7. The Long Steps of the Hag: A mythic narrative

Our present-day baggage and worldview will always stand between us and an 'authentic' cultural context for people in the Neolithic. Night might not have meant to the Listoghil or Tara builders and worshippers what night means to me. Thrilled by the first light in the chamber, I need reminding that these monuments were always about more than orientation for the communities who made use of them. The majority of passage tombs are not orientated on celestial targets. Some are directed at other monuments, some may be pointed back towards a homeland, mythic or real, some may address rivers (Prendergast 2006). In some the pointing may not be the point. If 'astronomy' was conducted at this time it was likely just one aspect of a suite of beliefs integrated into a greater cosmology.

In the stories that survive today, two particular mythic personalities dominate the Listoghil horizon; the female deities, Queen Meadbh and the Cailleach Bhérra. Both, curiously, are associated with sovereignty. Although only one of the peaks in the Ballygawley Mountains is associated by name with the Cailleach Bhérra, the entire cluster of hills forms the landscape of her folkloric presence. W.B. Yeats calls the hills the 'Clooth na Bear' (a corruption of Cailleach a Bhérra). Lough Dha Ghe (referred to by Yeats as Lough Ia; he seems to write these names phonetically), the lake of two geese, in which she swims, is beside Sliabh Deane (Sliabh dha Éan, the mountain of two birds). Local storyteller Michael Quirke describes stone rows, caves, and other natural features from which the body of the cailleach is rendered, perhaps the remnants of a more comprehensive mythology.

Viewed from Listoghil, the Ballygawley Mountains assume a profile reminiscent of a pregnant recumbent female; the Cailleach Bhérra of local folklore. The hag—often characterised as the Hag of Winter, the agency behind weather and storms, especially tied to the herds of horned beasts, cows and deer (Ó Crualaoich 2003)—spans Gaelic medieval literature and Scottish and Irish folklore. The connection of the cailleach to hill cairns and megaliths is persistent; for example at Beinn a Callich (Skye) Callinish (Lewis) and Sliabh Gullion (County Armagh). Cristobo de Milio Carrín (2008) has documented an analogous female deity in the mythology of Asturias, Galicia, the Basque Country and Brittany. Here she is called la Vieya (The Old One), Mari, or Mouros; but the parallels to the Cailleach Bhérra are unsettling. La Vieya too, lives on top of a mountain and controls the weather. The fate of crops and animals are in her hands, and she is associated with war and with destiny. The Irish and Scottish cailleach often carries a baton or wand, la Vieya brandishes a spinning spindle. And she, too, is credited with making a great number of Neolithic megaliths; in fact the creation myth of the stone monuments recorded in the folklore of Meath and Sligo, as in the dropping by the hag of the stones from her 'apron' while in flight between hills, replicates almost exactly, but in less detail, the story told in northern Spain*.

The Asturian creation myth of the world as Carrín represents it hangs on a conflict between good and evil, between youth and old age, the cyclical renewal of the old by the new king, and of winter by summer. The destruction of the old order coincides with the re-creation of the world, and the author, in a bold work of comparative mythology, relates that directly to the midseason festivities of Samhain/Imbolc or Lunasa/Beltaine and to the solstices. Conflicts in nature and in human affairs such as those underscored by Carrín are core narratives at the heart of legends like the Cath Magh Tuired (The Second Battle of Moytirra). Pitting light against dark, youth against age, the weapons of women against the weapons of men, the Battle of Moytirra is a story of cycles and of shifting allegiances. When Lugh bargains with the defeated Bres (for Bres's life) the offer by Bres to reveal secrets regarding agricultural practice is what saves him. In particular, the secrets of when to sow, and when to reap. The battle is fought in a landscape dominated by the passage tombs of the Carrowkeel/Keshcorran complex: for example, the largest monument there, Heapstown Cairn, is identified in folklore and in literary sources with Ochtriallach, one of the protagonists.

The Cailleach Bhérra in Gaelic myth possesses what Ó Crualaoich (2003, 82) calls 'geotectonic powers'. She is said to have created the landscape. The narrative of the flying hag dropping stones may serve, in Cúil Irra, to explain the observable directional effects of glaciation, in particular the irregular but not random distribution of erratics of certain species and the carving of valleys and hills.

* Addendum. Added by author (P. Meehan) 17 September 2012
It is noteworthy that the cailleach's 'flight of monument making' is from the Ballygawley Mountains to Knocknarea, a flight path across the peninsula roughly corresponding to the Listoghil seasonal axis. A folklore narrative regarding the Cailleach at Loughcrew, discussed in McMann (1991), refers to the ‘long steps of the hag’, again traversing between monument-capped hills.


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