Ireland’s most historic location?

Fort Dunree and its surroundings are possibly the richest site from which to reflect on several momentous events in not just local history, but in our national heritage. Hear more in this audio piece from racontour founder, John Ward. Find Fort Dunree as Point of Interest #17 on our Greatest Shrines tour of the Donegal App.
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Certain landscapes, such as the Boyne valley or Kinsale harbour, have borne witness to seminal dates in Irish history. Lough Swilly, whose name appropriately derives from the Gaelic for eyes, “suile” on account of St. Colmcille slaughtering a beast with many eyes on its shores, must rank highly amongst such sites. It is said that when the human memory has been outlived, the landscape remembers; peering across Lough Swilly from Dunree Head, feeling the Atlantic breeze upon one’s face, take a few minutes to sense the redolence of momentous events that helped shape Ireland’s destiny.

lough-swilly View of the lough from Grianan of Aileach

To the left of the lough beyond Fahan lies the ancient seat of the high kings of Ireland at Grianan of Aileach. On the right of the lough is the port of Rathmullan, where the old Gaelic order came to an end with the Flight of the Earls on the 14th September 1607. In the garrison town of Buncrana, the Irish patriot Wolfe Tone‘s crusade for Irish freedom came to an end on November 3rd 1798 after his boat The Hoche foundered and he was arrested. On the 18th September 1914, the inhabitants along the shore awoke to find the lough filled with warships, becoming the main base of the British fleet under Admiral Jellicoe in World War One. Finally, consider the very soil of Dunree itself and neighbouring Leenan fort, the last parcels of land to be handed back by the British to the Irish on the 3rd October 1938.

DunreeFort 1938
The handover ceremony at Fort Dunree on the 3rd October, 1938

Consider the thousands of souls that have passed between Dunree and Saldanha Head across the lough: the forlorn hopes of Wolfe Tone before being apprehended; the despondency of the chieftains fleeing these shores, never to return; the imminent death of 274 people on the H.M.S. Saldanha on the 4th December 1811; the relief of an incoming British battleship at escaping the German mines or the gratitude of the wary traveller such as John Newton arriving on the 8th April 1748 from a tempest, immortalised in his song, Amazing Grace.

Flight

It’s been a long time

Written on the 10th of August 2014
There are those who think that Led Zeppelin headlining Glastonbury would be the apogee of rock and roll. Sadly, with the demise of the force of nature that was John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham, anything else would be a tribute band. Talk of a Led Zeppelin reunion after the once off O2 2007 gig was rife, but ultimately it amounted to nothing, mainly due to the fact that lead singer Robert Plant was busy touring with Alison Krauss after the release of their exceptional album, ‘Raising Sand’. Also, as far as Plant was concerned, Zeppelin was done and dusted. Page and Plant revisited some of the old hits and rebooted them in the 1990′s and so fans couldn’t complain too much about never hearing the voice and guitar that so many followed in the 1970′s.

What was so refreshing about Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters at Glastonbury Abbey last night was that this was an artist who was still vibrant, who was coming up with new and exciting music while placating die hards with a few of the old hits, albeit with a new twist. And what’s best of all, the man does not appear to be jaded or faking it or going through the motions – he enjoys performing, he’s good at it and he still has something to say. Where poor Bonzo burned out, Plant is certainly not fading away – he’s having too much fun.

The set list was a wonderful mix of past and present. The Sensational Space Shifters are by no means space fillers – they were a tight, well-oiled machine with some great musicians and great new tunes. The song does not remain the same to Percy Plant – we moved from north Africa to the Mississsipi delta to the Black Country with ease last night. It was a short gig due to the location of the venue in the heart of the town, in the wonderfully evocative abbey.

Plant

No, I won’t see Zeppelin headline Worthy Farm Glastonbury, but I did have have the privilege to hear the voice and driving force of the band headline a smaller, more intimate and consequently enjoyable venue nearby. In the audio piece you will hear a tongue-in-cheek Plant finishing off the anthem ‘Rock and Roll’ with what would be sacrilege to anyone else as he repeats the word ‘lonely’ until he runs out of breath. I’ve seen McCartney headline Glastonbury and lose the crowd with his mock Jamaican accent banter, I’ve seen Suede go to the other side and not say so much as ‘thanks’ to a crowd, but with Plant, we had Goldilocks porridge – it was just right. ‘Plantations’, as his ad libs are called, abounded; from mocking the audience’s singing skills to telling us tales of Michael Eavis crashing a Zeppelin gig in the early 70s, this was a headline show that was low key, but immensely entertaining.

The Sex Pistols partly came about due to the likes of Led Zeppelin and what the Pistols felt was a jaded, formulaic offering to rock. Where the Pistols got back together for the money and Johnny Rotten is doing butter ads on TV, Plant, the supposed dinosaur, has had the last laugh. Passing on $200m for a Zeppelin reunion, he’s still going strong with something to say and as far as I’m concerned, rock’s finest icon headlined at Glastonbury last night, and I was lucky enough to be there with 10,000 others for one short, but sweet, musical extravaganza. No hype, no bombast, no passing of a sell by date; just some great rock and roll from a master and his band.

JW 10/8/14

Bealtaine

Beltaine or Beltane (/ˈbɛlteɪn/) is the Gaelic May Day festival. Most commonly it is held on the 1st May, or about halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Historically, it was widely observed throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Irish it is Bealtaine ([ˈbʲal̪ˠt̪ˠənʲə]), in Scottish Gaelic Bealltainn ([ˈpjaul̪ˠt̪ˠɪɲ]) and in Manx Gaelic Boaltinn or Boaldyn. It is one of the four Gaelic seasonal festivals—along with Samhain, Imbolc and Lughnasadh—and is similar to the Welsh Calan Mai.

Beltane is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and it is associated with important events in Irish mythology. It marked the beginning of summer and was when cattle were driven out to the summer pastures. Rituals were performed to protect the cattle, crops and people, and to encourage growth. Special bonfires were kindled, and their flames, smoke and ashes were deemed to have protective powers. The people and their cattle would walk around the bonfire, or between two bonfires, and sometimes leap over flames or embers. All household fires would be doused and then re-lit from the Beltane bonfire. Doors, windows, byres and the cattle themselves would be decorated with yellow May flowers, perhaps because they evoked fire. In parts of Ireland, people would make a May Bush; a thorn bush decorated with flowers, ribbons and bright shells. Holy wells were also visited, while Beltane dew was thought to bring beauty and maintain youthfulness. Many of these customs were part of May Day or Midsummer festivals in other parts of Great Britain and Europe.

Beltane celebrations had largely died-out by the mid-20th century, although some of its customs continued and in some places it has been revived as a cultural event. Since the latter 20th century, Celtic neopagans and Wiccans have observed Beltane, or something based on it, as a religious holiday. Neopagans in the Southern Hemisphere often celebrate Beltane at the other end of the year (~1 November).

Source: Wikipedia under ‘Beltane’.

Look out for our Beltony Stone Circle blog from our Donegal’s Greatest Shrines tour on the Donegal App.
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St. Patrick and the Gates of Hell

In Dante’s Inferno, our hero passes through the Gates of Hell, which bear an inscription, the final line of which is the famous phrase “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate”, Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” No such ominous eloquence greets the visitor to Ireland’s Gates of Hell, two sites that have acquired legendary reputations for being entrances to the underworld. One has been shut by papal order since 1625 and the other is a fetid mud hole associated with cats. One is firmly Christian and the other purely pagan. One is now chiefly regarded as an ancient seat of royalty, the other an ancient site of strict pilgrimage.

In this piece, we shall look at the Christian Gates of Hell, a site that was known throughout the whole of Europe for centuries as being a place where the unbeliever could expect to end up in if they did not find the light, the truth and the way.

Spitting out hot molten lava with the ensuing devastating consequences, one can appreciate why volcanos have long since been associated as possible earthly locations for the Gates of Hell. Into the medieval period, Mount Etna in Sicily was considered to be an entryway to Hell. During this period Icelanders also believed their own Mount Hekla was a gateway to Hell. Helka’s neighbouring volcano though, Eyjafjallajökull, if not quite bagging the dubious title of the Gates of Hell was regarded by many as creating Hell on Earth in the Spring of 2010 when it erupted thus shutting down European airspace due to dense dust clouds. It even briefly came back in 2011 and had President Obama rearranging his flight schedule from Ireland lest he suffer from its evil dust cloud. The most powerful man on Earth indeed.

Iceland-Volcanic-Eruption

However, by far the most famous of medieval gateways was St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. According to legend, the site dates from the fifth century, when Christ showed Saint Patrick a cave, sometimes referred to as a pit or a well, on Station Island that was an entrance to Hell. Legend maintains that St. Patrick had grown discouraged by the doubts of his potential converts, who told him they would not believe his teachings until they had substantial proof. St. Patrick prayed that God would help him relate the Word of God and convert the Irish people, and in return, God revealed to him a pit in the ground, which he called Purgatory; by showing this place to the people, they would believe all that he said. By witnessing Purgatory, the people would finally know the reality of the joys of Heaven and the torments of Hell. Fair enough, but let’s dig a little deeper here.

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Charles Baudelaire famously stated that “the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world that he did not exist.” This sentiment was used with great effect in the denouement of 1995’s modern classic, The Usual Suspects. Besides the blarney and bluff of our perceptions of St. Patrick, the greatest trick he ever played was convincing pagan Ireland that the devil did in fact exist and to look lively or else they’d be getting to know him for eternity. St. Patrick remains a phenomenon in Ireland – revered by all as the quintessential Irishman, yet in truth a Welsh shepherd; remembered with a holy feast day every March that has notoriously become the world’s greatest excuse to get pissed. There are four iconic sites of St. Patrick on the island of Ireland: St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal, Croagh Patrick in Mayo, the hill of Tara in Meath and the Rock of Cashel in Tipperary. Interspersed with these four are plenty of holy wells and other sites from Slemish to Downpatrick that peripatetic Paddy is believed to have been.

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Each of these locations serves a purpose in the phenomenon of the saint’s mission to convert pagan Ireland to Christianity. On Croagh Patrick mountain in Mayo, he spent the forty days of Lent where he was harassed by demons in the form of blackbirds, clustered so densely that the sky was black, but he continued to pray, and rang his bell to disperse the assailants. An angel then appeared to tell the saint that all his petitions for the Irish people would be granted, and that they would retain their Christian faith until Judgement Day. Message: come follow me and you shall be saved against dark forces upon the day of reckoning. Impact: 5/10.

Patrick famously made his way to the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath, seat of the high king of Ireland. For good measure, the legend has him changing into a deer to get past the guards. Arriving on the eve of Bealtaine, now Easter (thanks to him), he lit a paschal fire on the nearby Hill of Slane. At this time of year, it was pagan practice to put out all fires before a new one was lit at Tara. When the druids at Tara saw the light from Slane, they warned King Laoghaire that he must extinguish it or it would burn forever. Patrick was summoned to Tara, and on the way he and his followers chanted the hymn known as “The Lorica” or “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate”. The king could not put out the fire and while he himself did not convert, he allowed Patrick to continue with his mission to convert without recourse. Message: take on the status quo head on, then set up the opposition with impunity. Impact 6/10.

Perhaps the best-known legend of Saint Patrick involves the shamrock, the little plant that has gone on to become famous throughout the world as a symbol of Irish heritage. After training as a priest and bishop, Patrick arrived in Ireland in AD 432 and immediately set about trying to covert the pagan Celts who inhabited the island. Having previously lived and worked there, he was very probably already aware that the number three held special significance in Celtic tradition (and, indeed, in many pagan beliefs), and he applied this knowledge in a clever way. Down in Cashel in County Tipperary, he used the shamrock, a three-leaved clover which grows all over the island, to explain the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity i.e the theory that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are each separate elements of just one entity. As always, we have the Devil not far away from the action – flying over Ireland as he was wont to do, he espied Patrick in Cashel. The Devil bit a large chunk of rock from a nearby mountain and hurled it at Patrick, missing him, but creating the Rock of Cashel. The Devil’s Bit as it is called to this day can easily be found while the Rock became a centre for anointing Irish bishops for hundreds of years. Message: explain a complicated concept in a bite-size portion that can be easily remembered. Impact 3/10.

St-Patrick-Shamrock-Image

What was really going on was ecclesiastical imperialism. The Catholic church via the various embellishments of Patrick’s stories, snuffed out well established creeds and traditions and rebranded them as their own. Every major Christian feast day in Ireland is taken from a previous pagan feast from Imbolg to the Winter Solstice. St Patrick is credited with drawing a Christian (or Latin) cross through the circle, and blessing a standing stone. In this way it is said he created the first Irish Celtic Cross and showed himself willing to adapt heathen practices and symbols to Christian beliefs in order to ease the transition from pagan to Christian. This mark would have been familiar to all pagans as a symbol of the sun or moon gods.

However, the piece de resistance in converting the motley crew of Irish heathens was in showing them the stick, not the carrot. St. Patrick’s Purgatory served to frighten the bejesus out of the poor pagans. Sure, you can continue to live a pagan life, but ultimately unless you offer your soul to God, you are damned to Hell in the next life. Shamrocks, blackbirds, fires and snakes are but frilly soft furnishings – the centre piece of the house of God in Ireland was built in Donegal with the Gates of Hell. St. Patrick’s Purgatory and its symbolic value spread across Europe for centuries afterwards; even in Denmark we have Hamlet swearing on an oath to St. Patrick after seeing his father’s ghost doomed to suffer in Purgatory. Nothing works better on an indifferent pagan mob than showing them in a vivid and terrifying vision of the Gates of Hell through which they shall pass if they do not alter the folly of their ways. Repent and be humble lest their ongoing indifference shall have them burn for an eternity in Hell or wallow in Purgatory. Message: join us or else. Impact: 10/10

It’s a powerful message and one that effectively did the ‘heavy lifting’ in the conversion of pagan Ireland to Christianity. It was in fact a master stroke and one that has been used to great effect by generations of Catholic priests to terrify the ignorant that everything from masturbation to telling fibs would have the poor souls burning in the fires of Hell. In his 1843 essay ‘St. Patrick’s Purgatory, an Essay on the legends of Purgatory, Hell and Paradise’, writer Thomas Wright wrote that ‘the Roman Catholic system was (and continues to be) a mixture of Christianity with Paganism, in which too generally the pure religion of the gospel is stifled under the weighty superstructure. Superstitions such as those described in this Essay were at first tolerated among a newly converted and ignorant people; but they were subsequently approved and encouraged by a political priesthood as a powerful instrument of domination and oppression until they were finally accepted as an integral part of the doctrine of the church. Although it has been my object to treat the subject generally, i have taken for the title of this Essay a special case, that of St. Patrick’s Purgatory because it is the most remarkable of all the purgatory legends and it is the only one that remains in force to the present day. Unhappy Ireland has suffered more perhaps than any other country from the religious system just mentioned. Romanism has been there for centuries a religion of sedition and we may there contemplate in as great a degree as modern laws and the condition of modern society will permit the social evils which accompanied it in the middle ages. We see there a Catholic priesthood using the grossest means and practising the most vulgar deceptions to keep in ignorance the miserable population’.

St. Patrick’s Purgatory is still used by thirty thousand pilgrims between June and August each year. The cave that started it all has been closed since the 25th October, 1632 and covered over by the Basilica. No longer is the ostensible mission to frighten the ignorant into submission, but rather to allow the converted to submit themselves to God through penance, suffering and reflection via all night fasting and prayer. The philosopher Alain de Botton observed that ‘the church has wisely insisted that we are inherently flawed, incapable of lasting happiness, beset by troubling sexual desires, obsessed by status, vulnerable to appalling accidents and always slowly dying’.

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The sword of a diabolical Damocles still remains, but the emphasis these days is on the possibility that a deity might be able to help us out and that a spot of pilgrimage is the order of the day. Here is a place where believers can gather to reflect on their shortcomings and beg their creator for help. Remove God from the equation with only the Devil for company and the world would surely be doomed. At least on Station Island, the dejected are to be found in solidarity with their shortcomings. Sites like St. Patrick’s Purgatory make out a locus where the anguish we otherwise bear silently within us can be revealed for what it truly is, merely a thimbleful of sorrow in an ocean of suffering. Bow down and be humble and your chances of passing through the Pearly Gates shall far outweigh passing through the nearby Gates of Hell.

Seamus Heaney famously published Station Island in 1984 named after a visit to the place which is worth a read, but we’ll end this article by looking at fellow poet Patrick Kavanagh’s take on it. He went there in 1940 and 1942 with sandwiches and whiskey, somewhat unusual items in a pilgrim’s luggage. His motive in going there was more temporal than spiritual: he was gathering material for an article that was published in The Standard in June 1942. He did not enjoy the experience and his comments were even harsher than in his poem: “Lough Derg is typical of… the Irish mind. No contemplation, no adventure, the narrower primitive piety of the small huxter with a large family”. Kavanagh may not have liked the place, but he wasn’t a fool with the poem appearing some time after his death: – ‘They come to Lough Derg to fast and pray and beg/ with all the bitterness of nonentities, and the envy/ of the inarticulate when dealing with the artist … Solicitors praying for cushy jobs…/ shopkeepers threatened with sharper rivals…/ Mothers whose daughters are final medicals,/ too heavy-hipped for thinking…’

Hean Kav

So a sacred place for self-denial, contemplation and spiritual renewal or a place where the mediocre pray for the impossible? Maybe both? As for Hell, its gates are not in Lough Derg, nor Iceland nor even Sicily. Perhaps the philosopher Sartre nailed it when he wrote simply that ‘Hell is other people’ and that we are all in fact in an ongoing Hell with places like Station Island being a brief Summer respite from the masses and the troubled times we are living through. Oh, the irony.

‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out Contagion to this world:
now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.

Hamlet, 5th soliloquy– Act 3, Scene 2, lines 419-24, Folger Edition

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Find St. Patrick’s Purgatory at Point 24 on the Greatest Shrines tour of our free Donegal App.
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#Hell #Gates of Hell #Halloween #Otherworld #Donegal #Ireland #myths #superstitions

Bluebells in late April

blue

Late April and the early part of May is the time to savour the resplendence of bluebells in Ireland. We recommend heading by the banks of the Shannon to Rindoon in County Roscommon to find a real treasure trove. It’s the best time to visit the wood and see the bluebells and other spring-flowering plants, such as primroses, wood anemones, early purple orchids, etc. It is must see when in the area – added to this is the exquisite birdsong from the trees above. Best enjoyed in early morning sunshine.

Narrator Richard Collins owns nearby award-winning St. John’s House B&B with his wife, Liz. Together they offer a wonderfully intimate and relaxed break by the banks of the Shannon in beautiful Roscommon. No wonder Georgina Campbell has awarded them the 2015 B&B of the Year. Below you’ll find the full audio tour of Rindoon that we produced with Richard Collins covering the medieval castle of Rindoon as well as the wood and a host of other treats. Download it for free and also get a handful of intimate audio tours of other hidden gems on Roscommon on our Real Roscommon Experience app – available for Apple, Android and sat nav devices.

See St John’s House B&B website for more details: http://www.stjohnshouse.biz/
#bluebells, #bluebell, #nature, #Roscommon, #Rindoon

Presence

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Written in October 2013 at the 24th Charles Macklin Autumn School

Amid the chatter and the buzz of the room, I discreetly asked my friend ‘any sign of him?’. ‘Nah, he’s not coming’ was the reply. The elusive Brian Friel was nowhere to be seen. The setting was the Backroom bar of McGrory’s of Culdaff in north Donegal at the commencement of the 24th Charles Macklin autumn school, an annual arts festival paying tribute to a local 18th century actor/playwright who achieved great success on the London stage and died aged close to 107. Friel’s The London Vertigo was a reworking of Macklin’s original play.
The opening event was a book launch and its author, Sean Beattie, referred to Brian Friel by stating that the playwright had been good enough to have attended the first Macklin festival, eventually becoming its patron. ‘He usually makes an appearance at some stage over the weekend’ said Sean sheepishly alluding to the fact that Friel was still nowhere to be seen. Friel hadn’t been seen at his friend Seamus Heaney’s funeral in Dublin, nor at the MacGill Summer school in Glenties which he never misses. At 84 and in poor health, it looked as if the man had the good sense to stay put and get an early night.

A break in the formalities allowed more chat and some of Sean’s books to be sold and signed to the sounds of a local traditional group of musicians. At the recommencement, I looked around the room and there he was right in front of me. Looking frail and older than I’d remembered him, Friel sat across the room with his wife Anne, listening to the speeches.
Friel didn’t have to be there. It was very much a courtesy to the organisers. He had travelled from Greencastle as he always had on the opening night without fail for 24 years. The speeches carried on and Friel combined listening to them with reading a copy of Sean’s book he had on his lap. More references were made to Friel and even a round of applause was offered at one point. Friel carried on reading, oblivious to it all. Just like Philadelphia’s Gar, there is a public and a private persona at play here. In private, Friel is renowned as a great wit, full of stories and gossip and fun. In public, he runs a wary gauntlet, unsure of who will accost him or put him straight on how he should have done such and such.
The playwright has never enjoyed the limelight, nor is he prone to speeches, interviews or indulging in the fame game. His craft has made him world famous. Much and all as I’d always hoped he would win the Nobel Prize, I’m glad he hadn’t that day. Instead, the new 2013 Nobel Laureate, Alice Ann Munro, was being harangued in Canada by the media frenzy while Friel was able to keep a long-standing appointment in Culdaff. Outside for some air, I heard an earlier speaker telling a young publisher that she knew Friel well and would he like her to introduce him to the playwright.


Video from Section 3 of the Bluestack Way audio tour that we’ve produced.

Back inside, the last of the great Irish writers sat quietly after the speeches catching up with some well wishers he knew. My friend who had known him for years went to chat to him about Frank McGuinness’s new play on in Dublin for the Dublin Theatre Festival. The poker face had given way to animation about his fellow playwright and anecdotes galore. Health prevented him from getting around, so hearing about what was going on in the ‘Big Smoke’ was a real treat. My same friend had met him up in Malin Head the day after Heaney had died. Friel couldn’t bring himself to talk about it that day, but he did make it to the burial in Bellaghy that Monday afternoon. Heaney’s death was a reminder of just how much we treasure those who can deftly articulate the heartbeat of Ireland. We’d lost the poet so suddenly and the grief felt was genuine – no more Mr. ‘There There’, the avuncular figure who we all felt we knew and who was happy to talk to anyone and everyone. Not so with Friel. He has admitted to being a proud curmudgeon, one who prefers to let his plays do the talking for the most part. Few get to have a one-on-one with Irish literature’s most reluctant hero. For years to come however, we will be able to enjoy nights in the very intimate company of Friel and his words of solace and truth as the public Friel meant them to be – on stage with actors bringing his vision to life.
A woman awkwardly stopped Friel to get her photo taken with him and he obliged – a stoney demeanour to her thumbs ups glee. The publisher of course never got to meet him. I managed to see his stick sway around the door as he made his way out of the room. As quietly as he’d come in, he was off into the night with his beloved Anne; his work was done and he was gone. ‘Elvis has left the building’ I said to my gossiping friend as I nodded towards the door. Where Macklin nearly saw 107, Friel probably won’t see 87. His time will come soon and the tributes and praise will come thick and fast about his legacy. I’ll remember the grace of an old man with a sore leg and a stick keeping up a tradition, but time and again in years to come, I’ll remember the numerous moments where his words held me spellbound in their sublime elegance:-
“[d]ancing, as if language had surrendered to movement…as if this ritual, this wordless ceremony, was now the way…to be in touch with some otherness. Dancing as if the very heart of life and all its hopes might be found in…those…movements. Dancing as if words were no longer necessary.”

Dance
Henri Matisse. The Dance, 1909-1910. Oil on canvas, 8’6″ by 12’10″. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Find more about the Mundy’s/McLoone’s house from Dancing at Lughnasa at Tour Point #7 ‘The Laurels’ from our Donegal’s Greatest Shrines tour on our free Donegal App.

Samhain and the Gates of Hell

Samhain

In Dante’s Inferno, our hero passes through the Gates of Hell, which bear an inscription, the final line of which is the famous phrase "Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate", or "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." No such ominous eloquence greets the visitor to Ireland’s Gates of Hell, two sites that have acquired legendary reputations for being entrances to the underworld. One has been shut by papal order since 1625 and the other is a fetid mud hole associated with cats. One is firmly Christian and the other purely pagan. One is now chiefly regarded as an ancient seat of royalty, the other, St. Patrick's Purgatory in Donegal is an ancient site of strict pilgrimage.

The pagan festival of Samhain, now replaced by the Christian feast of Hallowe’en is the time at which one of these gates is said to open and evil has a free reign to lurk and snatch its victims as it sees fit before the dawn. From these portals spirits emerge from and wreak havoc. As landmarks go, having the Gates of Hell in your locality surely tops any list of undesirable adjoining properties. Neighbours from Hell how are you. We shall look at the earlier of the two sites first, a site that ironically in its heyday was regarded as the most prestigious address in ancient Connaught. It is situated near Tulsk in County Roscommon, at what is now known as Rathcroghan.

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Rathcroghan was the seat of Royalty in the West of Ireland for nearly 2000 years. It is identified as the site of Cruachan, the traditional capital of the Connachta. Here, you can explore Irish history through the ages; walk the land of Celtic Warrior Queen Maeve, see where the great bulls fought their epic battle in the Cattle Raid of Cooley, follow the Druid's quest for knowledge to the sacred triple spring of healing, stand where the Gaelic Kings stood to fight invading tyranny and receive their rightful crowns. Of particular interest to us though is the famed Cave of Cats or Oweynagat, south-west of Rathcroghan Mound. It is a souterrain beneath an old road leading into a dark, narrow limestone cave. This cave was believed to be a gateway to the otherworld with many creatures emerging that generally caused havoc across the country. The name Oweynagat means "cave of the cats", which could refer to the large wild cats which the Ulster champions must fight in the tale of "Bricrius Feast".

Cruachan seems to have heavy associations with the feast of Samhain, as it was during this time that the Irish believed that the prehistoric graves from before their time opened and their gods and spirits, who dwelt inside, walked the earth. The emerging of creatures from Oweynagat would be part of this belief. A legend based on this is "The Adventures of Nera", in which the warrior of the title is challenged to tie a twig around the ankle of a condemned man on Samhain night. After agreeing to get some water for the condemned man he discovers strange houses and when he finally gets him some water at the third house, he returns him to captivity only to witness Rathcroghan's royal buildings being destroyed by the spirits. He follows the fairy host to the síd where he meets a woman who tells him that what he saw was a vision of what will happen a year from now unless his mortal comrades are warned. He leaves the síd and informs Ail ill of his vision who then has the Side destroyed.

Halloween Cave of Cats

It is unclear whether what is referred to as the síd is Oweynagat or the mound of Rathcroghan itself. However, it is from Oweynagat that various destructive creatures emerged. The Ellen Troche was a triple headed monster that went on a rampage across the country before being killed by Emerging, the father of Connell Carnac. Small red birds came from the cave withering every plant they breathed on before being hunted by the Red Branch, also herds of pigs with similar decaying powers emerged from the cave with Ail ill and Med themselves desperately trying to hunt them, but having to deal with vanishing powers and an ability to shed captured flesh. The name Oweynagat may come from the magical wildcats featured in "Bricrius Feast" that emerge from the cave to attack the three Ulster warriors before being tamed by Cúchulainn. The name could also refer to the king of the cats, Irusan, who features in Irish fairy tales and was believed to live in a cave near Clonmacnoise, but is associated with many places. A tale from the eighteenth century tells of a woman who on trying to catch a runaway cow, follows it into the cave and emerges miles away in Keshcorran, Co. Sligo. On the inner lintel is an ogham inscription. The full phrasing is unclear but the words FRAECH and SON OF MEDB have been translated. It is unclear if this is the Fraech associated with Queen Medb.

Added to this heady charge of the diabolic, we have the Morrigan, the dreaded goddess of battle, strife, and sovereignty no less. The Morrígan emerges from this cave every Samhain on a chariot pulled by a one-legged chestnut horse along with various creatures such as the ones mentioned above. On one occasion she leaves the cave with a cow, guided by a giant with a forked staff, to give to the Bull of Cúailgne. The Morrígan also takes the bull of a woman named Odras who follows her into the cave before falling under an enchanted sleep, upon awakening she sees the Morrígan who whispers a spell over her, turning Odras into a pool of water.

Now that is what I call a proper spot for the Gates of Hell. Swagger and sweat with a huge dollop of the bizarre. The Christian version of the Gates of Hell in Ireland, whilst compelling, does not meet the raw fiery power and imagination that lies in this ancient site. However, it has to be said that the stakes are higher there in that a man's soul was on the line and in through the gates he shall go if he does not believe. Our sister article on the Christian Gates of Hell has us expostulating on St. Patrick's presence in Ireland mainly due to his association with St. Patrick's Purgatory on Station Island in the middle of Lough Derg in County Donegal.

Looking for more authoritative information on the Celts and Samhain? The Newgrange website has the best article we've come across.
Want to find Rathcroghan and a host of other gems in Roscommon? Download our free Roscommon App.

Las Vegas in the hills of Donegal

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Anyone lucky enough to be coming to Donegal this September will be greeted with a resplendance of green and gold from all roads – Laghey leading the charge with some excellent original quirks to proceedings (see above!). And the reason for all this colour and madness is simply that both the minor and senior teams in Gaelic football have reached an All Ireland final together on the 21st of September. Both teams will play Kerry in Croke Park on that day in what is promising to be a great showdown between the Kingdom of Kerry and the Fort of the Foreigner a.k.a Donegal.

It’s a wonderful combination of expectation, excitement and general partying as we enjoy an Indian Summer in the north west. Places like Dunfanaghy may have regrettably missed out on making it onto Failte Ireland’s Top Ten Tourism Towns in 2014 (go figure!), but anyone in Dunfanaghy this weekend (13th and 14th Sept) will tell you there is nowhere else they’d rather be as they enjoy the Jazz and Blues festival taking place there.

Nowhere does partying like Donegal, nor epic scenery, fresh air, good food, great beaches, golf courses and trad music. Racontour is proud to come from Donegal and present our flagship travel guide to you, the Donegal App for free, on both smart phone and sat nav platforms. If coming to experience the atmosphere and excitement of Donegal, ensure you have it downloaded onto your GPS device and prepare to be dazzled at the sheer range of offer in this vast county. And yes, get yourself up to speed with the great anthem of the county, Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal, in time for the All Ireland final.

The GAA’s strapline for enjoying the championship itself is ‘nothing beats being there’ and this is certainly true – if you can get a ticket to the All Ireland final in Croke Park, then you are one of the lucky ones. However, all is not lost; why not get yourself to Donegal in time for the two games for a real party atmosphere – in equal measure, nothing beats being there either. And if either Donegal team wins, well call the boss and tell him you’ll be otherwise engaged for the foreseeable future!

racontour – the glory of the story

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Welcome to the new racontour website, which unites all elements of our innovative racontour and navigatour® services under one portal. With racontour GPS audio guides, we celebrate the lore and stories of Ireland and allow the visitor to enjoy them on their GPS devices, be they sat nav devices or smart phones. We’re delighted to be able to allow everyone to : -

  • Find all of our informative GPS audio tours under our Places Covered section.
  • Hear hundreds of podcasts that give us a slice of the Irish character and
  • Access our celebrated Rambling House radio documentary series
  • Watch all of our original YouTube videos from over the years
  • Keep in touch with us via our various social media platforms

Audio tours are available either as EveryTrail walking guides or as full cross-platform native apps. Our podcasts serve as the database for the sort of extra material we add to any tour we produce. Ideally, you’ll help us find the local voices that will add to your own GPS tours of your area. Take the time out to look around the website and hear as much of the audio as possible, then email info@racontour.com if you think your area deserves to be have its own innovative GPS audio tours. We look forward to hearing from you soon.

Blog #1, August 2014