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The end recess of Cairn T.
The keystone within the end recess of Cairn T, the most elabourate of the many neolithic carvings within the chamber. Photo © Padraig Conway.

Megalithic art at Cairn T

The megalithic sites at Loughcrew have a wonderful collection of engraved neolithic slabs. At Cairn T the engravings interact with the beam of light of the rising sun on the spring and autumn equinoxes. In total there are twenty-nine carved stones within the chamber of Cairn T.

Plan of the chamber of Cairn T by Jean McMann.
An early photograph of the keystone or focal stone within the end recess of the chamber of Cairn T. This stone is illuminated by the rising sun on the spring and autumn equinoxes. Photograph by William A. Green © National Museums of Northern Ireland.

The Hag's Chair

The first engraved stone is found outside the cairn, on the wonderful megalithic throne known as the Hag's Chair, a massive kerbstone bearing extremely weathered carvings. The stone faces to the north and is the largest of the kerbstones at Cairn T.

The art was recorded by Du Noyer and Conwell, and the entire surface of the great slab is decorated. Today the designs are not easy to see, the sandstone boulders having become quite weathered since Conwell's time at Loughcrew.

The Hag's Chair
The Hag's Chair, the decorated kerbstone on the north side of the cairn.

According to local folklore a Cailleach who was named Garavogue used to sit and watch the stars and the landscape from this location. The Garavogue is remembered as the builder of the monuments, having gathered all the rocks in her white apron and transported them to the hills. The Hag's Chair faces due north and is positioned on the north side of the chamber. It occupies a similar position to Kerbstone 67 at Newgrange.

The great horned kerb-stone known as the Hag's Chair.
The great horned kerb-stone known as the Hag's Chair.
Photograph by William A. Green © National Museums of Northern Ireland.

Many years ago a local from Oldcastle told me that a great dish or basin, carved from a huge piece of quartz, and filled with cremated bone, was discovered buiried close to the Hag's Chair. The basin was reburied. A cross carved on the seat possibly dates from the Penal times when open-air masses were said to have been held here, athough such a highly visible location would be an unlikely and unsuitable place for a Penal Mass.

Within Cairn T

Decorated stone in Cairn T
Decorated stone on the east side of the north recess of Cairn T. Photograph © Padraig Conway.

The passage of Cairn T points to a few degrees south of east. When Conwell first visited Cairn T, the passage roof had collapsed and only one roof-stone was in its original position. The outer section of the roof was restored by the Board of Works some time after 1880, when a concrete slab was cast over the passage. The stone orthostats lining each side of the passage are decorated with a range of motifs.

The sunstone at Loughcrew.
The equinox sun-stone at within Cairn T at the Loughcrew megalithic complex.
The passage of Cairn T.
Looking out east along the passage of Cairn T, with the gate airbrushed out. The passage stones are carved with a variety of motifs and symbols, many of which seem to be astronomical in origin.
Decorated stone in the passage of Cairn T.
Decorated stone in the passage of Cairn T. The motif on the left is similar to the engravings on Kerbstone 67 at Newgrange.

Within this ancient corbelled room you are presented with the classic cruciform chamber of an Irish Passage Cairn. This is among the oldest free-standing buildings in the world and may date from as early as 3,500 BC.

Decorated stone in Cairn T
Decorated stone on the east side of the north recess of Cairn T.

There are many small engravings on the chamber stones, in particular the west sill. Three small cells, seperated from the central space by sillstones open off the main chamber, to the south, west and north. The backstone of the west recess is richly carved with symbols which resemble combs and flowers. This is the Loughcrew Equinox Stone.

Engraved stones in Cairn T, 1870
Two illustrations of engraved stones within the chamber of Cairn T, from Eugene Conwell's 1870 report on Loughcrew.