Delving into the past in Roscommon


Marese McDonaghtakes a step back through the mists of time to view the wealth of history being uncovered at Cruachan Aí Heritage Centre in Tulsk

A FEW WEEKS ago archeologists digging at the site of a medieval castle in Co Roscommon found a treasure trove of Iron Age pottery and flint tools that are at least 3,000 years old. Not what you expect when you are investigating the foundations of a 16th-century building - but not that surprising given that the site is a stone's throw from Rathcroghan, reputed to be the burial ground and inauguration site of the ancient kings of Connacht.

At first glance Cruachan Aí Heritage Centre, in Tulsk village, looks no more than an inviting coffee shop on the banks of the picturesque Ogulla river, near a busy crossroads about 18km from Roscommon town.

But the "layers of history" cliche was made for Tulsk. It was the home of the legendary warrior Queen Medbh, one of the most important Celtic royal sites in Europe and the seat of the O'Conor chieftains. Intriguingly, the entrance to the other world of the fairies is reputed to be at Oweynagat (the Cave of the Cats), close to the centre.

It is built in the shadow of Tulsk Castle and a 15th-century Dominican abbey on the shores of the river where St Patrick is reputed to have converted the children of the high kings of Ireland. Sixty national monuments lie within a six-kilometre radius.Asked to put Rathcroghan in context by comparing it with Tara, the aptly named administrator, Mike Croghan, replies simply: "Older and bigger."

The central focus of the interpretative centre, Rathcroghan Mound, is a ceremonial structure associated with pre-Christian ritual. Most of the important sites in the complex date from the late Bronze Age and the Iron Age.

It was from this area that Medbh launched the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or Cattle raid of Cooley, when she got huffy with her husband, Ailill, after he boasted that he owned a white bull and was therefore wealthier than her. Medbh decided to steal a bull from Ulster, sparking a stand-off with Cúchulainn that ended in Tulsk when the brown bull of Cooley hoisted Ailill's white bull on his horns before making his victorious journey home.

Legend has it that the dying white bull left a trail of blood on the road to Cooley and that he lost his loins at Athlone, hence the name.

Cruachan Aí Heritage Centre, which opened in 1999, attempts to throw the spotlight on a place steeped in archaeology, mythology and history. Three exhibition rooms explain the importance of adjoining sites at Rathcroghan, Tulsk and Carnfree. Visitors wary of visiting Oweynagat, also known as Ireland's gate to hell, can study it from a safe distance in the centre.

When a team of archeologists touched down in Tulsk a few years ago as part of the State-funded Discovery Programme, they were there to learn more about the Gaelic lords who ruled the roost in rural Ireland in medieval times.

It was a happy coincidence that they were digging a stone's throw from Oweynagat and three kilometres from Rathcroghan, the ceremonial site that is believed to contain a passage tomb, and Rathnadarve, or Ráth na dTarbh, reputed to be the place where the brown bull of Cooley and the white-horned bull of Connacht did battle.

History, of course, is an ongoing story, and the archeologists have found everything from Stone Age axe heads to Elizabethan coins on the site of the medieval tower house they unearthed beneath a mound where cattle graze for most of the year.

The tower house, it seems, had been demolished and rebuilt several times over the centuries, and some of the artifacts they discovered are associated with Sir Richard Bingham, once known as the "flail of Connacht", who was garrisoned in the area when he was Queen Elizabeth I's governor to the province.

Dr Niall Brady, who led the dig, said that the most recent finds add a prehistoric dimension to the project. He said that as well as pottery, tools and burnt bones that he believes will be determined as Iron Age, they also found a bone pin sculpted as a horse's head in the early- medieval ring-fort layer and the remnants of a corn-drying kiln dating to the 10th or 11th century.

For those who don't stop to think of the treasures beneath their feet, he pointed out that outside the doors of Cruachan Aí Heritage Centre they have now found evidence of human existence from different millennia, including the Stone Age, the early-medieval era, in the 10th or 11th centuries, a 15th-century castle, artifacts from a 16th-century garrison and 19th-century field systems.

"We are in the middle of nowhere but at the centre of everything," says Croghan, and, indeed, the historical, cultural and archeological importance of the landscape around this small Roscommon village is hard to grasp.

In an euphoric ode to the area the Washington Postcommented that it was where, "when Helen of Troy was just a kid, the kings of Ireland created a fabulous Oz, a forbidden city, a Machu Picchu not of stone but of thatch-covered wooden palaces".

For those who want to get close to the past, the three exhibition rooms, interesting as they are, may not be enough. When weather and local landowners permit, it is possible to visit some of the most notable monuments.

Staff are keen to stress than many of these treasures, such as the Rathcroghan mound, Relignaree (Relig na Rí), the burial ground of the kings, and Daithí's Stone, where the last pagan king of Ireland is reputedly buried, are on private property that must be respected.

Visitors will be following in illustrious footsteps. Anyone who does venture into Oweynagat will, at the entrance of the cave, spot unlikely graffiti in the form of the signature of the first president of Ireland, a native of the county. The signature "D Hyde 1911" is clearly visible, having been scraped with a sharp object .

Almost 100 years later he probably would be disappointed at the low number of visitors who come to investigate the history and the mythology of what was once a seat of power in Ireland.

For those who do come, there is a wealth of information in the exhibition areas, a shop selling history books and mementoes, and a coffee shop offering home-cooked meals and cakes.

Go there

WhatCruachan Aí Heritage Centre, Tulsk,

Co Roscommon, 071-963926, Opens Monday to Saturday 9am to 5pm. Closed Sunday. Admission €5 adults, €3 children, €4.50 senior citizens, €4 students, €14 family.

How to get there

Tulsk village is near the intersection of the N5 (Dublin-Westport) and N61 (Boyle-Roscommon) roads.

Where to stayGleesons Townhouse and Restaurant, 090-6626954, Restored 19th-century stone house facing the main square in Roscommon town. Abbey Hotel, Roscommon, 090-6626240, Four-star hotel a short distance from Roscommon town centre, with leisure centre with 20m indoor swimming pool.Castlecoote House, Castlecoote, 090-6663794, castlecoote. Georgian mansion overlooking River Suck, 26km from Tulsk.

Some other heritage centres worth a visit

Irish National Heritage ParkFerrycarrig, Co Wexford, 053-9120733, Adults €8; children €4, family €20. This 14-hectare park, just outside Wexford town, brings you along a 9,000-year timeline in just a couple of hours - from ringfort to crannóg to Viking house - and not just dwellings, either, but places of ritual, burial modes and ancient farming methods. Tours are available, or simply amble at your leisure and let your imagination be your guide. The restaurant is child-friendly, but be warned that it opens into a gift shop, so a visit might prove more expensive than you think.

• Somme Heritage Centre

233 Bangor Road, Newtonards, Co Down, 048-91823202, Adults £4.25, children £3.25.For second World War buffs, the pull of the Somme Heritage Centre is irresistible. Opened in 1994, it examines Ireland's role in the Great War. Guided tours take visitors back to 1910 to find out about the Home Rule crisis. From there it's on to a re-created recruiting office and training camp, before moving on to a dug-out in France, with information about life in the trenches. The highlight is a frontline trench from which visitors can look out over "No Man's Land", with a dramatic audio-visual narrative of the Battle of the Somme.

• DubliniaSt Michael's Hill, Christchurch, Dublin 8, 01-6794611, Adults €6.25, children €3.75. A celebration of the capital's Viking heritage, uses audio-visuals, graphics and, in high season, costumed characters to bring the city's turbulent early history to life. The tour spans over three levels and includes a medieval fair as well as a detailed scale model of the nascent city centre. You can also opt to combine the visit with a tour of Christ Church cathedral.

Bunratty Folk ParkBunratty, Co Clare, 061-711200, Adults €15, children €9, family €34.25; includes entry to Bunratty Castle. There are few more enjoyable ways to spend a day than going, literally, around the houses at Bunratty Folk Park. Set on 10 hectares, it re-creates an entire 19th-century village, with 30 buildings, leaving you free to snoop upstairs and down as much as you like. Chat to the bean an tí as they make scones, or try to catch out local characters, such as the school teacher or policeman, in an anachronism - they've heard it all before.

Sandra O'Connell