Luigsheach (pron: Luck-Shack)
The time has come, at last, to relate the story of the woman who is known to many of us as the “Cailleach of Ballygran”. Many of the ancient traditions of the Celtic nations, as we have seen, contain a rich source of myths about the famed ‘Cailleach’. They pre-date christianity and make it clear that the ‘Cailleach’ did not represent any one thing in particular, but she proved herself to be a complicated spirit. In more ways than one she was associated with death, deviousness, and a range of catastrophes that can be inflicted upon others. In the same way the subject of this story was a woman, who wanted to be seen by her neighbours and ‘friends’ as a saintly person, living a good life and doing only good for others. In reality, however, she was a selfish individual seeking only her own aggrandisement at the expense of others, and was far from being anything approaching saintly.
She would deny being anything like that ancient Celtic spirit, but this was only to be expected from a devious person.
“Her face was blue-black of the lustre of coal
And her bone-tufted tooth was like red rust.
In her head was one pool-like eye,
Swifter than a star in a winter sky.”
This modern ‘Cailleach’ could not be described in this manner, because it was her heart that was blue-black like coal with the evil it contained. She did not have one large eye in her head, but she had two eyes that saw everything that went on around her, and ears that missed nothing. It was her natural appearance, however, that fooled quite a few people into believing that she was a caring person, who only had their best interests at heart. their blindness was eventually removed. But, the ‘Cailleach’ is a shape-shifter who can hide in any form she chooses until she succeeds in getting from them all that she needs. Only then do these poor people see her real identity and, instead of being a self-sacrificing person who hadn’t a bad bone in her body, they suddenly discovered her to be a cold, treacherous and conniving witch.
Regarded in ancient myth as “the daughter of the little sun,” the ‘Cailleach’ was, and remains, an elemental power of winter, bringing upon us all the cold, wind, and tempests of that season. But, it is not with such direct action that our ‘Cailleach’ strikes. Like the ‘Cailleach’ of old she has a sharp tongue that brings little joy or happiness to others, and leaves them feeling very cold after their encounter. In fact. she detests seeing others happy and comfortable with their lives and always seeks ways in which to bring them down. Like the ancient Roman God, Janus, this devil shows two faces to those with whom she comes into contact. One of those faces shows her to be both caring and sharing, while the other face is not normally seen by those she meets. Instead, this face is discretely displayed behind the backs of those people so they might not see just how vile and self-serving she is.
The ‘Cailleach’ of old came into her full power as the days shorten and the sun sits low in the skies. The darkness appears to empower these creatures and so it is with the ‘Cailleach’ of our story. In ancient times the people were often adequately prepared for the actions of the witch. They would observe and watched for the definite meterological changes that would signal the days of the ‘Cailleach’s’ power, when she would bring snowfall and winter storms over the hills and fields. Our ‘Cailleach’ is a different creature, in that she does not give any definite signs of what she is going to do. Those who truly know her are certain that instead of the generous, caring person she portrays herself to be she will be as selfish, conspiratorial, and very destructive as she can. She will lie, flatter, slander and use every possible evil trick that she possibly can to attain her objectives, and she will care very little about the feelings of others.
This witch of a hag uses modern day tricks such as creating gossip, spreading lies, using the goodness of others and even stealing from those who think she is their friend. She is a woman of no conscience and wears a ready smile for everyone. Perhaps it a means by which she can keep her mind active and retain a standard of youthfulness. Throughout her life she has used her age and appearance to entrap victims in her web. When she was younger she used her youthful spirit to gain the attention of men, whom she would discard in a way that would affect them most, both emotionally and mentally. But this was one of her great powers, her ability to almost enchant men into her arms where she could take advantage of them in every way possible. You might wonder if she had learned her trade from the old ‘Cailleach Bhéarra,’ who was also called ‘Sentainne’ (“Old Woman.”). It was said by the Celts that “she passed into seven periods of youth, so that every husband used to pass to death from her of old age ….”
In those ancient days the ‘Cailleach Bhéarra’ was said to reside within a deep cave that lay beneath a hilltop megalith near Slieve Gullion, in County Armagh. Traditionally, Slieve Gullion is called ‘Calliagh Birra’s House’, and the megalithic site ‘Carrownamaddoo’ is also called ‘Calliagh A Vera’s House’. In many places throughout the north of Ireland there are many standing stones, which are said to be people and animals she transformed. One of these stands near Antrim and is a búllan (rock basin) that is known as the ‘Witch’s Stone’. The legend of this place is that when the ‘Cailleach’ finished building the Round Tower, she leaped off the top and landed on this stone, leaving marks from her elbow and her knee.
Unlike the untamed ‘Cailleach’ of old, who tossed boulders and leaped hilltops, roamed through the mountains with forest animals or, took their shape, the modern form is somewhat different. Now she is seen as the average woman, powerless, unhappy with their lot in life, apparently vulnerable and crying,
“I am the veiled Old Woman,
I used to be ever-renewed.
Today my standing has been lowered,
But my powers are undiminished,”
This anonymous poem about the Cailleach was written sometime in the 11th century, and it betrays to us the work of Christianity on local traditions. The priests recast the ‘Cailleach’ in the minds of the people by stripping down ancient myths and reinterpretating them in line with Christian norms. Under these terms, female position in society takes a secondary role. Tales and poems still included references to death, winter, and decay. Though there remains mention of ‘Cailleach’ and its links to winter and the season of little sun. But their odes and stories are also filled with female bitterness and intense loss. Age is no longer something powerful that should be venerated, rather it is seen as contemptible and weak. With her beauty gone, the ‘Cailleach’ sits at the fringes of society, seeking revenge.
Our ‘Cailleach’ is just this kind of creature. She sits on the fringes of society, being neither rich nor poor. She was never a beautiful person, inside or out, and this may have helped in keeping her at the lower end of the social scale, but she was able to hide her weaknesses well, keeping herself immune from attack. The modern ‘Cailleach’ sits like the lioness and waits for her prey to come along, using every one of the senses she has.
There is a wise old saying that tells us a Leopard cannot change its spots, which is a damning judgement on the ‘Cailleach.’In the minds of those who think in this way, the ‘Cailleach’ is born as an evil entity and will remain so throughout her long life. She constantly tries to climb the social ladder and attempts to get ahead in this world at the expense of others that she meets. These are the characteristics that best describe the witch that is known to us as ‘The Cailleach of Balligran.’
Luigseach McGarr (pron: Luck-Shack) preferred to be known by the shorter version of her first name, namely ‘Luig’. As a child until adulthood Luig was always possessed a small, squashed stature. She kept her dirty blond hair quite short, but never followed the modern styles of hair fashion. Luig’s thick rimmed glasses dominated her plump, round and pale face, about which there was nothing notable that would help her stand out from the crowd. In height she stood only a few inches over five feet tall, in her stocking soles, and she spoke with an oddly pitched and uncultured voice that could sometimes grate on one’s mind. There was, therefore, nothing that reflected the fact that Luig was a woman of intelligence. Although there was really no question about this, she much preferred to make an effort to hide it from others. This was one reason why she consistently portrayed herself as just a simple woman with very simple tastes.
Throughout history it appears that witches, in all their forms, represented a very impressive obstacle to conquest in the minds of all warriors. Their chief weapon in the battle was the cultural influence that they possessed among the people. This influence among the people of her society was strong enough for the ‘Cailleach’ use it as a breakwater to combat the incoming tide of patriarchy that automatically assigned all authority and all privilege to the male, the husband, the warlord, and the priest.
Just as her predecessors had, the one blessing that Luig missed, was that of being given the beauty that would entrap all men. Everyone who knows Luig would agree that she could never have been described as being a pretty, or petite lady. Everyone would also agree that this failure did not appear to lessen her relationships with a variety of men in any way. As a man, speaking for men, it makes me so sad to admit that many men are easily fooled by the female sex. They will always forgive a woman for her lack of handsome features, especially when they are able to benefit from the comforts that she freely gives to them.
Even before she was married, Luig had a reputation for ‘playing the field’ and for enjoying herself while doing so. She used all her well-honed wiles to get her claws into the man who would be her future husband. Apparently, this young man was fortunate enough to have his eyes quickly opened, and he planned to call their relationship off. Unfortunately, in those days, society’s norms called for a man to marry a woman whom he caused to get pregnant. This is how the young man became her husband, and they married before she was even twenty years old. His problem lay in the fact that he could not be sure that he was the father of Luig’s baby.
Like the honourable man he was, Luig’s husband stayed with her for several years and she had several more children in that time. Rumours, and advice about the truth of those rumours, finally caused the poor man to eventually abandoned her and the children for his own survival. Some might condemn him for abandoning the children, but there are those within the community who will tell you that the husband could not be sure that he was the father of those children. In fact the same people would also confirm that the possibility of there being separate fathers for each of Luig’s children is quite high. Her days of ‘playing the field’ did not, apparently, end on the day she took her matrimonial vows.
Luig’s former husband, it appears, was a very handsome and popular young man in the town, and yet none of Luig’s children can be said to have inherited his handsome looks or features. By this time, Luig had reached her late thirties had become a more portly woman. Heavy with make-up and with thinning blonde hair she tried, without much success to maintain her youth. Her failed efforts, however, did not appear to have a detrimental effect in striking up new relationships with men. Luig seemed to have in her possession some special power that caused some men to actively seek her company. The string of affairs, which were said to be a major problem for her husband, continued and Luig’s reputation among the women in her home town declined. Because Luig did not distinguish between married and single men, but had affairs with both, continuing to reside in her home town was considered untenable and she decided to move away.
Once she had secured a move to a house in a nearby town, Luig began to make herself known to the local male population in various bars and clubs, but affairs were few and far between. Maybe it was her age, or perhaps these men were intelligent enough to take what she was offering and to leave before there was any further involvement with her. But, as seems the case in all these type of stories, there is always one man who is foolish enough to fall for her tricks and destroy the love of both his immediate and extended family.