|Caves of Keash|
Some years ago, I watched the moon rising over Keash Mountain. As I stood still, looking up at the caves, I had a clear sense that the moon was moving and wondered what our ancient ancestors would have thought about this phenomenon.
Keash Mountain, also known Keshcorran, was formed over 300 million years ago at a time when there were huge rises in sea levels and the area would have been under the sea. Geologists believe that the caves were created over a period of 40 million years due to chemical erosion of the limestone rock.
|View from the Caves of Keash|
The Keash Caves are located along the western slopes of Keshcorran within the rich prehistoric landscape of the Bricklieve Mountains. Sixteen interconnecting caves and fissures penetrate the base of a 15m to 30m high limestone rock face which forms a narrow band mid-way up the western slopes of the mountain. The sun-god Lugh is first mentioned in connection with Keshcorran in the 'Children of Tuirinn'. The area to the south of Keash was called Sliabh Lugha, and Lughnasa was celebrated on top of the mountain until the beginning of the twentieth century.
Archaeologists have found little or no sign that the caves were used in the Mesolithic, Neolithic or Bronze Age. Human remains, and fragments of bone such as brown bear (12,040-11,650 BC), red deer (11,950-11,430 BC) and wolf (11,260-10,960 BC) were also recovered from the caves. The Keash dates are important as prior to this, knowledge of the range of animals that populated Ireland at this time was uncertain. Other finds from the Keash Caves included an antler point, worked bone, a bone comb fragment, two bone needles, two fragments of bone needles or pins and a whetstone.
The human remains uncovered included a number of human teeth found, along with the teeth of other species. One isolated adult tooth, recovered from the entrance to Coffey Cave (J), was radiocarbon dated to the early Iron Age (200 BCE – 30 CE). Other teeth found scattered throughout Plunkett Cave (P) may be later, dated from the Early Medieval Period (460 – 670 CE).
It is possible that these teeth may reflect some form of ritual tradition that continued over several hundred years. A tempting possibility is that the teeth may have been placed in the caves as part of ritual activities associated with the festival of Lughnasa. At nearby Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery 168 human teeth, representing 23 individuals, were recovered as secondary insertions in Grave 27 during the Iron Age.
A prehistoric stone axe was discovered in Plunkett Cave and may have been deposited there sometime between the Late Mesolithic and Middle Bronze Age. However, several Early Medieval artefacts were found at the same location giving rise to the possibility that the axe may have found its way into the cave in early historic times.
During the 1980s a substantial hilltop enclosure was identified on Keshcorran through aerial survey. Recent fieldwork by Tatjana Kytmannow (2005) has considerably increased our knowledge about the mountain. Two cists, a cairn with cist, a possible hut site, a large enclosure, a section of pre-bog wall, a massive 'megalithic' wall structure and a wedge tomb have now been identified suggesting a ritual complex, spanning a period from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age.
|Aerial View of Keshcorran Cairn|
Keshcorran cairn is the most westerly and highest tomb of the Keshcorran/Carrowkeel megalithic complex and is believed to hold an unexcavated passage tomb. Archaeologists believe that the cairn probably dates from the early middle Neolithic Period, around 3500 BC.
‘potent places in the landscape, places associated with the Otherworld and supernatural beings, places that were feared and respected’.
In one tale, a hunting party, accompanied by the harper Corann, set out from the palace of the Brú na Boínne (Newgrange) chasing after a giant evil sow that was causing destruction and death. The enchanting music of Corann’s harp was said to have mesmerized the beast which allowed the warriors to slay it. Its enormous body became the mountain of Keshcorran.
|The three Hags of Winter|
Another dramatic story about the cave involves Fionn Mac Cumhaill who one day came across the three daughters of Conoran, known as the ‘Hags of Winter’. The hags set a trap for Fionn and bound him, sapping his strength using a cursed cord. Fionn was rescued when one of his men took the three witches by surprise and beheaded them.
In conclusion, the Caves of Keash are located along the western slopes of Keshcorran within the rich prehistoric landscape of the Bricklieve Mountains. The discovery of human remains, and those of animals such as the cave bear, the arctic lemming, reindeer, and Irish elk were found in the caves. These finds may reflect some form of ritual tradition that continued over several hundred years. A prehistoric stone axe discovered in Plunkett Cave may have been deposited there sometime between the Late Mesolithic and Middle Bronze Age although a later date is possible.
Several archaeological monuments including a cairn, large enclosure, and wedge tomb, have been identified on the hill-top. The Keash Caves feature prominently in the Early Medieval and Medieval myths associated with the Otherworld and supernatural beings. Over thousands of years the monuments in the Keshcorran complex have provided testimony to the importance of this area in ancient times. In the words of Sam Moore:
“Kesh Corran creates a sense of place, a sense of identity and a memory of both.”
For more information about Keshcorran see:
Sam Moore in The Corran Herald 2014/2015: Prehistory in the Bricklieve Mountains.
Tatjana Kytmannow (2005) Archaeology Ireland, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Winter, 2005), New Prehistoric Discoveries in the Kesh Corann/Carrowkeel Complex, Co. Sligo.
Marion Dowd (2013), The Archaeology and Mythology of the Keash Caves, Co. Sligo in Dedicated to Sligo: Thirty-four Essays on Sligo’s Past, Edited by Martin A. Timoney.