Rathcroghan

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Face-on view of Rathcroghan mound
Digital image of Rathcroghan mound

Rathcroghan (Irish: Ráth Cruachan, meaning "ringfort of Cruachan") is a complex of archaeological sites near Tulsk in County Roscommon, Ireland. It is identified as the site of Cruachan, the traditional capital of the Connachta. While it is debatable whether this was a place of residence, it had huge importance as a cemetery and also hosted some of the main ritual gatherings in ancient times. It is an important site in Irish mythology, in particular as the seat of Ailill and Medb, king and queen of the Connachta in the Ulster Cycle. It is the setting for the opening section of the Táin Bó Cúailnge and the Táin Bó Flidhais.

Mythology[edit]

Origin[edit]

According to a Dindshenchas poem, Cruachan was named after Crochen, the handmaid of Étaín, a sídhe maiden reborn as a mortal. When Étaín is brought back to the Otherworld by her original sídhe lover Midir, Crochen accompanies them and on their way to Midir's underground palace they spend some time in a mound known as Síd Sinche. Crochen is so impressed by this síd that she asks Midir if this is his palace. Because of her loyalty to Étaín and her respect to this dwelling, Midir gives it to her and names it in her honour before bringing Étaín to his palace at Bri Leith. At the end of the poem Crochen is mentioned as the mother of Medb. The same poem mentions Cruachan as a royal cemetery: "Listen, ye warriors about Cruachu! With its barrow for every noble couple".[1]

Ulster Cycle[edit]

Cruachan features heavily in the Ulster Cycle as it was the home of one of its chief characters Queen Medb. She had been given the kingdom of Connacht by her High-King father Eochaid Feidlech who had de-throned the previous king Tindi Mac Conra over an act of treachery. Its unclear if Tindi had actually ruled the province from Cruachan or if had been built by/for Medb. Another story states that Cruachan had been ruled by the queen's sister, Clothru, before Medb herself had her killed. Vivid descriptions of the Western capital are given in Fled Bricrenn ("Bricriu's Feast"), and this one in Táin Bó Fraích: "Of pine the house was made; it is a covering of shingle it had externally. There were sixteen windows in the house, and a frame of brass, to each of them; a tie of brass across the roof-light. Four beams of brass on the apartment of Ailill and Medb, adorned all with bronze, and it in the exact centre of the house. Two rails of silver around it under gilding. In the front a wand of silver that reached the middle rafters of the house. The house was encircled all round from the door to the other."[2] Cruachan features at the start and end of the Táin Bó Cúailgne with the pillow talk in the royal residence, and concluding with the fight of the bulls, supposed to have taken place at Rath na Darbh, one of the largest ring-forts on the site. Aside from the Ulster tales there are not many mythical descriptions of Connachts main fort with one of the best examples occurring in a Dindshenchas poem on Carn Fráich. This poem deals with two figures of this name, one being the Fráech of Medbs time and one who was a Connacht prince preceding Irelands division into Conns and Eoghans half, with this section of the poem describing Cruachan as a stone built fortress.[3]

Samhain[edit]

Cruachan seems to have heavy associations with the feast of Samhain, as it was during this time that the Irish believed that the prehistoric graves from before their time opened and their gods and spirits, who dwelt inside, walked the earth. The emerging of creatures from Oweynagat would be part of this belief. A legend based on this is "The Adventures of Nera", in which the warrior of the title is challenged to tie a twig around the ankle of a condemned man on Samhain night. After agreeing to get some water for the condemned man he discovers strange houses and when he finally gets him some water at the third house he returns him to captivity only to witness Rathcroghan's royal buildings being destroyed by the spirits. He follows the fairy host to the síd where he meets a woman who tells him that what he saw was a vision of what will happen a year from now unless his mortal comrades are warned. He leaves the síd and informs Ailill of his vision who then has the Sidhe destroyed.

Oweynagat[edit]

souterain which leads into Oweynagcat – the cave of Cruachan

It is unclear whether what is referred to as the síd is Oweynagat or the mound of Rathcroghan itself. However it is from Oweynagat that various destructive creatures emerged. The Ellen Trechen was a triple headed monster that went on a rampage across the country before being killed by Amergin, the father of Conall Cernach. Small red birds came from the cave withering every plant they breathed on before being hunted by the Red Branch, also herds of pigs with similar decaying powers emerged from the cave with Ailill and Medb themselves desperately trying to hunt them but having to deal with vanishing powers and an ability to shed captured flesh. The name Oweynagat may come from the magical wildcats featured in "Bricriu's Feast" that emerge from the cave to attack the three Ulster warriors before being tamed by Cúchulainn. The name could also refer to the king of the cats, Irusan, who features in Irish fairy tales and was believed to live in a cave near Clonmacnoise but is associated with many places.[4] A tale from the eighteenth century tells of a woman who on trying to catch a runaway cow, follows it into the cave and emerges miles away in Keshcorran, Co. Sligo. On the inner lintel is an ogham inscription. The full phrasing is unclear but the words FRAECH and SON OF MEDB have been translated. It is unclear if this is the Fraech associated with Queen Medb.

The Morrígan[edit]

The Morrígan emerges from this cave every Samhain on a chariot pulled by a one-legged chestnut horse along with various creatures such as the ones mentioned above. On one occasion she leaves the cave with a cow, guided by a giant with a forked staff, to give to Bull of Cúailgne. The Morrígan also takes the bull of a woman named Odras who follows her into the cave before falling under an enchanted sleep, upon awakening she sees the Morrígan who whispers a spell over her, turning Odras into a pool of water.

History[edit]

Like the other royal sites there are not any great historical references or archaeological evidence to prove it was a royal residence or fortress as described in the myths with some of the best examples of ring-forts in the area dating from Christian times. It was certainly an important cemetery with the amount of ring barrows backing up the scribes who mention it alongside Tailtiu and Tara as one of the three great burial sites also a gathering place or oenach. All assemblies and oenachs were part of religious and funerary traditions and just as an assembly was held at the cemetery of Tailtiu (even into the 19th century) there would surely have been one at Cruachan. It is believed by many that queen Medb was actually the local earth goddess, much like Medb Lethderg at Tara, and that becoming king meant marrying the earth, becoming one with Cruachan with the inauguration more than likely taking place on Rathcroghan mound itself. Cruachan's religious importance diminished after the arrival of Christianity, highlighted by the prologue in the Martyrology of Oengus that contrasts the end of Cruachans power with the emergence of Clonmacnoise.[5]

The new emerging writers didn't really record what actually happened at sites like this, developing stories which feature the síd of Cruachan being attacked by Ailill and Medb while referring to Owenagcat as the hells gate of Ireland. At the end of the first century a number of rath's were built on the site and some of these later including souterrains with an entrance for one built over Oweynagcat using standing Ogham stones from the site that were unique to Connacht, usually only appearing in the south-west of Ireland. The area is peppered with medieval field banks, best examples around Reilig na Ri, showing that Cruachain became key grazing land possibly attached initially to the early medieval fort built at neighbouring Tulsk, with another nearby feature -Carnfree mound- being used as the inauguration site of the O'Connor kings of Connacht. There is evidence of small house clusters or 'sean bhaile' between the monuments that could have been lived in well past the Middle Ages however the next important development was surveying that began in the mid eighteenth century, highlighted by Gabriel Berangers colour drawing of Cruachan mound. This work was continued by the ordnance survey in the 1830s who with local help assigned the names to the mounuments that are used to this day. Not much physical excavation has been done around Rathcroghan mound but improving technologies mean its not required with use of radar and magnetic surveys revealing features that show great similarities between Rathcroghan, Tara and Emain Macha. In 1999 the Cruachan Ai visitor centre was completed in Tulsk showcasing all the latest research updates done on Rathcroghan as well as Carnfree and Tulsk itself.

A historical reference to the cave is to be found in the Triads of Ireland, dating from the 14th to the 19th century, where "Úam Chnogba, Úam Slángæ and Dearc Fearna" are listed under the heading, "the three darkest places in Ireland".[6] The last, meaning the "Cave of the Alders," is generally thought to be the present Dunmore Cave,[7] while the first two translate as the caves of Knowth and the caves of Slaney.[8] It is not known which exact system of caves/passage tombs near the river Slaney is being referred to, with the most likely, those at Baltinglass. Other sources translate the listed locations as Rath Croghan, the cave or crypt of Slane[9] and the "Cave of the Ferns".[8]

Main Sites[edit]

Map of the main sites in Rathcroghan

Rathcroghan Mound[edit]

The main site is a low flat-topped mound some 90 metres wide at the base, with a small 6-metre wide mound still visible on top, probably the remains of a small burial mound. This site, once considered a natural feature, has thanks to geophysical surveying been revealed to be man-made, apparently extended from a small natural gravel ridge.[10] Surveying has revealed that the mound was built on top of an existing monument that was made of two stone built ring banks. Traces of large buildings have been revealed on the summit of the mound which may have been temples similar to the Forty Foot structure at Emain Macha while there is evidence of a trench, 380m in diameter, which had the mound as its center. It is unclear whether this mound was the Sídh Ar Cruachan that appears in the legends or if that name refers to Oweynagcat with the mound instead being the royal seat of Connacht. It is estimated that the site is at least 6000 years old.

Rathmore[edit]

To the northwest of Rathcroghan Mound is Rathmore (Rath Mór, "big ringfort"), a circular earthwork consisting of a raised flat area, 30 metres across, surrounded by a sloping earth bank inside a deep ditch. This monument is believed to have been a chieftain's residence, dating to the second half of the first millennium AD.[10]

Rath na Darbh[edit]

West of Rathcroghan Mound is Rath na Darbh ("ringfort of the bulls", anglicised as "Rathnadarve"), a large circular enclosure surrounded by a bank and ditch. It is traditionally supposed to be site of the fight between the bulls Donn Cúailnge and Finnbhennach at the end of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, although the name is first recorded in the 19th century.[10]

Reilig na Rí[edit]

Reilig na ("cemetery of the kings", anglicised as "Relignaree"), south of Rathcroghan Mound, is a circular enclosure 100 metres in diameter, surrounded by a stony bank. Internal features include a souterrain, several rectangular hut-sites, and the remains of a smaller circular enclosure. It is probably the remains of a settlement of the early historic period.[10] Some believe its inner area is divided to resemble an ancient map of Ireland.

Oweynagat[edit]

Oweynagat ("the cave of the cats"), south-west of Rathcroghan Mound, is a souterrain beneath an old road leading into a dark, narrow limestone cave. This cave was believed to be a gateway to the otherworld with many creatures emerging that generally caused havoc across the country. The name Oweynagat means "cave of the cats", which could refer to the large wild cats which the Ulster champions must fight in the tale of "Bricrius Feast". Two of the stones used to build the souterrain entrance contain Ogham inscriptions, with one of the inscriptions reading VRAICCI MAQI MEDVII, interpreted as meaning Fráech son of Medb.[10] Fráech was a Connacht champion who wooed Medb's daughter Findabair and also gives his name to the neighbouring site of Carn Fraích (Carnfree).

Dathí's Mound[edit]

Sketch of Dathí's Mound c. 1900.

Close to Reilig na Rí is Dathí's Mound, supposedly the burial mound of Dathí, the last pagan High King of Ireland. Excavation, however, shows the mound has been sculpted out of a natural gravel ridge, there is no trace of any burial, and radiocarbon dating indicates it was constructed between 200 BC and AD 200, considerably earlier than Dathí's dates. It consists of an embanked earth mound surrounded by a bank about 40 metres across with entrances east and west, and topped with a standing stone.[10]

The Mucklaghs[edit]

The Mucklaghs; believed to be created by a magical boar

Two long linear enclosures with banks up to 6m high, similar to the Banqueting Hall at Tara. Traditionally believed to be dug out of the ground by a magical boar, there is a view that these structures may have been used to store and protect animals or more than likely for ceremonial purposes as excavations in similar sites in Britain and Europe have revealed sacred stones and offerings.

Other sites[edit]

  • Rathbeg – A narrow burial mound surrounded by two banks.
  • Misguan Medb – A fallen standing stone located near Rathcroghan Mound.
  • Ancient Avenue – An avenue or trackway surrounded by two low banks. Part of it intersects with the outer circular bank and ditch of Rathscreig, a site with a small mound at the center. The avenue which is roughly 15 meters wide seems to end at Flanagans Fort, another ringfort with a small mound at the center. Both these forts were built at a later date than the avenue.
  • Cashelmanannan – The closest feature in the area to the mythical description of Rathcroghan as a stone fortress. Only the foundations remain of 3 circular stone walls separated by ditches. The overall diameter being 64 meters and the walls themselves being 1.5 metres thick.

Annalistic references[edit]

  • A slaughter of them (Vikings) at Carn Fearadhaigh.

Sources[edit]

  • Waddell, John (1998). The prehistoric archaeology of Ireland. Galway: Galway University Press. ISBN 1-869857-39-9. hdl:10379/1357. 
  • "A Guide to Irish Mythology", Daragh Smyth, 1988.
  • "Rathcroghan and Carnfree", Michael Herity, 1991.
  • "Foras Feasa Eirann", Geoffrey Keating, 1636.
  • "Leabhar Mor nGenealach", Dubhaltach MacFhirbhisigh, 1649–1666.
  • "Ogyia", Ruaidhri O Flaithbheartaigh, 1684.
  • "Rathcroghan-A Royal Site in Connacht", John Waddell, 1983.[1]
  • Wadell, John (2009). "Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon: where the Táin Bó Cúailnge began". Archaeology Ireland Heritage Guide No. 44. hdl:10379/1353. 

References[edit]

  1. ^ Edward Gwynn (ed. & trans.), The Metrical Dindshenchas Vol. 3, 1906: Rath Cruachan
  2. ^ Táin Bó Fraích. English translation from Heroic Romances of Ireland vol. II. trans. and ed. by A.H. Leahy. London: David Nutt, 1906.
  3. ^ Gwynn 1906:Carn Fráich
  4. ^ Molly Gowen and Lavinia Hamer "Birthsigns, The Celtic Animal Year" 1993
  5. ^ Whitely Stokes, "The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee" London 1903
  6. ^ Meyer, Kuno; Lavelle, Hilary; Purcell, Emer et al., eds. (transcribed 2005). The Triads of Ireland. Todd Lecture Series 13 (1st ed.). Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co. Retrieved 2010-11-06. 
  7. ^ Coleman, J. C. (1965). The Caves of Ireland. Tralee, Co. Kerry: Anvil Press. pp. 14–16. 
  8. ^ a b Meyer, Kuno, ed. (1906). The Triads of Ireland. Todd Lecture Series 13 (1st ed.). Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co. pp. 4–5. Retrieved 2010-11-06. 
  9. ^ Foot, Arthur Wynne (1878). "An account of a visit to the cave of Dunmore, Co. Kilkenny, with some remarks on human remains found therein". Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 4 (Dublin) I: 65–94. Retrieved 2010-11-06. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f John Waddell, "Rathcroghan in Connacht", Emania 5, Autumn 1988, pp. 5–18

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 53°48′07″N 8°18′14″W / 53.802°N 8.304°W / 53.802; -8.304