The Caillech Bh’arra
It had rained the morning I visited Cladragh Cemetery, near Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. But the sun had come out, and now the earth let off waves of steam into the warm sunshine. Visible through the mist, the ground was a mossy, undulating sea of ancient burial sites, gravestones all tilting at odd angles. Off to one side, two moss-covered stone statues stood guard from under an incongruous little green and white striped awning.
At about four feet, the larger of the pair was a two-sided figure, the two sides thought to be male and female. Its blank, ancient faces stared out enigmatically over the faint outline of stiff arms crossed downward over their chests. Below the waist were the suggestions of genitals. Mottled in color, the figure’s sandy beige stone was almost covered by white and green moss, and its badly eroded features were barely discernable.
Standing perhaps a foot shorter, the smaller figure was equally moss covered and even more eroded. Believed carved at the latest in the eighth century, with her protruding tongue and only one eye, the figure is thought to be a carving of the Divine Hag, known variously as the “Caillech Bh’arra” or “Badhbha,” a powerful goddess in the Irish tradition.
The early people of this place believed in both male and female deities; each deity had his or her dominion, and people dedicated their requests for assistance to whichever might seem more likely or able to help. These ancient Irish perceived a need for help at all the comings and goings to and from this world and prayed to their gods and goddesses for safe deliveries and peaceful ends. The Caillech Bh’arra, said to usher the comings and goings of this world, was humans’ companion especially at birth.
On this day, at the Caillech Bh’arra’s wide stone base, a hollowed out depression was filled with perhaps twenty or thirty coins, many of which had lain there long enough to pick up a mossy patina. A few coins sparkled silver and copper in the sunlight. Visitors had no doubt come to ask the Divine Hag to help them conceive or bring a child to term. The coins were their offerings, and the metallic sparkles betrayed relatively recent origins for some of them.
The Caillech Bh’arra is related to the Sheela-Ma Gigs, statues of goddesses with engorged female genitals once common in pre-Christian Ireland, but in the past few centuries seen as an embarrassment. Remnants of an ancient people who were proud of the female’s life-giving nature, most of the Sheela-Ma Gigs were either cleaned up and named a saint or destroyed long ago; their carving considered lewd and associated with sinful activity. Whatever Caillech Bh’arra’s past, though, she managed to escape destruction and was never Christianized. So she sits under her tent with her two-sided cousin, looking out over the shifting stones, waiting for supplicants as she has for centuries.
Shut out of any meaningful connection to their Christian churches, some local women seem to have found comfort in the old ways. I wondered if the women who had brought her those coins had been blessed with healthy children. I thanked her for them, just in case.
(except from memoir in progress)