On My Bookshelf – The Cailleach of Sligo

The Cailleach of Sligo

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day I pulled from my shelf this book of Stories and Myths from the North West of Ireland by Michael B. Roberts. Last summer I bought it at the Liber Bookshop in Sligo just a few days after we had the privilege of touring ancient sites in the area with the author. Roberts is an anthropologist and storyteller who has dedicated his life to preserving and renewing the myths of his people for future generations. We could not have had a better guide to the beautiful landscape around Sligo, for he showed us that each feature, hill or stream or lake or cairn, embodies a story. In the Preface he writes:

“The stories in this collection were first told when the world was still young. They were intended to explain how the world came into being and how it changed to being merely human. I heard them first as a boy from family, friends, teachers, and others. They have been gathered and embellished over the course of my life. . . The stories are generally of the north west of Ireland, or a local version of well known Irish tales, but they reflect myths and legends that can be found around the globe. All have an Irish content but a universal theme.”

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With Michael Roberts, right, at Carrowmore

The title story, The Cailleach of Sligo, tells of the Great Mother who created the world, a powerful force of nature who could move mountains and carve out valleys. At the end of the Ice Age she created the Sligo Valley by pushing melting glacial ice down to the sea. She created hills and cairns by carrying great rocks in her apron and spilling them out across the landscape. We stood among some of these rocks at the Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery with Michael Roberts as our guide. The stone tombs on this site are older than both Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt. Geologists confirm the story of the Cailleach; the tombs are built of glacial boulders torn from the surrounding mountains during the end of the last Ice Age.

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Megalithic tomb

From Carrowmore we could see far off a mountain with a faintly visible bump on top. As Roberts explained this is not just any mountain, but another part of the sacred topography of Sligo. As we stood among the ancient tombs he told us the story of Queen Maebh. The mountain is named Knock na Rea, the Hill of the Moon, and the cairn on top is her tomb. In one version of the creation story the Cailleach is carrying rocks to build Maebh’s cairn but her apron splits open and the rocks are scattered across Carrowmore. Queen Maebh is just one of the powerful women in Irish myth, a warrior chieftain and famed huntress who received the Province of Connaught as a gift from the Great Mother. She had multiple husbands and seven sons and despite constant battle with rival clans lived to old age. When she died her body was tied upright to a pillar on Knock na Rea facing north to her enemies, before burial in the cairn.

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Knock na Rae with Maebh’s cairn seen from Carrowmore

We spent a great deal of our time in Sligo around Lough Gill, taking a boat trip and hiking on the surrounding hills with beautiful views across the lake. So I particularly enjoyed the origin story of Lough Gill, The Lake of Tears. The lake was formed by the flowing tears of a beautiful young woman, Gaella, as she wept over the body of Oghamra, her true love. The young, scholarly Oghamra was slain by his rival for Gaella’s hand, Romero, an older warrior. Roberts notes that this is one of the recurring themes of the stories, the choice between wisdom and war as a means of settling disputes. Warriors are often depicted as impulsive and foolish, like Romero. The lovely Gaella died of grief, but not before crying enough tears to make a lake, her legacy the beautiful Lake of Tears.

At the end of each story Roberts adds On Further Reflection, thoughts on the deeper meaning of the stories and their connections to universal themes. In one intriguing analysis he notes the similarity of Irish story lines and characters to ancient Indian myths and legends. This reflects the migrations of peoples in ancient times, he explains. The Irish language is a remnant of a language spoken throughout Europe before the Roman era and many Irish words share meaning and phonetics with words in Sanskrit.

Roberts has many more stories to tell in this wonderful collection. His book is a treasured memory of my visit to Ireland, full of the legendary Irish genius for language and storytelling. Most of all I can never see a landscape again without thinking of the stories and characters each hill and stream and valley might embody. Can you see the fallen warrior lying in the hills above the waters of Lough Gill?

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Or should I say Sasta La Fheile Padraig!

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