Joseph P. Fenwick, in his essay which is contained in the book “Roscommon History and Society”, describes Rathcroghan as “A once thriving royal site and pre-Christian cult centre as evidenced by well preserved monuments” and goes on to say that it “served as a nexus of political power and religious potency.” It was thought to be the place where the “world king would come to intercede with the gods of the otherworld on behalf of his people.”
Rathcroghan mound is 89 metres wide and around 5.5 metres high, and is one of many such historical remnants to be found in the area and is the centrepiece of a location of around 6 square kilometres of ringforts, standing stones, and the marked grave of the last pagan king of Ireland, Daíthí, and even what was once thought to be a gateway into hell. All of these pre-date Christianity in Ireland and were constructed at various times around the bronze and iron ages which spanned from around 4,000 years ago to around 1,500 years ago. While the mound currently looks to be a rather simple structure, recent geophysical surveys have revealed numerous complex physical structures below the surface which led some to suggest it may have been an important site for the inauguration of the pre-Christian kings of Connacht.
Further to its importance as a historical site, the land around the area is very fertile which prompted William Wilde (1870) to remark:
“Within the circle of raths at Croghan is some of the finest grass land in Ireland, in proof of which I may refer to the prizes carried off annually at the various cattle shows in sheep form that locality by my friends…”
William Wilde was the father of the world-famous Oscar Wilde and in his own right and day was a world-famous physician. People came from as far away as the USA to study treatment of eye and ear diseases at his hospital. He was born in Castlerea in 1815. William’s father was the son of a bankrupt farmer from Roscommon who married an Emily Fynn (O’Flynn); the Fynns were of high social standing and connected to many of the most influential families in Ireland including the O’Conors and the O’Flahertys, which prompted some to contemplate why a woman of such social standing would marry someone so below her station, and one biographer of William Wilde, T.G Wilson, commented:
The division between genius and madness is very narrow. The Fynnes (Wilson’s spelling) were undoubtedly very unstable mentally, and there can be no doubt that much of the later peculiarities of the Wilde family, and perhaps much of their genius, can be traced to the Fynne strain in their blood. (1)
After taking a walk around the mound and getting a couple of what I think are satisfactory shots of it, I resolve to go looking for the gate to hell I had read about online. I type it into Google on my phone and slowly cruise there on one of these country roads that only really has room for one car, going one way, and often a bit tuft of grass in the middle such that the road is so neglected that nature has half reclaimed it. Such roads terrify me, and I’m just pondering this thought when a big red Hiace van comes hurtling around the corner at full speed and I am convinced I am about to die. Great, I think, killed on a stupid country road while on my way to visit some supposed gate into the Otherworld that I don’t even get to see. I pull into the overgrown grass verge about as far as I can go without driving through the wall and the guy shows absolutely no sign of slowing down until the very last second and I’m increasingly convinced my number is up. At the last second, he brakes hard and swings violently to his left and somehow manages to squeeze, quite quickly, through a space I would not have thought sufficient. Driving such paths for a lifetime, I say paths because I’m inclined not to even think of them as roads, appears to endow native inhabitants with some kind of special driving skill which, to me, seems akin to witchcraft or voodoo or something. Shortly after my near-death experience I arrive at the gates of hell.
Once I’m parked, I tuck into the breakfast buffet, by which I mean a hedge of wild blackberries.
After maybe a dozen I venture into the field where the gate to hell is and find the entryway to be only around 2.5ft high, which means I will have to walk in with on my hunkers with my ass practically touching the ground. Just inside is a carved stone in ancient Ogham writing, which is the oldest of such writing in Ireland. It apparently reads “The stone of Fraoch, son of Medb”. Medb was a warrior queen of Connacht who legend has it killed her own sister and was subsequently killed in revenge by her nephew who took her out when he fired, with a slingshot, a piece of hard cheese at her temple. Doing a sort of squat walk, I make my way a few metres into the cave and my jeans and shoes are getting muddied up pretty quickly. Also, I neglected to bring a torch of any kind and so I’m reduced to using the light on my phone, which isn’t really ideal. Suddenly, I hear the rapid breathing of some manner of beast behind me and quickly turn my head in apprehension. But it’s just a happy and friendly little Jack Russel looking for a bit of attention, and after I pet him on the head, he hurries out of the cave and turns around as if beckoning me to follow him. Perhaps he is trying to rescue me from the claws of Satan, I muse, somewhat daftly.
According to a guide book I bought, the festival of Halloween originated at this cave and was considered one of the most important cultural places in Ireland. The idea of it being a gate to hell stems from a ninth century tale Cath Maige Mucrama. One story goes that at Halloween a Connacht warrior called Nera accessed the Otherworld via this cave after witnessing an Otherworldly army come from there and destroy Mebh’s palace at Rathcroghan. It has also been known as “The Cave of the Cats”, and this name originates from an 8th century tale where the manhood of legendary Cu Chulainn was tested by making him spend the night in the presence of three wild cats that were released from here. And yet another tale describes it as home of Mórrígan, battle goddess of Ireland. The nature of these tales are a testament to the imaginative creativity which the cave inspired and whether true or not, mark it as an important cultural location in the minds of the pre-Christian natives. (2)
After crawling a bit further into the passage, I decide it’s a really bad idea to continue as I’m getting too muddy already and don’t have a proper light, and so I turn around and head out again, resolving to return another day, properly prepared. I take this picture of the Ogham inscriptions on the way out.
My next stop takes me to the Rathcroghan visitor centre where I look at some of the tools and weapons that would have been used in ancient Ireland. The man that works there tells me that they acquired them from the National Museum in Dublin and to be able to house them they had to purchase an encasement which cost 60,000 euros so as to keep them at a certain temperature. I read all of the writings on the walls and watch two videos which give me some background on the area. The man working there has a strong Dublin accent and curious as to how a Dubliner ended up in the middle of Roscommon in a visitor centre, he told me he had ended up there after working 7 days a week for 15 years for Bank of America. He said his current position in the centre was a sanctuary. Before I leave, I ask him for directions to Daíthí’s stone, which apparently marks the grave of the last king of Ireland. He recommends that I stop at Ogulla’s shrine on the way, and so I decide to do so.
Stupidly, once in the car, I realise I needn’t have asked for directions at all because I have a phone and it has Google Maps which even marks where the gate to hell is for feck’s sake. And so, I punch in the location and head to the shrine. On arriving at the shrine, I see there are plastic bottles of holy water which say upon them “Ougulla Holy Water, take home” and the first thought that enters my head is what it might taste like with a splash of Ribena. I open the bottle and it smells nauseatingly putrid, and I suspect the devil may have corrupted this water. Clearly it had been lying there for some time. For a moment my mind wanders back a few years previously when I climbed Croagh Patrick and saw a man drinking from a stream running down along it even though there was a sign which said “do not drink from the mountain stream”. He said something like: “Yerra, the water on this mountain is holy and perfectly safe to drink”. Unconvinced, I left him to it and further up the mountain came across the rotting carcass of a dead sheep in the stream and had a mental picture of him violently ill later in the day. But who knows, maybe he was fine. I never saw him again.
Ogulla’s Shrine is a place where, according to Irishstones.org, “is the well where St. Patrick baptised Eithne and Fidelma, the two daughters of Laoghaire, High King of Ireland. More than a typical pond with water, this is a stream with a powerful flow of water. The spring of this stream is 1.5 km further west-northwest.”
After some photos, I make my way to Daíthí’s stone. Daíthí was a high king in Ireland that is said to have reigned around the 5th century AD. He was apparently killed by a bolt of lightning in either the Alps or in Scotland (it isn’t clear where on account of linguistic confusion) when attempting to raid a stronghold. Daíthí, the last pagan King of Ireland was reputed to have been the nephew of Niall of the Nine Hostages, who was the King of Tara. Apparently, all O’Donnell’s are thought to be direct descendants of Niall. I know this because I saw it on a programme on television about Daniel O’Donnell. I think it was one of these ‘Who do you think you are?’ programmes. Don’t ask me why I happened to be watching that, I really do not know.
After taking a photo of the stone, I head into Castlerea town as I wanted to go and visit a Railway Museum I had read about online, but when I arrive there, it is closed but has a phone number on the outside that one is to ring for an appointment. I ring the number and get no answer and a moment later get a call back from a man who tells me he can show me around in about ¾ of an hour as he is momentarily tied up, and so I decide to use the opportunity to halve a walk around town and photograph some of the natives.
A friendly chap outside a coffee shop called The Grind, Daniel O’Neill, strikes up a conversation with me. His little shop looks shiny and new and fresh and he seems to have a steady trade of a Tuesday afternoon. He tells me he’s only open a month and when I google his business, I see that he has progressed from doing business from a cart. It’s nice to see some entrepreneurial spirit at the end of a period where so many businesses forever closed due to Covid restrictions and such. I take a photo of him and say I’ll send him a copy and in return he offers me a free cup of coffee which I politely refuse, which is probably the first time in my life I have ever refused a coffee. I’m a recovering addict, you see, and coffee is like cocaine to me. I simply cannot have one and leave it at that. I must have ten or none! Anyway, here he is. While I didn’t sample his coffee, I suspect it may be the finest coffee in Castlerea. His machine looked rather impressive anyway.
The man who owns the museum is called Sean Browne and the museum was part of his pub which closed 11 years ago. “The pub game is gone,” he says, and this is a real shame because the pub is a really unique venue. The first thing he shows me is the bottom of a chair which was signed by a former Roscommon politician called Sean Doherty when he did a programme there in 1992 which concerned a book by Irish journalist John Waters called Jiving at the Crossroads. The programme led to Doherty making allusions to Charlie Haughey’s involvement in a phone hacking scandal in the 1980s, and this subsequently led to his making an official announcement that same month after which Haughey stepped down both as Taoiseach and from membership of his party, Fianna Faìl (3).
It’s not every day you see a train, a real train, in the middle of a pub. Sean developed an obsession with trains around 42 years ago, he told me, and all the bits and pieces he has gathered are a testament to that. The centrepiece of the pub come museum is an 1955 A5 locomotive train which Sean acquired in 1994 and installed in his pub in a project that cost £150,000. At only €5 for adults, €3 for children to enter it’s well worth a visit to see something different, but be sure to call in advance (unlike me). Oops.
By this point it’s nearly 4pm in the evening and I am absolutely knackered as I’ve been driving and walking and talking to random people since around 5am. I go for a little stroll around the local park and resolve that I will head home after taking a quick photo of the period house called Clonalis House, which is another local visitor attraction and owned by the O’Conor family for generations and within apparently charts 2,000 years of local history. There are lots of fences around the grounds, and scaffolding on the front of the house which don’t really make for any pleasing photos and so I content myself with one from the side of the house. After a quick stroll around the back of the house, it appears that it’s another one of these places where you have to pre-book to get a tour, and so I content myself with taking a quick photo and rolling on.
Exhausted, I realise I keep biting off far more than I can chew with these little expeditions and that trying to capture the people, the history, and the landscape is a bit too much to try and achieve in a single day. I leave and I already want to come back.
And so, concludes my one day in Castlerea. I definitely want to go back and explore that cave to the Otherworld. Who’s coming? 😉
- Roscommon: History and Society.
- Rathcroghan: The Guidebook.
- Rathcroghan visitor centre films.