Opinion: now is the time for women to regain and rejoice in the wonders of the cailleach and witchery

By Síle Ní Choincheannain, Mary Immaculate College

Women, especially around Halloween, are often depicted as witches. In March of this year (2021) Sinn Féin leader Mary-Lou McDonald was caricaturised in the Irish Independent as a witch, complete with cauldron, black cape, and a pointed black hat. Needless to say, there was outrage, including criticism of the cartoon from Government party leaders.

When the term 'witch', is used to describe a woman, it generally has negative connotations. I believe that now is the time to deconstruct this notion in order regain and rejoice the wonders of witchery. In order to do this, we must unveil the magic behind the meaning of the Irish word cailleach. The word cailleach, which is often directly translated as ‘witch’ in English, tells a great story (as is often the case when it comes to the Irish language). The word itself dates to a time when Irish and Scots Gaelic were pretty much the same language.

The cailleach herself is so old that she is presumed to remember a time before the Atlantic Ocean was formed. The word caille which translates to ‘veil’ is also significant in this story. The cailleach is nearly always imagined as wearing a veil and therefore cailleach can mean ‘old woman’ or ‘hag’.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Claire Mitchell from Witcjes of Scotland on a campaign to demand a pardon for witches who were burned at the stake many years ago

More interestingly, however, cailleach also means wise woman or healer and it’s to this we need to shift our focus. From the earliest times, the cailleach has been venerated as a mother Goddess of Ireland, to more recently as being an accomplished and powerful healer. How is it that this mother goddess and herbal healer became so negatively viewed? I think we need only throw a glance in the direction of the confined parameters of Christianity and patriarchy to answer this question, but more on that later.

The cailleach is often referred to as the goddess of winter. Born on November 1st during the ancient festival of Samhain, the cailleach is born ancient and grows younger and more powerful until she is eventually transfigured as the goddess Brigid on February 1st. In folklore, this goddess of winter, the cailleach, held the fate of the people in her hands, including the power of life and death, during Ireland’s harshest season. All the while though, she has within her the life-giving essence of spring. She may be the goddess of winter, but she is the mother goddess to all seasons and this is why we must embrace and rejoice her and not fear and reject her.

It is interesting to note that the last witch said to be executed in Boston was an Irish speaker. Her name was Goody Glover (a slave name given to her) and, during Cromwell's occupation of Ireland, she and her husband were deported to Barbados. Sometime around 1680, she and her daughter, Mary, were brought to work in Boston, where they became part of what then was a tiny, and largely detested, Catholic minority.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Alan Titley discusses Goody Glover, the Irish woman who spoke only Irish at her trial and was the last woman to be hanged as a witch in Boston

They earned their keep by housekeeping for the Goodwin family. However, soon after Goody and her daughter began working there, the Goodwin children began to show signs of a strange affliction. The doctor who examined the Goodwin children concluded that witchcraft was to blame, and the Goodwins had a pretty good idea as to the witch’s identity.

Goody Glover was put in chains and sent to Boston’s jail, where she awaited trial for practicing witchcraft. Such trials were often hopeless for the defendant, and this was especially so in Glover's case, as she was resented by the Puritan colonials for being Irish and refused to speak any English. She was hanged on Boston Common on November 16th 1688.

The story of Goody Glover reminds us that of the ill-fate that faced women (and still does in certain places and situations) merely for being women. She was blamed for being a witch but this was merely an excuse for those who felt superior to her language, her racial identity, and to her gender. This in turn resulted in her hanging.

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From RTÉ Lyric FM's Culture File, historian Monica Black on the belief in witches and witchcraft in Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the etymology, mythology and social history of witches. The cailleach grows younger and more powerful during the coldest, darkest days of the year, a reminder to us that we can endure and overcome any instances of adversity or injustice.

Women still face many challenges, but if we gave our inner cailleach a louder voice, we could overcome these challenges and put our healing powers to good use. As mentioned already, we must put an end to the rejection of this witchy image and instead embrace it and revel in it. Realising the injustice done to Goody Glover, the Boston City Council marked the tercentenary of her execution in 1988 by declaring November 16th to be Goody Glover Day.

Imelda May recently promoted the idea that we make February 1st a public holiday to honour our Celtic past and to have (finally) a matron saint. While the young and beautiful Brigid would be a noble matron for a proposed new bank holiday, I think our cailleach or winter goddess would be more deserving of this title. Not only does she have endurance and perseverance, but she also has the wonderful and life-giving essence of all other goddesses.

Dr Síle Ní Choincheannain is a lecturer in Irish at Mary Immaculate College, Thurles. Her current research deals with modern Irish historical fiction and the role of women in this genre.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ