Oweynagat or the ‘Cave of Cats’ has to be one of the more unusual and unique sites in Ireland. The cave features a souterrain with a lintel supporting the entrance but then leads into a naturally formed cave. Oweynagat features heavily in Irish mythology, mainly because of its placement near Queen Medb’s fort which was at the center of the ancient Connaught capital of ‘Cruachan‘. The cave was said to be the actual birthplace of Queen Medb herself, the story goes that a goddess and fairy queen named Étain was fleeing her human husband with her fairy lover Midir. Midir wished to visit a relative named Sinech (meaning ‘large-breasted one’) who lived in the cave, the cave was said to be a great palace in the other-world and a maidservant named Crochan Crogderg (meaning ‘blood-red cup’) became enamoured with the place. She was granted the cave by Étian and it was here at Crochan gave birth to a daughter, Medb.
Many different myths from the lifetime of Medb surround the cave, it was said to have served as a portal through which the Goddess Morrigan used to pass to the other-world Morrigan was the goddess of battle and strive and was said to drive her other-world cattle into the cave at Oweynagat each sunset. Once Morrigan was said to have stolen the herds of a girl named Odras and brought them with her to the other-world, Odras tried to follow Morrigan but the unfortunate girl was turned into a lake by the goddess.
Another mention of the cave of the cats features one of Medb’s male servants Nera who had met a fairy woman in the cave and married her. His fairy bride warned that Medb’s palace would be burnt to the ground the following Samhain (November 1st) by creatures from the other-world , with this Medb stationed all her forces in the cave at Samhain to protect Cruachan from utter destruction.
The cave continued to be known as a place of power, acting as a portal to the other-world its power was extremely pronounced near Samhain as this was when the veil between the worlds lessened. Another story relates to the ‘Ellen Trechen’, this was a three headed monster that emerged from the cave and ravaged the local countryside before being killed by the Ulaid poet and hero Amergin.
As Christianity took hold in Ireland the belief in the cave being a ‘gateway to hell’ grew, an 18th century religious text describes Oweynagat as the ‘hell-mouth of Ireland’. It was believed that Oweynagat was linked to another ’hell-mouth’ many kilometres away at the Kesh Corran (which I was also lucky enough to visit on this trip) .
We visited the cave as sunset rushed in so sadly did not have a long time to explore it too deeply. It appears the cave may have had two entrances beside each other although one entrance has collapsed in and the other requires some nimbleness. The souterrain is believed to have been constructed during the early medieval period though the cave predates this. A lintel supports the mouth of the souterrain. Two metres of crawling, a sharp left and the floor quickly slopes for about 8 metres into the naturally formed cave, the cave is around 20 metres in length and 6 metres in height.
We were very fortunate to have an old acquaintance of one of our party lead us into the cave and explain the myth behind the cave to us and also tell us of his hopes and dreams around possible future excavation of the site as very little has been done to date. Some Ogham writing has been found within the cave that says ‘Fraech, Son of Medb’ but it is impossible to date when this is from. Overall this is a site rich in both history and adventure, just be prepared and bring a change of clothes, as the cave has not been properly excavated yet it is extremely mucky! Apologies that the images aren’t amazing but in my mind its the mythology that surrounds this place and the whole Cruachan region that gives this souterrain its undeniable worth.
GPS: 53.79677, -8.31038