In Irish mythology, the Otherworld was a supernatural realm free from hunger, pain, sickness and old age. But it wasn’t all sweetness and light; it had a dark side, too.
Land of Eternal Youth
Every Irish schoolchild knows of Tír na nÓg. It was to this fabled land of eternal youth that the beautiful princess Niamh enticed Oisín with promises of happy-ever-afters. But after three wonderful years in Tír na nÓg, the pull of the old sod proved too much for Oisín. He decided to return home to visit his pals in the Fianna.
Despite Niamh’s warnings not to touch the ground of his former homeland, Oisín couldn’t resist helping a group of men who were trying to move a large stone. Unfortunately, while doing so he fell from his horse, aged dreadfully in a matter of minutes, and died shortly afterwards. It turned out that three years in Tír na nÓg was equal to three hundred years in the real world.
But Tír na nÓg (meaning land of the young) was much more than a land full of beautiful immortals. In ancient Ireland, it was in fact one of many names for the Otherworld. This magical place was also called Emain Ablach (stream or isle of the apples), Tír nAill (the other land), Tír Tairngire (land of promise), Tír fo Thuinn (land under the wave) and Tír na mBeo (land of the living).
The mythology also mentions places within the Otherworld, such as Mag Mell (plain of delight), Mag Findargat (white-silver plain), Mag Argatnél (silver-cloud plain), Mag Ildathach (multicoloured plain) and Mag Cíuin (gentle plain).
We’re not sure if these names were used interchangeably or if they referred to different places within the Otherworld. In fact, many details about this magical realm are vague. For instance, the souls of the dead were said to go to a place called Tech Duinn (House of Donn) but it’s unclear if they were believed to stay there forever or travel onto somewhere else in the Otherworld.
In his fascinating book about the Irish language, Thirty-Two Words for Field, Manchán Magan explains that the Otherworld was much more than an imaginary realm. It was a concept that connected people and their communities with the natural world, religious beliefs and important ancestors – all at the same time.
According to Magan, the Irish for otherworld is alltar. At one time in ancient Ireland, he says, the ceantar (place or region; this world) was closely shadowed by the alltar. People accepted the existence of realities that they could not see; they even believed that some could pass through the thin veil between these worlds.
Interestingly, Magan likens this ancient Irish view of different realities to the modern field of quantum physics. Scientists now realise that electrons – one of the basic components of all matter in the universe – don’t remain in one place, but are forever disappearing and reappearing elsewhere. This would seem to suggest that the things we see are not as they seem – just as our ancestors believed.
Home of the Gods
So what exactly happened in the Otherworld? According to folklore, it was a peaceful, happy place with lots of feasting, music and contests. It was the dwelling place of the gods (the Tuatha Dé Danann or tribe of the goddess Danu) as well as certain heroes and important ancestors.
Its exact location, however, is vague. It may have been thought of as underground because its gateways were usually in burial mounds, wells and lakes. However, it could also have been conceived of as a parallel world because it was sometimes described as being across the sea.
As Manchán Magan suggests, it seems that ancient Irish people did indeed accept the existence of this other reality. Their myths and stories taught that it was possible for mortals to travel to the Otherworld where they might be bestowed with some gift or talent courtesy of the gods.
But the stories also warned of a dark side to the Otherworld. Visits there could prove costly, as Oisín discovered on his return to the real world. The warrior hero, Fionn Mac Comhaill, came back from the Otherworld disfigured and aged. And when Bóann (the River Boyne goddess) travelled there seeking wisdom, it literally cost her an arm and a leg.
The Otherworld could also be a source of fear and dread; it is, after all, the reason why we try to scare each other at Halloween. Called Samhain in ancient Ireland, Halloween was believed to be a time when the veil between the realms was thinner than usual allowing spirits to crossover into the real world. People dressed in scary costumes to frighten away evil spirits who might mean them harm.
How To Get There
You didn’t have to be dead – or a warrior hero – to visit the Otherworld. Those brave enough to take their chances despite the dire warnings could visit this fabled land of plenty.
According to mythology, when the Gaels arrived in Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Dannan retreated underground into the burial mounds. There they remained, with each god assigned a different mound to inhabit. Accordingly, these burial mounds were gateways to the Otherworld.
Today, the very impressive Newgrange is the most well-known burial mound, but there were many more across the country. Interestingly, the Irish name for Newgrange hints at its status as a gateway to the Otherworld; it was called Brú na Boinne, meaning the fairy palace on the Boyne.
Water often represented another gateway to the Otherworld, as one of its many names – Tír fo Thuinn (land under the wave) – suggests. One tale tells of a man hunting near a lake in Cavan who was about to kill a hare until he noticed a huge red eye in the centre of its forehead. Realising it was a supernatural being, he watched as the hare dived into the lake and disappeared into the Otherworld.
The lake in question was credited with healing properties and indeed, there are many holy wells around Ireland – also credited with such powers – that were believed to be gateways to the Otherworld. But perhaps the most fascinating gateway is a place our ancestors called the Cave of the Cats.
Enter If You Dare
Oweynagat (Uaimh na gCat in Irish), known as the Gateway to Hell, was the site of a portal to the Otherworld which opened on Halloween night, according to legend. It was closely associated with The Morrigan, a powerful goddess of war and battle. Apparently she kept her otherworldly cattle there and would punish anyone who brought an unworthy person into her lair.
There are many eerie tales surrounding Owenyagat. One, from the 12th century, tells of a swarm of three-headed creatures who came teeming from the cave’s mouth, wreaking havoc over the land and eating everything in sight. An 8th century story describes how Cú Chulainn and two of his fellow warriors were attacked by three ferocious cats who emerged from the cave.
So important was this cave to our ancestors that they constructed an entrance using two ogham stones, one of which bears the inscription Fraech son of Medb. Of course, the Medb (Maeve) in question was queen of Connacht and star of the epic Cattle Raid of Cooley.
The 37-metre-long Cave of the Cats lies under the ancient capital of Connacht, seat of Queen Medb’s power and the scene of much of the action in the Ulster Cycle of Irish Mythology. In fact, The Cattle Raid of Cooley both began and ended here.
Today, the four-square-mile site at Rathcrogan in Co Roscommon is an area of great archaeological importance. In addition to the Gateway to Hell, it contains 240 individual sites. These include burial mounds, ringforts, standing stones, earthworks, stone forts and a mound where Iron Age ceremonies took place. It was used for thousands of years, from around 3,200 BCE right up to medieval times.
So, are you brave enough to visit the Gateway to Hell?