Looking up into the massive mouth of Diarmuid and Grainne's cave by the Cliffs of Annacuna at the back of the Gleniff Horseshoe.
Looking out through the cave opening called the Keyhole.
Diarmuid and Grainne's cave is located above the cliffs of Annacuna at the back of the Gleniff Horseshoe, the spectacular glacial valley behind Benwisken. This is one of the highest caves in Ireland, with one of the widest mouths, and has fabulous views out across the valley to the northwest. The cave and the surrounding land is privately owned. Access to the cave is difficult, and the landowners prefer people to look at the cave from below. Always seek the owners and ask for permission before climbing to the cave.
The mouth of Diarmuid and Grainne's cave is massive archway of hard Dartry limestone.
I visited the cave for the first time in January 2011 with Daithi. The cave is a steep climb, straight up for about 300 meters from our parking place down by the old miners hostel and national school. We scrambled up the steep mountain side following sheep trails, and found the going difficult enough. The last part, just before you get to the cave has flimsy ropes attached. Wealso found it dangerous for the people following after us, as any little stone or rock that gets disloged goes whizzing down the hill, gathering momentum as they go.
A successful mountain rescue operation took place at the cave on Saturday 21 Feb 2015, when a group of students became trapped by icy weather conditions. Photo by Ciaran Davis.
The cave itself is a massive cavern where water worked its way out through the softer limestone during the last iceage, when the glaciers were more that a kilometer thick over the mountains. The retreating glacier gouged out the massive valley and formed the spectacular cliffs and the unique peak of Benwisken. There are several interconnected gallerys in the cave: the opening known as the 'Keyhole' is shown to the left.
There was some evidence of stone age activity in the cave, but I haven't found a reference yet; however, like all other caves, it was surely visited during the mesolithic by the roaming tribes of hunter gatherers and was most likely held to be a very sacred place. County Sligo's megalithic complexes are built in areas with caves: Carrowkeel, Kesh Corran and Knocknarea have about 40 caves between them. Megalithic chambers are really artificial caves.
The view out from Diarmuid and Grainne's cave to the vally floor 300 meters below.
It is possible that court cairns such as Creeveykeel nearby are actually a replica of the Gleniff valley with the chamber at the back of the court representing the sacred cave. That the cave is dedicated to Grainne, a sun goddess makes sense, as the cave opens to the northeast, the direction of the midsummer sunrise.
The mythology that goes with the Gleniff cave comes from the cycle of stories certering around the great warrior Fionn MacCumhail. Fionn loved this part of the country and often came here with the Fianna to hunt. In one of the tales, Fionn meets his wife Siabh, the deer goddess on Benbulben, where she has escaped from the clutches of an evil druid. The druid recaptures Siabh, and a few years later Fionn finds a child on the mountain: his son Oisin, the Little Fawn. In later tales Oisin goes to Tir na Nog, from the back of Knocknarea and has a whole cycle of adventures of his own.
Diarmuid and Grainne were lovers fleeing the wrath of Fionn: Grainne was supposed to marry the older Fionn but instead ran away with the handsome young warrior Diarmuid. In the 'Pursuit' cycle of tales, the lovers had to sleep in a different place each night, as Fionn and his hunting dogs were always just on their trail. This is how so many Irish megalithic chambers became called Leabas or beds, for example the Labby Rock by Lough Arrow in south Sligo. After sixteen years Fionn makes his peace with the lovers and they settle down at Grainnemor near the Caves of Kesh Corran. Fionn, who never really forgave them, lures Diarmuid up to Benbulben to go hunting and ensures that he is killed. As with all Irish mythical tales, the story is long, complicated, and often like a soap opera. You can read a full version of the Pursuit here. Below is a painting of Diarmuid and Grainne by Jim Fitzpatrick.
Alas, O Diarmuid OíDuibne,
Alas for the deadly flashing tusk of the boar,
Numbing venom hath entered his wounds,
Raise ye fairy shouts without gainsaying,
The poem above is the lament chanted by Aongus Og over the body of his foster son Diarmuid on top of Benbulben. Aongus then took Diarmuid's body back to Newgrange with him and breathed an aerial life into him, so they could sit and talk and play chess. This is very interesting as Benbulben is one of the sites on the massive energy or Ley line crossing Ireland from Newgrange to Inishmurry island. The line, which is discussed in Michael Poynder's book Pi in the Sky, passed quite close to the cave.
Looking east to the Cliffs of Annacuna at the back of the Gleniff Horseshoe. Diarmuid and Grainne's cave, one of the highest Irish caves, is in the cliff, top right. The Byrites mines are in the cliffs straight ahead.