In a Word . . . Hell

The road to Hell begins in Roscommon

It will come as no surprise to those who like to disparage my county to hear that the road to Hell begins in Roscommon. "In the middle of a field in a lesser known part of Ireland is a large mound occupied by sheep." Very Roscommon.

That, dear reader, is the opening line to a recent National Geographic article titled, Inside the “hell caves” where Halloween was born.

Oh, yes, Halloween was born in Roscommon too. Look, admit it, you really have no idea how much you owe my county.

But, back to the sheep. (Where would we be without them in Roscommon? That slander about us natives being “sheep stealers” is a gross libel invented by the incurably, if understandably, jealous.)


"These livestock wander freely, chewing the grass beneath their feet. Yet, had they been in that same location 2,000 years ago, these animals probably would have been stiff with terror, held aloft by chanting, costumed pagans while being sacrificed to Celtic demons that inhabited nearby Oweynagat cave," the article continued.

Oweynagat, meaning "cave of the cats", at Rathcroghan near Tulsk, was believed by our ancestors to be a passageway between Ireland and the "otherworld". As singer Chris Rea would have put it: "This ain't no upwardly mobile freeway/Oh no, this is the road/This is the road/This is the road to hell." It was not the route he took when "driving home for Christmas".

According to archaeologist Daniel Curley, Oweynagat was the birthplace of the Samhain festival (and so Halloween) during which animals were sacrificed at a huge pagan temple there.

It was in Rathcroghan that the Celtic New Year festival of Samhain was born, he said. In the 1800s, this Samhain tradition was brought by Irish immigrants to the United States where it morphed into the Holloween we know, kids love, and dogs hate.

During Samhain, the Celts believed some demons escaped from Hell via Oweynagat cave and so, to protect themselves, our ancestors dressed as fellow ghouls – there being no native ones in Roscommon (unlike certain counties I know!)

Even Hell is not what it used to be, so Oweynagat today is “hidden beneath trees in a waterlogged field at the end of a one-way, dead-end road”, as the article put it. Still, it remains “a one-way, dead end”.

Hell from Old English hel, helle.