In County Roscommon in a town called Tulsk, there is a cave. A cave called Oweynagat (Uaimh na gCat in Irish- “The Cave of Cats”). Every time I’ve been to Ireland, I intended to get to Oweynagat and it just hasn’t worked out. This time, I was very intentional about making Oweynagat the centerpiece of my journey. The main reason I made this trip on such short notice is to work through grief after a profound heartbreak, and having been intimately acquainted with the Morrígan and the havoc she wreaks over the last several years, I felt it was time to finally meet her on her turf. Time for me to go knocking on her door for once.
Oweynagat, also called The Cave of Cats, is one of the lesser-known sacred places in Ireland, but has been more frequently visited in recent years. I suspect it has something to do with Sharon Blackie’s book If Women Rose Rooted, where she gives her account of her own experience at Oweynagat. This Iron Age cave is said to be the birthplace of the warrior Queen Medb (Maeve), home of the Morrígan, origin of Samhain, and Ireland’s own Gate to Hell; all of which can give you a sense of the absolute darkness and despair you feel come over you while in her belly. There are many stories associated with this cave, most of them having to do with some sort of chaos and destruction. Mine is no different.
There were three people there when I arrived- a tour guide, a young man, and a young woman. I sat down in the field to enjoy the setting and make my presence known to the land while I waited for them to finish their visit so I could make my descent alone. Eventually, the tour guide finished his talk, and he took the two inside. The mouth of the cave seems to open up right out of the ground and has a gently sloping, fertile mound above it, out of which grows a hawthorn tree (of course!). I could hear several crows cawing in the nearby copse of pine trees, possibly alerting their Queen of my arrival, I imagined. Nettles, daisies, and primroses dot the field. Ireland was in a bit of a warm spell that week, so the day was bright, blue, and clear- a stark contrast to what I knew awaited me below.
Several minutes later, the three emerged, red cheeked, breathing hard, and smudged in mud. The young man looked at me in my long skirts and said “You’re going to climb in there like that?! You’re going to get covered in mud!” Yes. I know. That’s the point. I didn’t come all the way from Pennsylvania not to crawl down in there, I said. Their tour finished, and the guide gave me his obligatory “We don’t advise people to go in there alone” with a knowing look and a half smile. He walked off and I was finally alone with the cave. I approached the mouth and sat down so I could shimmy under the lintel stone. You really do have to crawl crabwise for about the first 15-20 feet over wet rocky terrain, and what little light that comes in through the mouth is mostly obscured by your body.
It’s messy, awkward, and painful. I have a good sized cut on my elbow to prove it, and my legs were sore for days from getting myself in and out of there. My light was catching tiny glimmers of minerals in the stone walls and I could see that previous visitors had left offerings in some of the recesses of the stone. The cave narrows even more and you step down and finally have some headroom, but now you are far enough from the mouth of the cave to be in complete and utter darkness. The kind of darkness that you can feel fill your lungs and ears. All I had for a lantern was the feeble light from my phone, which was laughable against this stygian abyss. Dammit, why did I forget to pack my headlamp? The walls are wet and narrow, and the floor is several inches of muck dotted with a handful of stones large enough to pick your way along. I pointed my light upwards and saw the walls meet high above me in a steeple. Once I got as far as I could go without completely losing my shoes in the mud, I turned off my light and let the darkness and silence consume me. I felt myself begin to sway in tiny circles. Are the walls still there? The cold moist black was everywhere in and out.
It’s mildly terrifying, but I made myself give over to it. Is She really here? Can She see me?
No one is coming to save you.
I drink in a few more cold wet breaths, turn the light back on, and decide it’s time to go. The ascent is even harder and messier. The closer you get to the light, the more narrow it gets and breaths come harder.
My legs started to shake and give out as the walls and ceiling closed in. My knees hit the cold, uneven earth. Come on, you can do this. Get your feet under you and push yourself up.
No one is coming to save you, She says again.
I can see the slip of light ahead and I give it all I’ve got.
Just before I reemerged, I sat to rest on a dirt ledge just inside the mouth. It’s only from this position that you can see that on the inside of the lintel stone, there are ancient Ogham carvings.
“Fraoch, Son of Medb,” they read, almost in a whisper now, after centuries of hands have run over them. I reached out my hand and ran my fingers over the grooves trying to sense the fingertips of all those hands that came before me. Once my breathing settled, I gathered enough strength to make the final push out into the light on my hands and knees, covered in afterbirth. I stood up, took my shoes off, turned to face the cave and held hawthorn branches in my hands and wept. I wept for how I had let myself believe I had lost my magic. I wept for the love I gave and lost. I wept for my tired soul. I wept out of anger for the fact that I’m having to go through this grieving. Again.
The descent into the maw of grief is messy and awkward and painful. It’s a complete undoing. You lose your footing and sometimes can’t see even an inch in front of you. It’s utterly disorienting. Then you’re mired in the muck for a while before you realize no one is coming to save you; you have to climb your own way out of it. Sure, you might be covered in mud and blood and sweat and tears when you finally see the light of day again, but you do emerge nonetheless; not cured, but a changeling.
It’s then that I realized something about why I have felt pulled to this land for so long. I’ve been asked many times over the years why I love Ireland so much and what draws me here. Why do I keep coming back, they want to know. I never had a solid answer until now. This is a land and a people who have experienced profound grief and despair over countless generations. I hear it in the stories and songs and I feel it in the people. Despite this, the magic in this land is very much alive and thriving alongside a spirit of persistence and grit. I can feel it every time I’m here, and I carry that feeling home with me- worn and weathered but still singing a tender song in rebellion. I always seem to be some kind of broken when I come here, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. This land pulls on me because I needed to be held by a place that could witness and validate my grief and help me remember who I am and the inherent magic I embody. That’s the medicine that’s here for me. That’s why I keep coming back.
Once my tears subsided, I whispered “Thank you,” to the hawthorn; the Celtic tree of sex and death, of ecstasy and despair, of chaos and rebirth. “Thank you,” I whispered to the cave, the cauldron of alchemy. “Thank you,” I whispered to the Morrígan, for bringing me to my knees yet again so that I could re-member myself.
When I parted with the cave and the hawthorn, I turned around to see the young woman from the tour sitting in the field, facing away, as if she was aware of the privacy I needed with the cave. She knew why I was there. I approached her, and she looked up at me and saw that I had been crying. I explained that I had come here partly to grieve. She offered me a kind word and paused, then said “Can I ask you something?” Sure, I said.
“Are you a witch?”
The question kind of caught me off guard, and that word twinged in that spot in my belly that it always does. When we met eyes before she went into the cave, there was a moment of recognition exchanged. I’ve been called this word many times, but never have I really claimed it as my own. We have such a bristly relationship with the word witch, and a lot of that has to do with social conditioning and the stories we’re told about warty old women who eat children, put hexes on people, and steal men’s penises and keep them in nests. Don’t believe me? There is an entire chapter in the Malleus Maleficarum, the book credited with inciting the infamous witch trials, entitled “How They [witches] Deprive Men of their Virile Member”. Of course, I know better, but whenever I’ve been asked if I identify as a witch before, I give some kind of half-hearted answer like “Well, some folks might say that, but….”, but this time, I said “Yes. Yes, I am.” I decided in that moment that I am going to claim the magic that others are always saying they see in me. Yes, I’m a witch. “I knew it. I could tell when I saw you earlier,” she said. “Me too.”