The old Irish name for the Loughcrew Mountains near Oldcastle in Co. Meath is Sliabh na Cailleach, the Mountains of the Hag. The mountain tops are crowned with the remains of a large complex of chambered cairns. Though many monuments have been destroyed, it remains an awe inspiring place of breath-taking beauty, a tribute to neolithic vision.
Many of the stones within the chambers are carved with ancient engravings which most likely preceeded the monumental carved stones of the Boyne Valley.
The monuments at Loughcrew are of the type classed as passage graves, dating from about 3,500 BC. Loughcrew is one of the four great passage grave complexes in Ireland, the others being Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in County Sligo and the mega-monuments in Boyne Valley to the east.
Due to modern research on human remains from Carrowkeel and Ballynahatty, we now know that the people who built this type of monument were the descendants of early neolithic colonists who left Brittany around 4,200 BC and founded settlements around the coast of Ireland.
Like the Tuatha Dé Danann of Irish mythology, they brought four great treasures with them to Ireland: they introduced cattle to Ireland for the first time; they re-introduced the red deer, which had become extinct after the ice age; they brought farming with them, and they were the first to build stone chambers to bury their dead.
The early costal settlements have a simpler form of the burial monument or passage grave, such as those found at Carrowmore: a stone chamber placed on a platform with a passage connecting the chamber to the exterior of the monumument.
The Loughcrew cairns are more complex and so probably younger than the monuments at Carrowmore and Carrowkeel. The main difference between the eastern and western clusters of monuments is the presence of many carved slabs in County Meath. Loughcrew has a fine collection of megalithic art, though many stones are still exposed to the harsh Irish weather.
John O'Donovan on Loughcrew
"Near the church there is a holy well which retains the name of the great Saint Kieran, and should be called Tober Kieran on the Ordnance Map. The parish has derived its name from a lake called Loch Croibe, i.e. the lake of the bush or tree.
It contains one island planted with beautiful large sallow or willow trees, but the lake has not derived its name from these. Every place in Ireland bearing the name of creeve had originally a sacred tree of widely extending branches, planted for the purpose of inauguration, or to commemorate the death of some famous personage, Loughcreeve would be the most analogical spelling of this name; but custom has too well established Loughcrew for us to attempt a change of it.
"There are three hills about a mile asunder in this parish, having three heaps [carns] of stones on their summits, with which the following wild legend is connected. A famous old hag of antiquity, called Cailleach Bhéartha (Calliagh Vera), came one time from the north to perform a magical feat in this neighbourhood, by which she was to obtain great power, if she succeeded.
She took an apron full of stones, and dropped a carn on Carnbane; from this she jumped to the summit of Slieve Na Cally, a mile distant, and dropped a second carn there: from this hill she made a second jump, and dropped a carn on another hill, about a mile distant.
If she could make another leap, and drop the fourth carn, it appears that the magical feat would be accomplished; but in giving the jump, she slipped and fell in the townland of Patrickstown, in the parish of Diamor, where she broke her neck. Here she was buried; and her grave was to be seen not many years ago in the field called Cúl a' móta (i. e. back of the moat), about two hundred perches to the east of the moat in that townland; but it is now destroyed.
"This is the very old lady whose shade still haunts the lake and carn of Slieve Guillion in the county of Armagh. Her name was Evlin, and it would appear from some legends about her that she was of De Danannite origin.
"She is now a Banshee in some parts of Ireland, and is represented in some elegies as appearing before the deaths of some persons. I know nothing more about her, but that on one occasion she turned the celebrated Fin Mac Cool into a grey old man; but his soldiers dug through the mountain of Slieve Guillion in Armagh until they drove her out of her cave, and forced her to restore Fin to his former beauty and symmetry.
"Does her name, Eiblin bheurta ingin Ghuilinn appear in the genealogies of the Tuatha De Dananns?
"A quatrain of her poetic composition is yet repeated at Carnbane, but I calculate it is a post-original :
I am poor Cailleach Bera, —
many a wonder I have ever seen
I have seen Carnbane a lake,
Though now a mountain green.
What a pity that she is not alive now to throw light upon geology! Could Mr. Curry from his vast knowledge of fairyology and hagiology, give me any account of the old hag who left her name on this range and on Slieve Guillion?
"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 Beura, i.e. 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."
Dimensions for monuments and some chambers are given below.
PATRICKSTOWN 270 m a.s.l.
The remains of some five cairns can barely be identified here on the most easterly hill of the Loughcrew Mountains. 21 cairns were destroyed on the south side of the hill before 1863.
Cairn Y was 31 metres in diameter.
Cairn X was 12 metres in diameter.
Cairn Xa was 11 metres in diameter.
Cairn Xb was 21 metres in diameter.
SLIABH NA CAILLEACH Cairnbane East
Cairn R is about 10 m in diameter.
Cairn R2 is 8.2 m in diameter.
Cairn S is 17 m in diameter.
Cairn T is 35 m diameter. The chamber and passage is 10 m long.