Rathcroghan is one of a number of provincial Late Prehistoric ‘royal’ sites in Ireland. It is traditionally seen as the symbolic capital of Connacht and the site of great communal gatherings or aénaige. It is also currently part of a serial nomination for inscription to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, under the heading ‘Royal Sites of Ireland’, a group which consists of Navan Fort, Co. Armagh, Knockaulin, Co. Kildare, the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath, the Hill of Uisneach, Co. Westmeath, and the Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary.
To gain a fuller understanding of the Rathcroghan and its landscape involves interaction with two distinct yet intertwined elements – its remarkably rich archaeological heritage and its abundance of early literary associations.
Rathcroghan is the location of a vast array of archaeological monuments, ranging in date from the Neolithic to thelate medieval period, with the Iron Age (c.500BC – c.400AD) serving as a period of particular focus. Each period is represented in the archaeological record at Rathcroghan, and includes funerary monuments, settlement sites, ritual enclosures, ceremonial linear embankments, and even a reputed entrance to the Irish ‘Otherworld’. The significance of this multi-period landscape does not diminish into the high and late medieval periods, witnessed by the many ringforts and the vast expanse of pre-modern field boundaries which cover much of this elevated plain. In the wider region of Machaire Connacht, archaeological remains at Cloonfree, Tulsk, Ardakillin, Ogulla, Carns, Ballintober and Roscommon among other places bear testament to a continued societal interaction with the fringes of this symbolic capital well into early modern timesand arguably to the present day.
Rathcroghan also features strongly in the legend, myth and history of the early manuscript tradition. It is often referred to as Cruachan Aí in the literary and historical sources, where it also serves as a central location for an extensive corpus of medieval Irish epic literature. Rathcroghan and nearby Carnfree, for instance, are central locations in the Finn Cycle tale Acallamna Senórach. Chief among these medieval tales, which in some cases may hold veiled ancestral truths on the use of many of these monuments in the prehistoric period, is the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or Cattle Raid of Cooley.
The epic literature provides Rathcroghan as the location and residence of the great warrior Queen Medb of Connacht, and the setting for a number of the epic legends that comprise what is known as the Ulster Cycle.
Picture credit Rathcroghan Visitor Centre