextricably linked to the characteristics and fortunes of the associated ruling king. A wise, benevolent, and just king brought peace and prosperity—beauty—whilst a weak, malicious, or incompetent king evoked a hag of a land. A king’s treatment of his bard was reflected by the bard in his poetry, foretelling the fortune of the land and its people. In this gentle (or not so gentle) way the author of the “Lament” may have sought to wield power, sharply contrasting with the marginal life he led as a Christian monk. This reversal in social order and hierarchy is a recurrent theme in the poem.

The likely loss of subtle meaning in translation and the difficulty of extracting nuances from the original Old Irish contribute to the debate concerning the poem’s original meaning, although there are points of agreement. For instance the author wrote in the first person, assuming the character and personality of Cailleach. The poem also explores other contrasting states. The most obvious of these is the contrast between youth and old age, which is the main subject of the lament. For instance, the Old Woman’s youth is associated with the richness of the plain whilst her old age is associated with the bleakness of the grey sea. Less obvious is the assertion that the poem describes a burgeoning Christian world in which paganism becomes increasingly withered and impoverished. Geographical references within the poem—such as the sea adjoining the Beare peninsula and the Femen plain of Tipperary—allegorize the cyclical change of nature through the ebb and flow of the tides and the death and regeneration of grass on the plain. Similarly, the poem likens Calleach’s life in ebb—she laments the loss of her blonde hair, wishing it were still the yellow of the regenerative grass of Femen. This cyclical view of time and life contrasts with the Judeo-Christian perspective, which proscribes a life as a singular, finite event progressing linearly from youth to old age and ultimately death.

The historical figures and events described in the “Lament” may only have authenticity when viewed in terms of Ireland’s two histories: one that is rooted in the realities of politics, commerce, religion and war, and the other, rooted in a transcendental world entwined in a complex web of sense-reality and perceived reality. The “Lament” is best associated with the latter, where warriors, horses and hounds flood the mind as they approach the High Irish king’s fort in succession. They represent not only courage and strength, but also danger and violence; they embody what was once the prime energy of Pagan Ireland. Cailleach particularly refers to a great warrior, Lugaid, in the poem. It is not certain whether or not she refers to Lugaid, son of Cu Roi—who slew Cuchulain, the greatest of all Irish warriors—to end a great war. Many great Irish warriors were named Lugaid, and many of Ireland’s greatest mythical warriors were members of a warrior elite known as the Fianna, roving soldiers charged with protecting Ireland and its nobility. In peacetime they lived off the land and roamed freely, living through a code of honor that became a hallmark of an Irish age with pre-Christian sensibilities. Accounts of the Fianna deeply associate them with features of the land and its animals so that their idealized collective persona is given in terms of natural, worldly grace. It is warriors such as these that people the lands of Cailleach’s youth, warriors who do not find equal measures of life in the Christian world—a world in which they are in ebb.

Cailleach has witnessed much change over the course of her life. She has aged to a point where her youth stands in sharp relief—as a series of longing memories—to her present decrepitude. Unlike the present, cold and poverty were once as distant as the horizon of youth’s sea. Cailleach recalls May Day where, after many hard days and months, young maidens danced around the phallic maypole to usher in the birth of new spring growth. She fondly recalls the richness of many old customs: dancing, wedding wethers, ale, and colored veils. For who knows better the richness of youth than those to whom much has been shown over many years? It is the wisdom of Cailleach’s age that permits her to recognize the rich sparkle of youth.

Throughout the “Lament” youth embodies prosperity while old age represents lack and despair. For example, Cailleach wore a beautiful cloak in her youth that was lost to her in old age. She says, “I used to wear a smock that was ever-renewed; today it has befallen me, by reason of my mean estate.” More than poverty, the cloak also represents change for Cailleach in social and religious terms. Imagine the old Irish paganism as a beautiful cloak that was ever-renewed by the celebration of living. In contrast, the arrival of Christianity does not even grant the wearing of it as an old smock, seeking to relegate all that is not Christian beyond the line of impoverishment. In the new doctrine the joys of physical life are dampened in order to focus on a life after death. Thus, Cailleach, through the loss of her cloak, describes not only material impoverishment, but also hints at “impoverishment” through the widespread emergence of a new, unwanted religion.

She defends the old ways and scolds the new by alluding to the baseness of current material wealth to the detriment of “true” social cohesion. Her defense of these old ways is probably unfounded. Kings and chieftains throughout Ireland’s history had always placed tremendous stock in material wealth, using it as a powerbase from which to distribute largesse on favored and esteemed individuals. Ironically, wealth derived from the love of people, as a philosophy, is more Christian than pagan. But more apparent is Cailleach’s despair at the passing of easy generosity and the burgeoning rise of meanness, particularly of spirit.

Midway through, the poem describes an imposing wall, which marks the old cosmos from the new. Cailleach leaps from the wall with a cloak that was not new because she entered her twilight years within a new custom that proved an ill-fit. Her ways have become old, marginalized by new religious tradition in the same way that the aged are marginalized in modern Christian nations. Her marginalization brings her sadness. Faced with a dark oratory, she still longs for the bright candles that lit feasts of old, where mead and wine filled cups that now brim with whey and water. Every acorn and every oak is doomed to decay, as was the pagan world, as is each human life. Our modern clockwork world may wane too, for too few have the true measure of it, and those who do are boxed up in the uncertainty of its purpose.

There is one final element to the “Lament”—the continuous stream of cultural influence and identity through generations. Patrick Pearse, who was executed for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising, once said, “Mise Éire; Sine mé ná an Chailleach Bhéarra”—I am Ireland; I am older than the Old Woman of Beare. His devotion to the Irish cause for independence was an important feature of his life and led to his death. Gaelic literature was also much in his life. In these lines he gave reference to the long stream of Irish culture in which the “Lament” has survived a thousand years on paper alone. It speaks of minds and events that predate its own composition. Its fate is attributed to the random and fortuitous survival of ancient texts, and its meaning and literary value waxes and wanes according to fashion. Like its protagonist Cailleach, it is old in terms of years, but it continues to speak to current generations as it has to at least 40 previous generations.

Through genes, literature, art, and other material modes of transmission, the past travels with generations and is occasionally catapulted into consciousness, enabling a tentative reach into a world that transcends the span of a single life. The “Lament,” as with other ancient compositions, represents a world that was not overpopulated, religiously monotheistic, or simplistically moralistic in its unquestioning compliance to doctrine. This sits in contrast to much of modern society, which, devoted to technological reform, neglects the environment and engineers social uniformity at the expense of rich cultural traditions—creating a populace who, almost entirely dependent on sensory entertainment, are self-absorbed and non-committed to higher thought. Yet the psyche’s search for deeper meaning somehow survives despite modern distraction. Strangely, the “Lament” carries tremendous hope. The poem is a reminder that one’s fundamental nature—physical and mental—is a product of natural processes and cycles, so that by using reason and imagination one’s retinue in the dark, and into death, can be great.

Further reading

  1. Carey, John. “Transmutations of Immortality in ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare.’” Celtica 23 (1999): 30-37.
  2. Hull, Eleanor. “Legends and traditions of the Cailleach Beare.” Folklore 38.3 (1927): 225-254.
  3. Jones, Mary, ed. “The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare.” Celtic Literature Collective. Web. 7 Mar. 2011. <http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/beare.html>.
  4. Larrissy, Edward, ed. W.B. Yeats: The Major Works. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.
  5. Meyer, Kuno. Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry, 1911. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co.
  6. Murphy, Gerard. “The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare.” PRIA 55.C4 (1953): 83-109.
  7. Yeats, William B. Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth, 1993. New York: Penguin Classic, 1993.

BASIL BROOKE, PhD, is a geneticist and medical entomologist specializing in insect-borne diseases, especially malaria. He has a keen interest in prehistory, ancient and medieval history as well as interactions between religion, culture, and philosophy.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 3, Issue 2 – Spring 2011

Spring 2011



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.