Samhain and the Gates of Hell
The birthplace of Halloween
Abandon all hope!
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 regarded as the actual birthplace of what became Halloween, the other, St. Patrick’s Purgatory in Donegal is an ancient site of strict pilgrimage.
Wreaking havoc, raising Hell
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.
The west’s awake
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 crowns. For more on the cattle raid and its source material, The Táin, we recommend listening to The Irish Folklore Collection’s podcast about it on Spotify, see SuperSummary’s guide on it for an excellent overview of the main events or just rock out to Horseslip’s The Táin.
Of particular interest to us 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. .
Beware of the fairy folk
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 Ailill of his vision who then has the Side destroyed. 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 Cú Chulainn.
The Phantom Queen of death and battle
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.
The name could 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’s unclear if this is the Fraech associated with Queen Medb.
Flann O’Brien’s novel At Swim Two Birds title derives from Snám dá Én “The narrow water of the two birds”, an ancient ford on the River Shannon, between Clonmacnoise and Shannonbridge, reportedly visited by the legendary King Sweeney, a character in the iconic novel.
One hell of a set of gates!
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 association with certain sites in Ireland, including Lough Derg in County Donegal. Or for a different slant, hear our audio from an expert on the island from our epic soundscape, the Donegal’s Hallowed Sites guide.
Up the Rossies!
Want more information on the Cave of Cats – there’s a great 2021 National Geographic article about it. Rathcroghan has been a bit sniffy about the article thus forgetting that what is written about the place is hardly Gospel fact! Please note the actual cave is a mile from Rathcroghan itself and you’ll need a good pair of hiking boots to get to it, but yes, access to it is in place with the landowner. Further details are below.
Want to find Rathcroghan and a host of other gems in County Roscommon? Watch our video then view our various audio tours on our guide to Roscommon. This county is a great slice of rural Ireland and we have all the tales gathered for your enjoyment. Let the masses go to the tourist traps and enjoy the many wonders of this often overlooked treat.
Welcome to Hell
The GPS coordinates of the Cave of Cats are 53.797305, -8.310578. Input these on Google Maps and away you go, but Google Maps do have the place marked already as you’ll see from the photo as ‘Owenynagat Cave’.
From the Rathcroghan Visitors Centre in Tulsk, you’ll be heading up the N5 towards Frenchpark before turning a sharp left. Park carefully and be aware you are surrounded by working farms – as well as ringforts as you’ll see from a zoom in of the location. Have fun!
NOTE: While this legendary cave is accessible and definitely worth a visit, please remember that it is protected as a National (Archaeological) Monument as well as a protected habitat under Annex I of the Habitats Directive. Having such a remarkable monument open to the pubic is good news for lovers of the macabre and Halloween. Please ensure that you’re careful when visiting – don’t let your actions lead to any future gating of the entrance!
If you enjoyed this article, please share it online. Thanks. Subscribe to our audio archive by clicking on the ‘Subscribe’ button below each audio piece above or follow us on Twitter or Facebook. Still looking for a ‘fix’ of the macabre? At our Halloween Archive, we have compiled several playlists that might appeal from our Samhain Folklore to Ghost Stories, Myths and Legends, Customs and Superstitions as well as Fairy Lore.
Looking for more authoritative information on the Celts and Samhain? The Newgrange website has the best article we’ve come across. For a host of good Irish websites on everything from folklore to nature and storytelling, see our Links page from our sister site, Rambling House.