The Enchanted Caves of Kesh

stephenMythology, News

The Enchanted Caves of Kesh

The Caves of Kesh, also known as the Caves of Keshcorran, are a series of limestone caves located on the west side of Keshcorran Hill, near the village of Keash in County Sligo. There are 16 caves altogether, some of which are interconnected. The views from them are spectacular but unfortunately a low mist was over the hill the day we were there.

Excavations at the caves have revealed significant remains of long extinct animals such as the brown bear, arctic lemming, Irish elk, and grey wolf. Evidence of human activity was also discovered during the investigations, with artefacts and human remains discovered from as far back as the Neolithic period (4000-2500BCE). It has long been suggested that the caves were the site of ceremonies or gatherings during the ancient festival of Lughnasadh. However, it is not until the early medieval period that there is archaeological evidence to indicate that caves were used for occupation.

The Caves of Kesh also feature prominently throughout Irish mythology and are often associated with, or seen as a portal to, the otherworld: The realm of the Tuatha dé Dannan, the mythical race that inhabited Ireland before the coming of humans and who became the ‘fairies’ of later folklore.

The earliest myth tells of how the hill itself was formed and got its name: In the time of the Tuatha dé Dannan, a hunting party set out from Brú na Boínne (Newgrange) in pursuit of a giant sow/pig that was causing death and destruction throughout the land. However, the hunters was unsuccessful in killing the sow until the harper Corann lulled her to sleep with a song from his enchanted harp. This allowed the warriors to slay the beast, whose massive body, it is said, became the hill of Keshcorran.

The mythical forge of Lon Mac Liomhtha, blacksmith of the Tuatha dé Dannan, who made the first sword of iron, was said to be located in one of caves. The legendary Irish hero, Fionn MacCumhaill later came here searching for the forge and was given enchanted weapons by the blacksmith.

Another story featuring Fionn and the Fianna tells how they were once hunting wild boar on Keshcorran Hill, which was the abode of the fairy king, Conaran. Angered that his permission had not been sought for the hunt, Conoran sent his three daughters, known as the ‘Hags of Winter’ to take vengeance on Fionn and his men. The three hags lured the Fianna into the caves and bound them with a magic cord that turned the mighty warriors into feeble old men. Luckily, one fenian warrior, the mighty Goll mac Morna had not been captured and arriving at the cave, cut two of the sisters in half with one stroke of his sword, before forcing the third to reverse the spell.

The largest of the caves, known as ‘Cormac’s Cave’ is named after the legendary High King of Ireland, Cormac Mac Airt. According to the 12th Century, Book of Leinster, Cormac’s mother had given birth to him by a well at the foot of the hill, while trying to escape from Lughaidh Mac Conn who had killed her husband. While they lay sleeping the baby Cormac was carried off by a she-wolf whose den was in the cave that now bears his name. Cormac was discovered years later playing on all fours outside the cave with his wolverine siblings.

The caves are situated about halfway up the hill and can be accessed by a (very) steep path which stops at the first and largest cave. A small footworn trail gives access the rest of the caves but be careful, as this is a steep incline and the grass can sometimes be slippery underfoot, particularly after rainfall. Walking boots are recommended.