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The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise Woman Healer (edition 2006)
by Gearóid Ó Crualaoich
The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise Woman Healer by Gearóid Ó Crualaoich
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from the Celtic Studies Association Newsletter, Beltaine, 2005, 22.2
The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer.
Gearóid Ó Crualaoich, Cork: Cork University Press, 2003. 320 pp
Review by Shannon McRae
In modern Irish, the term used to describe a woman whose marginal social status imparts
enough authority to render her potentially dangerous is cailleach. Denoting old woman, hag or witch depending upon the context, the term applied in traditional culture to both real women who may have wielded limited authority from the margins of society, and to their legendary counterpart whose feminine powers were celebrated in myth as they were constrained in real life. The mythical cailleach, who spent her days digging lakes, dropping mountains from her apron, and pleasuring her many husbands, is characterized by, among other things, supernatural longevity and inexhaustible fertility. This legendary figure, often named the Cailleach Bhéarra in the numerous Irish and Scottish oral tales concerning her, has well established literary antecedents. The most famous of these is, of course, the medieval poem “The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare,” but the lines of descent and influence by which the nun/old woman Caillech Bhérri of medieval literature becomes the supernatural, witchlike Cailleach Bhéarra of relatively modern Irish and Scottish folklore are fascinatingly unclear.
The poem alone presents the scholar with multiple difficulties, which B. Murdoch has outlined in an article published in ZCP in 1994. Five manuscripts exist, each differing
on order and number of stanzas, and sometimes entire passages. The linguistic variants in each have caused scholars to date the poem anywhere between the eighth and eleventh century. While the imagery in many of the stanzas is clear and vivid, some are so obscure as to be unintelligible, causing significant translation variances.1
Interpretations also vary widely. A longstanding scholarly debate concerns whether her reference to herself as “Caillech Bérre Buí” in the second stanza of the poem simply
supplies her with a proper name or associates her with the Buí mentioned in the Dinnshenchas, and therefore with the literary Sovereignty tradition as well as the
somewhat more folkloric place name tradition. Tomas Ó Cathasaigh, who summarizes this debate in his 1989 article “The Eponym of Cnoba” as well as tracing its origins, concludes that the Sovereignty association is valid.2 Kim McCone, on the other hand, characteristically interprets her “Lament” as a thoroughly Christian allegory.3
Other elements of “The Lament,” along with other medieval literary artifacts, expand these associations into less well-charted terrain. The prose introduction which precedes the version of the manuscript designated “H” names the Caillech Bérre along with three
other women: “Brigit daughter of Iustán…Liadain, wife of Cuirithir, and Úallach daughter of Muimnechán.” All of these women belonging to “the Corca Duibne, that is to say of the Uí Maic íair Chonchinn,” and the saint “Finán Cam has bequeathed to them that they shall never be without some wonderful glorious caillech among them.”4 Women with these names all appear in other literary sources as both saints and—tantalizingly—as poets.
Cormac’s Glossary makes a reference to Brigit the “poetess,” and a poet called Úallach is referred to, in passing, in both The Annals of the Four Masters and the Annals of Innisfallen, The link between these references and the Caillech is admittedly weak; no patronym or spousal designation clearly associates these poets with the saints of the same name, nor do these sources refer to either woman as a caillech. But “Liadain wife of Curither” clearly alludes to the medieval tragedy Liadain and Curither,5 and the links between these two texts are far more readily established. Liadain’s confessor, who banished Curither to punish her for breaking her religious vows, was St. Cuimíne, who
also, according to the prose introduction, of “The Lament,” placed the nun’s veil on the
head of the Caillech Bhérri, after which “age and infirmity” came to her.
Another referential thread links both “The Lament” and Liadain and Curither to the
Middle-Irish Aislinge Meic Conglinne.6 The narrator names “Don[n] fhiach caillech Berre
bán” as one of the “eight persons in Armagh at that time of whome these lays were sung.”
Another of the persons named is Mac Da Cherda, a poet/trickster who appears in several other tales, but also, significantly, as the messenger Curither sends to Liadain in the tale concerning them. Furthermore, according to one of Kuno Meyer’s annotations of the Aislinge, Mac Da Cherda and St. Cummine collaborated on the composition of a poem.
A compelling figure woven within an intricate cultural pattern of medieval literary
references, oral tradition and numerous contemporary revivals, the cailleach figure
has nonetheless received surprisingly little sustained scholarly attention. The folkloric
accounts have not, as yet, received the type of painstaking, exhaustive documentation and
cataloguing that Patricia Lysaght brought to her groundbreaking study of the bean sídhe.
Medieval scholars continue to explore the fascinating complexities “The Lament” presents: difficulties of dating, reconciling the multiple manuscript versions and multiple
translations, and whether she is another manifestation of Sovereignty or mere Christian allegory. As far as I know, however, no one has yet examined the poem as one strand in a web of highly self-reflexive literary allusions with the sort of keen interpretive insights by which Joseph Nagy has illuminated the equally complex Fenian materials. And aside from certain recent literary re-appropriations such as the contemporary Irish language poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s, feminist attention to this intriguing personage has been surprisingly minimal. Nor has any scholar of whom I am aware attempted to bridge, to any great extent, the material and methodological gap between medieval literary and modern folkloric study.
I had hoped, when I began reading The Book of the Cailleach: Stories of the Wise-Woman
Healer, that Gearóid Ó Crualaoich had accomplished such a comprehensive study. On the surface, it appears to be. He spends the first section of the book placing the Cailleach of oral tradition within the medieval tradition, rehearses relevant scholarship on both, and argues for oral storytelling as a mode of literature. The second section focuses on the specifics of the oral tradition itself, providing several examples from the original, largely handwritten texts gathered by the Irish Folklore Commission in the early and mid twentieth century and housed within the marvelous Folklore archives at University College Dublin. These he offers in their entirety in the original Irish in the third and last section of his book, as a supplement to the highly readable translated excerpts he interprets in the previous section. The subtitle “Stories of the Wise-Woman Healer” suggests an interpretative approach that emphasizes the figure as a positive, complex image of femininity independent of her rather reductive portrayals as sovereignty goddess or landscape shaper.
In the past, I have found Professor Ó Crualaoich’s approach to the cailleach, grounded as it is in folklore and in modern spoken and written Irish, to provide an illuminating alternative perspective on the debates within medieval scholarship. In a 1988 issue of Bealoideas, he argues that she represents a different principle in the oral traditions than in the medieval sources: “a version of a supernatural wilderness figure peripheral to and usually inimical to the human world.” In a piece published in the 1994-95 issue of that same publication, he again emphasizes the importance of considering her within a broader context. She is not merely an Irish sovereignty goddess, but rather represents “a female cosmic agency” that expresses some necessary truth about all human relationships.
Ó Crualaoich’s insistence that interpretation of the cailleach’s significance depends upon
the context in which she appears is important and valid. But his equal, ultimately contradictory insistence on reading her as exemplary of some universal feminine
principle, effectively neutralizes not only his argument for the importance of context, but
all the inherent complexity that makes the cailleach such an interesting figure of feminine power in the first place. And therein lies the major problem with his book. His material is fascinating, the scope of his learning impressive and his effort to offer something relevant to both scholarly and popular audiences commendable. But his critical approach, grounded primarily in Jungian psychology, long outmoded nineteenth-century notions of a universal mother goddess, and celebration of the legendary cailleach as a nurturing “wise woman/healer” who exemplifies a “heritage of autonomous feminine authority and
wisdom” (229), is lamentably reductive.
To a certain extent he does account for specific contexts. The first section provides a sound review of the ways the caillech figure has been rewritten throughout Irish history:
the Caillech Bérre, other mythical goddess figures, the sovereignty tradition, the later
nationalist aisling and poetry, contemporary literary revivals, and the thread of oral
narrative tradition that winds through this literary history. But throughout the book, he consistently speaks of these specific instances in terms of “the feminine” in the singular. In support of this monolithic definition, he rehearses long discredited notions of pan-European mother goddess cults, based on the highly questionable assertions of pseudo-scholars such as Marija Gimbutas and mid twentieth century Jungians such as Erich Neumann. If this weren’t problematic enough, he martials French Lacanian feminist theorists such as Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray—both of whom argued adamantly but in different ways against such universalizing gestures and antiquated concepts—as further support of his generalizations.
Most unfortunate, to my mind, is his editorial selection of the oral materials he presents.
This incredibly rich material, written mostly in modern Irish and as yet still largely
uncatalogued, has long been unavailable to the general, English-speaking public. While
Professor Ó Crualaoich has provided us a valuable service in offering some of it in
translation, he focuses solely on the cailleach stories that provide evidence of her maternal, healing, nurturing, “wise woman” qualities, under headings such as “Intimations of a female-centered cosmos,” and “Accommodating female knowledge and
power.” What he leaves out of his summaries, most regrettably, are the numerous accounts of the sexual prowess and dangerous, witch-like powers folk tradition
also attributes to the cailleach: her frequently-attested abilities to satirize an enemy—a power that that renders her equal in verbal acuity to the venerable, exclusively male poets, and the even more dangerous ability to curse or kill with a mere glance.
And for all his celebration of the “victories of a male-centered social order” some of these stories may represent, he never mentions the actual, frequently oppressive conditions suffered by the actual Irish people, particularly the women, who told these
stories. In his emphasis on the importance of reading within alternate contexts, he
effectively effaces all possible contexts that give the cailleach figure any depth or
meaning. By ignoring the lived realities of actual Irish women, by emphasizing the maternal qualities of the cailleach rather than her exuberant, independent sexuality, by all but ignoring her more dangerous and even deadly aspects, and by not adequately exploring the implications of her verbal acuity — all qualities that have equally characterized the cailleach figure throughout her long and colorful history—Professor Ó Crualaoich sadly leaves those of us who have long and eagerly awaited for the degree of exploration that this material so richly deserves still waiting and still wanting.
1 Murdoch, B. “In Pursuit of the Caillech Bérre: an Early Irish Poem and the Medievalist at Large.”
Zeitschrift fûr Celtische Philologie 44 (1991): 81-127.
2 Ó Cathasaigh, Tomas. “The Eponym of Cnoba.” Eigse 23 (1989): 137-55.
3 McCone, Kim. Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature. An Sagart: Maynooth
Monographs, 1990. 154.
4 Ó hAodha, Donncha. “The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare.” Sages, Saints and Storytellers:
Celtic Studies in Honor of Professor James Carney. Eds. D. Ó Corrain, L. Breatnach, and K. McCone.
Maynooth: An Sagart, 1989. 308-333.
5 Meyer, Kuno, ed. and trans. Comracc Liadaine ocus Cuirithir:, Liadain and Cuirithir: An Irish Love Story of the Ninth Century. London: D. Nutt, 1902.
6 Meyer. Aislinge Meic Conglinne. London: D. Nutt, 1892.
This powerful analysis of the wise women healer from the oral traditions of Ireland's rural communities is unique in its depth and perspective. Stories, told and retold, embedded in the texture of culture and community, collected and studied for many decades, are here translated and made available to the general reader for the first time. The figure of the wise woman, the hag, the Cailleach, or the Red Woman are part of an oral tradition which has its roots in pre-Christian Ireland. In the hands of Gearoid O Crualaich, these figures are subtly explored to reveal how they offered a complex understanding of the world, of human psychology and its predicaments: the thematic structure of the book brings to the fore universal themes such as death, marriage, childbirth, and healing, and invites the reader to see the contemporary relevance of the stories for themselves.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)941History and Geography Europe British Isles
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It's a good collection of stories but I'm not happy with the conclusions. ( )