Ireland has a complicated relationship with religion. Many of its troubles in the last few hundred years are ultimately based in religious conflict and the church has ruled much of the island for centuries. But it wasn’t always so and some of its most-visited and well-known landmarks predate the Christian takeover of the island. Everywhere you go you can see signs of the old ways peeking through the hedges if you are looking for them. Many good Catholics will cross themselves or roll their eyes when they talk about the faeries but they also leave bowls of milk outside to appease them. You’ll still find iron in many doorways, though perhaps the reason it was placed there has been forgotten. As Samhain (more commonly known as Halloween) approaches, seasonal offerings left in fields, forts, tombs, and shrines increase all over Ireland. This time of year may not be the sanest time to go to the gateway to hell, but it certainly is the most appropriate one if you want to meet The Morríghan and her dark minions on one of the only nights they can escape the underworld.
Ireland’s gate to hell can be found in County Roscommon. Oweynagat (The Cave of Cats) is said to be a fitting home for the Morríghan, one of Ireland’s most famous pre-Christian goddesses. The Morríghan is the goddess of war and fate who is best known for her warnings of impending doom and death, but she also has been known to cause or participate in war and death as well. She has a role in the tale of one of Ireland’s favorite heroes, Cúchulainn, and she occasionally lures animals and people into her lair to turn them into unwilling acolytes or rivers and pools. She is technically a goddess of sovereignty but her darker aspects are far more prevalent in Irish mythology and superstition. The dreaded banshee is thought to be tied to the Morríghan as well as many other dark and fearsome creatures.
The Morríghan emerges from Oweynagat every year on Samhain (Halloween) when the veil between worlds is thin enough for her and her entourage of dark and mischievous followers to escape the underworld and wreak havoc on ours. They return to the cave and the underworld for another year when the celebrations are over.
This gateway to hell is part of a large array of heathen tombs, ring forts, standing stones, and caves in Roscommon. The Rathcroghan Complex (Crúachan Aí) is an archeological treasure trove, where myth blurs into Ireland’s ancient history and it is full of over 200 sites of interest. Oweynagat is listed on all the information about these sites, but it is still difficult to find without local help because the entrance is small and relatively unmarked. It is possible to find locals to take you to the cave, but you will also find many who are leery of anyone asking to go to Oweynagat…after all, many do still believe it is the gate to hell. It looks unassuming, if a little creepy from the surface, but there is an underlying shiver and a strange feeling to the cave, so it is easy to understand some of the wariness people have when it comes to the Morríghan’s subterranean abode.
If you choose to enter her lair, you will find an amazing site. The souterrain contains two large stones inscribed with Ogham, the ancient language of the Druids. The cave itself is a wet cave, meaning it is full of mud and moisture year round and in many cases you may find yourself crawling or squeezing through tight areas, so be prepared to sacrifice your clean clothes to the goddess whose spirit is rumored to reside there. The cave was somewhat damaged by the introduction of roads in the area so it is not as large or accessible as it once may have been, but it is now a protected site so be careful not to damage the surroundings while you explore.
It is hard to be near Oweynagat without feeling some sort of vibration or powerful pull. There is a peculiar feeling when you arrive at the entrance and an instinctual hunch will tell you whether or not you should enter. Some do while others spend all day hunting for the cave only to remain outside when they arrive, without a rational explanation as to why. There are echoes of the many rituals done inside throughout the centuries and the remains of many different offerings that have been left both inside and outside of the cave. Whether you’re a believer or not, this bizarre little door to the underworld is potent and it feels different and ancient….because it is. And when the veil grows thin like it does on days like this, don’t be surprised if you catch a glimpse of a goddess and some of her creatures as she rides or flies by – the locals sure aren’t.