Facing Fear at Cave of the Cats in Western Ireland

by Elyn Aviva

Even photos of the Cave of the Cats gave me the willies. I wasn’t going to enter it, not if you paid me. I was sure of that. My companions could go in if they wanted, but not me. We sloshed through the wet field to the entrance, a dark inverted triangle almost hidden by an overgrown thorn bush. A gash, a hole in Mother Earth. “No way,” I muttered, shaking my head. Jack, flashlight in hand, offered to go in first, and I watched him slither into the tight-fitting slit.

County Roscommon in western Ireland has a reputation for being boring, but it is anything but. The Rathcroghan complex has been a powerful place since the Neolithic, roughly 6000 years ago. It is an enigmatic landscape shrouded in myth, the burial place of long-forgotten heroes and the kings and queens of Connacht. It is one of the legendary “Celtic Royal Sites” of Ireland, ranking with the better-known Hill of Tara. Like Tara, Rathcroghan unites legend with history. It includes over 200 sites: ancient earthworks, tumuli, ceremonial avenues, ring forts, standing stones, the remains of a Druid school, holy wells, and caves. We’d come for the caves—one in particular, the Cave of the Cats.

Oweynagat (pronounced “Oween-ne-gat” or “UUvnaGOTCH”) or the Cave of the Cats is a spooky place, filled with powerful energies both of the earth and of the Otherworld. The Morrigan, Celtic goddess of death, destruction, and passion, is said to reside within. At Samhain (Halloween), frightening creatures are reported to issue forth from the interior, including female werewolves, malevolent birds and pigs, and a triple-headed monster. The tenth-century tale “Bricriu’s Feast” (Fled Bricrenn) recounts how three warriors, including Cúchulainn, were tested in the cave by terrifying cats, which suggests that the cave was used for warrior rites of passage.

The cave has been a ritual site for millennia, and spiritually focused groups, including Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, still seek it out. They go deep within and perform ceremonies, their drumming and chanting reverberating in the constricted space.

Several years ago my husband, Gary, and I tried to find the Cave of the Cats without success. Actually, we did find it, but we couldn’t believe that the small, unmarked hole, obscured by greenery, was the entrance. It looked like an animal burrow. Convinced that we had misunderstood the directions, we walked away.

Recently we returned to Cruachan and asked our expert guide, Mike Croghan, whose family has lived in the area for generations, to take us to Oweynagat. Much to our surprise, he led us to the same small opening. We looked at each other in disbelief. This is it? We told him about our previous unsuccessful venture.

Mike smiled enigmatically and said, “Many would look for the Cave of the Cats; few would find it; and fewer still would enter.” Clearly, we were already in the land of legend—and we hadn’t even entered the cave.

Gary said he had no interest in going in. I looked at the opening with trepidation. The photos I had seen in the nearby Cruachan Ai Heritage Center made me nervous—I didn’t know why. But was I going to let fear rule me? It was certainly tempting to do so, given how my legs started shaking at the thought of entering into the darkness. Reason triumphed over fear, however, when our friend Jack offered to lead the way. Besides, despite its scary reputation, surely Oweynagat was just a cave. Wasn’t it?

I watched Jack disappear, feet first, as he slid into the tiny hole. Taking a deep breath, I wiggled in after him. I backed into the downward pointing, triangular opening until I reached a small chamber where I could sit down. After my eyes adjusted, I realized I wasn’t in the cave; I was only in the vestibule.

Jack squatted next to me and shone his flashlight on the Ogham script carved on the lintel over the entry. It translates partially as “…Fraech, …son of Medb,” and refers to a legendary Connacht warrior—more evidence that the cave was probably used for warrior initiations.

A downward-sloping passage to my right led deeper into the earth to the limestone cave. I would have to crawl through the passage for 10 m (33 ft). Jack assured me that the passage gets taller partway down and then opens into a limestone cavity approximately 5 m (16 ft) high and an arm-span wide. That’s the “real” Cave of the Cats. The cave, formed by hydro-erosion, ends about 50 m (164 ft) from the entrance.

While Jack explored the sloping inner passage that led to the cave itself, I stayed in the antechamber, breathing deep and slow. A husky voice crooned in my ear, trying to lure me further into the cave. I knew that if I followed that voice I’d never come back—not as I am, at any rate. Firmly, I ignored the Morrigan’s insistent call. This was no time for death and rebirth. I had other plans. I stayed where I was, sitting in the almost-dark, listening to my ragged breath, listening to her whispers swirling like mist around me.

After what seemed like forever but wasn’t, Jack rejoined me. He crawled out of the antechamber and I followed after. As I stood up under the sun-bright sky, I felt strangely disoriented, oddly serene, and completely disconnected from time. I told Gary, “If you walk off and leave me here, I’d still be standing in the same place six months from now.”

Mike told us that this feeling of being “outside of time” is not unusual after entering the cave. He added, “They say that seven years in the land of the Sidhe—the fairies—is one year in ‘human’ land.” Well, maybe that explains it.

A few months later a friend of mine visited the cave with Mike. She wrote me that she encountered neither beasts nor Morrigan; instead, she discovered a lovely miniature vaulted cathedral with a muddy floor.

IF YOU GO:

Begin your visit to the Rathcroghan Complex at Cruachan Aí (pronounced “Crew-han-ee”) Heritage Center (www.cruachanai.com) at Tulsk. It has informative high-tech exhibits describing the area, as well as a gift shop and cafe. Cruachan Aí is located where the N5 Dublin to Westport Rd intersects the N61 Roscommon to Boyle Rd, a short distance north of Roscommon town. To explore the area and find the Cave of the Cats, a detailed map, available at the Visitor Center, is a necessity; a good guide is even better. Tours can be arranged through the center or contact Mike Croghan at mikejcroghan@yahoo.co.uk and www.bogoakcarvings.com or www.rathcroghantours.com.

 

Elyn Aviva is a writer, fiber artist, and transformational traveler. Currently living in Girona (Catalonia), Spain, she is fascinated by pilgrimage and sacred sites. Her PhD in anthropology was on the modern Camino de Santiago in Spain. Aviva is author of a number of books on pilgrimage and journey, and she is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks”; Powerful Places in Ireland will be available in late 2011. To learn more about Elyn or her publications, go to www.pilgrimsprocess.com and www.powerfulplaces.com  and www.fiberalchemy.com

 

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