The road by Kilcatherine church passes another place of worship. Between the road and the rocky harbour there is a modest, incongruous blade of stone jutting naturally upwards amongst the hazardous sheepwalks: a narrow protrusion, only a few feet long and a few feet high. Its weathered strata are horizontal—which is unusual for Beara, where all sedimentary rocks, and the whole peninsula, have been distorted, and broken, and rebroken, and tumbled and turned. The rock is inconspicuous, and easily missed; only from close by does it break the skyline, and it is not tall enough or obtrusive enough to constitute a landmark or a navigation point.
Nonetheless, this stone carries the weight of legend; for this is Cailleach Beara, the Hag of Beara, the old woman who can change into a young one by the favour of a hero; the White One, the ever-renewing, most ancient and longest-living of deities; the goddess of the Corcu Duibne people, the granter of power to mortal chieftains; the fertile pleasurer of many husbands; the deity who sculpts the landscape of Beara, and who, like Brónach Boirne far northwards at Mám Chatha in the Burren, pours bounty on those who cherish her territory and evil on those who despoil it; the watcher who remains here in the form of a rock, as she awaits the return of her husband Manannán MacLir, the god of the sea.
The prosaic roadside sign, colour-coded brown for a tourist attraction, suggests that the goddess has gone, and that her earthly manifestation is now only a twee stopping-point for the casual visitor. And yet the ancient magic brings other worshippers here. The rain-eroded strata of the rock form tiny shelves and pockets; and on these shelves, and in these pockets, pilgrims have left little offerings: commonly coins, in many currencies. This in itself does not bespeak belief or hope, since many pools and fountains, ancient and modern, attract the thrown coins of an unbelieving public. But the Hag’s devotees are different, for there are personal items, too: beads, earrings, bracelets, and candles for rites. Whether as pilgrims or as passers-by, folk still feel the force of the goddess and the wish to propitiate or salute her. Once, most touching and most expressive of all, I found a little torn page from a notebook, not yet quite sodden, with a scribbled prayer, in German, for the safe recovery of a sick mother. For myself, I may doubt the power of the Cailleach to intercede, but she, and the prayer, perhaps deserve the reverence with which the scrap of paper was left in this wild place.