Halloween the Beginning: Ireland’s Cave of Cats

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The road to Halloween begins firmly in Ireland and through an opening into the Underworld!  ANN MASSEY McELROY reminds of the spooky season’s Irish origins

Halloween Ireland

Halloween is filled with mischief, magic and mayhem and America may be the commercial epicentre of this spooky festival, but it all began as a Pagan celebration and a legendary tale from the Ulster Cycles. Halloween began in Ireland, through a portal that leads directly to Hell…

Rathcrogan and Owenynagat, County Roscommon

Nestled in the rural wilderness of County Roscommon, lies an area known as Rathcrogan, with Cruachan at its heart – a millenia old Celtic Palace of Royalty, the Ancient Capital of Connacht. 

It is the largest of its kind in Europe, the lack of excavation and rich, dark folklore and legend shrouding the site in mystery and intrigue. It stands close to the medieval village of Tulsk and Rathcrogan itself boasts some 240 separate archaeological sites, including many burial mounds and ancient ringforts. 

At this centre of mystic convergence, ceremonial óenach events, or assemblies, would take place with each seasonal festival. It was the place where coronations were performed, major decisions were made and new laws were passed. It was also the place for huge feasts and celebrations as the seasons turned.

What has our attention however, is the site within it, known as Owenynagat, or the Cave of Cats.

Birth of a Warrior Queen and Halloween 

A small, ugly opening in the landscape is the birthplace of a Warrior Queen and the birth of Halloween. A sacred place of power and magic, both dark and light, but step in further and you may enter a darkness and malevolent place, damned for all eternity.

Queen Medb is a name that means intoxicating and that is what she did! She would use her powers of seduction and intoxication to twist fawning men into doing her bidding. The Queen of Connacht’s name is immortalised in a 5th century Ogham carving on a lintel within the supernatural cave which was also a fairy palace, a location chosen by her Si (fairy) mother.  

As well as being queen, Medb was a Goddess and a powerful sorceress, but above all, a warrior. One of her loyal soldiers (loyalty bought by the lending of her promiscuous body legend has it!) was called Nera.

Nera had a vision that a heinous being would come forth through the portal from Hell and destroy Queen Medb and her domain. His vision also showed the evil warrior slay every living being in Connacht and sever their heads, piling them high in victory. 

The fearless soldier Nera stepped into the Cave of Cats and descended into Hell on a scouting mission. He was allowed to return to the mortal world on the condition he took an Underworld bride, which he duly agreed to do.

Nera stood before Queen Medb, with gifts of wild garlic and flowers, to prove he had been through the portal. It was close to Samhain and the ground was hard, so there was no way Nera could have picked them anywhere else. 

A legion of Medb’s soldiers descended through the portal and were victorious in defeating their unholy foe. And Nera? He remained eternally with his demon bride. This was said to have happened on the eve of Samhain, which in turn became the Christian festival of All Hallows, marking the anniversary of the descent to the Underworld on All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween.

The Morrigan, Goddess of Death and Battle

Of course the darkness did not finish with Queen Medb. The cave became home to The Morrigan, the Phantom Queen of death and war. She liked to play games with the local soldiers who wished to win her heart. She would bring forth three hellcats from the portal to rip apart three suitors, while The Morrigan would watch attentively, relishing the kill and waiting to see if one would survive.

The Morrigan was a seer and a shapeshifter, able to change at will, including the form of an old woman or a crow, She would often be seen in battle, flying over those who were doomed or scrubbing the bloodied uniforms in the river of those who had not yet perished – a terrifying harbinger of death. 

The hero Cú Chulainn became the focus of Morrigan’s lust and he faced the challenge of the hellcats, emerging victorious. He did not reciprocate the attention however, and spurned the advances of the Queen of Darkness. 

Enraged, she changed shape from one creature to the next, intent on revenge by slaughtering Ireland’s warrior. Each time she failed and each time was injured further by Cú Chulainn. Desperate to be healed, she knew the supernatural soldier held curative powers and set out to trick him. 

She took the guise of an old woman, blind in one eye (an injury she actually received from his hand) and called out to the battle weary man. She offered him a drink of milk, which he took gratefully, blessing the disguised Phantom Queen and restoring her to full power.

They met one more time, when Cú Chulainn was once more going to war. He passed by a woman scrubbing blood covered armour in the river, an uneasy feeling of recognition settling in. The omen of the seer came true and the warrior was mortally wounded. The Morrigan took the form of the crow, resting on the dying man’s shoulder as he drifted into eternal darkness – her revenge complete. 

Monsters of Halloween

The Morrigan returned to her cave, continuing to leave the path from this world to the worst of the next wide open, her dark soul drinking in the chaos that ensued. Each Samhain, hoards of dark creatures would spill forth from the cave, from goblins and malevolent fairies to hellcats, all led by a three headed creature of flight called Ellén Trechend, who would scorch the earth like a dragon.

To hide from these unearthly monsters, locals would dress up in hideous disguises, trying desperately to blend in. Gifts would be left outside of entrance ways to homes, in an effort to appease the travellers from the Underworld. Wreaths of hawthorn and rosemary would be hung over doorways to ward off evil. Finally, the dawn of Samhain would appear and the evil descended through the cave to the depths below, silent for another year. 

You can visit the Cave of Cats of course, a national heritage site, as well as the Rathcrogan visitor centre and the medieval village of Tulsk. If you are brave enough to peer into a portal to the Underworld, just make sure you check over your shoulder to see what may be following you out…

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