A Feature by Neasa Nic Dhómhnaill: this is part two of Neasa’s visit to Irish places and their associated mythology. See also June’s edition.
I clearly remember standing in the magnificent archway of Uaimheanna na Céise* or Uaimheanna Chéis Chorainn, scanning the emerald fields of Contaetha Ros Comáin, Sligeach agus Maigh Eo. I had met up with a group of people on the beautiful day guided to the caves by archaeologist Marion Dowd who specialised in Irish folklore and caves. We toured up the mountain and ventured through the caves while she shared her knowledge of the archaeological findings, history, and mythology.
As I ran my hand over the cool rock wall, dripping with water from internal wells, I sensed the presence of the great daughters of Danu in the gateway between worlds. It had that same distinctive heavy otherworldly feel I had experienced in Sí an Bhrú along Abhainn na Bóinne. Only Uaimheanna na Céise was fresher, with a rugged rawness that came from being unmodified by well-meaning people of our own time. So I stood deep within the caves very aware that this was where some of most famous legends in Éire had taken place.
You may have heard of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, the infamous Irish king from the Fenian Cycle who had his wife stolen from under his nose despite catching and eating the salmon that gave him knowledge of everything there was to know. Fionn led his legendary fianna, defenders of Éire in early medieval times. It was Fionn Mac Cumhaill who was said to have slain the great serpent Caoránach, a story sometimes linked to the legend of St Patrick. To this day there are those who say Fionn Mac Cumhaill still stands surrounded by his ancient fianna in the mountains, waiting to be awakened in Éire’s greatest need.
Uaimheanna na Céise is an iconic land feature associated with the stories of Fionn Mac Cumhaill. These amazing caves are settled into the mountain, Céis Chorainn, near the township, An Chluanach i gContae Sligeach. It was at Uaimheanna na Céise that Diarmuid and Gráinne were said to have hidden from the then furious Mac Cumhaill after Gráinne put a geis on Fionn’s honoured fiann, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, on the day she was to be wed to Fionn. Diarmuid couldn’t fight Gráinne’s geis and eventually, on her command, he reluctantly stole her away from his beloved king, bringing dishonour to himself and having to flee the world he knew to survive Fionn’s wrath. Even the powerful god of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Aonghus Óg, struggled to convince Fionn to forgive his fiann. But eventually Mac Cumhaill did forgive him and Diarmuid and Gráinne lived peacefully in Uaimheanna na Céise with their five children.
One day Fionn visited them and he took Diarmuid hunting. Diarmuid was gravely injured by a wild boar on the hunt and Fionn went to the sacred well to fetch healing water to save his life. But still holding resentment, Fionn let the water slip through his fingers. Only on the third time did he make peace within his heart for his fiann. Then wanting to save his life, he arrived, only to find Diarmuid was already dead.
The story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Diarmuid and Gráinne, was not the only ancient legend set within the damp rocky chambers of Uaimheanna na Céise. The father of Gráinne, Cormac Mac Airt, High King of Éire, was said to have been born in these caves, reared by wolves. In the story ‘Bruidhean Cheise Corainn’, Fionn was said to have been captured by the Sídhe daughters of Corann from the Tuatha Dé Danann. These daughters were otherwise known as cailleach, a word associated with the wise-woman, similar to the archetypal image of ‘the Crone’ in Greek mythology. Cailleach can be used to refer to sacred women of the Tuatha Dé Danann who were said to have magical powers of foretelling the future, shapeshifting and healing, among other gifts. Na Morrígan, the Great or Phantom Queen of the Tuatha Dé Danann, herself was said to have emerged from Uaimheanna na Céise in the Cath Maighe Tuireadh. These caves are referenced frequently to be a porthole between this realm and Tír na nÓg. Indeed, they are within easy walking distance to Loch Arbhach where Cath Maighe Tuireadh was said to have taken place.
Listening to Marion talk as she led us through myth, landscape and the archaeological evidence, it struck me how amazing it is that these mythological landmarks actually exist and are easily visited – so long as you don’t have a fear of heights. She spoke about the early human inhabitants in Uaimheanna na Céise based on findings of animal bones, including from horses, fish and sea shells, and a few man-made items such as a polished stone axe, an iron bone-saw and two bronze ringed pins. According to Marion, male human teeth and fragments of a humerus were also found there, dating back to early medieval times when Fionn Mac Cumhaill was said to have lived. There is a lot we don’t know about those times, but for whatever happened back then, the combination of visiting Uaimheanna na Céise while hearing the ancient tales of Éire touched a place deep in my heart that opened my mind and soul to my people who came before me.
Uaimheanna na Céise or Uaimheanna Chéis Chorainn – Caves of Kesh
Contaetha Ros Comáin, Sligeach agus Maigh Eo – counties Roscommon, Sligo and Mayo
Sí an Bhrú – Newgrange
Abhainn na Bóinne – the River Boyne
Éire – Ireland
Fionn Mac Cumhaill – Fionn Mac Cool
Fianna – warrior-band
Céis Chorainn – Kesh Corran
An Chluanach – The Cloonagh
Geis – spell
Bruidhean Cheise Corainn – the Otherworld Dwelling of Kesh Corann
Sídhe – faerie people or the Tuatha Dé Dannan
Tuatha Dé Danann
Cailleach – old/wise woman, often associated with magic or pre-Christian sovereign status
Cath Maighe Tuireadh – Battle of Moytura
Tír na nÓg – the Otherworld of the Faeries where the Tuatha Dé Danann were banished
Loch Arbhach – Lough Arrow