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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.

The Cailleach

The megalithic monuments known as passage graves are always associated with a powerful elderly woman, the Cailleach or Witch, who, in folklore, is often the builder or creator of the chambered cairns. In general she is known as the Cailleach Birra or the Hag of Beare, but in Sligo and at Loughcrew her true name is still remembered: she is called the Garavogue, and she is associated with the River Garavogue in Sligo and Sliabh na Cailleach.

Thanks to Ancient DNA, we now know with a degree of certainty that the passage graves were built by colonizing farmers who arrive in Sligo, most likely from the Carnac region in Brittany, more than 6,000 years ago. We also know from genetics that these farmers, originating in the near East, have traveled through the Mediterranean Sea from their homelands in Anatolia in Turkey, beginning their great migration around 8,000 BC. They are the first cattle farmers, and bring a herd of domesticated cattle with them on their voyage.

The Great Goddess

The chief deity in the religion of the farmers seems to be a powerful earth goddess associated with fertility and animal husbandry. We might think of her as Eve, Tiamat, Ishtar, or Inanna, the mother of all goddesses. The invention of farming and domestication of animals saw a group of people departing from the ways of hunting and gathering, and entering into a new relationship with the Earth.

The chamber of Listoghil at Carrowmore illuminated by sunlight at Samhain.
The chamber of Listoghil at Carrowmore illuminated by sunlight at Samhain.

As part of this new arrangement the people plough and fertilize the earth in a manner markedly different to the ways of hunters and gatherers. The early farmers adopt a much more formal religion, and when they arrive in Western Europe a kind of fusion of symbolism occurs in the lands around the Bay of Biscay, when the farmers seem to adopt some of the ideas and ideals of the Mesolithic people. Passage graves, a new type of monument appearing around 6,700 years ago, seem to represent this merging of cultures.

The Sligo Settlement

When neolithic farmers began to arrive in the Sligo region some 6,000 years ago, they brought agriculture in the form of crops and domesticated cattle, wild animals in the form of red deer, the practice of building megalithic monuments, and a new religion based around an earth mother goddess in the form of the Cailleach. The oldest neolithic monument currently known on the west coast or Ireland is the causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy, which has been securely dated to 4,150 BC.

The Cailleach's House, Ballygawley Mountains, County Sligo.
The Cailleach's House, Ballygawley Mountains, County Sligo.

The passage grave culture took root in Sligo across the Cúil Iorra peninsula where the great triple complex of Carrowmore, Knocknarea and Carns Hill are arranged along an east-west axis. By around 3,500 BC when the central monument at Carrowmore was built, the colony had spread down to Lough Arrow and the Bricklieve Mountains, where the great neolithic monuments at Heapstown, Moytura, Carrowkeel and kesh Corran are located.

Sunrise over the Ballygawley Mountains in County Sligo.
Sunrise over the Ballygawley Mountains in County Sligo from the crudely restored cairn at Listoghil.

The great chamber of Listoghil, the central monument at Carrowmore, is oriented to the left of the Ballygawley Mountains, where Lough Dá Gé, the Lake of the Two Geese is located. The mountain peaks to the west of the lake, represent the body of the Cailleach lying flat within the landscape. Each of the four peaks, Anaghmore, Slieve Dá Eán, Silabh Dargan and Cailleach a Birra's House is capped by a neolithic cairn, the most westerly being the Cailleach's House.

Sunlight illuminates the interior of the womb / chamber at Listoghil.
Sunlight illuminates the interior of the womb / chamber at Listoghil.

At sunrise on the Samhain and Imbolc cross-quarter days, the sun rises from this most magical of lakes, and it appears that the Cailleach is giving birth to the sun from her watery womb, the bottomless enchanted lake in the mountain.

The Garavogue, as a landscape goddess, is remembered as being the builder of the monuments, in some stories she is the creator of the landscape. In both Sligo and Loughcrew she carries the stones down from the mountains in her white apron and uses them to construct the chambers and monuments. At both sites the passage-graves are built with glacial erratics.

Sliabh na Cailleach

In the folklore, the Cailleach files or leaps from mountain to mountain carrying her collection of stones. On her way she passes the Bricklieve mountains, where there are many fine chambered monuments built from quarried limestone at Carrowkeel, and her sisters or cousins inhabit the Enchanted Caves at Keash Corran. She is known around the shores of Lough Cé and has an association with the megaliths on Corn ( Cairn ) Hill in County Longford. The next great assemblage of megalithic monuments is found spread out across the Loughcrew Hills, Sliabh na Cailleach, in County Meath.

Large glacial erratic at Loughcrew.
Large glacial erratic at Loughcrew.

The Loughcrew Hills, a range of hard limestone, stretch over four kilometers east to west. The Cailleach threw plenty of sandstone boulders about the hills, and these huge chunks of rock were dismantled or disarticulated by the farmers, and used to construct the chambers and cairns.

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.

The Hill of the Witch

The monuments at Slaibh na Cailleach are located within a beautiful landscape with tremendous views across the plain of Ireland. The main, central or focal monument is Cairn T or Carn Bán, and this is the home of the Cailleach. A ring of large erratic kerb-stones encircles the base of a great cairn, visible from many miles all around. The kerb-stone on the northern side is a huge, horned slab of rock known as the Hag's Chair. This monolithic throne bears megalithic art, and according to legend is where the Cailleach would sit and smoke her pipe, contemplating her kingdom.

A old woman sitting on the Wishing Chair at the Giant's Causeway.
A old woman sitting on the Wishing Chair at the Giant's Causeway, in much the same way as the Cailleach named Garavogue used to sit on her throne, the Hag's Chair at Cairn T.
Photograph by Robert Welch, © NMNI.

We know, from a poem by Johnathan Swift from around 1720 celebrating the Cailleach, that her name is the Garavogue, the same lady who is found on the mountains in County Sligo.

Twelve giant elks trained to the car
Had brought the warlike dame from far
Bengore where reigned the dreadful war
When morning dawned the board was spread
With cresses nuts and berries red
And Garvogue left her heather bed
Black Ramor Crewe and glassy Sheel
Sent up the bream the brae and eel
At mid day for her ample meal
Twelve haunches of the fattest elk
Twelve measures of the richest milk
Twelve breasts of eagles from the height
Composed the meal for eve or night
Ere Finn and Gall had raised the spear
Ere Caolta chased the mountain deer
Titanic Garvogue held her sway
The feast at night the chase by day
Her pack just numbered threescore ten
No fleeter ever crossed a glen
Red Spidogue with her broad full chest
And Isogue round ribbed and the best
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

Mrs. Hickey was tour guide at Newgrange for 60 years.
Mrs. Hickey, tour guide at Newgrange for 60 years, had a story about a mysterious woman with a blue apron, who used to appear at the site.

Equinox Sunrise

The great cairn at Loughcrew has a spectacular alignment to the rising sun on the spring and autumn equinoxes. As the sun rises in the sky, the beam of light flashes into the depths of the cave / womb / chamber where it strikes a beautiful panel of engraved neolithic art. The interaction is the panel of light across the ancient symbols is a profound act of communication from our stone age ancestors. The patch of light highlights various symbols and glyphs before focusing upon the main engraved sun symbol.

The sunstone at Loughcrew.
The equinox sun-stone at within Cairn T at the Loughcrew megalithic complex.

The Cailleach is more difficult to spot in the Boyne Valley. There are many landscape goddesses in the area, but no stories of great witches building the monuments. The myths of the Boyne concern the conception of two of the major deities from Celtic mythology, Aengus Og and Cú Cullain.

View east from Cairn U.
Cairn U looking over to Patrickstown Hill in the east, where up to twenty monuments are said to have been removed during land clearance in the 1800's.