To Hell and Back: In Search of the Irish Underworld

By Raymond M. Lane

“How we are going to get out?” asked my daughter, the calm 15-year-old.

It was a good question, and timely. The two of us were scuttling on our haunches under a four-foot stone passageway, slowly surrendering to the pull of gravity in a small, uninviting cave paved in mud way out in the fields of County Roscommon, Ireland.

Perhaps a dozen or so feet up a steep incline behind us was a jagged opening offering a pinch of daylight, a place where moments earlier a few wandering cows had witnessed our arrival. Vinyl slip-on overalls and Wellingtons we’d bought at a hardware store up the road gave only small comfort in return for practically no traction in the oozing mud. It was cold, and water dripped from overhead.

“This doesn’t look good,” she said, pointing a flashlight over the jumble of rock and mud perhaps 30 feet downward to where the cave made a sharp left turn. The passageway in relief looked something like the open mouth of the monster shark in Jaws.

“We’ll take it slow,” I offered, hopeful and reasonably sure of surviving as we paused there in the cave alone, father and daughter without a clue on a voyage of discovery in a strange place the locals call Oweynagat – “Ireland’s entrance to Hell.”

Of course, we’d had no plans of going to hell when we set out for Ireland.

My daughter surprised us with a newfound interest in family history – what she called the “inner Murphy” on her mother’s side – and I had a lot of unused frequent-flier miles. She surprised us again with a request that we visit Ireland during a school break.

Without a plan or itinerary, the two of us flew to Dublin, rented a car and by purest chance ended up in Roscommon, a prosperous town of about 5,000 in north-central Ireland. It is in a beautiful lush valley surrounded by hills, not unlike the Shenandoah Valley back home.

We stayed at an Irish schoolteacher’s bed-and-breakfast on the town square and lazed about, watching the people passing by. Perhaps annoyed at our indolence, the schoolteacher teased that if my daughter really wanted to know Ireland, she should visit the Cruachan Ai (CRU-ah-shan eye) Heritage Centre, up the road in a dot of a place called Tulsk.

“Every schoolgirl in Ireland knows Cruachan Ai,” said Eamon Gleeson, with a broad smile and either a merry twinkle or sinister eye-pinch, depending on one’s perspective. “Sure, you Americans have the green beer and think you’re Irish. Here, history goes back thousands of years, but you have to look for it if you want to see it.”

We fell for the teacher’s challenge, suckers for the “inner Murphy” thing many American tourists can’t seem to avoid once in Ireland. After a few minutes of driving, we made our way to the boxy but pleasant museum built over the River Ogulla, from which locals say St. Patrick blessed the first holy water in Ireland and began his ministry by converting the king’s children.

Despite a utilitarian blandness, the museum works well. Three large display rooms are loaded with artifacts, text, dioramas and video presentations. An outdoor walkway skirts over the tiny river and gives view to a ruined castle. Cows graze nearby.

A cozy snack bar offered hot tea, sandwiches, soup and more. It became our welcoming friend after a day slogging through archaeological remains. We’d drink tea there after stopping by the museum bookstore to load up with historical and archaeological treatments on what we saw or hoped to see just beyond the running dark water outside the wide windows.

So we walked the fields, had tea and slowly pieced together the story of Cruachan Ai, the ancient royal capital of the kingdom of Connacht. It unfolded around us in a four-mile swath of grassy plains.

Over this fertile green, if myth and shaky historical records are to be believed, when Helen of Troy was just a kid, the kings of Ireland created a fabulous Oz, a forbidden city, a Machu Picchu not of stone but of thatch-covered wooden palaces. Fortifications ringed the area, and there was holy ground to bury the royal dead in a kind of national cemetery. Periodically, all the tribes and clans met to elect and inaugurate Ireland’s new kings.

Cruachan Ai was a cultic center of Ireland – one of many – a place of myth and power, with great boozy parties – bacchanals worthy of Alexander the Great. The stories lived on in oral tradition and were first captured in writing in early pre-Christian texts after the Romans plunked trading posts and an alphabet in Ireland, according to historian Tom Condit, writing for the country’s Heritage Council.

Today, all that remains of Cruachan Ai are rectangular stone field walls disguising an underlying tracery of relic field systems and ancient roads around a concentration of earthwork monuments. There is no organized interpretive touring, no Jamestown-like restoration projects or costumed reenactors, no Park Service rangers giving an overview to pull it all together for visitors. No restrooms, either.

“You have to look for yourself,” Gleeson encouraged when we returned for a hot meal and a warm bed after a long day tramping the fields.

But they were satisfying days of unhurried reasoning through the myth and quasi-history of it all. There was no place to hurry off to, no souvenir shops to pick over, no malls. We mucked through damp green fields to walk the complex of mounds, barrows and enclosures. We examined the little placards at each site and let our imaginations fill in the blanks.

And there wasn’t a single tourist – not one – anywhere we went in three days at Cruachan Ai. Not even when we climbed the 300-foot mound that is all that remains of the palace of Queen Maeve (Shakespeare called her Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet) – the mythic queen of Connacht, a title more than a person, the earth goddess who through her powerful sexuality conferred kingship on the ancient rulers of Ireland.

“Earth goddess?” my daughter said. “That’s cool.”

“It was Maeve who went to Oweynagat to save humanity,” said the museum’s Elizabeth Fallon, a former teacher who befriended us the moment we walked in the door. Fallon gave us directions and doodled little maps to the various archaeological sites beside or hidden in the wet just off little country roads.

“Her son Fraech was born in there, and daughter Finnabhair, both in Oweynagat, the Cave of the Cats, they call it,” said Fallon, sucking in a little breath to punctuate the seriousness of her words. “You must see it,” she said, “the Cave of the Cats.”

That was how we ended up crawling through the muddy cave, after Fallon led us to its hidden entrance and then drove off to return to the museum. “I’m afraid to go in it,” she said, waving goodbye. “The claustrophobia.”

Once inside and through a narrow constriction, there is a steep drop-off of about 30 feet to the cave proper, and then total darkness. A stillness, profound silence and chilly air surround you as you progress toward the 300-foot-long gallery. Water dripping from the 30-foot high V-shaped ceiling sounds periodically on the muddy floor. A calcium carbonate dusting on the walls sparkled weirdly as our flashlights flitted back and forth.

“I’m surprised you went in at all,” Daragh Smyth said a few days later in Dublin. “It’s kind of spooky in there, and most people chicken out, you know.”

Smyth, a retired professor at the Dublin Institute of Technology and a fellow in the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, taught early Irish history and mythology for 30 years, specializing in Oweynagat and Cruachan Ai. The past 15 years, he has conducted underground celebrations in the cave for Samhain, an ancient start-of-winter ritual.

“It’s the world’s oldest word for the end of the agricultural season,” said Smyth, who with his white beard and pink cheeks could pass as Santa’s older brother. He told stories about Oweynagat, the mythic gates of hell opening especially at Samhain, and humans abducted into the fairy realms inside. Beings from hell came out, sometimes as cats, magical red pigs and flaming birds that withered everything in Ireland touched by their beaks, he said.

“The myth was that the Maeve character would enter and through sex with the underworld spirits bring about a good harvest, a baby, victory in battle, whatever,” said Smyth, tut-tutting. “Temple prostitution.”

For Samhain, Smyth creates at Oweynagat what he thinks may have been the typical experience in antiquity. He invites Simon O’Dwyer, author of Prehistoric Music of Ireland, to come from Dublin with some of his replicas of bronze and animal bone horns dating from before Jesus. They pipe on these way down in the cave, as drummers drum and visitors – usually students – recite in Gaelic their favorite poems or fables, or just chant from ancient texts, he said. Afterward, aboveground, they light a bonfire, sometimes with a cookout, and perhaps some drinks are shared with those too cautious to the join the Oweynagat celebrants below.

“This 10,000 years of myth and history, it’s part of us,” Smyth said. “Such times they were.” (The Washington Post)

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