Crone in Corrogue: Wild Wisdom of the Elder Years

Glorying in the elder years, a time of spirituality, service and some serious sacred activism

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The Cailleach, the Cloak and Motherlines

You might not think an academic conference would be the best place to go and drink from the well of the Cailleach, to gather her cloak of belonging about yourself, to celebrate your motherline - but actually, it is the very best place as I found over this weekend's Full Moon. Over the course of the conference (July 6-9,2017) the themes of making visible the invisible, giving voice to those who have been silenced, and naming the nameless recurred again and again for me.

I have come reeling back from NUI Galway, fresh from the Motherlines conference instigated by MIRCI (Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement.) Back in the spring I was invited by Prof. Andrea O'Reilly to speak on a keynote panel with my presentation entitled "What My Mother Taught Me." But what a wealth of thought provoking feminist presentations to stretch one spiritually, intellectually, psychologically!

Without wishing to sound corny, there was a lot of healing shining in this weekend's Full Moon on the delegates. To pick up on a line from Mary Condren's keynote speech: Heal the Mother's Trauma and you heal and free the world.  The synchronicities have been coming thick and fast, not just for me, but for others in my circle, too. To get the full flavour of the breadth of scholarship and experience brought from around the world to Galway you can see the full programme on the MIRCI website (

The conference began with a keynote speech by Mary Condren, Irish author of the The Serpent and the Goddess, with her contemplation "In the Beginning She Was: Maternal, Matrixial, and Matriarchal Trace Hauntings in the Traditions of the Old Irish Cailleach and her Daughter, Brigid."


Condren has spoken previously about seeking "the dream of a common language." The symbolic language of the cloak and the distaff seem to be the closest contenders for creating that common mythic speech.

The Cailleach created the world with a cloak full of stones. Brigid, both as goddess and saint, also had the cloak. In Condren's view the Cloak is the symbol of a maternal social order. It is also a containment, a boundary.  It made me think of swaddling babies or how we use 'thunder shirts' to sooth autistic children. It is a way of holding, but also helping hold together what may be difficult to bear. The goddess Brigid was said to have been the first to keen in Ireland. The cloak in St. Brigit's story is magically elastic yet provides her with land to found her religious community; this story includes the conflicting elements of pushing boundaries in order to create the (bounded) space to found community.

This image of the cloak echoed in other presentations. In Sarah Epstein's presentation on guiding her sons through the Jewish rite of passage, bar mitzvah, a key point in the ceremony is laying the prayer shawl on the child's shoulders.  They are acknowledged as adult and with that they take their place as a fully responsible member of a community. Sarah saw this as resonating the binding/containment theme of the Cailleach's or Brigid's cloak.

But I really had my mental furniture re-arranged in Clementine Morrigan's presentation on a Feminist Queer Witch's Marian Devotion. In Ireland you can barely move a mile without tripping over a Marian shrine. As a very lapsed-Catholic, I am devoted to the goddess, but the baggage surrounding Mary from my childhood has made me reluctant to embrace Her. Kwan Yin, yes! Jesus' mother, uh, pass. Now I really have to challenge myself thanks to Clementine's scholarship and open heart. You can follow her on her website It was her rendering of the Magnificat alongside shero Sojourner Truth's quote, "Where did Jesus come from? God and a woman," that has carved a new neural pathway in my thinking.

Of course, Mary, the Mother of God, is often depicted in the iconograpy as wearing a long veiling cloak, too. In this session, the chair, Christina Santos, called up the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and how revered she is by the wider Latino community.

Synchronicity 1: I am waiting in the drizzle at Sligo bus station and a woman walks past me wearing a coat with Our Lady of Guadalupe emblazoned upon the back.

Synchronicity 2, 3, and more: I am home and a friend miles away in England has been making art over the time I have been at the conference. She posts her artwork and my various bells and whistles go off in my brain.

She has taken as her theme Brigid's keening shawl, ie cloak.  The face was modelled on the angel monument that watches over the graves of her own personal motherline, her maternal grandmother's burial. She then created a multi-media icon that also recalled for me an image of Our Lady of Sorrows. The darkened face is not dissimilar from those images of European 'Black Madonnas' who have miraculous and protective powers ascribed to them. 

In Pat's artwork the theme of cailleach, cloak and motherline all came together for me. (Isn't that miraculous?!) She has included a quotation from a Sylvia Plath poem in her artwork. This, too, has personal resonances for me; my sister was one of the first MA students to write a thesis on Plath's poetry within the first decade of Plath's death.

This has been an incredibly rich Full Moon full of illumination.  If you want to explore more on the work of MIRCI you can follow their website and also support the publications of Demeter Press ( Many of us who heard Clementine Morrigan's paper are eager for her to write more; so watch her space ( to see what books get birthed.

Oh, you might wonder what my own mother taught me? In short: that politeness is kindness; that being fair and treating everyone with the same degree of kindness is the birthplace of social justice; that you don't have to like everyone, but you do have to love them all the same. That's the legacy of my own motherline.



Blog image "Keening Brigid", copyright © Patricia Hayward, 2017. Used with the artist's kind permission.


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Tagged in: Brigid cailleach Mother
Bee Smith has enjoyed a long relationship with SageWoman as a contributor, columnist and blogger. She lives in the Republic of Ireland, teaches creative writing and is a member of the Irish Art Council's Writers in Prisons panel. She is the author of "Brigid's Way: Celtic Reflections on the Divine Feminine."    


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