Banner: Knocknarea sunset
The Loughcrew landscape.
The stunning landscape at Loughcrew, the Mountains of the Witch, in County Meath. In the distance is Cairn T, the central monument within this complex and sacred landscape. Photograph © Padraig Conway.

Loughcrew - Sliabh na Cailleach

Sliabh na Cailleach, or the Mountains of the Witch as Loughcrew was known in the past, 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 4 kilometers in an east/west chain, the area is littered with monuments from all eras. This has to be one of the most beautiful and powerful sites in Ireland.

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

The neolithic chambered cairns are the oldest monuments, and along with Carrowkeel 75 km away in County Sligo, is the best example of a stone age landscape remaining in Ireland.

    "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.

Art within Cairn H at Loughcrew
Cairn H.

Before I have done with the Irish instances I must append one in the form it was told me in the summer of 1894: I was in Meath and went to see the remarkable chambered cairns on the hill known as Sliabh na Caillighe, 'the Hag's Mountain,' near Oldcastle and Lough Crew. I had as my guide a young shepherd whom I picked up on the way. He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns.

As to the cairn on the hill point known as Belrath, that is called the Chair Cairn from a big stone placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round. But usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another.

However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed. The hag appears to have been Cailleach Bheara, or Caillech Berre, 'the Old Woman of Beare', that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork.

From 'Celtic Folklore Welsh and Manx' by Sir John Rhys, 1901.

Loughcrew is one of Ireland's ancient wonders. It is the third of Ireland's great complexes of chambered cairns as you move from the west coast to east. The oldest such site is found at Carrowmore by the Atlantic in Co. Sligo: a great oval of stone circles at the heart of a peninsula, overlooked by the majestic Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea.

From here a great chain of ancient sites stretches eastward, gaining in size and complexity. The major next site is Carrowkeel in the Bricklieve Mountains in south Sligo, about 20 km southeast of Carrowmore. Between Carrowkeel and Loughcrew are the sites of Sheemor and Sheebeg in Leitrim and Corn Hill in Longford.

After Loughcrew comes the grandest megalithic site in Ireland, The Boyne Valley where the massive monuments of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth are found within a bend of the River Boyne, about 8 km from the east coast.

Megalithic art within Cairn F
Neolithic art on a passage stone within Cairn F on Carnbane West. Picture © Padraig Conway.

The neolithic cairns at Loughcrew are dedicated to the earth Goddess in her form as a Witch or Hag, a wise woman. According to Borlase in his 1895 volume The Dolmens of Ireland, the hag was named Garavogue, also the name of the shelly river in Sligo. This is interesting as Loughcrew and Carrowmore, Knocknarea and Sliabh Dá Eán are on the same line across the country. Could this be a ley or energy called Garavogue?

The line continues on through Tara to the Hill of Howth, Benn Eader, with three neolithic cairns and a dolmen which is claimed to have the second heaviest capstone in Ireland, Aideen's Grave. The Hill of Howth is also featured in many, many mythological stories.

Garavogue is said to have dropped the huge heaps of stones from her apron as she hopped across the hills forming the massive cairns, only to fall and die at Patrickstown. A mound on the west hill was pointed out as her grave in the last century. The neolithic sites consists of groups of chambered cairns clustered in bunches across the three peaks peaks, and Cairn M alone on the fourth.

The hills are called Carnbane to the west, Sliabh na Cailleach at the centre and Patrickstown to the east. There is one cairn on the fourth hill, called Sliabh Rua or Carrigbrack. The hills have an extremely feminine presence, and, especially from Carnbane West, Sliabh Rua and Sliabh na Cailli appear like a pair of breasts with cairn nipples, just like the Papa of Anu in Kerry. The sites are mainly built above the 200 meter line, and the highest place is the top of Cairn T at 276 m above sea level.

Loughcrew viewed from the north
The Loughcrew hills looking south west from an outcrop on the side of Bruse Hill.

Seven monuments remain on the summit Sliabh na Cailleach, the central and highest peak. Cairn T, main structure is 35 meters in diameter and in good condition, with roof and chamber intact due to a Board of Works reconstruction in the 1940's. The other monuments lie in various states of disrepair due to removal of stones in the past. There are many fine engraved slabs within the chamber of Cairn T, and several more can be seen in the surrounding satellite mounds, S, U V, R, R1 and W.

There are fifteen monuments on Cairnbane West, of which two, Cairns D and L are considered 'focal' monuments. The largest cairns, Cairn D, 55 meters in diameter and Cairn L, 45 meters in diameter, are not visible from each other, even though they are only 200 meters apart. The chamber of Cairn L is in good condition, even though it was given a concrete roof in the 1940's and has many engraved stones within.

Cairn D, the largest of all the cairns was ravaged in a fruitless 19th century search for the chamber, and still remains unopened. Six of the smaller monuments have all but vanished due to land clearance.

The remaining sites which can be seen are A3, B, D, F, G, H, I, J, K, and L. The landowner, who keeps huge flocks of sheep up there, does not allow access to the west hill. The chamber of Cairn L, which has a functioning solar alignment to the sunrises around Halloween and St Brigit's day, is kept locked.

The chamber of Cairn L
The end recess of Cairn L at Loughcrew.

The greatest destruction at Loughcrew took place on Patrickstown , the eastern hill where as many as 21 sites are said to have been destroyed in the 1850's, shortly before the site was discovered by Conwell. The remains of three sites can be visited, one of which includes the wonderful calendar stone.

View to Loughcrew from the Ballinvalley stone circle
View to Cairn T from the Ballinvally stone circle. Only four of the nine stones remain standing, and the site is in some disrepair due to land clearance. The circle is about 27 meters in diameter, and some engraved slabs were found here.