Recently, I made a 12-day trip through Ireland, Wales and Cornwall to complete some research and interviews for my forthcoming book. Amongst many adventures, the most powerful was a trip to Oweynagat, the mythical Cave of Cats, at Rathcroghan, County Roscommon. I had only one day, one opportunity to go there, and it happened to be in the middle of a snowstorm, after an unexpectedly heavy February snowfall. I’m singling it out here because it relates in some sense to the series of short articles I’m writing on midlife transitions. A key part of any ‘Journey’, whether it be the Hero’s Journey or the Heroine’s Journey or any other Journey you’d like to invoke, is the passage to the Underworld. The power of the transforming dark; the cauldron; the cocoon. Call it what you will; I encountered it in all its real and tangible force in the rather intimidating Oweynagat, referred to in an old religious text as ‘the hell-mouth of Ireland’.
Battling through an unexpectedly fierce February snowstorm, I found the portal to the Underworld. At the base of a small mound in a farmer’s field in Roscommon, partially obscured by an overhanging, snow-clad tree, is a gaping black maw. It is unmarked, and inconspicuous; only the presence of a stone lintel alerts you to the fact that this isn’t just any old hole in the ground. It is the entrance to Oweynagat, Cave of Cats: Ireland’s ‘gate to Hell’, as it was called in the early ninth-century tale Cath Maige Mucrama (The Battle of Mag Mucrama).
Given that the opening is less than three feet high, you might approach your journey to the Underworld with more than a little trepidation. You’ll want to have a head-torch: just enough light to keep you safe. Get down on your hands and knees, bend your head low, and crawl down into the black. You are passing through a hole in what once was the roof of a partially collapsed man-made souterrain: a particular type of underground passageway associated with the European Atlantic Iron Age. You’ll want to go down slowly; it’s wet, muddy, slippery.
Crawl for two or three metres, and you’ll find yourself in a small opening, a kind of entrance porch to the cave. Look behind you; shine your torch up at the old stone lintel and at its lower edge you’ll see an inscription in Ogham, the ancient Irish alphabet. The inscription reads ‘Fraoch, son of Medb’.
Once, a passageway would have led out of this ‘porch’ to your right as you came in, but now it is blocked with collapsed debris, damage likely to be due to the construction of a small lane which comes to a stop directly overhead. The last capstone which is visible in this collapsed rubble also bears Ogham letters, but it is incomplete, and no translation has been made.
Turn left, and wiggle on your backside all the way down another low, slippery, stony passageway which descends steeply for about ten metres. It’s narrow, and it’s dark. As the passageway opens up above you, stand and look up at the rock. Your torch will pick out a myriad crystals of shining rock salt which have formed on the wet, muddy walls. Taste them: taste the salt of the Otherworld. Taste the sweat of the deep Earth.
Look behind you; the path slopes upwards and only the faintest hint of light can be seen.
Look up; the roof above you is ribbed. You are in a birth canal, and you are slipping down it into the silent dark womb of the Earth. Take a deep breath; walk on. All you can hear is the occasional drip of water falling from the walls into pitch-black puddles on the floor. The landscape changes again: duck, and slither downwards again as the floor level drops sharply one final time.
You’re there. Oweynagat, Cave of Cats. A long, narrow natural limestone fissure, just 2.85 metres at its widest point and about 37 metres long. Watch your step: the centre of the cavern is filled with mud. It has been known to swallow boots. Edge around the centre to the end of the fissure, where the cave ascends, narrows again, and terminates in a crack. Is this the way to the Otherworld?
You’re in a womb. Yes, really a womb: you’re in the birthplace of Medb. Medb, Maeve: spell it as you will. The goddess-queen of Connaught was born in this cave. Étain, a woman of the sidhe reborn as a mortal, was fleeing from her human husband with her sidhe lover Midir. They stopped to rest at Oweynagat with all of Étain’s companions, including her maidservant Crochan Crogderg, whose name means ‘blood-red cup’. At the end of their stay, Crochan so loved the place that she begged to stay. Étain and Midir agreed, and so it was there that Crochan’s daughter Medb was born.
The birthplace of Medb; the womb of the Earth. Turn off your torch. Turn it off; you know your way out. Turn it off, and slip into the deepest dark you’re ever likely to know. A darkness so complete, so thick that it is tangible. You realise then, if you have not learned it before, that darkness is not simply a lack of light. Darkness is alive, and its life is obscured by light. Darkness puts out its tentacles and touches your face; darkness licks at your eyes and grants you a different kind of sight. Darkness is a blanket which enfolds you in a crushing embrace. Darkness is a voice in the dark. Listen. Can you hear the beat of your heart, or is it the long, slow heartbeat of the Earth? You have no body; you have no limbs. Reach out, and there is nothing there. There is only you, whatever you might be, and the long, heavy dark.
Do you fear this? You should not. You should not, even when you remember that this was the dwelling place of the Morrigan, the Great Queen, the crow-goddess of death, war and rebirth. From here she emerged each Samhain, and here she once appeared in her chariot, crimson-cloaked, leading a heifer to the famous brown Bull of Cuailnge. Can you feel it now, the soft brush of a black crow’s wing?
Stay in the dark, even though you are thinking now about the stories that are told about Oweynagat. A band of magical wild pigs which emerged from this place, wreaking havoc and destruction on the surrounding land before they were banished by Medb. The Ellen Trechen, a triple-headed monster which rampaged across the country before it was killed by Amergin. A flock of small red birds who withered every plant they breathed on, before they were hunted down by the Red Branch warriors of Ulster.
Chaos comes out of this cave, and you fear chaos. Do not fear it. Stay with the dark.
Oweynagat: Cave of Cats. Three magical wildcats came out of this cave, and attacked the three great warriors of Ulster, before being tamed by Cú Chulainn.
Chaos. Chaos comes from the Underworld, and you fear it. Stay in the cave. Stay, and remember that the Otherworld was also a place of protection and refuge. Think of Fraoch, son of Medb, whose name is inscribed in Ogham on the lintel of this cave. Remember that old Irish tale, the Táin Bó Fraich. Fraoch seduced Findabair, the daughter of Medb. When he refused to pay an exorbitant bride-price for her, Medb sent him on an errand near to the dwelling-place of a water monster. He slew the monster with the help of Findabair, but was severely wounded. A hundred and fifty maidens of the sidhe, all dressed in green, carried him away into Oweynagat and bore him out again the following morning, fully healed. Think of Fraoch, son of Medb, and stay with the healing dark.
The Otherworld grants visions; remember that, too. Remember Nera, the servant of Medb, who saved Cruachan from an attack by Otherworldly forces with the assistance of a fairy woman whom he met in this cave and married. She warned him that Medb’s beautiful palace would be burned to the ground the following Samhain, and her warning enabled Medb to eliminate the danger. But as for Nera … he was left there ‘together with his people, and has not come out yet, and he will not come out until the end of the world.’ Will you come out? Will you find your way out of the dark?
Remember the gifts of the dark. The great cauldron of abundance which once was kept at Tara, but later came through Oweynagat to the Otherworld. Remember the gifts of the dark. Turn around, grope for the wall and lay your forehead on its wet, muddy surface. Can you feel hear the Earth breathing, or is the rasping breath your own? It is warm in here, warmer than the snow outside. It feels safe, and it feels frightening. It feels alive, and you are alive in it. You are alive of it. Remember that. Remember the gifts of the dark.
That is enough for this visit. Turn on your torch, and make the slippery climb up to the surface.
When you emerge from the birth canal which leads out of the womb of the Earth, you’ll be smiling. You’ll be smiling for most of the day. But you’d better wipe that mud off your face before you make your way back to Tulsk, to find a bowl of soup and a comforting pot of tea.