Oweynagat

Oweynagat Cave - Cave of the Cats - Cave of Crúachu


Useful Information

Location: Rathcave.
(53.797296, -8.310578)
Open: May to AUG Mon-Fri 14.
SEP to APR Mon-Fri 12.
Rathcroghan Visitor Centre: All year Mon-Sat 9-17, last entry 16:30.
[2021]
Fee: Adults EUR 15, Children (10-17) EUR 6, Children (0-9) free, Seniors (65+) EUR 13, Students EUR 13.
Groups (10+): Adults EUR 12.
Groups (20+): Adults EUR 10.
[2021]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave SubterraneaErdstall.
Light: bring torch
Dimension: L=37 m.
Guided tours: D=2.5 h.
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Tom Condit, Fionnbarr Moore (2003): Oweynagat – The Cave of Cruachain: An Entrance to the Otherworld in Co. Roscommon, Archaeology Ireland, Heritage Guide 22. online
J. Fenwick, M. Parkes (1997): ‘Oweynagat’, Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon, and associated karst features’ Irish Sepeleogy, No. 16, pp.11-15.
Matthew Parkes, Robert Meehan, Sophie Préteseille (2012):
The Geological Heritage of Roscommon. An audit of County Geological Sites in Roscommon.
Geological Survey of Ireland. Unpublished Report. online pdf
Address: Rathcroghan Visitor Centre, Tulsk, Castlerea, Co. Roscommon, F45 HH51, Tel : +353-71-963-9268. E-mail:
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1767 mentioned as the ‘great cave’ of Drum Druid or Rathcroghan by Charles O’Conor in his Dissertation of the History of Ireland.
1779 visited by Gabriel Beranger who was the first to record the local folktale about the woman hunting her cow.
1837 visited by John O’Donovan.
1930s drastically altered by the construction of a small road and housing in the area.
2009 extensive geophysical and remote sensing survey by the ArchaeoGeophysical Imaging Project (NUI Galway).

Description

Oweynagat (pronounced “Oen-na-gat”) looks like a megalithic structure at the first glimpse, an ancient tomb for example, but actually it is a natural cave which was widened and used for thousands of years. Located along the side of a single lane cul-de-sac in County Roscommon, the entrance to the cave is easy to miss. But this area is full of Bronze Age remains, as it is considered to be the location of Rathcroghan (pronounced “Rath-craw-hin”). The surrounding fields are full of burial mounds and other ancient relics. The heart of Rathcroghan was a monumental mound named Rath Cruachan where animals were sacrificed at a mighty pagan temple during Samhain. The religious importance of this place started in the late Palaeolithic, and it was later known as Cruachan, the traditional capital of the Connachta and thus one of the six Royal Sites of Ireland, 2,000 years ago. The site has an area of 6.5 km² with more than 240 archaeological sites, including burial mounds, ringforts and medieval field boundaries. And it was the birthplace of the Celtic New Year festival of Samhain (pronounced “Sow-in”) some 2,000 years ago. Rathcroghan was not a city, it was the kingdom’s meeting place and a key venue for festivals like Samhain. Only privileged people may have lived at Rathcroghan. Like most celtic centers it was finally abandoned with the British Invasion.

The site is of great cultural importance, and the Irish government has started to push for UNESCO World Heritage status for Rathcroghan. American tourists on the other side are here for a different reason. In the 19th century Irish immigrants fleeing the famine brought the Samhain tradition to the United States. Here it was transformed into a sweets and ghost stories night called Halloween. So this is actually the birthplace of Halloween, and that's why it is so popular among American tourists. And Oweynagat cave is the center of it all, as it is considered Ireland's gate to hell. According to legend this is the place where on Samhain the gate to Tír na nÓg, the gaelic Otherworld, opens.

The entrance to the cave is artificial, and local archaeologists call such structures souterrains, a special type of the enigmatic SubterraneaErdstall. It was built with drystone masonry between the 7th and 12th century. Two of the lintel stones in this structure bear Ogham inscriptions, unfortunately they are incomplete and all interpretations are just guesses. Some postulate they read the words FRAECH and SON OF MEDB, but so far all interpretations are just speculation. This entrance section is very low, it is becessary to craw, and it is 10 m long and ends at the cave. The natural cave below the souterrains is an almost 40 m long narrow passage without any speleological relevance. It's obviously a karst cave which formed along a crack or rift in the Carboniferous limestone. It is the only known karst cave in the area, although there are unroofed rifts towards the northwest.

Three heroes, Lóegaire, Conall Cernach and Cú Chulainn, are tricked into fighting over the Hero’s Portion by the mischievous Bricriu. To settle the argument, they leave the feast and head to Rathcroghan to seek out the judgement of Ailill, the husband of Queen Medb. The heroes are given lodgings and fed for three nights, as was the custom in ancient Ireland. On the fourth night, the food was delivered to them as normal and, as they sat down to feast, three ferocious cats were let loose form the Cave of Crúachu. Both Loegaire and Conall fled, but Cú Chulainn faced down the cats and tamed them, and was announced the hero by Medb.
From: Bricriu’s Feast, Ulster Cycle.

Oweynagat, or better Uaigh nag Cat, translates Cave of the Cats, which is the connection to above legend. It is considered to be the Cave of Crúachu from the legend. The Hero’s Portion was obviously a special treat which was reserved for "official" heroes, and Bricriu is obviously the gaelic version of Loki, the trickster character. A second tale within the Ulster Cycle tells that the Otherworld could be entered through the cave on the night of Samhain.

In the Samhain night Nera carries the corpse of a recently hung man to find a drink of water, a result of a bet or test of courage. On his return to Rathcroghan, Nera sees that it was burned and everyone in it was killed. He follows a group of men back to the Cave of Cruachan, and ends up in the ‘Otherworld’. While there, he marries a woman and must bring a bundle of firewood to the King every day. He learns that Rathcroghan has not been destroyed and returns to warn Queen Medb and King Ailill of what he has seen. The story ends with a section about a cattle raid from the Otherworld.
Summary of The Adventures of Nera translated by Kuno Meyer.

From the Oweynagat cave various destructive creatures emerged over time. The Ellen Trechen was a triple headed monster, which went on a rampage across the country before being killed by Amergin, the father of Conall Cernach. Small red birds withering every plant they breathed on came from the cave and were killed by the Cróeb Ruad (Red Branch). Herds of pigs who multiplied each time they were counted and ate everything in sight emerged from the cave and were hunted by Queen Medb and King Ailill themselves. They were quite hard to kill because they possessed vanishing powers and an ability to shed captured flesh.

Much younger is a story of a woman who tried to catch a runaway cow by following it into the cave. According to the 18th century legend she emerged miles away in the CaveCaves of Keshcorran, County Sligo. This type of story is told about numerous caves all over the world, see SmileCave Legends.

Oweynagat is protected under the National Monuments Act and Annex I of the Habitats Directive. As it is located on private farmland you should arrange a visit at the Rathcroghan Visitor Centre in Tulsk. The guided tour begins in Medieval Tulsk and includes Rathcroghan Mound, the surrounding monuments, and Oweynagat. It is guided by an archaeologist. For the cave you should defintely wear a cave overall, gum boots, and a helmet with headlamp. Be aware that you will get dirty and there is a shallow lake in the middle of the cave.