This is one of my favourite sites, and the first place I visited when I began to research ancient monuments. Rathcroghaun is
also known as Cruachan Ai, and is the ancient capital of the provence of Connaught.
Though the site is best known for its associations with the legendary Queen
Maeve, several of the monuments there date from the neolithic and the majority are most likely from the Bronze age. Rathcroghaun is
mentioned in a huge number of mythological tales, plays a central part in the Cattle Raid of Cooley,
and was the abode of gods and creatures from the Otherworld.
and the nearby site of Carnfree covers an area of about 100 square kilometers
of fine farming and grazing land on the fertile Plains of Roscommon. There are about two-hundred monuments in this
rich region, which include ringforts, barrows, mounds, ancient roads,
standing stones, earthworks, ogham stones, caves and megalithic structures.
The largest and best- known of the monuments is the mound of Rathcroghan itself, the palace
of Queen Maeve and ancient capital
of the provence of Connaught.
Queen Maeve's Palace
Queen Maeve's Palace is easy to access, located right by the main road with a car park. The huge mound, which measures about 90 meters in diameter and six meters high, is probably built on a natural hillock, and may have been enlarged several times until it reached its present size. The whole mound is within a much larger enclosure, discovered using geophysics, which is some 360 meters in diameter.
There is a large fallen standing stone 150 meters to the north of the mound. This slim sandstone pillar is known locally as Miosgaun Maeve, or Maeve's Lump of Butter, the same name as the great passage-grave on Knocknarea, the traditional burial site of Queen Maeve. The stone was at least 2.6 meters tall when standing.
Archaeological geophysical research has found traces of several features under the surface of the mound. At one stage it probably had a large timber building or henge on the top. The remains of a smaller mound or barrow can be seen at the centre of the flat top. Two causeways lead up to the platform from ground level, one from the east side, the other from the west.
For many years there has been speculation that this massive mound may cover a passage-grave, but geophysical results are inconclusive on this matter.
The Monuments at Rathcroghaun
Other monuments are The Cave of the Cats, said to be the home of the Morrigan, the goddess of war, and one
of the entrances into the Otherworld. This is a limestone fissure with
a man-made opening, with a recycled ogham stone from nearby Relig na
Righ supporting the entrance roof.
There is a large ringfort called Rath na Tarbh, the Fort of the
Bulls, where the final combat between the great bulls took place at the conclusion of the Cattle Raid of Cooley. The fort is 90 meters in diameter, an unusually large size for a ringfort, suggesting possible ritual use as suggested by the mythology.
mound is a barrow with a pillar stone placed at the centre.
Daithi, who is traditionally said to be buried here, was to be the last pagan king of
Ireland. He was killed when struck by lightning raiding in Scotland. According to the story, his troops tied his body to his horse, and placed a 'lighted sponge' in his mouth, fighting their way back to Ireland through seven battles behind the corpse of their electrified King.
There are a number of what appear to be roadways in the area, which may have once carried the many chariots so frequently mentioned in Irish mythology, though it is far more likely that they were for ceremonial banks cattle herding. It is likely that in Celtic times a road would have linked Rathcroghan
to the Hill of Tara, the ancient capital of Ireland.
The Mucklaghs are a pair of massive earthworks of no apparent use or function. According to local myths the earthworks were created by the tusks of a rampaging wild pig, possibly even Cail Ceis on her way from Newgrange to Keshcorran. These features
may date from the Bronze age period after 2500 BC when the Irish made
the transition from stone to metal. As yet, no excavations have taken
place, all surveying being done with electronic scanning devices. There
is a detailed presentation on the recent surveys at the visitor centre in Tulsk.
Relig na RI is the ancestral graveyard of the kings of Connaught. It is for this site, a huge enclosure, that Rathcroghan is known as a Royal Cemetery, first identified in modern times by Charles O'Conor of Belanagare. The monument is 100 meters in diameter, with the interior divided into four quadrants. There is a souterrain in the west side of the enclosure. There seems to be evidence of a second outer bank on the western side.
R. A. S. Macalister conducted excavations here in 1928, and claimed to have found the remains of two houses, demonstrating that the monument was not always used as a cemetery. The ogham stone which was used in the roof of the entrance to the Cave of the Cats may have been taken from here.
Finally, it is difficult to see why Queen Maeve of Connaught would not have preferred to have been interred here, rather than within the huge cairn which bears her name on Knocknarea in County Sligo.
Rathcroghan is the setting for a huge collection of Irish myths and legends. Foremost among the myths and stories if the epic tale of the Cattle Raid of Cooley, the Tain Bo Cuailange, which tells how Queen Maeve starts a war with the Men of Ulster over the Brown Bull of Cooley.
The Tain by the Decemberists, a 20 minute animated film set to music.
At the conclusion of this epic tale, the two bulls attack and kill each other in the monument called Rath na Tarbh, the Fort of the Bulls.
Other monuments with fantastic associations
are the Cave of the Cats, said to be the home of the Mór Rioghan, the great war goddess of Celtic myth. This cave has many stories and legends, being one of the more famous Irish entrances to the Otherworld. At Samhain all sorts of creatures were known to pour forth from the cave. In one story a woman chasing a wild calf is dragged down into the cave, only to emerge three days later from the Caves of Kesh Corran many long miles to the north of Rathcroghan.