Rathcroghan is another of the ancient royal sites of Ireland. Its large mound – Rath Cruachan – is the home of the legendary Queen Medb, and the Cave of the Cats – Oweynagat – is the home of the Morrigan.
I wanted to visit Rathcroghan ever since I first heard the call of the Morrigan. We made plans to go there in 2014, but problems with a rental car forced us to replan our trip and skip Rathcroghan. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a good thing – I wasn’t ready for the experience.
It was a must-do on this year’s trip. Emmett, our friendly taxi driver, picked us up in Dublin and drove us about two hours west to the town of Tulsk. Our first stop was the Rathcroghan Visitor Centre. It has a small museum, which includes a short film telling the story of the Táin Bó Cuailnge. There’s a gift shop and a café, which came in handy when we came back in cold and wet and hungry.
And it’s where we met Daniel Curley, our guide for the tour.
Our first stop was Rath Cruachan, the large mound. Daniel didn’t just show us the area, he presented what’s known about it, both the archaeology and the mythology. For the most part the mythology is the Táin Bó Cuailnge – the Cattle Raid of Cooley. Daniel’s a good storyteller and he knew his audience were Pagans (well, six Pagans and one Pagan-friendly Christian). We got the unglossed version of the story and it was very well done.
I owe Queen Medb a story
The weather was nice when we got there – so nice Daniel left his coat in his car. But shortly after we climbed to the top of Rath Cruachan, the rain started. It’s Ireland, it rains, deal with it. Listening to Daniel talk, you would have thought the sun was shining and it was 72 degrees (22 C) – being a professional storyteller means telling your story no matter what the conditions.
After a while, though, Daniel suggested we get off the mound. There’s no shelter in the area, but we could use the sign as a windbreak. That helped. And although it rains in Ireland, it usually doesn’t rain for long (our Lough Gur experience was a notable exception). After a while things cleared up again.
On the way down, I told Cyn “I’ve never been overly fond of Queen Medb.” To which she replied “Oh, so this storm is your fault!” I’m not sure why I’ve never been fond of Queen Medb. I think it’s because early on my Pagan journey, I read a rather bad fictionalized account of her. And while I knew that was a bad writer writing a bad story, the association remained in my mind. That’s not fair, to her or to me.
When Daniel restarted his story, he was at a point where I was familiar with it. So I stepped aside, poured an offering to Queen Medb, and said “I’m sorry – I shouldn’t have ignored you all these years.” And what I heard was “learn my story, and tell it at your next bardic circle.” And so I will.
The Cave of the Morrigan
And then we were on to Oweynagat, the Cave of the Cats, the Cave of the Morrigan. Geologically, this is a high, narrow divide between limestone formations, with a small human-built entrance chamber. You enter into the souterrain horizontally – we went feet first. If you have any caving experience at all, it’s not particularly difficult. If you’ve only been in caves you can walk into (like the Gates of Tír na nÓg), you may find it a little tight and steep.
This is a wet cave. Doesn’t matter if it’s been raining recently or not – the cave is always wet and full of mud. It goes down on a steep but manageable incline, then levels out at the bottom. There’s a mud pit there, then it rises again before reaching a point where further passage is blocked. I’ve seen several pictures from inside the cave – including my own. Lora O’Brien has some videos on her YouTube channel. None of them really convey what it’s like to be inside the cave, even from a mundane perspective. You have to experience it for yourself.
This cave has been called “Ireland’s Gate to Hell.” As caves go, this one isn’t very hellish. Daniel thought the name had more to do with its connection to the Morrigan, and to the way medieval and later Christians tried to associate Her with demons. This is inaccurate and unfortunate.
For those of us who know the Morrigan, this cave is a beautiful and powerful place… even if it is a bit scary.
Singing to the Great Queen
Before we went in, we gathered in a circle, poured offerings to the Morrigan, and asked for Her protection and blessings as we entered Her cave. Then we climbed in.
Daniel waited while we all got into the entrance, then let us know what to expect as we followed him down. It took a bit for all six of us to make it (Cathy stayed outside – she doesn’t do caves, or climbing). When we were all there, Daniel talked about what we know about the cave and how it was likely used as a place of initiation – the total darkness of a cave is good for that.
Then he asked us to turn off our flashlights so we could experience the darkness for ourselves. And Cyn said “when we do, we have a song.”
Samantha Angel Snow, who had impressed the professional musicians in a Dublin pub two nights before, sang an anthem to the Morrigan: “Battle Raven” by Catt Kingsgrave. The acoustics of the cave were amazing. I’ve heard “Battle Raven” many times – I don’t think I’ve ever heard it sound this good. Sami sang the verses – we all helped with the chorus:
Bring me thunder, bring me steel, bring me coat of iron mail
Bring me diamond hardened will and let my courage never fail.
Bring the lightning to my sword, lashing, living in my hand
And bring warning to the horde that here the Battle Raven stands!
There were no ecstatic experiences. I thought the Morrigan might speak through one of us (though I had been told it would not be me), but She chose otherwise. She can do that here, and She has. There was no urgent need to do it there.
Still, Her presence was unmistakably strong.
Then we turned our lights back on and Daniel led us out of the cave. I was the last one out, and shot this picture of some of the Ogham carvings on the lintel.
We made more offerings to the Morrigan, thanking Her for our safe journey and for Her presence and inspiration.
And then we went back to the taxi, where Emmett waited while we changed out of our muddy clothes before getting into the van.
If you go
Begin at the Rathcroghan Visitor Centre. You will need a car or a driver to get there. We considered taking the train from Dublin to Roscommon and getting taxis from there, but having a driver gave us more flexibility. There are local accommodations, but our itinerary meant it made more sense for us to stay in Dublin and do Rathcroghan as a day trip.
You will need to drive from the Visitor Centre to Rath Cruachan, and from there to the cave.
Pay attention to the opening hours and the tour times, which vary by season. You can tour the exhibition any time it’s open, and the Mound is on public land which is accessible. But the guided tours are definitely worth your time and the small cost. There is one regularly scheduled tour per day through most of the year, and a second one during the summer. You can arrange for a private group tour by contacting the Visitor Centre.
The Cave of the Cats is on private land and entry is not permitted without an approved guide. Plus if you don’t know where it is you’ll never find it.
This is a wet cave – dress appropriately. Wear heavy clothes and sturdy shoes that you don’t mind getting caked in mud. Leave coats, hats, packs, and big cameras outside – you’ll need your hands for crawling through the cave. I carried Cathy’s point & shoot camera because I could put it in my pocket. Bring flashlights, or better yet, a headlamp.
Bring a complete change of clothes, and plan to change as soon as you get back to your car, not at the Visitors Centre or your hotel. Yes, you’ll be that muddy. If you’re excessively modest, have someone hold a sheet up as a changing screen. Bring a garbage bag to hold your muddy clothes.
The Cave of the Morrigan is literally an earthy experience. And it is totally worth getting dirty for.