Ireland Pilgrimage, part 2: Hell or Connacht
Of the places I visited during my sojourn in Ireland, many affected me deeply, but Connacht felt like home. In Connacht, I spent time in Roscommon, Sligo, and Leitrim counties. Here, the hills and mountains were more rugged, the landscape a touch wilder, than the midlands I had traveled through. Connacht feels like untamed country. It feels like the domain of the Morrígan (and it is).
There is a famous anecdote about Oliver Cromwell. During the subjugation of Ireland to English rule under the plantation scheme that granted confiscated Irish lands to English settlers in the mid-17th century, it’s said that he was asked where the displaced native Irish people were supposed to go, and he famously said, “To Hell or to Connacht.” This quote was retold to me more than once during my visits by local folks – it seems reflective of the province’s understanding of itself as rugged, fierce, and positioned outside the borders of the (forcibly) settled territories. And indeed, Connacht was among the last of the kingdoms to fall under Norman conquest after the invasions of the 12th century.
The traditional border marking the entry into Connacht from the east is the Shannon. Watching the landscape through the windows of a bus coming westward from Dublin, I noted the river crossing. But it was the looming of a mountain ridge just beyond the river that brought me to attention. To our left in the south, a long, low mountain dark with conifers rose from the valley, part of a ridge that continued north of the road at a lower elevation. If the river was the territorial boundary, this mountain was its guardian. Not a high mountain by California standards, it still managed to loom, heavy with presence. I could not take my eyes off it and felt, clearly, as we passed between the ridges it that I was entering the Morrígan’s domain.
I later learned the name of this mountain: Slieve Bawn. It overlooks Rathcroghan, the Fort of Crúachan, the ancient royal center of Connacht. It is also an example of how folklore sometimes differs from official record. If you look up Slieve Bawn, most of the official information will tell you that the name comes from the Irish Sliabh Bána, “white mountain”; (although it isn’t white). But our guide at Rathcroghan, the learned and brilliant Lora O’Brien, gave different lore: the name is said to be from Sliabh Badbgna, “Badb’s mountain”. And it is this name that appears in older literature, too. The Morrígan positions Herself facing toward this mountain to chant spells over an adversary, in the Dindshenchas poem of Odras. My having not known what mountain I was gazing at as I entered the province under its looming profile granted me an opportunity to test my own perceptions against tradition. There is no doubt for me that it is Badb’s mountain (or the Morrígan’s, if you will; local tradition identifies the two as aspects of one Goddess).
I tell this story partly because it amused me, and partly because it illustrates something important about Ireland: The landscape speaks for itself, with a voice easily as commanding as anything in literary tradition. That landscape holds deeply embedded presences, memories, and traditions. They are – at least to my experience – readily available to a visitor with open senses and an attitude of respect. And they are utterly and totally real; not simply a matter of belief in the minds of people. It may be for this reason that I found that nearly everyone I met in Ireland seemed a little bit pagan, or perhaps more accurately animist, in their outlook and relationship to their heritage and landscape. One cannot spend much time at all in the Irish landscape without coming to terms with the reality of presences all around.
That brings me to something else about Connacht: its Otherworldliness. The vocality of the Irish landscape and its ready communication with the Otherworld was never more palpable to me than in Connacht. And this seems to be reflected in Irish traditions of place, too. There is a sense in many of the Ulster stories that Connacht, as well as being a rival kingdom, also held a place as the gateway to the Otherworld – it’s there that heroes get sent for ordeal and testing by formidable Otherworldly beings; it’s there that conflicts with chthonic monsters from the Otherworld are played out; and of course, it’s from there that the Morrígan emerges to direct events in the human sphere. I’m sure Oliver Cromwell didn’t mean that sort of underworld when he said “to Hell or to Connacht” – but others have when they’ve called the Cave of Crúachan “Ireland’s Hellmouth”. A Christian’s commentary on the Morrígan’s home, to be sure, but it speaks to the pervasive sense of Connacht, and its center of Crúachan, as a place of access and communication with the Otherworld below.
Myself being someone who likes that sort of thing, it was that Hellmouth, more properly called Úaimh na gCat (anglicized as Oweynagat), Cave of Cats, that was the central focus of my pilgrimage.
I entered the Cave twice during my pilgrimage. I’m not going to describe either experience in detail, because a place like that is a mystery that needs to be experienced to be understood. And because every person’s experiences are their own, and yours may be very different from mine. I will just say that the Morrígan is indeed intensely present there, and there is no doubt in my mind that She has been venerated there for a very long time, and that, as scholars have proposed, it has been a place where warriors came for testing and initiation. It may be a Hellmouth, but it felt like home to me.
I’ll leave my story there for now. As I plan to highlight the voices and knowledge of Irish people I encountered in my travels, let me here point you once again to Lora O’Brien, who guided our group at Rathcroghan. She is a published author on Irish spirituality, a dedicated priestess of the Morrigan, and the most knowledgeable person you could hope to meet on the traditions and landscape of Rathcroghan as well as Ireland as a whole. You can find her blog here, and her published works here.