Loughcrew - an Ancient Irish Megalithic Cemetery
Created | Updated Dec 12, 2016
Neolithic Passage Tombs of Bru na Boinne | Loughcrew Ancient Irish Megalithic Cemetery
Loughcrew is a prehistoric cemetery on the top of a line of hills in western County Meath, Ireland, dating back to about 3200 BC.
Loughcrew consists of a line of three main hills, collectively known as Slieve na Calliagh (Sliabh na Caillíghe, the Hag's Mountain). Individually from west to east, they are Carnbane West, Carnbane East and Patrickstown Hill. The hills stand about 100m above the surrounding countryside, so there are great views from their grass-covered tops.
There were originally about 100 cairns on the hills, of which 22 remain in various states of repair. Each cairn is a passage tomb, an artificial mound with a rock-lined passage into it and a chamber where the ashes of the dead were laid to rest. The name Carnbane, sometimes spelled Cairnbawn, comes from Irish Carn Bán (White Cairn), so the hills are named after the cairns on them. Some or all of the cairns were originally covered in small white stones, although there is little trace of this now. Most of the cairns are on the hills of Carnbane West and Carnbane East.
The most significant on the hill of Carnbane West is Cairn L, which is still intact and has some interesting features inside. Unfortunately this hill is private land and not open to the public.
Only Carnbane East is open to the public. It features the best cairn in the whole cemetery, Cairn T, which has an intact passage which you can go inside. It is the highest point in the whole of County Meath. It is said that you can see 18 of the 32 counties of Ireland from the top of the cairn, although you are no longer allowed to climb on it.
Many of the other cairns are now destroyed, leaving little more than low humps in the ground with the occasional large stone sticking up.
Life in 3200 BC
The time these tombs were built, in 3200 BC, was known as the New Stone Age (Neolithic), as metal had not yet been discovered. The people of Ireland at the time lived by farming. Ireland was covered with a forest of hazel, elm and oak. The farmers used stone axes with wooden handles to chop down trees and make clearing for their farms. They probably planted thorn trees around the edges of the clearings to keep out wild animals. Within the clearings they grew crops such as barley and emmer wheat. Although the varieties used had a poorer yield than modern crops, they would have grown very well as the climate of Ireland was slightly warmer and wetter than it is now. The farmers raised pigs and small cows for meat, kept sheep and goats for milk and had a few horses and dogs.
Buildings were made by setting vertical wooden poles into the ground. Branches were woven horizontally around the vertical poles. The woven screen was then plastered with mud which, when dried, would stop the wind and rain. This technique is known as 'wattle and daub'. The building was finished off with a thatched roof on top. The Neolithic people did not build towns or cities. They all lived on their farms.
We don't know what the beliefs of these people were, but they clearly had some concept of an afterlife because their grandest constructions were to commemorate their dead. The giant stone tombs would have required a huge co-operative effort - for example, it is estimated that the construction of the largest passage tomb in Ireland, Newgrange further east in County Meath, would have taken 400 people working for a month each year for 16 years. The month after the crops had been sown would be a slack time in the calendar. The work required shifting 200,000 tonnes of stone as well as skilled crafts such as carving the patterns on the stones and exact positioning of the giant slabs lining the passage. This was clearly important to the Neolithic people. The tombs were usually erected at the tops of hills because these would have been bare and would have stood out above the forest, making them visible for miles around.
The Neolithic people carefully positioned their monuments facing in particular directions so that the sun would shine into the tombs on significant days. The most common of these are the sunrise or sunset on the longest or shortest days of the year. These can easily be found by careful observation. If you note the position the sun rises each morning, you'll find it moves slightly northwards each day until the longest day (21 June or thereabouts) at which point it starts moving back south. This most northerly sunrise marks the Summer Solstice which was considered to the exact middle of Summer. In the same way, the most southerly sunrise marks the Winter Solstice, the exact middle of Winter.
The equinoxes, when day and night are of equal length, occur in the middle of Spring and Autumn. They are harder to find when you haven't got clocks. The easiest way would be to find the point on the horizon midway between the most northerly sunrise and the most southerly. The passage in the most impressive cairn in Loughcrew is aligned to sunrise on the Spring and Autumn equinoxes.
The highlight of the trip to Loughcrew is the Cairn T passage tomb - it's very dark inside, so bring a torch/flashlight if possible, although you could make do with the light on your smartphone at a pinch.
To prevent vandalism or theft, the passage tomb in Cairn T is protected by an iron gate which is kept locked. You must collect the key for this, free of charge, from the coffee shop of Loughcrew Gardens about 3km away. There's a bit of a rigmarole here - if you arrive in the dead of winter, you'll be the only person around. You can take the key and return it when you're finished. But in times when the site is a little busier, you may find that the key has already been handed out to someone else. You can wait for them to return or go up to the hill hoping that they're still there. In High Summer, there are guided tours at the cairn, so it should always be open, but it is best to check at the coffee shop.
It's a short drive to the Carnbane East car park. Go through the squeeze stile1 and walk up the steps, then follow the path which is marked out with posts across the field. Please stay on the marked path to avoid frightening the sheep. It's steep, with an ascent of about 50m over a distance of about 500m, so go easy and take your time. At the top of the hill, go through the kissing gate2 into the fenced-off area around the cairns. You are now free to wander around.
In the centre is the large Cairn T. Almost directly in front of it you will see what looks like a stone circle but is in fact the ruins of a smaller cairn and passage tomb - this is Cairn S. Behind Cairn T you will find two more ruined cairns, U and V. Also on the hill-top are the remains of cairns R1, R2 and W but these are so far gone that you're unlikely to spot them.
Before going into Cairn T, it's a good idea to walk the whole way around it to get a feel for the size of it. It is a low mound about 35m (115 ft) in diameter and about 5m (16 ft) high. It's made mainly of small rocks. Originally it was held in at the base by a ring of 41 large, heavy boulders known as kerb-stones. You can still see quite a few of these around the base, but many of them are gone, so a modern low dry-stone wall has been added to keep the cairn in place.
The biggest of the kerb-stones is on the north side. It's carved to look like a tall seat with arms, and is known as the Hag's Chair, from a legend that the hills were created by the Hag of Beara, a mythical creator goddess.
Into the Tomb
The entrance to the passage is on the east side of the cairn. It's quite low, so mind your head as you enter. The tomb is 8.8m (29 ft) long from entrance to the furthest point. After a narrow, low passage of 5.5m (18 ft), you enter the main chamber of the tomb, which is high enough for you to stand easily. This is an octagonal space about 2-3 metres across. The roof of the chamber is made using the corbelling technique in which many flat stones are placed overlapping to make a sort of crude dome. These stones are sloped in such a way that any water seeping down through the mound is directed outwards, away from the chamber.
There are three square recesses off the chamber, each lined with large decorated slabs. These are where the cremated remains of the dead would have been placed. These give the entire tomb the shape of a cross, predating the cross of Christianity by about 3,000 years.
As already mentioned, on the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, falling around 21 March and 21 September, the rising sun shines into the passage of Cairn T, all the way as far as the back of the recess directly opposite the passage. The stone slab at the back of this recess has very elaborate carvings. Among them are flower-like symbols which appear to represent the Sun. For about an hour on these two days, the sunlight shines on these sun symbols. The roof slab of this recess is also lit up by the sun at the same time and again is heavily decorated - you'll have to lie almost on your back to see it.
On your way out of the tomb, look at the carvings on the walls of the passage. These are easier to see with the light of day behind them.
Archaeology and Restoration
The first archaeological inspection of Loughcrew was in the 19th Century by Eugene A Conwell, a School Inspector. He labelled the cairns with the letters that are still used today, and drew pictures of many of them and the megalithic artwork on the stones. When Conwell entered Cairn T, the roof had fallen in and the passage was blocked by many of the roofslabs. He and a team of labourers from the nearby Loughcrew Estate cleared the tomb. Remedial work was done on the cairn in the 1960s and the roof-slabs have been replaced where possible, although you will notice that the roof of the passage just behind the gate is mass concrete. In addition, an opening at the top of the central chamber now provides a small amount of light into the chamber.
Conwell came to the conclusion that the tomb was the grave of an important Irish king from about 1000 BC by the name of Ollamh Fódhla. This means literally the Sage of Ireland. Conwell pictured the Hag's Chair kerb-stone as the monarch's throne. Current thinking is that the tomb is about 2,000 years older than that again.
His account of Ollamh Fódhla is available to be downloaded for free at GoogleBooks. Most of the book seems to be an attempt to make sense of the pre-Christian history of Meath as recorded by the Celts, in order to decide which particular king was buried at Loughcrew. Nowadays it is believed that the tombs were built nearly three thousand years before the Celts arrived in Ireland, so they knew no more about their history than we do. You can ignore the bits about the king, but the archaeological details of what he found are invaluable.
Cairns U, V and S
The three smaller cairns around the central Cairn T were all passage tombs as well, but the mounds have been removed over the centuries down to ground level, probably by builders looking for stone. All that remain are the rings of kerb stones and the remains of the passages without their roofs. Having been inside Cairn T, you are better equipped to appreciate what you're looking at here.
Standing at the entrance to Cairn T with your back to the gate, Cairn U is visible on the left. Cairn V is further away and is slightly to the right of straight ahead. Cairn S, the one you passed at the start, is behind Cairn T.
Cairn U: The passage is visible, set into the ground, because its roof and the mound over it are gone. The passage is clearly cross-shaped, like the one in Cairn T. Some of the slabs of this cairn are highly decorated.
Cairn V: the smallest of the three satellite cairns and the most heavily eroded. There is so little of the mound left that the slabs of the walls of the passage are free-standing. It is hard to make out where exactly the original passage was or what shape it was. Again some of these slabs are decorated. There is a curious flat stone standing just outside the kerb-stones, between the cairn and Cairn T.
Cairn S: very prominent kerb-stones, but with the cairn removed these look like a stone circle, a ceremonial ring of standing stones. Inside the ring you can see the passage set into the ground with its roof missing. This one is not cross-shaped, but a straight passage, with a recess at the end at an angle of 45 degrees to the passage.
Loughcrew is about 80km from Dublin. If you're driving, take the M3 motorway towards Cavan. At the end of the motorway, cross the roundabout and continue towards Cavan. At the next roundabout, turn left towards Oldcastle. After 14.5km, the entrance to Loughcrew Gardens, where you collect the key, is on the left. The exact location is (53°44'07.04"N,7°08'33.53"W).
Leaving the Gardens car park, turn right. After 1.7km, turn left. The road climbs a steep hill. After another 1.1km you arrive at the Carnbane East car park. Its exact location is (53°44'39.04"N,7°07'07.77"W).
If you don't fancy doing it all yourself, guided tours are available from Extreme Ireland - their 'Celtic Boyne Valley Tour' takes in Loughcrew and will bring you to the centre of the Cairn T.
The Loughcrew Megalithic Centre is just 200m beyond the Carnbane East car park. Reviews indicate that it is a nice location with a campsite and a good coffee shop. Information on the Centre's website suggests that you should wear your tinfoil hat before attending any talks or lectures there:
Donald channels Acturian Sounds (sounds from Acturus) in a similar way as Tom Kenyan. These sounds have very profound transformational effects, transcending limitations, opening gateways and getting in touch with hidden sacred geometry for healing and transformation. This year we will be hosting an amazing two day residential experience at the ancient sacred site of Loughcrew, thus combining the amazing work from Donald whilst harnessing the power of the energies of Loughcrew and the Druidic3 wisdoms within.
The coffee shop at Loughcrew Gardens, where you picked up the key, serves good coffee and delicious cakes.