(Art essay 2) An experience of the Cailleach Beare, primordial creatrix of ancient Ireland by Frances Guerin

Australian author David Tacey speculates that the power of the Australian land is activating a deep layer of psyche in white Australians that has been overlaid by civilisation…“ in this context a descendant of the Celtic world is likely to discover that a version of ancient Celtic spirituality is awakened… it is as if the psyche, automatically realising that a bridge must be constructed between the colonising consciousness and the primal landscape, reaches back into cultural memory to find an answering image of aboriginality.” (Tacey 2000, p. 139)

To reflect the hybrid state of an Irish person living under the southern cross, I also made works of oak grafted onto eucalyptus branches. Some branches had a snake-like quality that reflected both the Blue Snake of Ireland and the Australian indigenous Rainbow Serpent. Like the Cailleach the rainbow serpent is female and she created passages through rocks and formed waterholes in the Kakadu landscape helping form a habitat for all beings. She is also part of the life cycle of plants animals and seasonal changes.

The Book of Durrow Carpet – Page with interlacing snakes. c.675: 9x5 inches

The Book of Durrow Carpet – Page with interlacing snakes. c.675: 9×5 inches

This connection is lent weight by research which has also found common genes and language between the Dravidians of India and Australian Indigenous people. (Sidharth Gautham Sunder 2013)

The Indo-European words for oak and Pole Star have been traced to the Sanskrit words Daru and Dhurva respectively. The Gaelic word for oak is dair while druida and the Irish draoi refer to the wise man of the oaks. Drui -in is the wren, the little bird of the druid. Several D -R English words include duration, endure and durable. (Meehan 1995, p.17-18).

A monument to the ancestors was based on Grunewald’s Crucifixion. Psychoanalyst and art critic Julia Kristeva used Grunewald to describe the state of abjection a place of primal anguish where borders between self and other dissolve. The women at the foot of Grunewald’s cross arch backward in the Arch of Hysteria, a posture described by Charcot in the 19th C. asylums of Paris. The arch was the subject of many of Louise Bourgeois sculptures that reflect upon to the relationship between the genders, and in Ireland’s story a painful one of violence, alcoholism and multiple pregnancies emerged, as is found in any dispossessed and vilified people. The Catholic Church was both a source of comfort and control especially of women’s rights within marriage in terms of contraception and abortion.


In Australia, Ned Kelly is an enduring iconic figure, who continues to be the subject matter of contemporary artists. I made large drawings first of my grandmother as the banshee or Cailleach and then of Ellen Kelly, the mother of Ned. Capturing her rage, sadness and the grimaced mouth embodied the harsh reality of life for the Irish in Australia in colonial years, led to a breakthrough in drawing method.

Self-portrait: Smile
Self-portrait: Smile

I then drew myself and some friends who had a similar ancestry. All the women were keen to talk about their family story with the familiar threads of the Irish descent experience, loss of home, financial struggle, gender inequality and the scars of Catholicism. The results were immediate and strong. The past was drawn into the present moment by the act of drawing. The sternness of the faces invited change and the video consisted of making them smile.

The Cailleach Beare is described as being as old as time itself, from the ice Age Europe. Legend describes three ages; the age of the Yew Tree, the age of the Eagle and the age of the Cailleach Beare. She created mountains from the rocks which fell from her pocket as she flew over the land and created the rivers by raking her fingers through the soil. She turned the baby in the womb and laid out the dead. Many remote and dangerous places were her dwelling place; the Cliffs of Mohor and the Beare Peninsula.

Her special place Cairn T at Slieve na Caillaigh, or Hag’s mountain at Loughcrew in County Meath built 3200 BCE, is aligned to the spring and autumn equinox. The rising sun at the equinox still illuminates the passage and lights up the glyphs of stars and the double spiral galaxies on the back stone. It is speculated that the druid would don Stag antlers and perform a ritual to ensure the health of the land and the people.

Sanjay Mehta Ludhiana, Kali

In both Irish legends and Hindu Vedas, the heroes like the Fianna, the stag men, were invited to kiss her in her grotesque form. If they agreed, she blessed them by transforming into a young woman. Liam SS Reamonn’s paper on the Sanskrit roots of Gaelic language speculated that Brighid one of the Tuatha de Danaan, the goddess gave poetry, healing and smith craft to the ancient people of Ireland, may correspond to the BhRgu, the ancient Hindu priestly class of the Anu or Danu. This was also the name of the goddess Danu of Ireland, the Danube River and the Danish people. The characteristics of the Cailleach Beare (pronounced Kalyakh Vayra), are similar to Kali the Hindu great mother who also has a dreadful and benign aspect. She was also depicted as blue, as are various wrathful Tibetan Vajrayana Dakinis.

Frances Guerin 2014 Cailleach Beare, clay, wood, wire, paper, cloth1.7mx .1mx .15m

Throughout this period of research on pre-Celtic primordial ancestress, I was offered exhibitions that fell on the equinoxes and solstices which are in alignment with the Neolithic structures of Ireland. I cannot speculate on how or why this occurred but rather feel a warm confidence that a greater force was at work and it is very benign and beautiful. It seemed to lend weight to Luce Irigaray’s work on Space and Time in An Ethics of Sexual Difference where she calls for a reframing of space-time. The feminine, she wrote, was experienced as space while the masculine was experienced as time. (Irigaray, 1993 p.7) She proposed a reframing of space-time in order to address the divisions of gender that occurred in patriarchal based history and philosophy. In the context of the Cailleach she appears to contain both qualities, beyond the dualistic framework based in divisions that never incorporates the other in a dynamic energetic way.

Seasonal celebrations were the pre-Celtic way of dividing time. At this time, the vacuum left by the ongoing collapse of the Christian tradition allows for different voices to be heard. The artistic director of the 2013 Melbourne Winter Festival at Federation Square in Melbourne employed the shortest day as a unifying paradigm where different ethnic groups came together to celebrate the return of the sun in their own unique way. This was a confirmation of the inherent power of nature based spirituality, where each group can express spirit of place in their own unique way through a celestial event common to all.

Read part 1.

Read Meet Mago Contributor, Frances Guerin.


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) sighted 10-1-14

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

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