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The sons of Milesius, the ancestors of the modern Irish, are said to be some of the earliest settlers of Ireland. There is evidence that two or three waves of colonization had already reached the island from origins unknown. The Tuatha De Dannan , who were skilled in magic, descended on Ireland in a cloud of mist not long before the arrival of the Milesians and rendered the land invisible to keep the Milesians from reaching shore.
After numerous battles and skirmishes, the Milesians banished the Tuatha De Dannan underground through the Caves of Kesh (or Keash). However, when the Milesians suffered famine and disease, they formed a treaty with the Tuatha De Dannan who arose as spirits, or The Sidhe, and joined them. Kesh Caves are still thought of as the entry to the ‘middle earth’.
The Tuatha De Dannan (public domain)
The sixteen caves are situated on the west side of Keshcorran Hill, part of the Bricklieve Mountains, and consist of simple chambers, some interconnecting. They’re formed from limestone which comprises the geology of approximately half of the country.
Caves of Kesh. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The area hosts many sacred sites and there is much history here with cairns and tombs dating back to 7500 BC. The legends originating in this area are numerous too and most of them involve the famous and beautiful white limestone Caves of Kesh.
Asleep Within Keshcorran, King Cormac Will Awaken When Ireland Needs Him.
The largest of the caverns is known as Cormac’s Cave and is said to have been where a female wolf reared Cormac MacAirt, legendary high-king of Ireland, after she kidnapped him from his family. It is from Cormac that King’s Mountain gets its name.
King Cormac may have been an actual historical figure at some time from the second to the fourth century AD, although he is best known from the legendary tales. The story of his early years with the wolf was first written around 800 AD. Local folklore says that the cairn at the top of the mountain is the burial site of his daughter, and that visitors left a stone in her memory.
Entrance into two of the caves at Kesh. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The caves are said to have been the final hiding place of Diarmuid and Grainne. King Cormac arranged for his daughter to marry Fionn MacCool, a much older man, but Grainne fell in love with Diarmuid, one of Fionn's soldiers, and they ran away together. Fionn chased them across the country, but eventually left them in peace when Diarmuid paid Fionn off with valuable cattle.
The most famous story relating to these caves is ' Bruidhean Cheise Corainn ', which describes how Fionn MacCumhail, the beloved chief of the Fianna, was captured while hunting wild boar in the area. Fionn failed to ask permission for the hunt from Conoran, also Tuatha De Danann, who ruled from the fairy palace inside one of the Caves of Kesh. Conoran sent his three daughters, the ‘Hags of Winter’ to punish Fionn for trespassing.
Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna (public domain)
The sisters captured Fionn and his men and bound them with a magic that sapped their strength. He and his warriors escaped after being rescued by an ally who beheaded the witches.
In another tale, a hunting party, accompanied by the Tuatha De Dannan harper, Corann, set out from the palace to chase down a giant boar that was causing destruction and death in the area. The bewitching music of Corann’s harp mesmerized the beast, allowing the warriors to slay it. Its massive body became Keshcorran. Corran was rewarded with what is now Keshcorran Hill and the surrounding plains.
The entrance to one of the caves at Keshcorran. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Lugh, Honored by the Celts, Was Known As a God of both Skill and the Distribution of Talent
The exploration of the caves in 1901 resulted in little evidence of ancient human habitation and there was no indication the caves were occupied before the eighth to eleventh centuries. While human remains were limited, they found the bones of the European Brown Bear and its prey. The explorers wondered why these caves, which were suitable for human occupation, contained no evidence of such. Possibly too many bears and Sidhe already living there?
There was, however, numerous remnants suggesting human activity outside the caves.
“Two cists, a cairn with cist, a possible hut site, a large bivallate enclosure, a section of pre-bog wall, a massive ‘megalithic’ wall structure and a wedge tomb are now known and suggest a ritual complex, spanning a time-frame from the Neolithic into the Bronze Age.” (Kytmannow, 2005)
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Inside one of the caves at Kesh. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
At the entrance to Coffey Cave, a projectile head was discovered. This may have been a crossbow bolt or type of missile weapon from the tenth to the thirteenth century. In another cave nearby, they found remains of a human leg dated to approximately the same period, possibly belonging to someone who was injured in battle, sought refuge, and died there.
There were a number of human teeth recovered. They were found to date from different periods ranging from the Early Iron Age to the Early Medieval period. These were adults’ teeth, and as they were removed on purpose, not lost accidentally, it’s possible that they represent some kind of ritual tradition as there was no skeletal remains.
Teeth of dog and horse, animals highly prized and almost revered in Iron Age Ireland, were also discovered. As the Kesh Caves are associated with the Iron Age god Lugh, the teeth may have formed part of a ritual celebrating Lughnasa, the harvest festival.
The eerie interior of a Kesh cave. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The caves are easy to see from the R295, the Ballymote to Boyle road, although they are not simple to reach and good walking boots are highly recommended. It is a steep and sometimes slippery climb up, but the view makes it breathtakingly apparent why this location inspired so many legends. It’s an even more arduous climb to reach the King’s Mountain where the Stone Age passage tomb of Keshcorran crowns the summit. The tomb has not been excavated.