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Millennium Crone

In the Celtic tradition, the Goddess appears in three forms: maiden, mother and crone. As the author enters her eighties, she ponders on how her crone time has been demeaned and devalued in today's society. But now she announces that the crone, the cailleach, the hag and the witch - all are marking a comeback.
By Brid Murphy  

Maybe we can hail this new twenty-first century as one where the older woman, far from feeling left out of society can come into her own and make a difference.

We have entered a new Millermium amidst much celebration and hoopla, some genuine explorations of our heritage, and here and there a worthwhile monument, an Art Centre, a restoration or commemoration of an historical moment or event.

For me, entering the millennium has signalled also the entrance into my closing decade. I want to celebrate in a special way this decade of 'Croneship' at the end of which I will be eighty-eight.

Some years ago I became aware that older women are beginning to be conscious of becoming older in a world which has scant respect for their status. Older feminists could see that what they learned in their younger years through trying to create a more just and equitable society was sometimes forgotten by younger feminists who 'replaced' them.

They had to begin again to look at the plight of older women and how the world was treating them. Along with many others I wanted to restore the word 'crone' to its original meaning. I wanted to explore how it had happened that the Crone, from being regarded as the holy one, the Cailleach, the crowned one (coron), the Wise woman, came to end up in modern dictionaries as a 'wrinkled, ugly old woman, a hag' explanation of the fact that the word 'hag' came from heilig or holy.

The crone was likened to the goddess Anu (O'Duinn) and was revered as the giver of life and fertility. Here in Ireland we have only to remember how many places are named after the goddess. The Holy woman was thus woven into the consciousness of the people, and left her mark on the land itself: Dhá Chic Anann (The Two Breasts of Anu), twin hills outside the Kerry border, Carraig Chliona (Glandore Harbour), Cnoc Áine, sacred to the goddess Áine, Cnoc Sidhe Una, Co. Tipperary, are just some of those landmarks.

Barbara Walker's study of the Crone comes with a warning that we have neglected the respect due to this third phase of life at our own peril:

"When the Crone was recognised as a valid image, the old woman was not seen as a useless object, as she often is today. Beyond her sexual and maternal functions, she had others, perhaps even more important. She commanded respect. Her advice was sought. Her community looked up to her and took her ideas seriously."

Walker goes on to chronicle the descent of the Crone from Wise to Terrible to the Crone turning Witch. It took centuries for that to happen, but gradually consciousness towards the 'feminine' changed.

Mary Condren in her study of women, religion and power in Celtic Ireland, traces the history of this change. Looking at the gradual decline of matricentral Ireland and culminating in the powerful story (mythological in its meaning) of the Curse of Macha, she continues in her study of Brigit as Goddess to Brigit as Saint, to show the advancement of patriarchy, culminating in the exclusion of women from the Blood Covenant (a former sacred ceremony) by men. It's no wonder that Padraig Pearce's poem Mise Éire rings so true of that betrayal, even though he did not see it in the context of the betrayal of the Wise Woman epitomised by the Cailleach Béara: "A chlann féin a dhíol a mháthair"- the mother betrayed by her own family.

It seems timely then, that in the latter part of the twentieth century when we were and are literally surrounded by potential destruction, the Crone started to reappear. Maybe we can hail this new twenty-first century as one where the older woman, far from feeling leftout of society can come into her own and make a difference.

All across the world older women are challenging perceptions about ageing in a society obsessed by youth. From Betty Nickerson in Vancouver who founded the Amazing Grays to the Gray Panthers in the United States to the Raging Grannies all across Canada, to the various groups known under the title of OWN or Older Women's Network. From Toronto to Ireland to the European countries a vast network is being woven.

Just a few years ago Crone Chronicles appeared in the United States pioneered by Ann Kreilkamp in Wyoming. An initial few photocopied sheets has become a quarterly magazine with a readership of 10,000. Some wanted the name changed but as Kreilkamp says "the fact that 'crone' has been devalued is part of the devaluation of the whole ageing process".

At the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995, an immense banner was created by women from every nation, colour and creed and sewn together at the Conference. It became hugely symbolic of this creative spirit and energy that seems to be circumnavigating the globe in our time.


If we really believe that the body is sacred, we will nurture, exercise and celebrate it.

Spirituality is all about consciousness or as Tony de Mello would put it, awareness. In reflecting on this third stage of our life span, maiden and mother being the other two, we are celebrating the wisdom acquired through the beginning of awareness (maiden) with its sense of adventure and risk, to the birth-giving of the second stage (mother), the physical bringing to life of other human beings or the birth of ideas: Art, Sculpture, Poetry, Music, Writing, Film, Drama all those areas that feed the human spirit. The Crone then is coming into her own the accumulation of a lifetime and a consciousness of what she can offer the world and leave as a legacy.

To enable that consciousness to grow was brought to my attention more than a decade ago when I began to understand personally how ageing generates its own spirituality. Working with others who felt a similar movement, we organized several workshops on Spirituality and Ageing. Participants spanned from age forty to over eighty. We found these sharings very exciting for the insights they generated about ourselves and our forebears.

One of the realizations we came to was the lack of voice especially in those of us born on both sides of the twenties' years. We were expected to be ladies, sweet and gentle. We did not rock the boat except for the odd more daring one among us who often came to a sticky end because of her outspokenness. World Wars changed that, especially World War II, when women realized a potential that hitherto kept them very much in the home.

We explored the whole notion of finding one's voice not the voice we were expected to have but that of our real selves. We found that when we substituted 'she' for 'he' we began to realize the wisdom of the Gospels in a whole new way. Today we are beginning to trust our word, to speak out against injustice, to be in solidarity with our sisters around the globe.

We usually ended the workshops with the four 'Keepers', and I believe these keepers are reminders to trust our inner wisdom. Keeping Faith...we questioned what it is we mean when we say "Keep the Faith". We take these words so much for granted that it becomes challenging for us to say what it means for us. We asked: Is it worth keeping?. Is it kept in a box? Is it just taken out on Sundays? In our Christian faith we believe in the Good News Is it good news for us? Does it liberate us? If not, why not?

Reflecting on passages of scripture from the vantage point of age was a way of not only enlivening our faith but of articulating some of the wisdom in the group which needed to be heard and spoken.

Keeping Involved I have already mentioned the networking that is so important in bringing about change. It is important also to keep involved with the young. Grandmothers are needed to support the young and to use their wisdom not in a dogmatic way, but to create bonds which will enable them to understand what is going on with them, and to alert them to the manipulations of society. A spirituality born of seeking justice liberates the human spirit and makes the daily journey more meaningful.

An important message was given by participants at the European Conference on Older Women and Social Exclusion held in the Netherlands in October 1999. OWN Ireland was one of the voices heard there in drawing up resolutions to present to the European Parliament, Council of Ministers and European Commission. The Conference wished "to affirm the right of older women to participate fully in all aspects of society and have a voice in decision-making at all levels of government." These resolutions are being studied now all over Ireland and are a very valuable way of being involved.

May God keep you safe until the word of your life is fully spoken.

Our third keeper is Keeping Fit. If we really believe that the body is sacred, we will nurture, exercise and celebrate it. Happily today there is a growing awareness of this need. All over the country, encouraged and supported by Age and Opportunity based in Dublin, older people are getting out to walk and join in sporting activities. The spirit too is kept fit by continuing to participate in the Arts. The Bealtaine Programme, also coordinated by Age and Opportunity, is held in May each year and is now in its fifth year. The Festival includes all Art forms and more and more groups around the country are celebrating creativity in older age.

We also found that gardening and communing with nature were places where we found ourselves closest to the sacred the feel of the clay, the miracle of the seed forming new life in the dark, the growth, beauty and abundance of flowering all have a mirror in our own evolution.

And finally comes the fourth keeper Keeping On. Maybe this is the most difficult one. So often you hear the lament that all our friends are gone. On the other hand, if we have been keeping the other three going, we will never be alone. Reaching old age, the crone end of the spectrum, has many challenges, physical as well as spiritual. It is a time to reminisce, to remember and celebrate all the life that went into the making of the crone.

Our workshops always included a mourning session. Mourning first for the silent voices of many of our ancestors and of women generally through history.

Some of our ancient practises are being revived by various groups like making a bonfire of all the old dead branches and leaves on the eve of the feast of Brigid. We remember the ancestors as the fire reaches up and we honour their memory as the ground is prepared for the coming of Spring. Another, reminiscent of the importance of the wisdom of the cailleach, was the bringing of the last sheaf of corn from the field to the house. This was to represent her ageless spirit. It was carried into the home so that the old woman of vegetation, the grandmother of green energy, might live through the dreaded winter months.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could concentrate on bringing this green energy of our older years to the world and society instead of heeding the pathetic advertisements that demean our ageing process and practically make it criminal to have wrinkles! Rather let us honour those ' landmarks' and go out wearing them with pride.

Each of us has a word of life. We always ended our workshops remembering to continue to reflect on and live that 'word'. In this we were empowered by a great woman, Margaret Fuller, who more than a hundred years ago wrote: May God keep you safe until the word of your life is fully spoken. (Morton)


Brid Murphy is a crone come back from Canada to her native land of Ireland and thriving on the homecoming.


O Duinn, Seán. "Theory of a Pre-Christian Sanctuary in the Barony of Duhallis." Seanachas Duthalla, North Cork: North Cork Antiquarian Society, 1991

Walker, Barbara G. The Crone. San Francisco: Harper, 1988.

Walsh, T.E.,ed. "Mise Eire". Favourite Poems We Learned in School as Gaelige. Padraic Pearse. Dublin: Mercier, 1994

Condren, Mary. The Serpent and the Goddess: Women, Religion and Power in Celtic Ireland Harper and Row, 1989.

Morton, Nelle. The Journey Is Home, Beacon Press, Boston, 1985.

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