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.
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.
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.
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