“They had not been long so when Fionn and Conan reached the cavern’s edge, and so perceived the three hideous hags thus busied sit at its entrance: their three coarse heads of hair all disheveled; their eyes rheumy and redly bleared; their three mouths black and deformed, and in the gums of each evil woman of them a set of sharpest venomous and curved fangs…”- The Enchanted Cave of Kesh Corran
There is no words to describe the view as you come down the winding Ballymote to Boyle road and these caves appear on the white, west facing side of the Hill of Kesh. The hill is an incredibly important site of megalithic and pre-christian heritage in Ireland. The top of the hill being the site of a cairn 30metres in diameter which is unexcavated but is believed to contain a passage tomb. Sadly we didn’t get to see the cairn on the day of this visit as we were pushing for time before nightfall and the caves demanded to be explored! There is a seriously steep climb up to the sixteen caves that dot the side of this mountain, luckily it wasn’t as wet on our way up as it ended up being on our way back, in fading daylight it proved pretty tricky and mucky. There are numerous tales relating to both the mountain and the caves, the mountain itself was said to be formed by a sleeping sow! The story describes how Deirdre of Túatha Dé Danann was transformed into a sow due to being enchanted and went on a rampage across the county causing death and destruction. Many tried to slay the pig but in the end it was Corann – the Harper to the Dagda’s son Diancecht – who put the sow to sleep at the site of the hill with his harping, the sow was then killed by the Dagda’s men. Corann was given the large tract of land that encased the giant sow by the Dagda.
Another dramatic story about the cave involves Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and it is from this tale that the passage at the start of this article originates. At the time of Fionn it was believed there was a fairy palace deep within the caves at Kesh Corran. The Fianna were hunting boar in the local area as Fionn looked on from the top of the cairn, however Fionn had failed to ask permission for the hunt from the Conoran who ruled the palace deep within the caves,. As Fionn reached the mouth of the caves he came across the three daughters of Conoran, referred to as the ‘Hags of Winter’, the hags set a trap for Fionn and bound him, sapping his strength using a cursed cord, Fionn only being rescued when one of his men took the three witches by surprise and beheaded them.
The largest of the caves at Kesh Corran is known as Cormac’s cave or also as Hermit’s Cave. The view from this cave is amazing at sunset due to it facing west. You can trek deeper into this cave than than the others. After about 20 metres you come to, what appears to me to be, the remnants of a cist grave or a fire pit, the cave then takes a sharp turn to the left and down a further 8 metres of so. It was here we turned off the lights and sat in the darkness imagining all those who had passed through here. It was in this cave that the Irish High King Cormac Mac Airt was said to have been raised by the she-wolf who stole him from his mother’s maid, the unfortunate maid was meant to be keeping watch over the sleeping Cormac. This is the reason the Hill at Kesh is also referred to as the King’s Mountain. Many years later when Cormac offered Fionn Mac Cumhaill his daughter Grainne in marriage it was to here she ran with one of Fionn’s soldiers, Diarmuid. Fionn scoured the country for them, but upon finding them was given cattle by Diarmuid and Diarmuid and Grainne lived the rest of their years farming on the plains to the west.
Interestingly these caves were believed to be linked to the ones we visited at Oweynagat over 38kms away, both were believed to be the entrance to the underworld and it was at Kesh Corran that the tale of the Túatha Dé Danann being driven into the underworld by the Milesians is said to have occurred.
The caves were excavated in 1901 but little in regards human habitation is said to have been found, which is unsurprising considering the legend that had blossomed around this dark place. When excavated the caves contained the bones of the European Brown Bear, Giant Elk but only scant human remains. One of the caves beside Cor mac’s was used as a hedge school during penal times, ingenious idea considering the vantage point it held, being up such a steep hill and surrounded by miles of flatland.
It is a pity that we didn’t have time to visit the Cairn but I’m sure I will revisit this place sooner rather than later. I wholly recommend a visit to Kesh Corran, just be prepared for a treacherous climb!
GPS: 54.05868, -8.45191