It's one of Ireland's most important prehistoric sites, but you may not have heard of it
Rathcroghan in Co Roscommon is on par with Newgrange or Tara, but remains relatively unknown
Aerial photograph of Rathcroghan mound, Co Roscommon. Photograph: Joe Fenwick, NUI Galway
What if I were to tell you that the ancient royal capital of Connacht still exists today, with many of its ceremonial and ritualistic buildings still visible?
Rathcroghan in Co Roscommon is “one of the most important prehistoric and early medieval landscapes in all of Ireland”, according to Daniel Curley, manager of the visitors centre in the local village of Tulsk. Most archaeologists would agree that the 240 ancient monuments in the area make up an archaeological landscape on a par with Newgrange or Tara.
Yet Rathcroghan is barely known to most of us. Why?
“While ground-breaking research and excavation were being conducted on the great sites of Co Meath from the 1960s onwards, Rathcroghan was largely forgotten until relatively recently,” Curley explains. “Anything west of the Shannon tends to get ignored, particularly in Roscommon and east Galway.”
The story of how the local community has begun to lure visitors to this neglected region of linear earthworks, burial mounds, ringforts, field boundaries, temple sites, and even a ritual gate to the otherworld is remarkable.
“This land was, and still is, some of the most fertile territory west of the Shannon,” says Curley, “and so over five millennia was able to attract and sustain populations better than anywhere else in Connacht.” Locals knew the monuments in their fields were potentially the same ones described in the great tales of the Ulster Cycle about Queen Maeve, who had her royal seat at Rathcroghan, and of the great cattle-raid of Cooley, which began here.
“The traditional farming methods practised here meant the remains have been remarkably well preserved, so you can actually see in the landscape scenes described in these Iron Age tales,” says Curley.
In 1999 the local community built a visitor centre to share the rich lore of their area, but it was a forlorn-looking place akin to a GAA changing room, offering little reason for people travelling along the N5 to stop. This was how things remained until about five years ago, when people started taking notice of Rathcroghan and murmurings began to spread about a new lost citadel at the sacred centre of Connacht.
“We received some funding to renovate the information displays at the centre,” says Curley. “This chance to retell the story in our own words, based on our own research and our interpretation of the latest scientific investigations was like a jolt of adrenalin.”
The tiny team of locals became newly enraptured by the wonder of the place, spurred on to find more funding to renovate the exterior of the building, and the cafe and shop. “Each improvement led to more tourists coming through the doors,” says Curley, “and the impact was dramatic: between 2015 and 2019 visitor numbers rose from 9,000 to 22,000.”
For a tourist site in an unprepossessing patch of mid-Roscommon to experience such growth without any significant support from Fáilte Ireland or the OPW, or any outside agency, was verging on miraculous. Most of it was due to word of mouth, and a continuous stream of ecstatic reviews on sites like TripAdvisor, where visitors who just happened to wander into the centre and sign up for a tour would write glowing accounts of discovering a “lost” archaeological world, brought vibrantly to life by the passion and intensity of Curley and his tour guiding colleagues, Elaine Conroy and Mike McCarthy.
Rathcroghan is an extraordinary site, once a skilful guide has pointed out the scores of ancient remains that lie all around, mostly now covered in a layer of earth and sod. Geophysical investigations of the most prominent earthwork, Rathcroghan Mound (known locally as Queen Maeve’s fort), reveal broad parade ramps and enclosures where ceremonial processions of dignitaries, high priests and perhaps even sacred animals may have been led in great public rituals of kingship or burial or nature worship.
Southwest of it is what was once known as a hell-mouth, or an entrance to the otherworld, called Oweynagat Cave. It’s a small hole in a field at the bottom of a grassy lane that you’d never notice unless it was pointed out. It looks like a fox’s den until you crawl inside and see the carved ogham stone hidden above you. A long tunnel leads into an enormous limestone fissure beneath the earth. References in lore suggest it may have been a chamber of transformation, or a place of connection to the divine.
With Rathcroghan set to become an increasingly popular tourist site, the community has turned their attention to making the region more sustainable for themselves. Until now the archaeology had largely been a burden.
“The old remains have been a massive negative for farmers here,” explains Curley. “It stops them from cutting silage, from ploughing and from modernising their farms. It’s actually removing them from the landscape because for decades they haven’t been able to get planning permission. The local primary school closed down because there were no young people left.”
While interest in taking up farming is low enough in Ireland, here it has become chronic as young farmers see no chance of modernising due to the archaeological constraints. The only option seemed to be to sell the land off to some agricultural conglomerate who would have no connection with the area’s ancient lore. The team behind the visitor centre realised something had to be done, and managed to secure the first grant given by the European Innovation Partnership to an archaeological rather than a natural landscape. They now have €1 million to be spent over five years to help farmers shift to a more suitable and sustainable type of farming.
A different future
Farmers will spearhead the process, taking minor steps like fencing off a ringfort that is being eroded by cattle, or more elaborate transformations, such as replacing modern breeds of heavy European cattle with the smaller native breeds referred to in ancient historical and mythological tales of cattle raids in the area. A next step could be to replace the monocrop of modern Italian rye grass with a native meadow of biodiverse grasses and herbs, as was here for eons.
“One farmer has sought funding to re-establish a virtually extinct species of Roscommon sheep famous in the area for centuries, while another wants to establish a traditional fruit orchard,” says Curley. Others are investigating the potential of native woodland.
Rathcroghan could become not just a major archaeological tourism site, but also a unique food-producing region cultivating meat, vegetables, cheese, nuts and fruit in similar ways to our ancient ancestors. Ambitiously, it could even become the first area in Ireland with its own EU-recognised designation as a re-established Iron Age farming landscape, producing unique products in a biodiverse ecological sanctuary.
It will take time for farmers to abandon slurry tanks and chemical sprays, and shift to the mindset and practises of their forbearers who tended this land for millennia, but the fact that the current farming model cannot work for their children encourages at least some of them to take the leap.
“It’s about thinking outside the box,” says Curley, “getting people to imagine a different future. In truth, we can only offer relatively small financial assistance to farmers over the five years, but we can provide training too, in skills like working with traditional animal breeds, stone wall construction, etc. I’m certainly not promising it’s going to be easy, but the opportunities to create something truly world class here in Roscommon is palpable. It just requires us working together.
“We’ve got this far as a community, who’s going to stop us now?” r