Life is funny. I never thought I’d find myself down an old country lane, asking a tatooed mechanic, “Is this the right way for the portal to the Otherworld?” Only in Ireland, as they say. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.
As anyone who has read my stories will know, I have a bit of a thing for magic, mystery and the unseen. Maybe it’s down to my over-active imagination, or it could be my love of folklore, but either way, Ireland is fertile ground for superstition. Of course it was the Irish who invented Halloween (need proof? here) or what we call Samhain. It is the time of year when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest and beings from the Otherworld can cross over and scare the bejesus out of us.
But surely this is all myth and not really grounded in reality? Well, being cursed with a nose for curiosity, I found myself on a bit of a road trip recently, in search of the real portal to the Otherworld ~ Oweynagat. Oweyna-what I hear you ask? Well, this is the anglicised version of Uaimh na gCait, which translates as Cave Of The Cats and can be found in Rathcroghan, a Royal Site in County Roscommon, where the Kings and Queens of Connacht reigned and were buried. Rathcroghan (Crúachan Aí) is a unique complex of archaeological sites and is believed to have been the birthplace of Queen Medb, Connacht’s Warrior Queen (waaaay before Beyonce).
As with many things in the West of Ireland, directions are all relative. The signs are there, but good luck seeing them. Rathcroghan is said to be one of the most significant but least appreciated archaeological landscapes on the island of Ireland, so while you won’t find as many tourists here as compared to Tara and Newgrange, you mightn’t find the site either! A series of mounds are spread out across the townland of Tulsk and the fact that most of them are on private land which is currently being farmed, you could quite easily drive past. Thankfully, there is a lovely new visitor’s centre to keep you on the straight and narrow, but you will still have to run the gauntlet of some menacing sheep to get to the top of the mound.
But getting back to the cave and its historical connections with Samhain. Oweynagat is said to be the portal to the Otherworld and to prove its credentials, when Christianity came to Ireland, this cave was referred to as The Hellmouth of Ireland. Now that’s a reputation to be proud of! It is said that The Morrigan (an ancient goddess of war in Irish mythology) emerges from this cave on Halloween night on a chariot pulled by a one-legged chestnut horse, along with various creatures such as three-headed monsters and red birds that wither plants on sight. Luckily, I visited during the height of summer, so it didn’t get too scary.
Needless to say, my companion and I drove in circles for quite a while before ending up on a long and winding road to what can only be described as middle earth. Unsure as to how we should proceed (see my previous point about the lack of signs), I spotted a guy fixing cars in his shed and had the dubious honour of asking him whether this was the place where we could find the portal to the Otherworld. As you do.
‘Ah, the wee man is it?’ he replied in a Donegal accent.
‘Erm, I guess so,’ I responded.
All we had to do was open the gate into the adjoining field and there we would find (let this not be underestimated) A GATEWAY TO ANOTHER DIMENSION. It’s not everyday you do that, so I was glad I’d brought a flask of tea and some tuna wraps! Thanks to hundreds of years of under-investment in the west, many of our archaeological treasures have been left untouched, and to be honest, that’s part of the charm. This unassuming place has a magical atmosphere that you can sense immediately. The entrance to the cave is guarded over by a hawthorn tree, a sacred tree in Irish folklore, so I knew we were on the right track. The entrance has a stone lintel, inscribed in Ogham (the ancient Irish alphabet) with the text that translates as “Frach, son of Medb”, referring to the queen associated with the area. Resembling what the mountaineer Dermot Somers terms as a “crack in the floor of time”, the narrow entrance to Uaimh na gCait, or Cave of the Cats, consists of a man-made souterrain and a natural limestone cavern.
It’s a bit of a squeeze to get in and in the end I slid into it (rather gracefully) on my backside. I had such a sense of anticipation, bearing in mind that I was still wondering, ‘Is this the right place?’ and ‘Will I be cursed for trying to enter the Otherworld?’ There’s something so visceral about returning to the earth; a sensation that defies language and yet calls to our subconscious in a very primal way. The history of the place, the myth and lore surrounding it and the fact that there was no-one else there but us, made it feel very special indeed. Stupidly, I forgot to bring a torch and my companion revealed at the eleventh hour that they suffered from severe claustrophobia, (hardly a crack team!) so I didn’t get very far into the cave, but it didn’t matter. Just being there, in that ancient spot, imagining all of the comings and goings sent my creative juices into overdrive! All of the great believers have been here, even Dr. Douglas Hyde, our late president, carved his name in the stone. Bloody vandal.
So next time I’m going to bring a torch, a chisel and an even bigger flask to see me through to the other side. I would highly recommend a visit, if you’re in the West of Ireland. These places have been relatively untouched over the years, so if you’re looking for an authentic experience of Ireland’s ancient past, Rathcroghan is a gem.
And if you like all things otherworldly, keep an eye out for my new novel, The Story Collector, which will be published by Urbane Publications in June 2018. Pre-order here.