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The Loughcrew landscape.
The stunning landscape at Loughcrew, the Mountains of the Witch, in County Meath.

Loughcrew - Sliabh na Cailleach

Sliabh na Cailleach, or the Mountains of the Witch, as Loughcrew was known in the past, lies west of the town of Kells and south of Oldcastle in west Co. Meath, a strange and ancient piece of territory. Stretching in a chain over four tall peaks which spread out across four kilometers in an east-to-west chain, the area is littered with monuments from all eras. This has to be one of the most beautiful and powerful landscapes of sites in Ireland. The site is owned by the OPW and there is currently no access to the chamber of the central monument, Cairn T, due to maintainance works. If you should visit, please do not climb on the monuments.

A slideshow of the monuments, landscape and alignments at Loughcrew.

It is likely that this location was special to the mesolithic hunters-gatherers, the first people to colonise Ireland after the glacial period. The mesolithic people tended to be nomadic and did not build monuments, but held natural features such as boulder-fields, cliff-faces and rock outcrops as special places. The colonising neolithic farmers arriving around 3,500 BC build monuments with internal chambers using the abundant glacial material scattered across the hills. Though the monuments at Loughcrew have not been dated with modern techniques, they are the oldest unrestored Irish monuments along with those at Carrowkeel, 75 km away in County Sligo.

The neolithic farmers collected the rocks and assembled them into monuments. Folklore remembered a giant goddess named Garavoge, who came from the north-west with a collection of rocks which she dropped from her white apron:

    "Determined now her tomb to build,
    Her ample skirt with stones she filled,
    And dropped a heap on Carnmore;
    Then stepped one thousand yards, to Loar,
    And dropped another goodly heap;
    And then with one prodigious leap
    Gained Carnbeg; and on its height
    Displayed the wonders of her might.
    And when approached death's awful doom,
    Her chair was placed within the womb
    Of hills whose tops with heather bloom"

Jonathan Swift, c. 1720

The landscape of Loughcrew is gentle and female: rolling hills and soft contours, with fabulous views from the neolithic monuments. The top of each summit is capped by a group of chambered cairns, originally at least 40 to 50 monuments, though some say up to a hundred cairns were scattered across the hills.

Art within Cairn H at Loughcrew
Cairn H.

Loughcrew is one of Ireland's ancient wonders both for its landscape and well-preserved neolithic monuments. It is the third of Ireland's great complexes of chambered cairns as you move from the west coast to east. The Loughcrew cairns were rediscovered in the 1860's by Eugene Conwell, though William Wakeman also claims to have found them around this time. Conwell conducted a series of crude excavations and published an account of his finds to the Royal Irish Academy.

The monuments have not been excavated in recent times, the last major works being done in the 1940's, when Cairn H was excavated and concrete roofs were added to Cairn L and the passage of Cairn T. Mounds of excavation spoil can be seen near Cairn H. There is currently no access to Cairnbane West, which is privately owned, and no access to the chambers of Cairn T or Cairn L ( spring 2019 ).

The Loughcrew landscape.
The Mountains of the Witch, in County Meath. In the distance is Cairn T, the central monument within this complex and sacred landscape. Photograph © Padraig Conway.

The oldest collection of passage graves is found at Carrowmore by the Atlantic in Co. Sligo; from there a great chain of passage graves stretches eastward, with monuments gaining both in size and complexity. The other major Sligo complex is Carrowkeel in the Bricklieve Mountains. Between Carrowkeel and Loughcrew are the sites of Sheemor and Sheebeg in Leitrim and Corn Hill in Longford, again with similar monuments on the summits, all built by the Cailleach:

Before I have done with the Irish instances I must append one in the form it was told me in the summer of 1894: I was in Meath and went to see the remarkable chambered cairns on the hill known as Sliabh na Caillighe, 'the Hag's Mountain,' near Oldcastle and Lough Crew. I had as my guide a young shepherd whom I picked up on the way. He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns.

As to the cairn on the hill point known as Belrath, that is called the Chair Cairn from a big stone placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round. But usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another.

However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed. The hag appears to have been Cailleach Bheara, or Caillech Berre, 'the Old Woman of Beare', that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork.

From 'Celtic Folklore Welsh and Manx' by Sir John Rhys, 1901.

After Loughcrew comes the grandest megalithic site in Ireland, The Boyne Valley where the massive monuments of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are found within a bend of the River Boyne, about 8 km from the east coast. Both at Loughcrew and at the larger monuments in the Boyne Valley, an outstanding feature is the fabulous megalithic art engraved on the surfaces of many stone slabs. The art at Loughcrew appears somewhat earlier and, while obviously some form of graphic language, seems to exhibit a profound interest in the objects and events visible in the sky.

In the 1980's Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts rediscovered a series of astronomical alignments at Loughcrew whereby a beam of sunlight projected into the chamber illuminates panels of megalithic art. The two focal cairns with roofs and large chambers, Cairn T and Cairn L are aligned to sunrises on the equinoxes and the November and February cross-quarter days.

Megalithic art within Cairn F
Neolithic art on a passage stone within Cairn F on Carnbane West. Picture © Padraig Conway.

The neolithic cairns at Loughcrew are dedicated to the neolithic farmers' Goddess in her form as a Witch or Hag, a wise woman, often wearing her great white apron, surely the folk menory of the glaciers. According to the poem by Swift from 1720, quoted above, she was named Garavogue, also the name of the shelly river in Sligo. Loughcrew and Carrowmore, Knocknarea and Sliabh Dá Eán are on the same general line crossing the country. This line continues on through Tara to the Hill of Howth, Benn Eader, with three neolithic cairns and a dolmen with one of the heaviest capstones in Ireland, Aideen's Grave.

The Loughcrew landscape.
The stunning landscape at Loughcrew, looking east across Cairn U to Patrickstown Hill.

At Loughcrew the Garavogue is said to have dropped the huge heaps of stones from her apron as she hopped across the hills forming the massive cairns, only to fall and die at Patrickstown, the east-most summit. A mound on the west hill was pointed out as her grave in the last century. The neolithic sites consists of groups of chambered cairns clustered in bunches across the three peaks peaks, and Cairn M alone on the fourth.

The hills are called Carnbane to the west, Sliabh na Cailleach at the centre and Patrickstown to the east. There is one cairn on the fourth hill, called Sliabh Rua or Carrigbrack. The hills have an extremely feminine presence, and, especially from Carnbane West, Sliabh Rua and Sliabh na Cailleach appear like a pair of breasts with cairn nipples, just like the Papa of Anu in Kerry. The sites are mainly built above the 200 meter line, and the highest place is the top of Cairn T at 276 m above sea level.

Loughcrew viewed from the north
The Loughcrew hills looking south west from an outcrop on the side of Bruse Hill.

Seven monuments remain on the summit Sliabh na Cailleach, the central and highest peak. Cairn T, main structure is 35 meters in diameter and in good condition, with roof and chamber intact due to a Board of Works reconstruction in the 1940's. Cairn T is currently closed to the public. The other monuments lie in various states of disrepair due to removal of stones in the past. There are many fine engraved slabs within the chamber of Cairn T, and several more can be seen in the surrounding satellite mounds, S, U V, R, R1 and W.

There are fifteen monuments on Cairnbane West, of which two, Cairns D and L are considered 'focal' monuments. The largest cairns, Cairn D, 55 meters in diameter and Cairn L, 45 meters in diameter, are not visible from each other, even though they are only 200 meters apart. The chamber of Cairn L is in good condition, even though it was given a concrete roof in the 1940's and has many engraved stones within.

The chamber of Cairn L
The white pillar-stone and end recess of Cairn L at Loughcrew.

Cairn D, the largest of all the cairns was ravaged in a fruitless 19th century search for the chamber, and still remains unopened. Six of the smaller monuments have all but vanished due to land clearance. The remaining sites which are visible are A3, B, D, F, G, H, I, J, K, and L.The chamber of Cairn L, which has a functioning solar alignment to the sunrises around Halloween and St Brigit's day, is kept locked.

The greatest destruction at Loughcrew took place on Patrickstown, the eastern hill where as many as 21 sites are said to have been destroyed in the 1850's, shortly before the site was discovered by Conwell. The remains of three sites can be visited, one of which includes the wonderful calendar stone.

Access

Cairn T and the central monuments are open to the public, free of charge, and the monuments are managed by the OPW, who post seasonal guides there over the summer months each year. Please do not climb on the monuments, which are very old and fragile. Details of guides and equinox arrangements on the OPW webpage.

The monuments on Cairnbane West and Patrickstown are not accessible to the general public; the landowner, who keeps huge flocks of sheep up there, does not allow access to the west hill and there is no access to the chamber of Cairn L. Guided tours can be booked at the Loughcrew Megalithic Centre.

Normally it is possible to secure a key to view the chamber and art within Cairn T; however due to concerns over the structural integrety of the chamber, access to the monument is currently suspended. The sites are a steep 15 minute hike up the hill from the carpark.

View to Loughcrew from the Ballinvalley stone circle
View to Cairn T from the Ballinvally stone circle. Only four of the nine stones remain standing, and the site is in some disrepair due to land clearance. The circle is about 27 meters in diameter, and some engraved slabs were found here.