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Meditations for Hag Sacred Sites on the Beara Peninsula

by Noragh Jones (author of Power of Raven, Wisdom of Serpent)


The rugged mountain landscape of the Beara Peninsula is washed by the Atlantic and retains its own powerful atmosphere of wild beauty and strength. This is the sacred space of the Cailleach, the Celtic Hag goddess who is shaper of the landscape, divine ancestress, bringer of Autumn fruitfulness. In Christian tradition the Cailleach becomes the Nun of Beare, turning to Jesus and Mary for strength to face old age and death. In the famous  ninth century poem 'The Hag of Beare' she reluctantly finds  consolation in religion, while mourning her life's lost riches:

     Amen - Poor me!

     Every acorn has to drop.

     After the feasting and the bright lights -

     To be in the gloom of a prayer-house!


     The flood wave

     And the second ebbtide -

     Have all reached me,

     I cannot help but know them well.


     There is scarce any place today

     That is the same for me;

     What was on flood

     Is all on ebb.


While the Cailleach as Christian nun turned to the consolations of Christ in her old age (though wavering between salvation and the  world), in folklore she remained the cosmic mother, the spirit of the wilderness, the bringer of wisdom born of longevity (she was a girl when Adam and Eve were created, and lived through many lives). In Connaught folklore they say: 

  There is no place or height you may get to in Ireland where you will not hear talk of the Cailleach Bheara. It is an old proverb that there are three long ages: 'the age of the yew, the age of the eagle, and the age of the Cailleach Bheara'; and as to the Cailleach's ways, they say thus: 

   She never brought mud from this puddle to the other puddle.

   She never ate food but when she became hungry.

    She never went to sleep till she grew sleepy.

   She never threw out the dirty water till she brought in clean


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Hag Pilgrimage Meditation I

 Exploring the inner and outer wilderness


Explore the rough remote country that forms the westerly end of the Beara Peninsula. You can walk parts of the 'Beara Way' (a waymarked route with a guidebook available locally) passing holy wells and old copper mines, or you can drive to the end of the road, and take the cable car over to Dursey Island. The Hag is said to have formed this island and the three that lie offshore (the Cow, the Bull and the Calf). Here landed the first invaders of Ireland around 2000 BC, the Milesians, whose bard sang the land into existence to make it their own place: 

    I seek the land of Ireland,

   Coursed be the fruitful sea,

   Fruitful the ranked highland,

   Ranked the showery wood,

   Showery the river of cataracts,

   Of cataracts the lake of  pools,

   Of pools the hill of a well,

   Of a well of a people of assemblies,

   Of assemblies of the King of Temair;

   Peoples of the Sons of Míl,

   Of Míl of ships, of barks;

   The high ship Eriu,

   Eriu, lofty, very green,

   An incantation very cunning,

   The great cunning of the wives of Bres,

   Of Bres, of the wives of Buaigne,

   The mighty lady Eriu,

   Erimón harried her,

   Ir, Eber sought for her -

   I seek the land of Ireland.

    Trans. R.A.S. Macalister

Here at the end of the Beara Peninsula there is still a sense of the world made new. It is a place to renew our connections with the natural world. It is a place to meditate on inner  as well as outer landscapes, to get in touch with our wilderness areas and expand our inner landscape to make space for bigger consciousness. Here we can sing our inner landscape to life as the Milesian bard sang the land into existence for the Milesians when they landed four thousand years ago. 

* Sit in a relaxing position and still yourself by counting your  breaths in and out. Take in the outer wild landscape around you   - the rough hills, the Atlantic swell below, the ever changing  skies above, the huge emptiness that is both restoring and  frightening... the narrow road threading its way through the  wild landscape. Now let pictures of your own inner wild  landscape come up, without deliberately thinking and  controlling the images that come and go on this inner journey  to explore your own wilderness areas. 

* As you picture where you are on your midlife or late life  journey, what is the state of your life landscape? Look at what  is going on in your life now. Look at the people in your life  landscape.  What feels good and satisfying, and what makes you anxious and  fearful as you look around the place where you are in your  life? Do you face an easy slope or a steep climb ahead? Are you   travelling rough ground or getting stuck in a bog where you  can make no progress, find no inspiration? What makes you feel secure and what makes you  feel vulnerable in this inner  landscape of yours? What negative energies and what positive energies are you drawing from your current inner landscape?  Now imagine changes you could make in your midlife/latelife  landscape... Drawing on your wilder buried energies how would  you reshape your inner landscape? Would the hills be higher and  more challenging - or lower and more benign to give you a well- deserved rest? How would you expand your horizons to keep in  sight the wider vision beyond the daily routines? What resources do you need from your inner landscape? What support and inspiration are you finding there? What are you missing?

* Let pictures of the road you are travelling come up in your  mind's eye ...How far have you chosen to be on it and how far  has it just 'happened' to you? As you travel your inner road see whether it is overcast or sunny, empty or crowded, winding or straight, with or without branching ways, signposted or not... Is there anyone with you or are you on your own? Who are you meeting who is a good companion or support, and who is a burden or a problem to you?  How are you being a good companion and support to others? And whose burden are you?  Do you sometimes feel isolated and lonely on your inner journey? Or do you enjoy the freedoms of being on your own - able to explore new landscapes, choose company and support as you travel where  you will? 

* Now re-imagine your midlife/latelife path. With the help of  your inner Hag energy what changes of direction do you need to make? What company and support to give and take along the road?  What change of pace?  Quietly attend to whatever pictures come up... 

* What baggage are you carrying with you on your midlife/latelife journey? Is it weighing you down, or are you suffering an unbearable lightness after unloading earlier roles from your  life (career, parenting, relationships) and not knowing what new loads (if any) to take up?  Now visualize the Cailleach, the Hag, striding over the world, dropping rocks from her apron to make mountains, creating new  islands in the western ocean, or taking a break from her cosmic creation by sliding on her backside down a mountain to the  sea... Imagine what new baggage you need to create new places in your life landscape... and what old baggage you need to throw away... 

* Picture your inner wilderness landscape. Let images come up of  the personal fears, the challenges, the stimulus that come from venturing into the wildness, exploring your own wilderness energies. What is it that absorbs you so totally that you lose yourself in it, are inspired - however briefly? What inner  quests are waiting to be pursued, that you have so far had no time or energy or willpower to follow? Visualize the Cailleach at home in the wilderness, bringing  into creation this sacred land of rock and ocean and wide skies. Visualize yourself, from midlife onwards, exploring your own wilderness, finding new wells of energy, bringing into creation your unused potential. Let pictures come up in your mind's eye of what you have it in you to be and to do, your quests, your hopes and fears.   

* As you end your meditation, remember that none of us can be our whole selves without walking the wilderness inside us.  Walking the wilderness in the second half of life means going beyond the roles we use to give us outer identity. It means finding out who we are when we stop measuring ourselves by the standards of youth. It is about getting in touch with our neglected inner selves, the parts of us we need to express to  be whole.  It is about moving on, and seeing to the greening of the wilderness within. 

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Hag Pilgrimage Meditation 2

 Exploring your personal harvest time


Make a personal pilgrimage to where the Cailleach/the Hag now stands in the form of a great lump of metamorphic rock looking out over the Atlantic ocean from her high stance. (The Hag Rock is signposted on the coast road a mile or two north of the village of Eyeries, overlooking Coulagh Bay) They say this natural rock monument embodies woman both old and young depending on what angle you regard her from. Different tales are told to explain her turning to stone. The Hag stands with her back to the ruins of St Catherine's Church, and one story is that St Catherine pursued the pagan Hag to the cliff edge and turned her to stone for not respecting the new Christian faith. A medieval Christian tale puts women (even former divinities) firmly in their place by explaining that the Hag was turned to stone waiting in vain for her husband Manannan MacLir, the god of the sea, who went off and never come back. In local lore, however, they say she turned herself to stone 'so that there would always be a Hag in Bearra' - the Hag being a necessary blessing on place and people, for she is the life energy that brings the harvest to fruition before autumn gales or hostile human forces come to rot or destroy the grain. 

There are many versions in Irish folklore of the Cailleach's contests with male challengers who want to win the harvest from her. She defeats a long line of them at the reaping of the harvest, until one day the great warrior Donnchadh Mor finally overcomes the Hag by seducing her daughter whom he coaxes into giving away the secret of her mother's magical powers. So in the end the male warrior destroys the Hag power, and the Cailleach sickens and dies. But she lived on into the early twentieth century in country harvest rituals. The last sheaf of the harvest was called 'the Cailleach', and the reapers competed to cut it, for whoever brought 'the Cailleach' into the house would have health and prosperity during the dark winter ahead. 

* Settle yourself at the Hag Rock overlooking Coulagh Bay, and still yourself by counting your breaths in and out. Contemplate the view from where you and the Hag are sitting - the immediate  rise and fall of the rough land around you, the scattering of  new bungalows and tumbled ruins around the semicircle of the bay below you, the distant horizon to the west where you can see the blue Kerry hills (if they are not blotted out in the mist). 

* Invite the Cailleach, the bringer of the harvest, into your inner landscape. With her help look quietly at your own  personal harvest time... the things that are coming to fruition in your life, the things that are currently blighted and  unharvested...  What is ripening for you - in mind, body and spirit - at this stage in your life? How is this late ripening different from earlier harvests - when you reaped other rewards perhaps in your career, relationships, public status, parenting...? Let pictures come and go of where you are in your personal harvest - the things you are bringing to fruition at this time in your life, the things that fail for lack of life energy  or...? 

* Let pictures come and go of the kinds of fruitfulness you aspire to now in midlife or later life - new ways of  connecting, new horizons to explore, integrating old and new creativities...  

* As you sit quietly by the Hag Rock, enter into the spirit of  the Cailleach, the Harvest Bringer, and let visions of your personal harvest time come and go. Count your breaths in and out, and look at whatever comes up in your mind's eye. See what you have it in you at this stage of your life to do and to  be...with the help of your inner Hag energy. 

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Hag Pilgrimage Meditation 3

  Keepers of the Flame of Life


A few hundred yards along the coast road past the Hag Rock stand the ruins of an ancient church, Kilcatherine, which was built on the site of an early Celtic Christian nunnery. With the coming of Christianity the pagan goddesses who presided over land and people were replaced by female saints and holy women, whose powers of healing and miracleworking often bear strange resemblance to the powers of pagan divinities. In the overgrown graveyard of St Catherine's is one of the very earliest Celtic Christian crosses. The ruins of Kilcatherine are a place to remember the Christian holy women who kept the flame of life and the flame of women's spirituality burning warmly as the pagan divinities gave way to Christian saints. St Catherine, like St Brighid, was a great organizer who set up a linked chain of women's monastic houses here in the west. These were vital centres of practical support and healing for the poor and the sick and the needy.

The great female saints in their different ways took over the role of the Cailleach as Great Mother to her people. The Hag as 'Sovereignty Goddess' ensured prosperity and justice for her land and people by authorizing the ruler to be her consort for as long as the people prospered. When dearth or injustice prevailed the ruler was deposed and the goddess took a new consort. So in pagan and Celtic Christian times there were female custodians of the public good, who worked for peace and justice in their communities. This is a fruitful meditation theme as we stand among the ruins of Kilcatherine and recall the chain of holy women who once nurtured their communities on this very spot.

* Still yourself by counting your breaths in and out. When you are quiet in yourself let pictures come up of the chain of help and hospitality that women once provided from this place - for the poor, the sick, the victims of fighting and injustice... 

* After a time turn to your own ways of caring and helping. Look at your own life - your ways of connecting private and public, the personal and the political. Let your public personas come to meet you. Attend to your public faces, your ways of behaving in the face of injustice and unfairness. Look quietly at the social face of your inner hag. How does she apply her values in her everyday concerns - in community, in spiritual networks, in public commitments? How does she keep the flame of life burning in her everyday activities? Does she pass the Hag test of working for  peace and justice? Or would she be deposed and replaced by the stern Sovereignty Goddess for failing to make her people prosper? (Let pictures come up out of your daily concerns, rather than conduct an argument with yourself - though you may want to do that too as you come out of your meditation). 

The Changing Faces of the Divine Hag

 From Kilcatherine make your way to the little village of Eyeries (a few miles south along the coast road), where there is a modern mural in honour of the Hag painted on one of the gable ends. There are other signs in the Beara Peninsula that the Hag is enjoying a new lease of life. The local LETS scheme counts its transactions in 'Hags'. The Hag Rock is newly accummulating offerings of silver coins in her ancient fissures. She is becoming a place of pilgrimage. Local tales about the Hag have survived to be told to the Allihies Folklore Group when they were writing their booklet An Cailleach Bhearra: the Hag of Beara (Allihies Folklore Group, 1991), and they point out how relevant she is to our current ecology crises:  

  An Cailleach has come to represent in modern times a Great Mother figure with a particular strong aspect of Guardian Mother as in the wilderness-personifying, protecting, and threatening side of her nature...At this time we face world wide crises of vast proportions. Humanity is faced with the challenge of learning new relationships with which to create harmony and peace between ourselves and the rest of the planet... Perhaps we can gain some insight from the ancient wisdoms of our forbears, particularly their appreciation of the fundamental unity and interdependence of all, and their sense of balance between male and female energies. If the principle of such a powerful guardian as An Cailleach were more tangible with us today, could she inspire and help us to defend the great natural beauty of our Mother Earth which we now so dangerously threaten? 

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Hag Pilgrimage Meditation 4

Being Guardians of the Earth


* Still yourself by quietly counting your breaths, in and out, in and out... Look around you at this serene landscape on the unspoiled Beara Peninsula. It is not an empty land, for there are old stone cottages and new white bungalows scattered over the hills and hollows along the edge of the ocean. People live here and earn a living, and many more people come on holiday for the peace and beauty you can still find here. 

* Picture your home place, wherever it is... Is it urban or rural,   noisy or peaceful with good or bad neighbours? Look at it’s good side as   a place to dwell ....and the bad side.  Look at it first from your personal point of view...what do you  value in the place where you live? What detracts from the place  where you live? Picture what would make a difference. Picture what YOU might do to make a difference... 

* Now widen your vision bit by bit to picture what is happening in your region and your country, your continent, your planet...     What is happening to our only earth?  In what state are we handing our earth over  to our children and grandchildren?       

* Picture the personal changes in life style you have made, could  make, to help our polluted earth... Then widen bit by bit your  vision to take in the global changes that are needed. Picture  where to put pressure on public bodies... Picture how to  influence policies... Picture yourself standing up to be  counted as one who cares for the earth...   who is a guardian of the land...



Finish your meditation by focussing on the modern meanings of being a Guardian of the Earth.                                                       

Picture what it means to you in your home place and wherever you go, this THINKING GLOBALLY, ACTING  LOCALLY... 

* Come back to the bit of unspoilt earth where the Hag Rock is.     Spend a minute or two  just looking at her. There she stands, our symbol of  endurance. The days, the months, the years, the centuries   pass. The Atlantic winds batter her, people come and go in the  landscape around her, old houses fall and new houses rise.

But, 'Look', she says, 'I am still here'.

© Noragh Jones 1997


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