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Digital image of Rathcroghan mound
Face-on view of Rathcroghan mound

Rathcroghan is a complex of archaeological sites near Tulsk in County Roscommon, Ireland. It is identified as the site of Cruachan, the traditional capital of the Connachta. While it is debatable whether this was a place of residence, it had huge importance as a cemetery and also hosted some of the main ritual gatherings in ancient times. It is an important site in Irish mythology, in particular as the seat of Ailill and Medb, king and queen of the Connachta in the Ulster Cycle. It is the setting for the opening section of the Táin Bó Cúailnge.

Contents

Mythology

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Origin

According to a Dindshenchas poem, Cruachan was named after Crochen, the handmaid of Étaín, a sídhe maiden re-born as a mortal. When Étaín is brought back to the Otherworld by her original sídhe lover Midir, Crochen accompanies them and on their way to Midir's underground palace they spend some time in a mound known as Síd Sinche. Crochen is so impressed by this síd that she asks Midir if this is his palace. Because of her loyalty to Étaín and her respect to this dwelling, Midir gives it to her and names it in her honour before bringing Étaín to his palace at Bri Leith. At the end of the poem Crochen is mentioned as the mother of Medb. The same poem mentions Cruachan as a royal cemetery: "Listen, ye warriors about Cruachu! With its barrow for every noble couple".[1] The poem on Carn Fráich describes Cruachan as a stone built fortress.[2]

Ulster Cycle

Vivid descriptions of the Western capital are given in Fled Bricrenn ("Bricriu's Feast"), and this one in Táin Bó Fraích: "Of pine the house was made; it is a covering of shingle it had externally. There were sixteen windows in the house, and a frame of brass, to each of them; a tie of brass across the roof-light. Four beams of brass on the apartment of Ailill and Medb, adorned all with bronze, and it in the exact centre of the house. Two rails of silver around it under gilding. In the front a wand of silver that reached the middle rafters of the house. The house was encircled all round from the door to the other." [3]Cruachan features at the start and end of the Táin Bó Cúailgne with the pillow talk in the royal residence, and concluding with the fight of the bulls, supposed to have taken place at Rath na Darbh, one of the largest ring-forts on the site.

Samhain

Cruachan seems to have heavy associations with the feast of Samhain, as it was during this time that the Irish believed that the prehistoric graves from before their time opened and their gods and spirits, who dwelt inside, walked the earth. The emerging of creatures from Oweynagcat would be part of this belief. A legend based on this is "The Adventures of Nera", in which the warrior of the title is challenged to tie a twig around the ankle of a condemned man on Samhain night. After agreeing to get some water for the condemned man he discovers strange houses and when he finally gets him some water at the third house he returns him to captivity only to witness Rathcroghan's royal buildings being destroyed by the spirits. He follows the fairy host to the síd where he meets a woman who tells him that what he saw was a vision of what will happen a year from now unless his mortal comrades are warned. He leaves the síd and informs Ailill of his vision who then has the Sidhe destroyed.

Oweynagat

souterain which leads into Oweynagcat - the cave of Cruachan

It is unclear whether what is referred to as the síd is Oweynagat or the mound of Rathcroghan itself. However it is from Oweynagat that various destructive creatures emerged. The Ellen Trechen was a triple headed monster that went on a rampage across the country before being killed by Amergin, the father of Conall Cernach. Small red birds came from the cave withering every plant they breathed on before being hunted by the Red Branch, also herds of pigs with similar decaying powers emerged from the cave with Ailill and Medb themselves desperately trying to hunt them but having to deal with vanishing powers and an ability to shed captured flesh. The name Oweynagat may come from the magical wildcats featured in "Bricriu's Feast" that emerge from the cave to attack the three Ulster warriors before being tamed by Cúchulainn. The name could also refer to the king of the cats, Irusan, who features in Irish fairy tales and was believed to live in a cave near Clonmacnoise but is associated with many places. A tale from the eighteenth century tells of a woman who on trying to catch a runaway cow, follows it into the cave and emerges miles away in Sligo.

The Morrígan

The Morrígan emerges from this cave every Samhain on a chariot pulled by a one-legged chestnut horse along with various creatures such as the ones mentioned above. On one occasion she leaves the cave with a cow, guided by a giant with a forked staff, to give to Bull of Cúailgne. The Morrígan also takes the bull of a woman named Odras who follows her into the cave before falling under an enchanted sleep, upon awakening she sees the Morrígan who whispers a spell over her, turning Odras into a pool of water.

History

Like the other royal sites there are not any great historical references or archaeological evidence to prove it was a royal residence or fortress as described in the myths with some of the best examples of ring-forts in the area dating from christian times. It was certainly an important cemetery with the amount of ring barrows backing up the scribes who mention it alongside Tailtiu and Tara as one of the three great burial sites also a gathering place or oenach. All assemblies and oenachs were part of religious and funerary traditions and just as an assembly was held at the cemetery of Tailtiu (even into the 19th century) there would surely have been one at Cruachan. It is believed by many that queen Medb was actually the local earth goddess, much like Medb Lethderg at Tara, and that becoming king meant marrying the earth, becoming one with Cruachan with the inauguration more than likely taking place on Cruachan mound itself. Christian writers didn't seem willing to record what actually happened at these sites, they even have stories which feature the síd or mound of Cruachan being attacked by Ailill and Medb. Archaeological surveying has shown a lot of building occurring on Cruachan mound over the centuries with there also being evidence of large wooden structures near the mound. Ogham stones are used on the construction of Oweynagcat souterrain and these would have been standing stones at one point, the strange thing being that Ogham stones only seem to occur in south-west Ireland.

Main Sites

Map of the main sites in Rathcroghan

Rathcroghan Mound

The main site is a low flat-topped mound some 90 metres wide at the base, with a small 6 metre wide mound still visible on top, probably the remains of a small burial mound. This site, once considered a natural feature, has thanks to geophysical surveying been revealed to be man-made, apparently extended from a small natural gravel ridge.[4] Surveying has revealed three earthen rings inside Rathcroghan mound, meaning it was built on top of an existing monument. Traces of earthen enclosures have been revealed on the summit of the mound while there is evidence of a trench, 380 m in diameter, which had the mound as its center. It is unclear whether this mound was the Sídh Ar Cruachan or if that name refers to Oweynagcat.

Rathmore

To the northwest of Rathcroghan Mound is Rathmore (Rath Mór, "big fort"), a circular earthwork consisting of a raised flat area, 30 metres across, surrounded by a sloping earth bank inside a deep ditch. This monument is believed to have been a chieftain's residence, dating to the second half of the first millennium AD.[4]

Rath na Darbh

West of Rathcroghan Mound is Rath na Darbh ("fort of the bulls", anglicised as "Rathnadarve"), a large circular enclosure surrounded by a bank and ditch. It is traditionally supposed to be site of the fight between the bulls Donn Cúailnge and Finnbhennach at the end of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, although the name is first recorded in the 19th century.[4]

Reilig na Rí

Reilig na Rí ("cemetery of the kings", anglicised as "Relignaree"), south of Rathcroghan Mound, is a circular enclosure 100 metres in diameter, surrounded by a stony bank. Internal features include a souterrain, several rectangular hut-sites, and the remains of a smaller circular enclosure. It is probably the remains of a settlement of the early historic period.[4] Some believe its inner area is divided to resemble an ancient map of Ireland.

Oweynagat

Oweynagat ("the cave of the cats"), south-west of Rathcroghan Mound, is a souterrain beneath an old road leading into a dark, narrow limestone cave. This cave was believed to be a gateway to the otherworld with many creatures emerging that generally caused havoc across the country. The name Oweynagat means "cave of the cats", which could refer to the large wild cats which the Ulster champions must fight in the tale of "Bricrius Feast". Two of the stones used to build the souterrain entrance contain Ogham inscriptions, with one of the inscriptions reading VRAICCI MAQI MEDVII, interpreted as meaning Fráech son of Medb.[4] Fráech was a Connacht champion who wooed Medb's daughter Findabair and also gives his name to the neighbouring site of Carn Fraích (Carnfree).

Dathí's Mound

Close to Reilig na Rí is Dathí's Mound, supposedly the burial mound of Dathí, the last pagan High King of Ireland. Excavation, however, shows the mound has been sculpted out of a natural gravel ridge, there is no trace of any burial, and radiocarbon dating indicates it was constructed between 200 BC and AD 200, considerably earlier than Dathí's dates. It consists of an embanked earth mound surrounded by a bank about 40 metres across with entrances east and west, and topped with a standing stone. [4]

The Mucklaghs

The Mucklaghs; believed to be created by a magical boar

Two long linear enclosures with banks up to 6m high, similar to the Banqueting Hall at Tara. Traditionally believed to be dug out of the ground by a magical boar, there is a view that these structures may have been ceremonial buildings or to store and protect animals.

Other sites

  • Rathbeg - A narrow burial mound surrounded by two banks.
  • Misguan Medb - A fallen standing stone located near Rathcroghan Mound.
  • Ancient Avenue - An avenue or trackway surrounded by two low banks. Part of it intersects with the outer circular bank and ditch of Rathscreig, a site with a small mound at the center. The avenue which is roughly 15 meters wide seems to end at Flanagans Fort, another ringfort with a small mound at the center. Both these forts were built at a later date than the avenue.
  • Cashelmanannan - The closest feature in the area to the mythical description of Rathcroghan as a stone fortress. Only the foundations remain of 3 circular stone walls separated by ditches. The overall diameter being 64 meters and the walls themselves being 1.5 metres thick.

Sources

References

  1. ^ Edward Gwynn (ed. & trans.), The Metrical Dindshenchas Vol. 3, 1906: Rath Cruachan
  2. ^ Gwynn 1906: Carn Fráich
  3. ^ Táin Bó Fraích. English translation from Heroic Romances of Ireland vol. II. trans. and ed. by A.H. Leahy. London: David Nutt, 1906.
  4. ^ a b c d e f John Waddell, "Rathcroghan in Connacht", Emania 5, Autumn 1988, pp. 5-18


Coordinates: 53°48′07″N 8°18′14″W / 53.802°N 8.304°W / 53.802; -8.304


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