Early medieval house at Knowth, looking north to satellite 16. Several thousand years seperate the construction of these two monunuments.
CNOGBA (Knowth) is part of the necropolis of Bruig na Bóinne, at the bend of the River Boyne in County Meath. (1) In the Dinnshenchas of Cnogba, we are told that it is properly Cnoc Buí, the Hill of Bua or Buí, who was daughter of one Ruadrí Ruad and wife of Lug mac Céin; she was buried there, and the great mound was constructed over her body. (2) Much the same information is given in the Dinnshenchas of Nas: Cnogba is the Hill of Buí 'of the battles' - she lived and was buried there; (3) she is also referred to as Buí in Broga - Buí of Bruig (na Bóinne). (4) Buí and Nas were daughters of Ruadrí, here said to have been king of Britain, and each of the two sisters was married to Lug. (5) While Lug mac Céin, otherwise known; as Lug mac Eithlenn, is one of the best-known figures in the Irish pantheon, his relationship with Buí is poorly documented. To the references in the Dinnshenchas, we can add that the Banshenchas mentions Bua, daughter of Ruadrí, king of the Britons, as one of Lug's wives, (6) and that in an anecdote preserved in YBL, Lug is said to have been married to Buach, daughter of Daire Donn. (7) (We shall see that Buach may be taken as a variant of Buí.) Lug is also said to have been married to Echtach, daughter of Daig, and to Englecc, daughter of Eclmar. (8)
The form Cnogba cannot be explained as a reflex of Cnoc Buí. It might be assumed, therefore, that Buí was simply drawn into the Dinnshenchas in order to provide a plausible etymology for Cnogba, and that the notion that she was married to Lug was prompted by his known associations with Bruig na Bóinne. This assumption may be correct, as far as it goes, but it leaves us far short of the whole story. Buí's dual role as eponym of Cnogba and spouse of Lug is part of a larger design, and the purpose of the present article is to trace that design by drawing data on Lug and Buí from a number of disparate sources.
The crucial step towards an understanding of Buí's character was taken by T. F. O'Rahilly when he identified the eponymous Buí of the Dinnshenchas with the personage known in Irish literature and folklore as the Hag of Beare (Caillech Bérri, modern Cailleach Bhéarra). (9) He contended that in 'The Lament of the old Woman of Beare' (10) dated by Murphy to the late eighth, or early ninth century, the caillech's name is given as Buí and he drew attention to ‘other references to her as Boí, Buí, Bua’ in an anecdote in LU, (11) -and in the Dinnshenchas. O'Rahilly's observations as, reported by Gerard Murphy are not backed up by argument, and it is necessary to state the case for them. There are two issues to be considered: first, the interpretation' of a line in ‘The Lament’ as the cailleach's name as Buí, and secondly the identification of the caillech with the Buí of the Dinnshenchas, and the anecdote LU. We shall see that O'Rahilly's interpretation of the relevant line has been accepted by Murphy, but that it has been silently rejected by the other scholars who have subsequently translated the poem. On the other hand, the identification of Caillech Bérri with the eponym of Cnogba is presented by E. J. Byrne (12) and Proinsias Mac Cana (13) as part of the conventional wisdom, without acknowledgment of O’Rahilly. (14)
In his 1963 edition of The Lament, Murphy printed the fifth line as, Is mé Caillech Berrí Buí, and translated, ‘I am the Old Woman of Beare, beside Dursey’; he was probably influenced by the fact that Oilean Baoi Bhéarra was the 'old name’ for Dursey. (15) in Early Irish Lyrics, in deference to O’Rahilly, the line is printed, Is mé Caillech Bérri, Buí, and translated I am Buí, the Old Woman of Beare'. Carney translates I am the hag of Buí and Beare', (16) Greene and O'Connor, ‘I am the Nun of Béarra Baoi'.’ (17)
While there is no need to doubt that Buí is a personal name in this, as in other texts, the question is whether to take it as an eponym, or, with O'Rahilly, as the name of the caillech. In favour of the former is the occurrence of Buí as the eponym of a number of places in the Beare peninsula; (18) we have seen that Dursey was called Oileán Baoi Bhéarra and we shall see that two of the rocks off Dursey were Inis Buí and Bó Buí. Bérre Buí cannot be ruled out as a place name. Moreover, it seems that the name Buí for Caillech Bérri if known, was not universally accepted: in the prose introduction to ‘The Lament’ in one of the manuscripts, her name is given as Dígde; (19) in a shorter form of this account of her, the name is given as Digi, with Duinech as an alternative. (20) Nevertheless, there is a caillech called Buí in the LU anecdote on Corc Duibne which is discussed below; she is the eponym of Inis Buí and Bó Buí, off Dursey, which is itself off the Beare peninsula; we can be virtually certain that she is indeed Buí, the caillech of Beare.
The connection of Caillech Bérri with Bruig na Bóinne, whenever and by whomever it was first mooted, has lived on in folklore. She is presented as a 'megalith-builder' in her own right: the megalithic monuments of Meath are supposed to have been dropped by her from her apron. (21) She is said to have lived near Oldcastle in Meath: (22) the reference is doubtless to the cemetery at Lough Crew, which is known as Sliabh na Caillí (The Hag's Mountain). (23) The caillech who is associated with the megaliths of Meath, and, as caillech and under the name Buí, with the Beare peninsula, is surely the Buí who is claimed in the Dinnshenchas as eponym of Cnogba.
What is to be made of the espousal, according to the Dinnshenchas, of Buí to Lug? F. J. Byrne has said: (24) ‘That she should here be connected with the more civilised figure of the Celtic god Lug mac Céin means no more than that she was the mother-goddess of the local peoples ..... (25) By process of rationalisation therefore the Dindshenchas has “married” her to Lug, a god particularly associated with the Louth area, and almost certainly identical with Tadg mac Céin, ancestor of the Ciannachta of Ferrard and Duleek baronies as well as of the Gailenga and related tribes throughout Meath.' (26) Buí's role as a mother-figure, may well have contributed to her position in the Dinnshenchas, but there is more to the marriage of Lug and Buí than is allowed in Byme's own 'rationalisation' of it Proinsias Mac Cana says of the marriage that ‘it brings us directly within the crucial mythic complex of sovereignty centred on the god who personified it and the goddess who legitimised it’. (27) Mac Cana, I believe, is in the right area here, but he has gone strangely astray: there is every indication that the marriage of Lug and Buí has to do with sovereignty, but consideration of the evidence will show that it is Buí, not Lug, who may have personified sovereignty.
In his name as well as in some of his characteristics, Lug is a reflex of a Celtic god. His virtual omnicompetence is reflected in his sobriquet samildánach, and in the manner in which he is said to have secured entry to Tara. (28) He is particularly associated with kingship, with martial prowess, and with fertility, as we see in Cath Maige Tuired, where he achieves the kingship of the Tuatha Dé Danann, leads them to victory in battle, and secures for them the secrets of ploughing, sowing and reaping. (29) He is the divine father of Cú Chulainn, (30) and in the course of Cú Chulainn's defence of Ulster in Táin Bó Cuailnge, Lug comes to his assistance from the Otherworld (a ssídib). (31) In Baile in Scáil, (32) he is presented as legitimator of the Dál Cuinn (and hence also of the Uí Néill) kings of Tara.
According to the Middle-Irish Senchas na Relec, Bruig na Bóinne was the burial ground of the Tuatha Dé Danann. (33) Lug's connection with Bruig na Bóinne is early, for it is there, as the Old-Irish Compert Con Culainn has it, that Cú Chulainn was begotten by Lug. (34) He is also specifically associated with Cnogba: in a thirteenth-century poem, the cave (uaim) of Cnogba is said to be an entrance to Emain Ablach where Lug was reared. (35)
Lug's consort in Baile in Scáil is the goddess of sovereignty. 'Conn Cétchathach is brought to an Otherworld abode where he meets a couple - a girl sitting on a chair of crystal, and a man sitting on a throne. The man identifies himself to Conn as Lug, and says that he has come to Conn to tell him the span of his sovereignty and of that of every ruler of his descent that will be in Tara until the end of time. The girl is identified as the Sovereignty of Ireland (Flaith Érenn), and she has a golden cup from which she gives Conn a drink of ale at Lug's instructions. And then she asks who next should be given a drink from the cup, and Lug names Conn's successor, and so the dialogue continues, and we are given a list of those who will follow Conn in the kingship of Tara. (36)
As O'Rahilly pointed out, this is a version of the myth in which a king marries the goddess of kingship: the sexual element is not explicit in this version, the wedding being symbolised rather by the dispensing and acceptance of liquor (37) It is Lug who names the successive kings of Tara, and instructs his consort to give them the drink which symbolises sovereignty, for the term of years specified by him. I have suggested that, in doing so, he decrees that each of those named will be wedded to Lug's consort, and in that sense take Lug's place, and be his surrogate for the time being in the kingship of Tara. (38)
Niall Noígiallach, ancestor of the Uí Néill, is among the Dál Cuinn kings nominated by Lug in Baile in Scáil, but there is another story of how Niall received the sovereignty from the goddess. (39) Niall and his brothers were rivals. One day they went hunting, and when they had caught and eaten of their quarry, they became thirsty. Each of the brothers in turn went in search of water and found a well, guarded by an ugly caillech who demanded sexual contact in exchange for the Water. Only Niall was prepared to comply, and as he did so, the caillech became a beautiful young woman who revealed that she was the sovereignty (flaithes), and that Niall and his descendants would be kings.
The central motif here is that of the puello senilis: (40) upon sexual union with one who is to be king, the ugly hag is transformed into a young woman of great beauty and declares herself to be the sovereignty It may be noted here that in the descriptions of the woman, in her contrasting manifestations as hag and as maiden, include her covering of hair and/or clothing. The hag has a wild cropped scorched bald pate; she is gray-haired; she has gray bristly hair like the tail of a wild horse.(41) The maiden is golden-haired; her locks are like Bregon's buttercups; she wears: a beautiful green mantle; or she wears a costly full purple mantle. (42) The relevance of these descriptions to Buí will be seen when we come to discuss ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’.
The sovereignty figure appears alone in Niall's story, and Lug is given no part in the proceedings. There is a connection with Cnogba, however, in one version of the story, which tells that the hunt which leads to Niall's encounter with the caillech takes place ‘in the mound of Cnogba’ (a Cnogba chuirr). (43) With this piece of the jigsaw in place, we can now see the following picture in outline: Lug and Buí are man and wife; Buí resides at Cnogba, and the ‘cave’ of Cnogba is also an entrance to Emain Ablach, with which Lug is associated; Lug has as Otherworld consort a personage described as the Sovereignty of Ireland; access to that personage is gained at Cnogba. It is a reasonable extrapolation from all of this that Buí is another name for the personage known as the Sovereignty of Ireland. It remains to consider whether this extrapolation finds support in what we know of Buí from other texts.
Our quest for further information on Buí will take us to Corcu Luígde in West Munster. It is therefore worth noting that Corcu Luígde personages share with Dál Cuinn (and Uí Néill) the distinction of having received the favour of the Sovereignty of Ireland. According to Baile in Scáil, Dál Cuinn rule at Tara is to be interrupted by the reign of Lugaid mac Con of Corcu Luigde, who is the third king nominated by Lug for receipt of the ale of sovereignty. The story of the puella senilis is also attached to them. In a tale told in the Dinnshenchas of Carn Máil, (44) and in Cóir Anmann, (45) the sons of Dáire, ancestor of Corcu Luígde, are confronted by a hideous caillech, demanding sexual intercourse. Only Lugaid Luígde is prepared to comply. The hag becomes a beautiful woman; in the Dinnshenchas, she announces that she is the sovereignty of Scotland and Ireland (flaithius Alban is Hérend), and that the high-kings sleep with her; in Cóir Anmann, she says that she is the sovereignty (in flaithius), and prophesies that the kingship of Ireland will be obtained by Lugaid Luígde. (46) In the Dinnshenchas,the sovereignty-figure says that, although she has revealed herself to Lugaid Luígde, nothing further will come of their encounter; it is with his son Lugaid mac Con that she will sleep. Dáire then prophesies that Lugaid mac Con will be king of Ireland and Scotland. This twist in the story is consistent with the claim, made in Baile in Scáil and elsewhere, that Lugaid mac Con was the Corcu Luígde king of Ireland. (47)
A valuable source of information about Buí is an anecdote, which is recounted in the LU version of The Expulsion of the Déisi’, and which tells how Corc Duibhne (was cleansed of congenital pollution under the care of a caillech called Boí/Buí. (48) In the course of their search for a home, the Déisi come to Tech nDuinn, off Dursey; Corc Duibne (whose name is evidently a back formation from Corcu Duibne) tells them that he was reared there, and the anecdote is then told. Corc was born of the incestuous union of Cairbre Músc with his own sister. The crops failed as a result off the incest, and when the boy was born, the men of Munster demanded that he be killed in order to remove the shame from the land. But a druid offered to achieve this end by removing Corc from Ireland, and he took him to an island where they entrusted him to Buí. For a full year, Corc was washed each morning on the back of a white red-eared cow, and then the cow was turned into a rock in the Sea. 'The name of the rock was Bó Buí, and that of the island Inis Buí. Corc was then taken back to Ireland.
Tech nDuinn is represented in Irish texts as an abode of the dead. (49) What Corc Duibne undergoes, however, is a purificatory rite: the pollution which attaches to him is gradually transferred onto a cow, and when that has been done the cow is turned into
It is significant that it was a cow that was sacrificed as a ‘scapegoat’ at the culmination of the rite. The modern name for Tech nDuinn is An Tarbh (The Bull), and the' two adjacent rocks are known as The Cow and The Calf. The use of 'The Bull' as equivalent of 'Donn's House' has given rise to the plausible notion that the eponymous Donn is to be identified with the great bull as in Donn Cuailnge. (50) Dáire is a taurine name; the ancestor of the Corcu Luigde is also called Dáire Donn, and seems to be identical with Donn. (51) In an anecdote in YBL, Lug is said to have been married to Buach, daughter of Dáire Donn. (52) Bergin suggested that Buach was originally genitive of Boí/Buí. While the sources do not show any clear inflectional pattern for Buí and its variants, the likelihood is that we have to do with reflexes of two separate formations on the root *Bow- ‘cow’; Boí/Buí would be a guttural formation and would have had Buach as genitive, while Bua, earlier disyllabic *Bue would be an ia-stem formation. (53)
Buí's ministrations to Córc Duibhne are performed on Inis Buí, the petrified cow becomes known as Bó Buí. It is not stated in text that Inis Buí is the same as Tech nDuinn, and it may simply have been in its vicinity. Given that Buí is a bovine name, it is likely Inis Buí is The Cow, and Bó Buí The Calf.
The association of the caillech with the sea informs the imagery of ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare’, which is our oldest source for Buí. (54) The poem opens with a complaint that ebb-tide has come to her, as to the sea, and in the penultimate stanza she contrasts her condition with that of an island in the sea, to which flood-tide comes after its ebb. 'The Lament' was first published by Kuno Meyer, who characterised it as 'the-lament of an old hetaira who contrasts the privations and sufferings of her old age with the pleasures of her youth, when she had been the delight of kings’. (55)
The dominant mood is of anger and regret at the passing of her youth, but this changes on occasion to resigned acceptance of her decline. She describes her clothing and her physical condition - she used to wear a smock that was ever renewed (no meilinn léini mbithnuí), but now she is so thin that she cannot wear even a cast off-smock (q. 2); her arms are bony and thin (lines 8, 9); she does not speak sweetly (line 11); her hair is scant and grey. She contrasts her mood with that of the joyous maidens at Mayday. (line 10) She says that she envies no one old, excepting only Feimen (a plain in County Tipperary); ‘I have worn an old person's garb; Feimen's crop is still yellow’ (line 13); she also contrasts her lack of a new cloak with the delightful cloak of green which God has spread over Drummain (unidentified; 20f.).
She says that she used to embrace glorious kings (line 8), and that she had her day with kings, drinking mead and wine, (line 23). This explains why Meyer calls her a ‘hetaira’, and why Greene and 'O'Connor describe her as 'ex-mistress of the kings of Munster.’ (56) It is probable, however, that the woman's apparent promiscuity is of the political kind, and that it reflects the caillech's role as goddess of sovereignty. (57) We find some support for this view in the pervasiveness in the poem of references to the caillech’s covering of hair and clothing; we have seen that such references are to be found in descriptions of the sovereignty figure, in both her ugly and beautiful manifestations. Buí used to wear ‘a smock that was ever renewed’, but now she envies the plain of Femen, whose crop (barr) is still yellow (buide); we are reminded of the transformed hag who was golden-haired - (mongbuide). (58) Similarly, her contrast of her own clothing with the cloak of green (brat uaini) over Drummain recalls the matchless green mantle (óenbrat úainide) which covers the transformed hag. (59) Her comparison of her own covering with the verdure of the countryside gains in force when we consider that fertility of the land is secured when the rightful aspirant to kingship mates with the sovereignty figure. Buí's tragedy is that she now expects ‘neither nobleman nor slave’s son’ to visit her (line 15): she is a caillech who is destined to die because she will never again be transformed into beautiful young woman.
What we have here, as Seán O’Coileáin has suggested, (60) is a part political application of the myth of sovereignty. The power of the Corcu Luígde has waned, owing to the ascendancy of the Éoganachta; the sovereignty goddess has therefore had her day. This is why she contrasts her condition with that of the plain of Femin, near Cashel: as O’Coileáin puts it, ‘to the author royalty in the contemporary terms meant the Éoganachta kingship and it is of the enduring nature of this and places such as Mag Femin associated with it that the Caillech is envious.’ (61)
‘The Lament’ has a mythico-political dimension, then, but it is also a Christian poem. The caillech makes several references to God, as when she says, 'When the Son of God deems it time, let him come and carry off His deposit’ (line 7). It is her King who has spread the cloak of green over Drummain, and, in a splendid metaphor, she compares his action in so doing to the fulling of cloth: ‘Noble is He who fulls it: He has bestowed wool on it after rough cloth’. (line 21) It may be that the poet was influenced, as B. K. Martin has argued, by de contemptu mundi literature, (62) though the cailleach herself is less than wholehearted in her embrace of contemptus mundi. The cailleach’s contrast of her decline with the continuing vigour in external nature may owe something to the contrast which is classical and literary in origin, between the life of men and the renewed life of nature.’ (63) It is the use of contrast, whatever its origins, which invites comparison with Irish literature of sovereignty. As Martin says of 'The Lament', ‘the work cannot, it appears, be fully understood in terms of any single tradition, no more in terms of simple contemptus mundi than native Celtic saga’. (64)
The author of the prose introduction which is given in one of the manuscripts of ‘The Lament’ (65) was well aware that the caillech was a complex figure. He presents her as a fostermother, and as ancestress of peoples and races. He says that ‘she passed into seven periods of youth so that every husband used to pass from her to death of old age.’ (Seán O’Coileáin reports an attractive suggestion of John Kelleher’s, that her seven periods of youth may refer to the seven Corco Loígde kings of Osraige whom she may be understood to have wedded.) (66) The introduction also claims that she received the veil (caille) from Cuimíne, and that she wore it for a hundred years. As Murphy puts it this justifies the title caillech and ‘in quatrains 11, 12 and 22 of the poem, the Old Woman of Beare is clearly looked upon as a nun’. (67)
Caillech in Old Irish has the meanings ‘nun; old woman; hag’. (68) It is derived from caille ‘veil’ (a borrowing of Latin pallium), and its literal meaning is ‘veiled one’. We are thus brought back once again to the prominence given in descriptions of the sovereignty figure to her covering. A. H. Krappe adduced instances from other countries of ‘The Veiled (or “Veiling”) One' being used as an appilation of a personage who is at once chthonic goddess and goddess of death, and he argued that Cailleach Bhéarra should be added to their number. (69) It is difficult to say how much of the character of Cailleach Bhéarra in folklore derives from her namesake in early literature: we cannot be sure, for example that the bovine character of Buí is reflected in the magical cow associated in folklore with the caillech. (70) What we can say is that the notion of the caillech as chthonic goddess and goddess of death fits what have learnt of Buí from our various sources: the role of the earth-goddess in relation to sovereignty informs the imagery of ‘The Lament’; in the Corc Duibne anecdote, Buí performs a rite of death and re-birth; and she is presented as the eponym Cnogba, which, being a mound in Bruig na Bóinne is at once an abode of the dead, and, as in Compert Con Culainn a telluric womb.
(1) For an account of the site, see G. Eogan, Knowth (London, 1986); see also F. J. Byme, 'Historical note on Cnogba (Knowth)’ PRIA 66 C (1968) 383-400.
A long, thin stone, with a groove along one side and ribs along the other, terminating in a headpiece with three engraved ovals. Found near the entrance to the west passage. Generally called a phallic object, it may have been used as a sightpiece for making astronomical observations, a mesuring device or as a holder for a stringed pendelum. From Knowth by George Eogan.
Four Iron age slab-lined graves near the entrance to the west passage at Knowth.