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Cairn S and Cairn T at Loughcrew photograph by Robert Welch. Caption: The main chambered cairn, diameter 116 feet, on Loughcrew Hills, Meath. Contains 28 inscribed stones.
Cairn S and Cairn T at Loughcrew. Caption: The main chambered cairn, diameter 116 feet, on Loughcrew Hills, Meath. Contains 28 inscribed stones.
Photograph by Robert Welch, © NMNI.

Cairn T at Loughcrew

Inside the retaining wall of large flag stones, as far as was examined, and, apparently, going all round the base of the carn, was piled up a layer, rising from three to four feet in height, and about two feet in thickness, of broken lumps of sparkling native Irish quartz, a rock which does not geologically belong to this part of the island; and which, consequently, must have found its way from some distant locality. The nearest native beds of quartz rock are to be met with at Howth, about fifty miles east from Sliabh na Caillighe; in Wicklow, sixty miles, southeast; in Donegal, ninety miles north; in Sligo, about the same distance, northwest; in Galway, 110 miles west; but the fragments used here may, probably, have been obtained on the spot from some glacial deposits from Donegal, without actually transporting them from any of the localities above mentioned.

The Discovery of the Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla, Eugene Conwell, 1873.

Cairn T, also known as Carn Bán and the Hag's Cairn, is the largest of the passage-graves on Sliabh na Cailleach, the central hill at the Loughcrew Megalithic Complex. Cairn T is the most prominent of the Loughcrew cairns, and is visible from many miles away, in much the same way that Queen Maeve's cairn in Sligo irresistibly draws the eye. The Witch's Cairn must have been even more visible in the past, when it was enveloped with a thick mantle of white quartz, as mentioned by Eugene Conwell in the quote above. However, Conwell was possibly not quite right about the source of the quartz, as a vein has been discovered close by on the south side of the hills. There are thirty-eight massive kerbstones surrounding the cairn, and the huge ornamented kerbstone known as the Hag's Chair; the interior contains twenty-eight engraved stones within the passage and chamber.

Plan of Cairn T by Conwell
A plan of Cairn T by Eugene A. Conwell, from his Report on the Loughcrew passage-graves.

The interior of Cairn T has been closed to the public since 2018 due to structural damage to the roof of the passage. The problem appears to be that the concrete roof, added in the late 1800's has cracked and deteriorated. The OPW, who are in charge of preserving to monument, promised a conservation plan at the time of closure, but as of Autumn 2023, nothing has been done and the monument remains closed. A group of concerned locals and researchers from as far away as North America are putting together a proposal to secure a UNESCO designation for the Loughcrew monuments.

The cairn at Cairn T is thirty-five meters in diameter and seven meters high. The base of the cairn is bounded by a ring of thirty-eight massive kerbstones. The kerbstones get larger in size as they approach the entrance on the east side of the monument. The kerbstones are a mixed collection of glacial sandstone boulders of all shapes and sizes, their scale increasing towards the entrance at the east, where the largest stones were placed to each side of the entrance, which is set back within the ring of the kerb. In a number of cases a slab or boulder has been split into two parts to make more kerb material, and the symmetry can be seen in adjoining kerbs.

A large split sandstone erratic boulder shows how the neolithic builders broke stones into sections and slabs to use for building materials.
A large split sandstone erratic boulder shows how the neolithic builders broke stones into sections and slabs to use for building materials. This stone is located on the eastern slopes of Carnbane.

The Hag's Chair

A huge, throne-like boulder on the north side of the cairn, with badly weathered carvings on both side of the slab, is known as the Hag's Chair. In addition to a smaller, but similarly-shaped slab in the kerb of Cairn I, the Hag's Chair is the only kerbstone with megalithic art remaining at Loughcrew.

There is an eminence in the townland of Knocklough called Slieve Guillion, and a rude stone chair on the summit of Slieve Nacally called Cataoir na Caillige Bera, ie: Calliagh Bera's Chair. It is a large stone, about two tons weight, ornamented with a cross sunk (cut) into the seat of the chair, in which three might sit together. This hollow seems to have been made in the stone with a hammer: the cross is probably the work of a modern stonecutter. The back of the chair was broken by some human enemy to old Evlin.

John O'Donovan, 1836

The stone has long been famous in local folklore at the seat of the old Witch, the Cailleach called Garavogue who, according to tradition, built the monuments at both Loughcrew and Carrowmore, carrying the rocks in her white apron as she roamed across the landscape. The wide seat 'in which three might sit together' has a cross carved, probably with an iron chisel, possibly left by the surveyors from the Ordinance Survey, who used the chamber of the monument as a camp site during their 1836 visit to Loughcrew.

Megalithic art on the back of the back of the Hag's Chair is visible in this early image. Photograph by William A Green.
Megalithic art on the back of the back of the Hag's Chair at Cairn T is visible in this early image.
Photograph by William A. Green, © NMNI.

The megalithic art on the north face of the Hag's Chair has weathered greatly since it was first recorded by Eugene Conwell in 1865. Today it is difficult to make out any of the engravings or designs, over-written with Victorian graffiti, on the weathered slab. The stone was illustrated in Conwell's report and subsequent book on Loughcrew.

The neolithic artwork on the Hag's Chair.
Eugene Conwell's illustration of the neolithic artwork on the Hag's Chair.

There are wide and extensive views from this location, and it is alleged that mountains in eighteen counties are visible from the Hag's Cairn. In the north-west, a hundred kilometers from Loughcrew the south end of the Braulieve Mountains in County Leitrim are visible, close to Sheemor, Arigna and Moytura in County Sligo. Knockmany, the passage grave with megalithic art closely related to the Loughcrew art, is sixty kilometers due north from the Hag's Chair. Sliabh Gullion in County Armagh, where Fionn Mac Cumhail got into trouble with the Cailleach stands out sixty kilometers to the north-west.

The Hag's Chair
The Hag's Chair or Throne, a massive engraved kerbstone on the north side of Cairn T.
Picture © Padraig Conway.

Womb of the Cailleach: the Chamber of Cairn T

The mound at Cairn T is more or less complete, and does not seem to have suffered from too much quarrying for field-walls. The abundant white quartz mentioned by Conwell is long gone, taken and broken up to spread on graves in the local Christian cemeteries, according to local traditions. The thick mantle of white quartz which was commented upon by early visitors gave the site its name: Carn Ban, the White Cairn. The roof of the passage had fallen in when Conwell arrived in 1864, and the beautiful beehive-corbelled chamber was in very poor condition, with two thirds of the neolithic roof collapsed.

The entrance to the passage was closed by two irregular blocks of stone inside of which were dropped three other large blocks of stone filling up the passage for five or six in length. On the outside of the entrance was placed a loose layer lumps of quartz. All the roofing flags covering the passage and more than two thirds of what originally covered in the central octagonal chamber had disappeared leaving the passage and central chambers completely filled up with stones.

Among the loose stones over the central octagonal chamber were found three large bones probably belonging to a deer. The imperfect portion of the roof that remains formed by about thirty large flags overlapping one another rises to ten feet above the level of the floor.

Plan of the chamber of Cairn T by Jean McMann.
Plan of the chamber of Cairn T by Jean McMann.

An alignment to the sunrises on both the spring and the autumn equinoxes was discovered by American researcher Martin Brennan in 1980. The passage, five meters in length, is lined with engraved orthostats and oriented to the east. A tall sillstone divides the passage from the octagon-shaped cruciform chamber. Tall sillstones block the entrances to three recesses or cells. The walls of the chamber are formed from four large flags of sandstone, each over two meters high. The total lenght of the passage and chamber is nine meters, and the corbelled chamber is four meters high. A small grill fills the hole created by the missing keystone, admitting daylight and rain into the neolithic chamber, and frost in extremely bad weather.

It would be an irreparable loss to archaeology if this historic pile were now allowed to become a wreck, for want of a little timely and inexpensive repair. The only thing necessary to be done would be to remove temporarily the loose stones over the northern and western chambers; and, after carefully and skilfully resetting the uprights and broken lintel, to replace the loose stones in their original position, as their weight could only serve to give firmness to the structure, should the parietal stones be properly poised.

Ancient Sepulchral Cairns on the Loughcrew Hills, Eugene A. Conwell.

Cairn T, Loughcrew. Photograph © Ken Williams, Shadow and Stone.
The view east through the passage and chamber of Cairn T from the inner recess. The keystone within this recess is illuminated in a spectacular fashion every spring and attumn by the equinox sunrises. The alignment was rediscovered by Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts in the late 1970's. Photograph © Ken Williams, Shadows and Stone.

The Equinox Stone

We were winding up the mountain road when the disc of the sun broke on the horizon. We felt as if we were ten minutes late for an appointment made over $,000 years ago. From the top of the road there would be a climb on foot to the mound perched on the summit of the mountain. The lock on the modern door leading to the passage had frozen during the night, and as we struggled with it the rising sun was already above the horizon. When we drew back the door a narrow chink of light streamed down the passage and flashed into the end recess of the chamber.

Martin Brennan, The Stars and the Stones.

The sunrise alignments at Cairn T and Cairn L were rediscovered by Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts in 1980, and their findings were published in Brennan's book, The Stars and the Stones. They discovered that the beam of light created by the passage and chamber illuminates the inner recess, lighting up key areas on the main engraved stone.

The Keystone Stone within the chamber of Cairn T at Loughcrew. Illustration by George Du Noyer.
The Keystone Stone within the chamber of Cairn T at Loughcrew.
Illustration by George Du Noyer.

The equinox alignment at Cairn T is one of the wonders of the Irish neolithic, an amazing combination of light, shadow and stone. The passage points to 9° south of east, so the beam of light can only enter the chamber when the sun has reached the appropriate altitude about 40 minutes after sunrise. This offset of nine degrees means that the sun is able to penetrate the end recess on both spring and autumn equinoxes.

The chamber of Cairn T, Loughcrew. Photograph © National Monuments Service.
The chamber of Cairn T, Loughcrew. Photograph © National Monuments Service..

Satellite Monuments

There are several interesting external monuments and features around Cairn T. A pair of circular depressions ten meters from the entrance to the cairn may be stone settings, mysterious features found at Newgrange, Knowth and Queen Maeve's cairn in County Sligo. Another kerbed ring on the opposite side of Cairn T and beside Cairn S, is four meters in diameter and may be the foundations of a hutsite. Local rumour tells that a large dish carved from a massive piece of quartz and filled with cremated bone is buiried near the Hag's Chair.

Glacial erratic kerbstones at Cairn S, a satellite of Cairn T at Loughcrew.
Glacial erratic kerbstones at Cairn S, a satellite of Cairn T at Loughcrew.

A tight cluster of six smaller passage-graves, known as satellites monuments, surround the cairn. Cairn R1, Cairn R2, (both 60 meters from Cairn T) and Cairn W (100 meters from Cairn T) are quite disturbed and little remains of them. They may have been tertres, an early form of passage grave consisting of a free-standing chamber placed on a kerbed earthern or stone platform. A large, wide pottery vessel, was discovered in the round chamber of Cairn W, the only monument which is oriented to the south. Cairn V (40 meters from and oriented to Cairn T) is certainly a classic example of a tertre, a passage-grave that was never covered by a cairn.

Spiders and megalithic art
Spiders on the ceiling of the end precess of Cairn T, echoing the patterns in the eight pointed neolithic engravings.

The large satellite called Cairn U is missing the top of the chamber is oriented to the Samhain and Imbolc sunrises, the same alignment as Cairn L. The chamber and passage stones survive but no roof remains. All the remaining chamber stones are engraved. Cairn S has passage, chamber and kerbstones but the cairn stones are missing.

The Megalithic Survey

This tomb is at the summit of Slieve na Calliagh, and it is at the centre of the monuments on this hill. The cairn is designated T by Conwell (1866, 372-3; 1873, 25-45) who regarded it as the tomb of the mythical Olamh Fodhla. It is the most conspicuous of the cairns and the tomb was reconstructed by OPW in 1964. The passage was roofless and closed with large boulders and quartz pebbles before Conwell had it cleared, and the central octagonal beehive chamber (H 3.05m) was also collapsed, although the three side-chambers with their beehive roofs and sill stones were intact.

The cairn (diameter 35 meters; height c. 7 meters) has a kerb of 38 stones, including the decorated ‘Hag’s Chair’ on the north side. Behind the kerb and overlying the base of the cairn originally was a layer of quartz stones. The segmented entrance passage is aligned east, and a sunrise event at the Equinox occurs when the backstone of the rear chamber (C8) with its all over decoration, including four petal-and-circle motifs that are almost unique in this cemetery, is lit (McCormack 2012). The side-chambers had traces of burnt bone, although the only artefact recovered was a bronze watch-winder pin from the Viking era (Herity 1974, 42-50).

Apart from the Hag’s Chair, none of the kerbstones are decorated, but 28 of the stones in the tomb have decoration. About half of these could be said to have all over decoration, and some of them are almost overcrowded with motifs. Ornament is not confined to the passage and chamber stones but some lintels, sills and corbels are also decorated. The decoration on some corbels extends out of view, indicating that these stones at least may have come from other tombs.

All the motifs are copiously represented – circles, concentric circles, spirals, nested arcs, cup-marks, cup-and-circle, lines with off-sets, and rayed circles and dots, but serpents are rare, and chevrons and lozenges hardly occur. There is a tendency for particular motifs to be dominant on individual stones, and stones in the most prominent positions usually have the most decoration. These are in the entrance passage, and the bacsktones of the chambers. In addition to the petal-and-circle motifs, the backstone of the rear chamber also has rayed dots, and vertical lines with off-sets within ovals. The closing roofstone of this chamber is filled with a variety of motifs that extend beyond its visible edges, and it could be imagined as a skyscape.

This is a National Monument in state ownership and the hilltop can be accessed from a carpark c. 400 meters to the west, but a cracked lintel in the passage ensures that there is no public access to the interior or the tomb at the moment. For a guide service see this web-page. The above description is derived from the published 'Archaeological Inventory of County Meath' (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1987). In certain instances the entries have been revised and updated in the light of recent research. Revised by: Michael Moore Date of upload: 11 January 2019.

A stunning image of the passage-graves on Carnbane at Loughcrew. Photo © Liam Kenny of Suas Media.
A stunning image of Cairn T and the surrounding passage-graves on Carnbane at Loughcrew.
Photo © Liam Kenny of Suas Media.