(Art Essay 1) An experience of the Cailleach Beare, primordial creatrix of ancient Ireland Frances Guerin

I was summoned to Ireland by a crow tapping its beak loudly against my window just after dawn for many months. In frustration I yelled out, “Who are you and what do you want?” Surprisingly, a thought responded, “Mother and grandmother”. Then the crow came no more.

However at night I dreamed of the Gaelic place names of Ireland, and the mysterious words, Cailleach Beare and Fianna, written in the scales of a snake’s back. The great blue snake sped across the south west of Ireland and transformed into a woman in white with a red sun behind her. Then little ceramic figures emerged including one of a woman riding a turtle.

Frances Guerin 2012, Woman riding a Turtle ceramic, raku fired .25mx .9m.12m
Frances Guerin 2012, Woman riding a Turtle ceramic, raku fired .25mx .9m.12m

The great Ah ha moment came when I found other contemporary artists who had made similar works of a woman on a turtle.

Annette Messager, 1988, detail from Le Jardin du Tendre
(a) Annette Messager, 1988 detail from Le Jardin du Tendre (b) Peter Jones,
Louise Skywoman falls to earth ( c) Vishnu’s 2nd incarnation as Kurma the Turtle

French artist Annette Messager drew a constellation in the form of a woman on a live turtle and set them free in the Jardin du Tendre. Peter Jones, an Iriquois Indian, told an old tale of Louise Skywoman falling to earth, off balance as she copes with contemporary life as a drinks waitress. The final discovery was the blue Hindu god Vishnu’s 2nd incarnation as a turtle that bore the earth mountain on his back during a flood similar in ways and times to the biblical Noah.

The universal nature of the symbol led me into an expansive contemplation of the ancient Indo-European people who migrated from India across Asia Minor into Europe.

When I was in Ireland, I made many drawings of archaeological sites, the landscape and towns which I recorded in handmade books. While there I also learned something of anthropology, the Gaelic language which has the Sanskrit roots and history. The connection to place in Ireland was very moving as I experienced the long ancestral line moving back into prehistory. This was my home.

There in front of ancient portal tombs, mythological figures of Irish legend awakened in my mind.

On returning to Australia I began to consider the disconnection to place where the ancestral line stops three generations back. One in three Australians now has Irish origins and this is reflected in our national characteristics of self–mockery, the sense of noble defeat, ideals of a fair go, the dislike of pomp and ceremony which are characteristics of both Irish and Australian. (Mc Hugh, S. 2002)

Frances Guerin 2013, Fish out of water
Frances Guerin 2013, Fish Out of Water, ceramic

The artwork Fish out of Water is how I relate to Australia. It is home but not home. It can also be read as the selkie which lives in both the water and land. It also conveys the relationship between conscious mind and the phenomenon of ancestral memory. Reconnection takes place at the bottom of the sea through the process of remembering the sea foam of a repressed history that refuses to go away and continues to surface in small traces and whispers. These traces are echoed in the emergence of Celtic Spirituality both in Ireland and in the diaspora countries the Irish fled to during the Great Famine in the 19th century. Celtic Spirituality is a return to the spiritual riches of the native tradition of pre-Christian Ireland. Ireland has many megalithic structures which are aligned to the rising sun at the solstices and equinoxes, and hundreds of people today gather to observe the illumination of the interior of the chamber just as their ancestors did 5000 years ago. The carvings in rock inspired me with their presence and I began to insert the Irish lore into the place where I live in the Wombat forest in Central Victoria by making a series of anthropomorphic kangaroos to represent spirit of place as they are similar in nature to the deer who were the Cailleach Beare’s totemic animal.

Frances Guerin 2013 Spirit of Place ceramic, oxides installation 1m
Frances Guerin 2013 Spirit of Place ceramic, oxides installation 1m


Garshon Garingarr, “Rainbow Serpent illustration” from Kakadu website. [http://kakadu.com.au/culture/rainbow.html].

Graves, Robert, 1961 The White Goddess, a historical grammar of poetic myth. Faber London, Boston.

Irigaray, Luce. “Sexual Difference.” An Ethics of Sexual Difference, Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Malcolm, Elizabeth “Our Fevered Past: Irish Immigrants in a Colonial Lunatic Asylum during the Australian Gold Rushes, 1848-69” in Pauline Prior (ed.), Irish Mental Health Care: Historical Essays, Dublin: Irish Academic Press. [http://shaps.unimelb.edu.au/about/history/malcolm.html]

Mathews, John & Caitlin, 1994, Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, Element Book Ltd Great Britain.

Meehan, Aidan 1995 Celtic Art and Design, British Library Cataloguing UK.

Reamonn Liam SS: Hindu Evidence of a direct link to the Celts. [Gaeltaacht.eu 8/ Nodlaig/2005]

Tacey, David J. 2000, Re-enchantment: the new Australian spirituality. Pymble, N.S.W. Harper Collins.

Sidharth Gautham Sunder 2013. [http://truthdive.com/2013/01/16/australian-aborigines-genetic-links-with-tamils.html]

Sanjay Mehta Ludhiana, “Kali.” [http://photobucket.com/images/kali%20mata]

To be continued in Part 2.

Read Meet Mago Contributor, Frances Guerin.

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