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The Caves of Kesh Corran.
The Caves of Kesh Corran.

The Caves of Kesh Corran.

After that you come to Keash. Keash is a place well written about in ancient manuscripts and in foldlore. Its predominant feature is the line of caves half-way up the mountain, which have the appearance of a sea-side strand with caves opening into the ocean. The shapes would suggest the opposite of the masculine figure to which I have already referred, and would suggest the feminine. However, they were treated in later folklore as representing doorways to the house of Finn MacCumhaill, the leader of the Fianna.

John Garvin, High Hollow Townlands.

In Ireland, caves occur almost exclusively in limestone, which comprises the geology of approximately 50% of the country. Archaeological material has been recovered from almost 80 caves in Ireland, largely as a result of antiquarian excavations and non-archaeological discoveries (Dowd 2004, 15). Consequently, stratification and contextual information from caves has frequently been poorly recorded.

The Caves of Kesh Corran.
View from the largest of the Caves of Kesh Corran.

The archaeological evidence indicates a striking difference between how caves were used in prehistory and in early historic times. From the Mesolithic to the Iron Age, caves were associated with burial, funerary rites and votive deposition. It is not until the early medieval period that there is archaeological evidence to indicate that caves were used for occupation and shelter (Dowd 1997, 100- 20). Several of the caves at Kesh, in South Sligo, were used during the early medieval period for short-term occupation, with activities concentrated at the entrances to the caves.

A rich body of folklore surrounds the Kesh Caves, in which they are depicted as 'Otherworldly' places and home to supernatural individuals. The first literary reference to the caves is contained in the story 'Cath Maige Mucrama', which relates the birth of Cormac Mac Airt, legendary high-king of Ireland. According to the story, a female wolf kidnapped the infant shortly after his birth and reared him in one of the Kesh Caves. The earliest version of this tale was written in the 9th century (O'Daly 1975, 18), but a more complete form is contained in the 12th-century Book of Leinster (Camey 1968, 148- 61). On the 1838 OS 6-inch map, one cave (Cave P) is annotated Owey Cormac Mac Art.

The Caves of Kesh Corran.
The Caves of Kesh Corran.

According to Duanaire Finn, compiled in the early 17th century, the smithy of the supernatural Lon Mac Liomhtha was located in one of the Kesh Caves (Murphy 1933, 9-13). However, the most famous story relating to these caves is 'Bruidhean Cheise Corainn' (the Otherworld Dwelling - Hostel at Kesh Corann). It appears in 66 Irish and Scottish manuscripts, the earliest of which dates to 1690 (Bruford 1966, 70-71). The story describes how Fionn MacCumhail and the Fianna were captured and imprisoned in one of the caves by three hags of the Tuatha De Danann (O'Grady 1970, 306-10).

Illustration by Arthur Rackham.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham.

Traditionally, the largest and most important Lughnasa assembly in Co. Sligo was held at the Kesh Caves. On 'Garland Sunday', the last Sunday of July, people congregated at the foot of the hill and climbed to the caves. This non-religious assembly involved music, dancing, faction-fighting and gathering bilberries (MacNeill 1982, 186- 7). In recent times, sports events were held at the foot of the hill on Garland Sunday, the last event being held in 1986 (pers. comm. M.A. Timoney).

The Enchanted Caves of Kesh Corran.
The Enchanted Caves of Kesh Corran.