I have passed through “Tulsk” many times on the way to Westport. On occasion I have stopped at the roadside restaurant giving no thought to the visitor / heritage centre which adjoins it. Like many others I was not aware of the importance of this area though I had noticed what looked suspiciously like ring forts in the surrounding countryside. I decided on the way back from kayaking around “Lough Carra” during the summer to stop at the “Rathcruaghan” heritage centre to find out more.
The centre is not government funded, but is staffed by impressively knowledgeable individuals, all passionate about the history of the area. I decided to take a tour encompassing the main mound “Rathcruaghan” and the “Owneygat” caves.Through Michael I found out the “Rathcruaghan” complex was the seat of the high kings of Connaught and home of the famous “Queen Maeve” mentioned in the epic “Tan” the “cattle raid of Cooley”.
Michael made it very amusing and personal and really made the landscape come to life. He also had a wealth of information in his personal folder detailing the ancient pathways of Ireland, the farming practices of that time and various anecdotes past and present of that time. The story the “cattle raid of Cooley” makes the landscape interesting, as you can still see the ancient ruins associated with “Queen Maeve`s” time.
We must thank the ancient monks often the sons of Celtic kings for recording these ancient stories. For the Celtic people had an oral tradition and these stories could have been lost in the midst of time. Perhaps a sense of pride and nationalism made them do so. I have taken the liberty of condensing Michaels rendition of the “Cattle raid of Cooley” and of course any historical inaccuracies are purely the product of my woeful memory !!!.
The Cattle raid of Cooley
Queen Maeve had been married to a “King of Leinster”, and as was the custom of the time it had been a marriage of equals. One night lying in bed, they had a quarrel about who had brought more to the marriage. They argued all night and by the morning “Queen Maeve” conceded they were equal in all things, except for a magnificent white bull which the “King of Leinster” had brought to the marriage.
“Queen Maeve” was a proud lady and would not let this imbalance stand, she was determined to restore her honour. Advisors were sent to scour the whole of “Eire” to discover an equal to this bull. Word came back that there was a magnificent brown bull in “Cooley”, belonging to the “King of Ulster” that was equal or better than her husband`s. “Queen Maeve” decided she must have it and sent her advisors fore with to make a deal.
She offered the “King of Ulster” the equal of the land he had in Mayo and as a sweetener the fruit of her loins. The “King of Ulster” thought this a great deal and agreed. Unfortunately during a banquet laid on for the visiting advisor`s ,one of them let slip, that surely “Queen Maeve” would have taken the bull by force, if the King had not agreed. This remark was reported back to the “King of Ulster”, who in a rage sent the advisors packing. “Queen Maeve” was now deprived of her cow and her only option was force.
The warriors of Ulster the “Red hand” were well renowned for their fighting ability, but had been cursed by a local witch who had been mistreated. This resulted in all those born in Ulster, being afflicted with cramps and pains associated with womanhood at certain times of the year. Unfortunately for the “King of Ulster” this was the time that “Queen Maeve`s” forces attacked. The only member of the “Red hand not affected was “Cuchulainn”, who had not been born in Ulster. This mythical hero had been a product of a liason between the “Tuina de Danaan” (fairy folk) and a mortal and had exceptional strength and speed. He was famous for having a red mist which when invoked made him near invincible.
“Queen Maeve`s” forces stole the “brown bull of Cooley”, but it later managed to escape after a great fight with the white bull. The white bull was killed but the brown bull mortally wounded scattered pieces of its flesh before succumbing all over the counties of Ireland. As Michael explained bulls were much bigger then !!!.
“Cuchulainn” managed to save Ulster from “Queen Maeve`s” forces using his famous “red mist” but like the Greek hero “Archilles” had one weakness which if struck could mortally wound him. Unfortunately a magical spear struck this point and though “Cuchulainn” fought on valiantly saving Ulster he passed on !!!
I had not really realised this but it does sound like a folk tale describing the breaking up of a unified Celtic nation. I had heard also the “Children of Lir” and other such stories, were about the loss of the old ways to Christianity, but I cannot be sure !!!.
On this visit “Michael” then took us to the “Owneygat Caves”. This is also known as the “cave of cats” and there was one to meet us. It came over to me and rolled on to its back for a “rub”, I guess they can sense cat lovers !!! This is a fascinating place, as it had a very important spiritual and symbolic association for the people of this kingdom. This was the place where the ancient people of the time believed summer went and winter returned in the form of the “Morrigan” (Goddess of war) often symbolised by a raven and other animals such as wild boar to ravage the land.There are massive furrows in the land clearly visible from the air leading to the cave entrance which seem to show that this cave had an important part in the ritual aspect of the whole “Rathcruaghan” complex. Perhaps a rite of passage of young warriors ???
The entrance is triangular in shape and seems to my untrained eye to have a female fertility aspect. It was believed to be a link to the underworld, the “Tuina de Danaan” which has probably saved it from Christian destruction. This was where the Celtic idea of Halloween came from which Irish immigrants brought to America. Except in Ireland the tradition was celebrated by carving turnips.
The “Owneygat Cave” seems to be leading towards another complex in an adjoining field attributed to “Manaam Mac Liar” (The God of the sea) but there has been a “cave in” which has prevented this link being explored further. It also has an “Ogham” inscription just inside the entrance, honouring, Maeve`s son “Fiachra”, who refused to submit to “Cuchulainn” and was killed. Michael thought this may have been added at a later date.
There is also a well associated with “St Patrick” nearby and is credited with miracles. If my memory is correct 3 daughters of a Celtic king were spirited to heaven after drinking its waters. So it must have had an important spiritual significance for the Celts, if the church felt it necessary to claim ownership. Perhaps the “Owneygat Caves” with its links to the underworld were left un- molested, the “Morrigan” being associated with the Devil and best left alone.
Local farmers in the 1840`s were observed bringing their cattle to the main “Rathcruaghan” complex where there was ritual blood-letting, so perhaps the ancient customs took a long time to die out. Some have been appropriated like Christmas or are going strongly like “Halloween” today. Who said history was boring !!!
I would thoroughly recommend visiting the heritage centre and the “Rathcruaghan” site, if you have an interest in Irish myth and legend. It would probably take 2-3 hours and would be a great adjunct to a visit to Westport.