Loughcrew - Sliabh na Cailleach
The most common style of sculpturing on the inscribed chamber-stones was punched work, executed by a metallic tool; but there are also examples of chiselled work and scraped work. Though the carved stones exceed one hundred in number, there are not two the decorations on which are similar. On the stones which have been long exposed to the destructive effects of the atmosphere, the punched or other work is often much obliterated; but on those lately exposed the work of the tool is almost as fresh and as distinct as at the period of its execution.
At what remote, or even recent, period these ancient tombs have been subjected to demolition, it would be difficult to determine. Mr. Conwell, however, has heard from old men who were engaged at the work of exploration, that they recollected, before quarries were generally opened in the country, that persons were in the habit of coming from twenty to thirty miles round about, to procure from these archaic structures slabs suitable fordomestic or other purposes.
Sliabh na Cailleach, or the Mountains of the Witch, as Loughcrew was fornmerly known, 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.
Loughcrew is a range of picturesque hills, three miles south-east of Oldcastle. The ridge of the range is about two miles in extent, and there are three chief heights: Slieve-na-Calliaghe, 904 feet; Patrickstown Hill, 885 feet; and Carnbawn, 842 feet: but the name of the first is generally applied to the whole range.
Here, within the radius of a rifle-shot, may be seen grouped together the most extraordinary collection of archaic monuments to be found in the kingdom. These for the most part consist of ruegalithic sepulchres surmounted by tumuli, and surrounded by stone circles. These number 'from 25 to 30 cairns, some of considerable size, being 120 to 180 feet in diameter; others are much smaller, and some are so nearly obliterated that their dimensions, can hardly be now ascertained.'
It is, we think, not too much to say that on the stones among these cairns is found the greatest collection of rude prehistoric scorings yet found in Ireland or, perhaps, in Europe.
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.
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.
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 2020 ).
The passage tomb cemetery often referred to as Loughcrew is dispersed between three of the summits of the ENE-WSW Slieve na Calliagh ridge. It escaped attention during the making of the 1836 edition of the OS 6-inch map, and almost the first notice occurs in 1864 when E. A. Conwell published an account of the cairns in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy and in subsequent papers (1866, 1873, 1879). From the west the principal hilltops are known as Carnbane West, Carnbane East, also called Slieve na Calliagh, and Patrickstown. In the folk tradition as recorded by John O’ Donovan in the 1830s (Herity 2001, 38) the cairns were created when a witch, the Calliagh Bhéarra (Beara peninsula, Co. Cork) was performing a magic ritual by jumping eastwards from hilltop to hilltop, depositing stones from her apron. The leap from Patrickstown was too strenuous and she slipped and died on the hillside. She is reputed to be buried on the S side of that hill. Conwell had been digging the cairns since 1863 with the support of J. L. W. Napper, a local landowner and savant who owned most of the land at Carnbane East and West, while Patrickstown was owned by E. Crofton Rotheram, also an antiquary. Conwell’s descriptions are invaluable and are still used, while his scheme for identifying the tombs by letter, sometimes with additional numbers, is still adhered to today. Apart from an article published in Scotland (Frazer 1892-3) with drawings by du Noyer, and inclusion in Borlase’s work on the dolmens of Ireland (1897) little attention seems to have been paid to the discoveries at the time. There were smaller excavations by Coffey (1897) and Rotheram (1895, 1897), and Morris (1930), misled by Conwell’s belief that the cemeteries might be part of the location of the great fair of Tailtean, speculated further along those lines. These various investigations have revealed the internal structures and the art of many of the tombs, and most of the artefacts recovered during them are now in the National Museum of Ireland. Since the late nineteenth century there was little further notice of the cairns, apart from an investigation and restoration of Cairn H in 1943 by Joseph Raftery of the National Museum of Ireland and passing references in general prehistories, until Professor Herity’s work on Irish Passage Tombs (1974). This drew together the results of all the previous work, catalogued the artefacts recovered, and highlighted the tombs and the great wealth of prehistoric art they contain. Since then they have hardly been out of the public eye, with academic studies (McMann 1991; Shee Twohig 1981) as well as popular guides (McMann 1993). Herity’s survey and Shee Twohig’s work on the art are the most comprehensive to date, and their records form the core of these descriptions. More recently attention has switched to theorising about the development of the tombs and the cemeteries (Sheridan 1985/6; Cooney 2000, 158-63), researching the solar events that can be observed at cairns on Patrickstown Hill (O’Sullivan et al. 2010) and Carnbane East (McCormick 2012), and recording the rock art that can be found on the lower slopes of the hills (Shee Twohig et al. 2010). The cairns are distributed between the hilltops of Carnbane West in Loughcrew and Newtown townlands (14) together with at least three standing stones, on Carnbane East in Corstown townlnad (7) with a standing stone, and at Patrickstown (4). There are other cairns (6), a ring-barrow, and standing stones in the col between the first two hills. Today only the monuments at Carnbane East and Patricktown, which are all National Monuments, can be visited. In his first communication Conwell (1864, 47-8) stated that 21 cairns in Thomastown townland on the S side of Patrickstown Hill, of which (ME015-111----) is probably the last survivor, were being removed at that very time.