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The Whispering stone, a limestone pillar within the 5000 year old neolithic chamber of Cairn L the Loughcrew Mountains. The chamber may be built around this mysterious standing stone, which is illuminated by a shaft of light at sunrise twice a year.

Loughcrew - history of research

The monuments at Loughcrew probably date to about 3,200 B.C., but like so many ancient structures, may prove to be built upon an older sacred space. The hills were probably known since mesolithic times, when clans of hunter gathers roamed the land.

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

At some stage between 4,000 and 3,000 BC, people began to settle down and construct huge stone monuments, and the distcintive limestone hills with plenty of sandstone boulders, scattered during the ice age, was a perfect site.

Loughcrew is one of the most beautiful landscapes in Ireland, the rolling hills are like the belly and breasts of the landscape goddess, Garavogue.

Conwell's engraving of the Whispering Stone.
Conwell's engraving of the elabourate right hand recess in Cairn L, from about 1870.

Chambered cairns were probably built in different stages over a long span of years. The oldest monuments tend to be the smallest, while newer cairns tend to be larger and more complex. On Carnbane West for example, the simpler mound of Cairn J predates the much bigger Cairn L. The stone age use of the monuments probably spanned hundreds of years.

The chambers were used at some stage for burial, as plenty of cremated remains and teeth were discovered during excavation. Cairn T was visited during the Bronze age: a fine bronze pin was found in the chamber.

We know that Cairn H was used during the Iron age, as hundreds of slips and combs of cow bone were found there in 1943, many carved with La Tene or Celtic art.

Bone slip from Cairn H
Bone slip with Iron Age decoration from Cairn H.

There are many ringforts and three stone cashels scattered around the hills which date to the early Christian period. In later medieval times the hills were part of the territory of the O'Reilly clan, who ruled the eastern portion of Breifne and who were disposessed of their land after the Norman invasion. The land was taken over by the Plunkett family, the most famous member being Oliver Plunkett, who were themselves dispossesed in 1655 when the land was granted to Col James Naper.

The Hag's Chair
Conwell's engraving of the Hag's Chair at Cairn T from about 1870.
Cairn T viewed from the east.
Cairn T viewed from the east.

Eugene Conwell

The site was rediscovered in 1863 by a school inspector named Eugene Conwell when he went for a picnic in the hills with his wife. He became slightly obsessed with the cairns and spent weeks exploring the sites and gave the cairns the letter names they bear today. The artist William Wakeman also claimed to have been the first to discover the cairns, but the site had been mentioned by Louisa Beaufort in 1828:

In the county of Westmeath, in one of the Hills of Loughcrew, which are called by the peasents the Witches Hops, is an extensive excavation, consisting of three large chambers with a narrow passage leading to them. In one of these rooms is a flat alterstone of considerable size; near to this artificial cave stand two lofty pillar stones known among the people by the names of "the Speaking Stones" and "the Whisperers". Names evidently traditional of there having been oracles or divinations given from these "dark places of the earth".
The Speaking Stones at Farranagloch a few kilometers northwest of the Loughcrew Hills.

The Speaking Stones are actually found about 6 km to the northwest of Loughcrew, in the townland of Farrnanaglough, These stones are said to be an oricle that would answer any honest question. The name "the Whispering Stone" has become attached to the tall limestone pillar within the chamber of Cairn L on Carnbane west. This mysterious limestone pillar is illuminated by the rising sun at two important dates during the year: Samhian and Imbolc.

A pair of stones at Farranaglogh, county Meath, formerly had a very useful talent. They could be consulted, as an oracle and always gave true answers to rightly disposed people; they were especially famous for revealing the names of evildoers. If something had been stolen in the district, you had only to ask the stones, and they gave you the name of the thief and the whereabouts of the stolen property. Unfortunately the stones were sensitive about their dignity and worth; you must listen very carefully for the reply. And so it came about that some careless fellow insulted them by asking the same question twice, since when they are dumb.

Kevin Danagher, Irish Customs and Beliefs

Looking south-west to Cairn T from a standing stone on the north slopes of Patrickstown Hill.

Conwell conducted the first excavations at the site and found many beads, bone pins and stone balls which are typical of chambered cairns. He found two particuarly fine stone balls under the large basin stone of Cairn L.

The Artist Du Noyer visited the site and recorded many of the decorated stones; since his time many of the engravings have weathered greatly and some have vanished completely. Local landowner Edward Rotheram excavated Cairns R and R1 in the 1870's and his comments are reproduced on their page.

George Coffey devoted a chapter of his book on Newgrange to Loughcrew. Cairn H was excavated in 1943 by the archaeologist Joseph Raftery, who found hundreds of engraved slips of cow bone, and concluded that the mound dated from the Iron age.

Map of Loughcrew
A map of the principal sites around the Loughcrew Mountains.

The Speaking Stones

About two miles north-west of Oldcastle there is a townland called Fearan na gCloc two remarkable stone flags still to be seen standing in it, popularly called clocha labartha, i.e. "the speaking stones": and these stones also give a local name to the green pasture field in which they are situated, which is called pairc na clocha labartha, i.e. "field of the speaking stones."

There can be little doubt that in ancient times the pagan rites of incantation and divination had been practised at these stones, as their very name, so curiously handed down to us, imports: for, in the traditions of the neighbourhood, it is even yet current that they have been consulted in cases where either man or beast was supposed to have been "overlooked"; that they were infallibly effective in curing the consequences of the "evil eye"; and that they were deemed to be unerring in naming the individual through whom these evil consequences came.

Even up to a period not very remote, when anything happened to be lost or stolen, these stones were invariably consulted; and, in cases where cattle had strayed away, the directions they gave for finding them were considered as certain to lead to the desired result.

There was one peremptory inhibition, however, to be scrupulously observed in consulting these stones, viz., that they were never to be asked to give the same information a second time, as they, under no circumstances whatever, would repeat an answer.

It is related that some weary pilgrim who had come, about sixty years ago, from a long distance, to consult these venerable stones, being possessed of that most mischievous of all gifts to mortals — "a bad memory" — after having duly received the answer to the inquiries he had made, but forgetting it before he had retired many yards on his return journey — and totally unmindful of the conditions upon which the desired information was obtained — had the temerity to come back and renew his inquiries.

Wroth with indignation at this open violation of the terms upon which they condescended to be consulted, "The Speaking Stones" have never since deigned to utter a response.

It is asserted in the neighbourhood that "The Speaking Stones" originally consisted of four slabs, standing in a right line, three of which existed within the memory of the present inhabitants; but two only now remain, to give testimony to the use in which they were anciently employed.

They consist of two thin flags, the northern one, on the right-hand side of the woodcut, being a slab of laminated sandy grit, of an average thickness of eight inches, and rising above ground to the height of about seven feet. Its greatest breadth is five feet eight inches, and at about eighteen inches from the top it begins to taper to a breadth of three feet and a half at the top, which is rudely curved or rounded, as shown in the engraving.

At a distance of twenty-five feet southwards, the second stone, which is a blue limestone flag, now leans towards the south-east at an angle of about 45°; but it was, no doubt, originally erected in an upright position.

Its height over ground is six feet four inches, and its breadth at base three feet four inches, increasing to four feet eight inches at about four feet from the ground. The thickness at the base is fourteen inches, and the flag tapers to a rudely rounded top, which is only nine inches thick.

These two flags, having their flat sides facing east and west, and their thin edges in a direction nearly north and south, stand on the top of a rising embankment or swelling of the ground; and a rath or fort, called Lis Clogher (Fort of the stones), is seen in a westerly direction about 300 yards in rear of them.

The circumference of this rath measures 688 feet round its base; and it has a rampart or embankment of raised earth about four feet high round its top, enclosing a circular flat space 154 feet in diameter. The fosse or trench surrounding this rath varies in depth from fifteen to twenty-two feet, and is embellished by several venerable old whitethorn trees growing round its margin. In the centre of the rath are caves, which were opened a few years ago, but are now closed up; and there is every likelihood that within this rath the master-spirit or manipulator of the oracles delivered by "The Speaking Stones" resided in ancient times.

Loughcrew Landscape.
The Loughcrew Landscape.

The destruction of the third stone is locally accounted for in the following manner.

About the year 1804, Captain Battersby became tenant of the townland of Farannaglogh; and he had a herd or steward, named Blaney, who, supposing that these stones were unnecessarily encumbering the ground, determined to get rid of them.

For this purpose, having brought some labourers to the spot, he directed them to break up the stones; but they, from a dread of evil consequences, refused to enter upon the work, and this refusal so irritated Blaney that he himself took up a sledge and shivered to pieces the slab which stood about twenty-five feet north of the one represented on the right of the woodcut, the debris of which were buried where they fell.

While in the very act of perpetrating this deed of wanton vandalism, word was brought to him that one of his children was drowned in the low grounds to the south of "The Speaking Stones."

He ran home in terror, and found his child lifeless, which made such an impression upon him that he never afterwards interfered with the remaining two stones, now still standing, as "solemn silent witnesses" of the mental and social condition of the people in times long past: and it is to be hoped that their history now made publicly known, will be the means of saving them from future destruction.


Bone and antler pins from Loughcrew.
Rude bone pins of large size made from red-deer horn, obtained from the cairns of County Sligo, and Lough Crew, County Meath by Colonel Wood-Martin and Mr E. C. Rotheram.

Through the kindness of E. Crofton Rotheram, Esq., Belview, Crossakeel, County Meath, I was enabled to examine and draw carefully some articles composed of bone, or rather of red-deer horn, specimens of which are sent for illustration. Mr Rotheram discovered them in May 1895 when excavating the central part of one of the series of cairns at the Lough Crew Hills on Slieve na Calliagh. The special cairn he explored is that designated R2 on Mr Eugene Conwell's map, a portion of which was published together with the series of drawings of inscribed stones made by the late Mr G. V. Du Noyer, that I had the privilege of submitting to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and which are figured in their Proceedings for 1892-93. Mr Rotheram has given a brief description of his researches in the Journal of the Royal Societyof Antiquaries of Ireland, vol. V. p. 311,

Excavations at Cairn H by Joseph Raftery.
Excavations at Cairn H by Joseph Raftery in 1943 turned up hundreds of bone slips carved during the Iron and medieval ages.

I believe, however, a fuller and more detailed record of those interesting bone objects, here to fore almost unknown, and unique, will be found useful.

What such implements constructed from portions of deer horn were intended for is a matter of conjecture: possibly they were employed as rude pins for fastening the hair or dress. The material they are made from does not appear possessed of sufficient hardness or strength to serve for efficient weapons of offence against man or beast. The idea also occurred to me, they might be utilised for constructing the meshes of fishing-nets; again, they somewhat resemble the implements required for carrying the thread across looms in making a web of cloth in primitive times. Of all such conjectural uses the idea of their being intended for rude bone pins seems most likely to afford the true explanation.

The special cairn where they were discovered was in a dilapidated state, almost level with the ground, and its contents bore traces of having been disturbed by some previous explorations. The large flags or stones that once formed the boundaries of its inner passages were removed. Its base, however,was still marked out by a circle of stones, flattened for a few yards of its circumference on the eastern side, where the entrance probably was situated.

To recur to Mr Conwell's original description of it, he states that it is "sixteen yards to the south of Cairn E, and fifty-five yards south-west from Cairn T, is nine yards in diameter, and about two feet in height. Ten of the stones forming its circular boundary still remain, and outside the cairn, at a distance of from three to four yards, lie five large stones."

This description was written in the year 1873. Mr Rotheram found that, on removing the sod from its centre, the men employed came immediately upon a great quantity of bones, most of them being burned and broken into small fragments: in some parts of the excavation, which reached down to the yellow clay, the layer of bones mixed with charcoal was about 8 inches deep.

Together with these burned and broken bones and charcoal, fragments of clay urns, also broken, were obtained, the pieces varying from Jofan inch to an inch in thickness, blackened by the action of fire on their inner sides, and ornamented externally with rude patterns of lines or dots: some had the lines disposed in a herring-bone pattern. These fragments could be referred to at least portions of five distinct urns.

Mr Rotheram believes this cairn was originally constructed with slabs, ornamented by scribed patterns, similar to those found in other cairns in the Lough Crew Hills, for he found one stone in the ruins having rude chevron and spiral markings. It was 2 feet 1 inch long by 1 foot 5 inches wide, and was 1/4 inches thick. The exploration also yielded thirteen small round beads made from stone and bone, and one example composed of transparent greenish glass; also a few flint flakes, moreorless injured from fire; six white-coloured, rolled pebbles brought from the sea-shore, several miles distant; a drilled fragment of rock-crystal, and part of a narrow-head of white flint.

Bone slip from Cairn H.
Bone slip from Cairn H, from Conwell's excavations.

The accompanying illustration will show the appearance of the peculiar bone objects which I am desirous of submitting to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. When perfect, they must have been several inches long, terminating in sharp points, several examples of which are observable. The upper extremities consist of blunt, hemispherical heads, eleven of which were obtained, belonging to so many separate implements, not unlike button mushrooms in shape, being somewhat larger than the stalk-like stem proceeding from them, so that they resemble large nails, pins, or dowels.

It will be observed that all these semicircular heads are grooved or hollowed out underneath where they are joined to the irrespective stems, and on some of them obvious traces of charring from the effects of fire are distinctly to be noticed. All these details will be perceived by inspecting the accompanying selected specimens presented to me by Mr Rotheram.

Some years since, my friend Colonel Wood Martin of Sligo submitted to me for examination and report portions belonging to three similar implements of bone. Of one the broken, pieces were sufficient almost to reconstruct the complete size and shape of the original; the second consisted of detached pieces, forming altogether about half the length of the weapon or pin; and the third was represented by a small portion of its lower pointed extremity.

They are now preserved in the collections of the Royal Irish Academy, and I have drawn the two larger and more perfect specimens for comparison with those found in the Lough Crew cairn. They were discovered by Colonel Wood Martin when exploring two of the cromlechs at Carrowmore, County Sligo, and are figured in his work on the Rude Stone Monuments of Sligo.

I submitted sections of these objects to microscopic examination, and ascertained they consisted of some description of osseous substance, which, at the time, I surmised might be of Cetacean origin: the fragments felt solid, of exceptional density, and were much eroded, from the action of fire and long continued deposit under ground, resembling in external appearance certain objects made from the bones of whales, contained in the Dublin Science and Art Museum, brought back by one of the exploring expeditions to the Arctic regions.

At the time it did not occur to me they could possibly consist of red-deer horn: however, on receiving the numerous specimens obtained at Slieve na Calliagh by Mr Rotherham.

Pins of Deer Horn, from a cromlech at Carrowmore, Sligo, reduced to one fourth the original size. which were in a more favourable condition for preparing sections, I was able to determine that all alike, whether from Sligo or the County Meath, should be referred to portions of the horns of the red-deer, an animal extinct in the present day in Ireland, except a few remaining in the woods of Killarney, though more than abundant three centuries ago in almost every part of the country.

I likewise examined, for comparison, some of the tips of red-deer tines obtained in the older parts of Dublin in considerable quantities when excavating sewers, the residue of trade refuse, when making knife-handles, and some fine heads of this animal got in our bogs, lakes, and river-beds, furnished with large branching horns, enabled me to ascertain there would have been no difficulty in procuring from them pieces of sufficient length and of suitable hardness to fabricate similar bone pins to those now shown in the drawings and specimens.

The red-deer in Ireland acquired a larger and more vigorous development in former times, and its antlers grew to greater size than subsequently, as the heads preserved in our museums prove.

I have not thought it necessary to append measurements of these heads, several of which are mentioned in Sir William "Wilde's paper on "The Ancient Animals of Ireland."

Microscopic specimens obtained from the discoveries made in Sligo and County Meath will accompany this communication, for the satisfaction of those desirous of inspecting them.

The points of interest appear to me to be the occurrence, as yet undescribed, of pins made of bone, of exceptional size (or whatever else these implements hereafter may prove to be).

Of course, smaller-sized bone pins are very common, and we have bronze pins attached to fibulae fullyas large as the deer-horn pins now shown. Also the identity of such specimens as those discovered by Colonel Wood Martin in Sligo and by Mr Rotheram in Meath, localities widely separated in the East and West of Ireland, associated alike with fragments of broken urns, quantities of burned human bones, rude beads of stone and bone, and a few composed of coloured glass, with pieces of white quartz and rolled sea-pebbles, and some rare specimens of perforated rock-crystal, intended for wearing as rude ornaments,— in both instances obtained as the result of explorations inside cairns.

A large fallen standing stone made from quartz near Cairn D at Loughcrew.

Today Carnbane East, the central part of the complex is owned by the Irish Goverment, and during the summer Office of Public Works guide are available to give tours. This can quite important, as over the years it could be very difficult to find the person with the key to view the site art within Cairn T.

Also, as greater numbers of people began to arrive to see the equinox alignment, it became nessecary for a bit of marshelling to make sure everyone got in to see the lightbeam. I remember one occasion when an individual with a film camera tried to lock himself in the chamber much to the annoyance of the twenty or so people he was trying to lock out.

Resevoir at Loughcrew.
A large stone water resevoir dating from the 1800's on the west side of Sliabh Rua. This and the massive stone walls are probably built using stones taken from the ancient monuments.

Carnbane West is privately owned, and for the last number of years, access has been denied to enter Cairn L to view the cross quarter day sunrises. Patrickstown hill is also privately owned, but since the sites are quite destroyed, only the very commited make the treck over to visit the beautiful calendar stone.

The Hag's Chair, a throne-like horned kerbstone on the north side of Cairn T. The stone is one of only two decorated kerbs known at Loughcrew, though the designs are very faded. Cairns D and L on Carnbane West can be seen on the next hill 1 km away in the distance.