Underneath a hawthorn tree yawns the black mouth of a cave. Is it the Gates of Hell? Or a portal to the Otherworld? In this article we descend into the ancient dark depths of Oweynagat Cave. From the earliest references to Oweynagat Cave in the 9th century Cath Maige Mucrama (as recorded in the 12th century Book of Leinster), there is a clear association between Oweynagat and the Otherworld. The Irish Otherworld appears in the various stories as a sort of parallel dimension, inhabited by the Tuatha dé Danann (sometimes known as fairies or the sídhe) who fled there from our world after their defeat by the Milesians. The two worlds sometimes intersect through the actions of humans or the sídhe, and that interaction was viewed as more likely, at particular places such as monuments or caves.
A story relating to Oweynagat comes from Echtra Nerai (the Adventures of Nera). Nera was a warrior from Connacht, who had a vision of an Otherworldly host emerging from the cave to destroy Queen Medb’s palace at Rathcroghan and slaughter all within, making a great pile of their heads. Nera bravely follows the ghostly host and descended into the cave to investigate, only to be captured. He was allowed to stay in the Otherworld, and even married a local. His wife explained to him that what he saw of the destruction and slaughter was just a vision of what will happen at the next Samhain. It would only come to pass if he did nothing about it. Hearing that, he managed to escape back to warn Queen Medb, bringing with him wild garlic, primroses and golden fern, to prove that he had been in the summery Otherworld, as it was still winter in the real world. The warriors of Connacht descended into the cave and won a great victory, though Nera chose to stay in the Otherworld with his wife, and is possibly still there to this day. The story being set at Samhain has led to the cave being claimed as the birthplace of Halloween.
Oweynagat Cave is also said to be the home of the Morrigan. She is portrayed as a goddess of battle and war, with the power to transform into crows or ravens. It is easy to see the connection between war and corvids (our battlefield scavengers). She features prominently in the Táin Bó Cuailgne (Cattle Raid of Cooley). First as a beautiful young woman who seeks to seduce the great warrior Cú Chulainn, and then after he rejected her, she sought to destroy him.
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Oweynagat’s resident cat guards the entrance way to the otherworld • Roscommon
Exploring Oweynagat Cave – A Portal to the Otherworld?
The main part of the cave is narrow, but high • Roscommon
I had long wanted to explore Oweynagat Cave, and in January 2022 I finally had the opportunity to experience this place myself. The cave is situated in the rich archaeological landscape of Rathcroghan, near Tulsk in County Roscommon. Like Dunmore Cave in Kilkenny, Oweynagat is a place absolutely steeped in stories, making it a place where there is only a thin veil between archaeology, history and mythology.
The name Oweynagat is derived from Uaimh na gCat, meaning the ‘Cave of the Cats’, though the cave is also referred to as Úaim Crúachain ‘the Cave of Crúachain’ and Síd Crúachan ‘The Otherworldly Place of Crúachan’. It also features in the 12th century Book of Leinster as dorus iffiirn na Hérend – Ireland’s Gateway to Hell (which has since been surpassed by the M50). With such powerful descriptions, Oweynagat Cave is clearly a place that has loomed large in people’s imaginations for centuries.
‘Now Mag Mucríma was so called from magic pigs that had come out of the Cave of Crúachain. That is Ireland’s gate to Hell. Out of it too came the swarm of three-headed creatures that laid Ireland waste until Amairgene father of Conall Cernach, fighting alone, destroyed it in the presence of the Ulaid.
Out of it also had come the saffron-coloured bird-flock and they withered up everything in Ireland that their breath touched until the Ulaid killed them with their slings.
Out of it then had come these pigs. Whatever they traversed no corn or grass or leaf would grew on it until the end of seven years…’
[Excerpt from Caith Maige Mucrama in John Waddell’s Archaeology and Celtic Myth]
The main part of the cave is narrow, but high • Roscommon
The cave has been formed through gradual water erosion of the limestone bedrock. It measures roughly 37 metres in length, with its deepest point being some 7 metres below the ground surface. The site was described by Samuel Ferguson in 1864, and he described a number of features that no longer survive today, including an earthwork enclosure that once surrounded the entrance.
The natural cave has been added to and augmented in the early medieval period, by the addition of a souterrain, an underground passageway made of drystone masonry with a roof of large slabs.
One of the slabs is of particular interest, as it bears an ogham inscription.
VRAICCI MAQI MEDVI[the stone of] Fráoch, Son of Medb.
It appears that the passage continued to the north-west (on the right as you have the entrance behind you), though that section of the souterrain has long since collapsed. A second ogham inscription on one of the collapsed lintels was recorded as:
MA(?)]Q RẸG[A]S MU[COI
The descent into the cave is a powerful experience, and not one to be taken lightly. You need to crawl and wriggle through the first section, so ensure you are well equipped with waterproofs and a head torch, and that you are ok with tight enclosed spaces. After the first section it opens up considerably in height, so it feels less claustrophobic, though it is still quite narrow (I could touch both walls without fully extending my arms). I hope you get a good sense of the experience from my video at the end of the article.
Before your visit I strongly recommend a trip to the excellent Rathcroghan Visitor Centre, not only will you find fantastic information about the monuments, but it may be possible to take a guided tour of key locations like Oweynagat. I wouldn’t recommend visiting the cave by yourself in case something went wrong for you in there.
You may also meet the resident cat. I hadn’t seen her on the way down, but as I emerged back into the upper part of the cave her lambent green eyes staring down at me nearly gave me a heart attack! I thought it was some otherworldly beast come to take my soul. The Cave of the Cats indeed!
Upper left: the ogham script on the lintel just inside the cave mouth • Lower left: the souterrain section is particularly tight to navigate! • Right: the entrance to Oweynagat
Top: the ogham script on the lintel just inside the cave mouth • Middle: the entrance to Oweynagat • Bottom: the souterrain section is particularly tight to navigate!
A short video tour of the cave by Neil, best enjoyed with headphones in full screen • Roscommon
Oweynagat Cave Visitor Information
Full of myths, legend and folklore, and recorded as Ireland’s Gates of Hell, it’s home of the Morrigan and portal to the Otherworld and one of the most unique sites in Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands.