To Hell and Back: In Search Of the Irish Underworld
Sunday, March 11, 2007
"How we are going to get out?" asked my daughter, the calm 15-year-old.
It was a good question, and timely. The two of us were scuttling on our haunches under a four-foot stone passageway, slowly surrendering to the pull of gravity in a small, uninviting cave paved in mud way out in the fields of County Roscommon, Ireland.
Perhaps a dozen or so feet up a steep incline behind us was a jagged opening offering a pinch of daylight, a place where moments earlier a few wandering cows had witnessed our arrival. Vinyl slip-on overalls and Wellingtons we'd bought at a hardware store up the road gave only small comfort in return for practically no traction in the oozing mud. It was cold, and water dripped from overhead.
"This doesn't look good," she said, pointing a flashlight over the jumble of rock and mud perhaps 30 feet downward to where the cave made a sharp left turn. The passageway in relief looked something like the open mouth of the monster shark in "Jaws."
"We'll take it slow," I offered, hopeful and reasonably sure of surviving as we paused there in the cave alone, father and daughter without a clue on a voyage of discovery in a strange place the locals call Oweynagat -- "Ireland's entrance to Hell."
* * *
Of course, we'd had no plans of going to hell when we set out for Ireland.
My daughter surprised us with a newfound interest in family history -- what she called the "inner Murphy" on her mother's side -- and I had a lot of unused frequent-flier miles. She surprised us again with the request that we visit Ireland during a school break.
Without a plan or itinerary, the two of us flew to Dublin, rented a car and by purest chance ended up in Roscommon, a prosperous town of about 5,000 in north-central Ireland. It is in a beautiful lush valley surrounded by hills, not unlike the Shenandoah Valley back home.
We stayed at an Irish schoolteacher's bed-and-breakfast on the town square and lazed about, watching the people passing by. Perhaps annoyed at our indolence, the schoolteacher teased that if my daughter really wanted to know Ireland, she should visit Cruachan Ai (CRU-ah-shan eye) Heritage Centre, up the road in a dot of a place called Tulsk.
"Every schoolgirl in Ireland knows Cruachan Ai," said Eamon Gleeson, with a broad smile and either a merry twinkle or sinister eye-pinch, depending on one's perspective. "Sure, you Americans have the green beer and think you're Irish. Here, history goes back thousands of years, but you have to look for it if you want to see it."
We fell for the teacher's challenge, suckers for the "inner Murphy" thing many American tourists can't seem to avoid once in Ireland. After a few minutes of driving, we made our way to the boxy but pleasant museum built over the River Ogulla, from which locals say St. Patrick blessed the first holy water in Ireland and began his ministry by converting the king's children.