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Fig. 1 - Oweynagat Entrance 2012
Oweynagat or ‘cave of the cats’ (fig1) is the name of a collection of monuments located in the Rathcroghan Complex, Co. Roscommon. The Cave appears in numerous stories of ancient Ireland and within the local folklore of the extended region. Gabriel Beranger first recorded a local folk tale in 1779, which is still recounted today. It tells of a woman who was pulled through the cave at Rathcroghan, while leading a calf by its tail, emerging at the caves of Kesh on the Roscommon and Sligo Border (Wilde, 1870 p.136). The cave is a natural limestone feature, one of a small number located within the north Roscommon region (Hickey, 2010). North of Oweynagat a number of open fissures appear which extend into closed caves. These natural fissures were ‘formed by the solution in static or slow moving water... [and]... are simple expanded joint fissures, [of which] there may be numerous other examples beneath the [surface]’ (Fenwick and Parkes 1997, p.13). Oweynagat is recoded as being 37m in length with a man-made passage replacing the original descending entrance leading to a tall open space, before the cave narrows again towards the rear due to a build up of clay. There are two pools of waters in the cave, one at the centre and one at the rear; this seems to be the location of a possible spring which feeds both pools. The
fissure likely continues for some distance, as spaces beyond the modern limits of the cave which are now filled with clay (Waddell et al, 2009. p.88). Beranger visited the area in 1779 on a sponsored tour of Ireland, and later wrote a description of the cave (Wilde, 1870, p.247). This appears to be the earliest recorded visit to the cave of the antiquarian tradition. Charles O’Conor had previously mentioned the site in his Dissertation of the History of Ireland as the ‘great cave’ of Drum Druid or Rathcroghan (O’Conor, 1767, p.178). John O’Donovan also visited the site in July of 1837, giving a brief description of the interior of the site (Herity, 2010, p.55). Evidence of the presence of the Ordnance Survey team survives at the end of the long clearway before one enters the cave proper. A benchmark, located on a small lip to the right can still be clearly identified today (fig2).
Fig. 2 - OSI Benchmark Located at the end of the Clearway
From his visit to the site in 1864 Samuel Fergusson gave the first written description of the external monument described as ‘the remains of a tumulus of about twenty yards in diameter’ (Fergusson, 1866 p.162). He further explained to his readers that there were ‘traces of several internments... about the margin of the tumulus; and one nearly perfect sepulchral cist exists’ at the site (Fergusson, p.163). In a separate publication on the cemeteries at
Rathcroghan, he again raises the issue of burials at Oweynagat, classifying the site as a ‘minor cemetery’ that had ‘its mounds and chambers’ like that of Relig-na-Rí (Fergusson,
1979, p.117). R. R. Brash (1879) gave a similar description in his account of a visit to Rathcroghan in 1852. Identifying the entrance to the cave on the site ‘of a nearly erased tumulus, [where he] saw what appeared to [be] the entrance to one of those rath chambers’ (Brash, p.301). He further attested to the existence of ‘the remains of ruined Cists, one nearly perfect being still standing at the western rim of the tumulus’ (Brash, p.302). This ‘Cist’ may be the small feature which appears to the left of the modern entrance to the cave. A chamber is marked by two exposed stones, which may have once been part of a larger single feature. Waddell et al.(2009, p.80) have identified this as a possible third souterrain T9 and its entrance T10, (fig3) which has been illustrated by Kevin O’Brien in Heritage Guide no. 22, as a small chamber capped by two lintel stones and a drop entrance similar to that of the main feature.
Fig. 3 - Second Chamber on surface, located to the left of the modern cave entrance.
The feature enclosing the cave is classified in the Sites and Monuments Record as RO022057028 – Earthwork. Michaeal Moore (2010) noted that the site was ‘described as a mound (diam. C. 20m) with the entrance to [a] souterrain in the interior.’ noting that ‘it is not visible at ground level’. A further record alludes to the burials, in the area. RO022-057031 – Redundant record. Here Moore (2010) notes that there was a record of ‘burials in the SMR’ and states ‘there is no evidence of burials at the earthwork or reference to them’. This does not rule out a barrow, as early excavations at the cave would not have been looking for
features associated with this type of monument and may have destroyed any low lying banks. Despite Moore’s assertions that there are no records to the burials, there is a long standing local tradition which marks the site as a place of burials and a history of antiquarian exploration in sites adjacent to the cave. The ArchaeoGeophysical Imaging Project (NUI Galway) conducted the most recent survey of the site and noted that it is possible with ‘some degree of confidence’ to identify the enclosure as a 17m internal and 21m external feature defined by a low bank of c.2m wide. (Waddell et al. 2009, p83). Ferguson’s work was primitive in survey techniques, nevertheless it does hold up ‘remarkably well’ with those planned in the modern survey. (Waddell et al. 2009, p81). Internally the entrance resembles a souterrain (fig4). A topographical survey of the area suggests the ‘possibility of still more souterrain passages and chambers in the immediate vicinity’ to the modern entrance. (Waddell et al, 2009, p.82.). It appears from a reading of Waddell that there may have been two entrances and a number of creepways which lead to the entrance of the cave (fig5). Much of the writing on the cave has concentrated on two Ogham stones located with these passageways. R. R. Brash was the first to discover the Ogham inscriptions at Oweynagat in 1852 (Brash, p.303). Although it was not until Samuel Fergusson spoke on his - or rather his wife’s - discovery of two Ogham inscriptions in 1864 that interest in this site increased with a number of articles attempting to translate the inscriptions (Fergusson, 1896, p.47). The first inscription (fig6) identified as the most internal of the lintel stones in roof of the present entrance has been translated to read ‘FRAICCI MAQI MEDFFI’ or Freac son of Medb (Waddell, et al, 1999 p39). A collection of transcriptions and interpretations of the Ogham inscriptions of the cave are included in the TITUS (Thesaurus of Indo-Germanic Texts and Speeches) project overseen by Prof. Jost Gippert of Johann Wolfgang Goethe University which is available online. Waddell also includes a brief bibliography of the inscription and various views as to the authenticity of the name Medb in the Rathcroghan book.
Fig. 4 - Section of Clearway leading to the cave
Fig. 5 - Altered Entrance to Natural Cave. Note the stacked lintels which create a 'door' feature.
Fig. 6 - Ogham stone, located at entrance
The second inscription discovered by Fergusson in the right transept after the entrance, has been recorded as reading QU REGASMA (Waddell, et al, 2009 p.40). The location of this stone makes the inscription hard to decipher. John Rhŷs was present at an excavation of the cave in 1897 when an attempt was made to read the second Ogham stone. Similar to other antiquarian endeavours of the time in the Rathcroghan complex, there is no detailed report of the work, and only a short description of the event was presented by Rhŷs (1898, p.230). An image of the excavated stone does exist however and was republished by Waddell (p.41). Generally dates given for Ogham in Ireland range from the 4th to 6th centuries AD, from this one can deduce that the present entrance to the cave cannot date before this period. It stands that one can date the construction of the modern entrance from the middle of the 8th century AD through to the first half of the 13th Century AD from the dates given for souterrain development (O’Sullivan & Downey, 2004 P.36). It is clear from reading the various descriptions of the features with form Owneygat that the monument has changed over the centuries. Ferguson and Brash wrote of an enclosure with a tumulus and cists, while later visitors to the site only note the two souterrain entrances. The monument was drastically altered in the 1930’s, with the introduction of a small road and housing in the area. The house nearest to the cave was my grandparents home, and having
grown up with stories of the cave, I can say that there was such a reverence around the cave that the only alterations in the past 70 years have been made at the entrance to the cave where the soil has eroded away from the number of visitors to the site. A photo, taken at an
unknown date prior to 1924, shows a man sitting at the entrance to the cave (fig7). This image is interesting as it shows the site before the road was built and gives more detail than the published photos from the excavation of the site in 1897. The entrance sits in a small hollow, while there appears to be a ridge behind the lintel stone. When looking at the site today it would seem that the field bank rises at this point and drops off again. Could this be part of the mound mentioned in previous reports of the cave? If so, this feature would have been disturbed by Rhŷs’s excavation and later severely damaged by the building of the roadway in the 1930’s. There is also evidence of a raised mound when one enters the site from the side gate. Although I have visited the site on a number of occasion it is only recently I have notice this feature and it seems that it would warrant further archaeological examination.
Fig. 7 - Photo showing a man sitting at the entrance to the cave published in a booklet for Feise Móire Rat-Cruacáin 1924.
For some entering Oweynagat is like travelling backwards in time through a monument whose function has changed over the centuries. Crossing the invisible boundary of the outer circular enclosure symbolises moving between this world and the other and peering into the small hole in the ground evokes similar emotions as peering into the abyss. Passing under the
Ogham inscription, carved sometime at the turn of modern civilisation in Ireland and turning into the long slender tunnel is like moving tentatively into a veil of darkness. Progressing slowly, along the
narrow passage, feeling along the centuries old stone work cut by some unseen hand until the more natural ruggedness of the natural fissure rock emerges from
Fig. 8 - Name Carved inside the Cave
the previously smooth wall. Looking backwards a
sliver of golden light illuminates the chamber at the entrance, while small slivers of light struggle to creep along the smooth stone capped roof of the passage which was once an open scar in the face of the earth. Reaching the end of the narrow capped passage and descending a number of small steps images of past visitors to the cave emerge in the dim lamp light.
Fig. 9- Possibly the mark of Douglas Hyde
Just above the Ordnance survey Benchmark a Mr. J. O’Flanagan spent some time etching his name into the rock on the 13/09/1911 (fig8). Moving through a small gap in the natural rock, which has been narrowed by a number of long capstones allows for the discovery of the marking D. HYDE (fig9) a tentative suggestion would be that this was made by the hand of Douglas Hyde, first president of Ireland, who lived in Frenchpark. This is accompanied by a possible date which has been damaged over the years but may be similar to that of Mr. O Flanagan’s. Other names and marks line the immediate wall to the left and right as one enters the cave, a few brave men wandered further into the dark to make their marks in this mysterious space. Progressing further, a small of pool of water blocks the progress of those who have not prepared appropriate footwear. It is at this point when standing at the centre of the cave and searching along the beams of light from a hand held torch that strange markings (fig10) begin to appear to the curious eye and the mysteries of Oweynagat begin to unfurl in the most imaginative of imaginations only the brave dare to venture further into the darkness and through to the Otherworld.
Fig. 10 - Possible carving on the wall of Oweynagat
Access to Oweynagat can be arranged through the Rathcroghan Visitor Centre @ Cruachan Aí, Tulsk Co. Roscommon, where you can avail of a guided archaeological and historical tour or reconnect with the ancient ways with a spiritual tour. www.rathcroghan.ie – Tel: 071 9639268
Fig. 11- Oweynagat entrance 1984 – image taken from the The William Dunlop Archaeological Photographic Archive with thanks to Robert M. Chapple
Bibliography Brash, R. R., (1879) The Ogham inscribed monuments of the Gaedhil in the British Islands (ed G. M. Atkinson). Condit, Tom & Moore, Fionnbarr (2003) Oweynagat – The Cave of Cruachain: an entrance to the Otherworld in County Roscommon’ in Archaeology Ireland, Heritage Guide No. 22. Gippert, Josh (2001) ‘CIIC no. 013’ in TITUS DATABASE OGAMICA available online http://titus.uni-frankfurt.de/ogam/frame.htm Hickey, C., (2010) ‘The Use of Multiple Techniques for Conceptualisation of Lowland Karst, A Case Study from County Roscommon. Ireland’ in Acta Catsologica, Vol 39, issue 2, pp.331-346. Herity, M, (2010) Ordnance Survey Letters Roscommon – Letters relating to the antiquities of Roscommon containing information collected during the progress of the Ordnance Survery in 1837, Four Masters Press. Feis Committee, (1924) Iris Leabhar na Feise Moire - Rathcroghan. 20 - 21 July 1924.
Fenwick, J. & Parkes, M. (1997) ‘Oweynagat’, Rathcroghan, Co. Roscommon, and associated karst features’, Irish Sepeleogy, No. 16, pp.11-15. Ferguson, Lady (1896) Sir Samuel Ferguson in the Ireland of his day, William Blackwood and sons. Ferguson, Samuel, (1866) ‘Account of Ogham Inscriptions in the Cave at Rathcroghan, County of
Roscommon’ in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1836-1869), Vol. 9 (1864 - 1866), pp. 160170.
Ferguson, Samuel, (1879) ‘On Ancient Cemeteries at Rathcroghan and Elsewhere in Ireland (As
Affecting the Question of the Site of the Cemetery at Taltin, in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Polite Literature and Antiquities, Vol. 1, pp. 114-128. Moore, Michael (2010) ‘Archaeological Survey of Ireland’, National Monuments Service, available online http://www.archaeology.ie/ArchaeologicalSurveyofIreland/#d.en.12841.
O’Conor, Charles, (1767) Dissertation on the History of Ireland – to which is subjoined, A dissertation on the Irish Colonies established in Britain, G. Faulkner.
O'Sullivan, Muiris & Downey Liam (2004) ‘Souterrains’ in Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Winter), pp. 34-36.
Rhŷs, Principal (Sir John), (1898), ‘Some Ogam-Stones in Connaught’ in The Journal of the Royal
Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 230-
Waddell, John, Fenwick, Joe & Barton, Kevin (2009) Rathcroghan: Archaeological and geophysical survey in a ritual landscape, Wordwell Books. Wilde, W.R. (1870), ‘Memoir of Gabriel Beranger, and His Labours in the Cause of Irish Art,
Literature, and Antiquities, from 1760 to 1780, with Illustrations, in The Journal of the Royal Historical and Archaeological Association of Ireland, Fourth Series, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 33-64, 121152, 236-260
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