Oweynagat: Ireland’s Gate to Hell

stephenMythology, News

Oweynagat: Ireland’s Gate to Hell

Within the ritual landscape of Rathcroghan, the ancient royal capital of Connacht, amongst the earthen mounds and ceremonial enclosures, there is an even more ancient place, not made by man.

Oweynagat, meaning ‘Cave of the Cats’ is an underground cavern (37m long, 2.5m wide, descending 7m below the ground) created by a fissure in the limestone bedrock. In ancient times, this rift into the earth below was considered to be an entrance to the ‘otherworld’. In mythology it is called ‘Uaimh Cruachan’ (Crochan’s Cave) or ‘Síd Cruachan’ (Crochan’s Palace). Named after Crochan Crogderg, (meaning ‘blood-red cup’), a mythical character who gives her name to the ancient capital itself: Rathcroghan (meaning ‘the fort of Crochan’).

According to the Dindshenchas (Lore of Places), Crochan was handmaiden to Queen Étaíne and accompanied her mistress when she fled from her husband the High King, with her fairy lover, Midir. While on the run they stayed in the cave; which is a great palace in the otherworld. Crochan was so enamoured with the place that she was granted it by Midir. It was here in this place that Crochan later gave birth to a daughter, Medb the mythical queen of Connacht.

Access to the cave is though a 10m long dry-stone passageway (souterrain) built in the Early Medieval Period (600-800AD). There is a lintel stone over the entrance with an Ogham inscription that reads VRẠICCI/ MAQI MEDVVI ‘of Fráoch, son of Medb’. Although it cannot be proved that this inscription refers to Medb, legendary Queen of Connacht, it is hardly coincidental that the name is found here at the place of her birth. The type of Ogham script in which the name is written suggests a 6th Century date, making it the earliest written reference to the mythical queen (or goddess – see previous post). Also Fráoch was a character from the Táin who was married to Medb’s daughter, Findabair.

The name ‘Oweynagat’ is usually translated as ‘the cave of the cats’ (Uaimh na gCat), and is thought to come from the tale ‘Bricriu’s Feast’; where magical wildcats emerge from the cave to attack various warriors before being tamed by Cú Chulainn. However, it may be a mis-translation of ‘Uaimh na Cath’ meaning ‘the cave of battle’ . A fitting title, given the caves association with The Morrígan, the goddess of battle and strife from Irish mythology, who was said to have resided there. According to legend, she would emerge from the cave every Samhain on a chariot driving her fearsome otherworldly beasts out to ravage the surrounding landscape and make it ready for Winter.

“The horrid Morrígan, out of the cave of Cruachu, her fit abode, came”…

(Odras – Metrical Dindshenchas)

Odras was the wife of the lord of cattle and a milkmaid. However, she refused to let one of her cows mate with the bull of the Morrígan and so one day, when Odras was asleep, the Morrígan came and stole the cow. Odras followed the Morrígan to Oweynagat where she fell into an enchanted sleep. Upon awakening she saw the Morrígan whispering a spell over her, turning Odras into a river.

It was probably these and other similar tales that led early christian writers to describe Oweynagat as ‘Ireland’s Gate to Hell’.

Located within the Royal Complex of Rathcroghan, Oweynagat is open to the public. However, please be advised the passageway down to the cave is quite small (about 1m sq) and can be slippery so appropriate footwear and clothing should be worn. The best way to visit the site is via the Rathcroghan Visitor Centre in Tulsk, Co. Roscommon, who provide excellent guides and information on the whole complex.