Tulsk & Rathcroghan (Co. Roscommon / Central)
Tulsk (Tuilsce, probably from tullaigh uisce – “wet hill”; alternatively “the hillock of the thorn tree”) (pop. 230), situated at an important medieval crossroads, is a village and district with few facilites for visitors but several archaeological / historical sites of interest.
The O’Conor Rua / Roe, head of one of the three septs into which the former Royal House of Connacht had recently split, erected a castle here in 1406. Long one of the strongest in Connacht, it was garrisoned by the Earl of Kildare when he led his forces into this province in 1499, and was later used during the Elizabethan-era garrisoning of Tulsk by Sir Richard Bingham, aka “the Flail of Connacht”.
A Dominican monastery was founded during the early C15th at nearby Toemonia either by MacDuil or O’Dowell, or by Phelim, son of Phelim Cleary O’Conor, who was interred here in 1448. The monastery apparently flourished until its possessions were usurped by the Corporation of Galway. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I it was found to be in the occupation of Franciscans, on whose suppression it was granted to Richard Kyndelinshe.
King Charles II granted a Charter of Incorporation designating the “Portreeve, Free Burgesses, and Commonalty of the Borough of Tulsk“, which also conferred power to hold a court of record and a weekly market. Tulsk was one of three Parliamentary Boroughs in County Roscommon, represented in the Irish House of Commons from 1692 until the Act of Union 1800 ended its franchise. By 1837 the once important town had dwindled into an insignificant village, consisting only of a few straggling cottages and one shop.
The C19th culture of mass meetings in Ireland, begun with Daniel O’Connell‘s “Monster Rallies” callingt for Catholic Emancipation, was kept alive in Tulsk as as the geographically centre of County Roscommon. Perhaps the largest of eight to ten such assemblies recorded between 1880 and 1920 was the mass outdoor “National Meeting” held in October 1903 by John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party.
Like most villages and towns in the UK, Tulsk sent several young men to fight in WWI. One, John McGrath, was killed in action in France in July 1918. Two RIC officers in Tulsk, Henry Armitage and William Garry, went to the front after an outdoor send-off in the village. Their exact fate is unknown, like that of half of the over 9 million men who died in WWI, scattered as they are beneath the green fields of mainland Europe.
The RIC barracks in Tulsk, a busy rural outpost with 10 officers, was evacuated in Autumn 1919 , and burned to the ground after Easter 1920 during the War of Independence, which saw more than one atrocity committed locally. On 12th October 1920 five RIC men, Sgt Peter McArdle; Constable Martin O’Connor; Constable John Crawford; Constable Francis Gallagher and Constable Michael Kenny, were killed in an IRA ambush at Four Mile House. On 14th November 1920 George Kelly, a shop keeper in Tulsk, was driving to Roscommon when he was arrested and held in Roscommon. Later that night his truck was carried RIC officers and Black & Tans to the townland of Rathconnor, where they marched John Conry from his house and shot him twice in the head, twice in the chest and once in the stomach in reprisal. 58 people were killed during the rebellion in County Roscommon between 1917 – 1921.
Tulsk Fort, a raised ringfort in the centre of Tulsk village, lies 60m east of a relatively slight earthen mound in Castleland townland that has long been considered the site of Tulsk Castle; the complexity of the ringfort and its dominant position suggest it was of primary importance throughout the medieval period, leading to the current idea that the ringfort may have been the true site of the Castle.
Tulsk Abbey, now a photogenic ruin, has long been used as a graveyard.
The church of SS Eithne & Fidelma (RC) is quite big.
Rathcroghan (Ráth Cruachan – “Ringfort of Cruachan”) has been identified as the location of Cruachan / Cruachu, the legendary capital of the Connachta tribe and burial place of the kings of Connacht.
Cruachan Ai (“Plain of the Mounds”), said to be the densest concentration of ancient earthworks in Europs, takes in more than 200 sites and 60 National Monuments, including 20 ring forts and numerous burial mounds, ring barrows, cairns, megalithic tombs and Standing Stones etc. As the archaeological sites are spread out over some 520 hectares / four square miles, even a trained eye finds it difficult to make sense of the complex.
Cruachan is estimated to have been used for well over 6000 years, with recent excavations revealing levels extending back into the Mesolithic period, when hunting and gathering prevailed. With archaeological sites dating from the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, the early Christian, medieval and post-medieval periods, Cruachan has been proposed to UNESCO for World Heritage status.
While it is debatable whether this was a place of royal residence in the absence of any great historical references or archaeological evidence to prove it, Cruachan undoubtedly had huge significance as a cemetery and also as a gathering place for ritual assemblies as part of religious and funerary traditions in ancient times, ranking in importance with Emain Macha (Navan Fort) near Armagh or Tara and Tailtiu in County Meath.
Cruachan played a significant part in Irish mythology, notably in the Ulster Cycle as the setting for the opening section of the Táin Bó Flidhais and for both the opening and the bloody conclusion of the epic Tain Bo Cuailgne / Cattle Raid of Cooley launched by the Iron Age queen Medb / Maedbh / Maebh / Maeve, who ruled Connacht from here with king Ailill. Other stories involve Fráech, a Connachta champion who wooed Medb’s daughter Findabair and gave his name to the neighbouring site of Carn Fraích, anglicised as Carnfree.
There are not many mythical descriptions of the Connachta‘s main fort, but a Dindshenchas poem about two figures called Fráech, the famous one of Medb’s time and the other a Connachta prince before Ireland was divided by Conn and Eoghan, refers to Cruachan as a stone built fortress.
Rathcroghan Mound is a low flat-topped hillock some 90m wide at the base, with a small 6m wide mound still visible on top, probably the remains of a small burial mound. (Photo – www.rathcroghantours.com, an informative website by an enthusiastic local guide)
This site, once considered a natural feature, has thanks to geophysical surveying been revealed to be man-made, apparently extended from a small natural gravel ridge. Surveying has revealed that the mound was built on top of an existing monument that was made of two stone built ring banks. There is evidence of a trench, 380m in diameter, which had the mound as its centre. Traces of large buildings have been revealed on the summit of the mound which may have been temples similar to the Forty Foot structure at Emain Macha.
It is widely believed that the ceremonies held here to inaugurate each new king involved some kind of ritual union between the monarch and the deity, of whom queen Medb was actually a local earth goddess manifestation, much like Medb Lethderg at Tara.
Rath Mór / Rathmore, northwest of Rathcroghan Mound, is a circular earthwork consisting of a raised flat area, 30m across, surrounded by a sloping earth bank inside a deep ditch. This monument is believed to have been a chieftain’s residence, dating to the second half of the first millennium AD. Nearby stands Rathbeg, a smaller triple-ditch ringfort.
Rath na Darbh (“ringfort of the bulls”), west of Rathcroghan Mound, is a large circular enclosure surrounded by a bank and ditch. It is traditionally supposed to be site of the fight between the bulls Donn Cúailnge and Finnbhennach at the end of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, although the name is first recorded in the C19th, anglicised as “Rathnadarve”.
Reilig na Rí (“cemetery of the kings”), anglicised as “Relignaree”, south of Rathcroghan Mound, is a circular enclosure 100m in diameter, surrounded by a stony bank. Internal features include a souterrain, several rectangular hut-sites, and the remains of a smaller circular enclosure. It is probably the remains of a settlement of the early historic period. Some believe its inner area is divided to resemble an ancient map of Ireland.
Dathí’s Mound, close to Reilig na Rí, is an embanked earth mound surrounded by a bank about 40 metres across with entrances east and west, and prominently topped with a 2m high Standing Stone. This is supposedly the burial mound of Dathí, the last pagan High King of Ireland, but excavations show the mound was sculpted out of a natural gravel ridge, with no trace of any burial, and radiocarbon dating indicates it was constructed between 200 BC and 200 AD, considerably earlier than Dathí’s dates.
The Mucklaghs are two long linear enclosures with banks up to 6m high, traditionally believed to have been dug out of the ground by a magical boar. These structures may have been used to store and protect animals and / or for ceremonial purposes; excavations of similar sites in Britain and Europe have revealed sacred stones and offerings.
The Ancient Avenue, a 15m wide trackway between by two low banks, intersects with the outer circular bank and ditch of Rathscreig, a site with a small mound at the centre, and seems to end at Flanagans Fort, another ringfort with a small mound at the centre. Both these forts were built at a later date than the avenue.
Cashelmanannáin / Cashelmanannan, a stone fortress, is the local feature closest to the mythical description of Rathcroghan fort. Only the foundations remain of 3 circular stone walls separated by ditches.
Oweynagat / Uaimh na gCait (“the cave of the cats”) is a souterrain beneath an old road leading into a long, dark, narrow limestone cave. Two of the lintel stones used to build the early Medieval entrance contain Ogham inscriptions, with one reading VRAICCI MAQI MEDVII, interpreted as meaning “Fráech son of Medb“. Ogham script is usually found only in the southwest of Ireland, and is extremely unusual in Connacht.
Oweynagat cave was believed to be a portal to the Otherworld – indeed, later Christian writers referred to it as Ireland’s “Gates of Hell”. Cruachan seems to have heavy associations with the feast of Samhain, when it was believed that the graves opened and spirits walked the earth, while various destructive creatures emerged from Oweynagat.
The name may come from the magical wildcats featured in Bricriu’s Feast that attacked the Ulster warriors before being tamed by Cúchulainn. Small red birds came from the cave withering every plant they breathed on until destroyed by the Red Branch, also herds of pigs with corrosive hides that Ailill and Medb themselves desperately tried to wipe out. The Ellen Trechen was a triple headed monster that rampaged across the country before being killed by Conall Cernach‘s father Amergin. The most powerful of all was The Morrígan, witch of the Tuatha dé Danaan and Celtic goddess of war, who still emerges from her fairy fort within this cave, the Síd ar Cruachan, on a chariot pulled by a one-legged chestnut horse along with various nightmarish creatures every Samhain / Hallowe’en.
The name could also refer to the king of the cats, Irusan, who features in numerous Irish fairy tales and was believed to live in a cave near Clonmacnoise but is associated with many places. An C18th tale tells of a woman who on trying to catch a runaway cow, follows it into Owetnagat and emerges miles away in Keshcorran in County Sligo.
Some of the best examples of ringforts in the area date from Christian times, but Cruachan’s ritual importance diminished after the arrival of Christianity, as highlighted by the prologue in the Martyrology of Oengus that contrasts the end of Cruachans power with the emergence of Clonmacnoise.
The area is peppered with medieval field banks, showing that Cruachain became key grazing land possibly attached initially to the early medieval fort built at neighbouring Tulsk, with another nearby feature – Carnfree mound – being used as the inauguration site of the O’Connor kings of Connacht. There is evidence of small ‘sean bhaile‘ house clusters between the monuments that could have been lived in well past the Middle Ages.
Surveying began in the mid-C18th, highlighted by Gabriel Beranger‘s colour drawing of Cruachan mound. This work was continued by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s who with local help assigned the names to the monuments that are used to this day. The most recent archaeological surveys were carried out by Prof John Waddell of NUI Galway, and by the Discovery Programme, Ireland’s archaeological research institute funded by the Heritage Council. Student volunteers from Ireland and from around the world have continued to contribute to the success of the excavation project.
Although Croghan Ai’s origins and meaning are lost in time or survive only in a distorted form in the folk memory of the local people, modern science is shedding new light on the significance of this enigmatic landscape and the meaning of the ancient sites scattered across it, which have long been of interest to antiquarians, archaeologists, mythologists and mystics.
The Cruachan Ai Visitor Centre, opened in 1999 on the banks of the Ogulla River just at the entrance to Tulsk village, is an award-winning facility that combines archaeology, history and mythology in an imaginative and accessible way for everybody, showcasing all the latest research updates on Rathcroghan as well as Carnfree and Tulsk itself. Field trips are conducted by knowledgeable guides. The centre also has a friendly café and a good shop.
The Ogulla Well, now half enclosed in a suburban garden conservatory in a partially landscaped setting, near Tulsk village, is believed by many to be the Cliabach Well, where Saint Patrick famously baptised the princesses Eithne and Fidelma, daughters of King Laoghaire of Tara, who were attending the great school of Cashelmanannáin at Rathcroghan. He also christened Mael and Coplait, druids with whom the royal sisters had been fostered.
The Bronze Age Carn Fraich / Carnfree Mound, long used for royal inauguration ceremonies by the O’Conor dynasty, stands near several ring barrows and other myth-enshrouded sites such as Carn Lámha (the Cairn of the Hand”), Duma Selga (“the mound of the hunt”) and Cloch Fada na gCarn (“the long stone of Cairns”) and close to Selc, believed to be the site where Saint Patrick and his clergy slept while converting the powerful Ui Brion princes, featuring the remains of a medieval church.
Tulsk & Rathcroghan are