Situated over three hilltops, Carnbane West, Carnbane East, and Patrickstown, Loughcrew (Loch Craobh in Irish) is a cluster of 25 passage tombs dating to approx 4000BC. Thought to have been built by a community of Neolithic farmers, these structures have been found to align with the rising sun of the Spring and Autumn equinoxes.
They certainly picked a spectacular site; I know it’s a cliché, and as a writer I should have a better grasp of language, but the scenery is simply stunning! You can’t help but stand and feel a sense of awe at their achievement and drive, and a sense of serenity as you gaze out across the landscape.
You wouldn’t think it when you arrive, because the site is so undeveloped, but Loughcrew actually falls into the same category of importance, in terms of Irish archaeological sites, as the more famous Brú na Boinne (Newgrange), Carrowkeel, and Carrowmore. The mounds mostly consist of long, narrow passages ending in a set of chambers, forming a cruciform shape. These have then been covered over with stones, thus creating the familiar domed cairn.
A set of shallow steps lead out of the tiny car park, through a kissing gate, and then you are out on the open moor. It’s very steep, and there is no path, save for a faint dirt track made by the passage of visitor’s feet. The scars of several ditches and embankments cut across the slope must be traversed as you climb. In winter it can be quite slippery, but I prefer it then, when there is no one else about, only mildly curious grazing sheep, and distant birds of prey for company.
During the summer months, the main central cairn (cairn T, also known as the Hag’s Cairn) on Carnbane East is open, and there is a guide waiting to show you around, all for FREE!
In the winter, the cairn is locked, but you can collect the key from the cafe at nearby Loughcrew Gardens, and have your own private viewing… only in Ireland! (Love Ireland!) Usually, in the winter there is no one else around, so you can stay as long as you like, admiring the inner carvings which look as fresh and sharp as if they were only chiselled yesterday.
You can see more on this brilliant interactive 360* video and and map… just click the orange dots on the map, and the video will automatically show you that part of the site.
Cairn L on Carnbane West, arguably the most spectacular of the cairns, is privately owned and not open to public viewing (just don’t get me started Grrrr!). Cairn L is spectacular and unique, because it contains a limestone pillar, or standing stone, and it is this which is lit up by the rising sun entering the chamber at Samhain and Imbolc. We may not be able to witness this for ourselves, but you can view a series of images depicting this incredible event here.
Every time I visit, I learn something new. As you pass through the entrance and up the passage, there are two highly decorated orthostats on either side.
“See all the cup marks?” The guide asked me, tracing them with her fingers. I looked more closely. They were indeed cup marks, but so small I had never recognised them as such.
“When the mound was first discovered, they found lots of tiny white chalk balls littering the ground beside these stones, but didn’t know what they were,” she continued, but my mind was already leaping ahead.
“It’s a map of the stars!” I yelled excitedly in her face, and she grinned at my explosion.
They mapped the stars. But why use cup marks and chalk balls, instead of just carving them them as images directly into the stone? Perhaps they were tracking the movement of the stars, and this was a way of moving them around the map, like moving playing pieces on a board game.
There are carvings on the back wall of one of the chambers which I had always assumed to be flowers and leaves… well, that’s what they look like. Or rather, what I thought they looked like.
Now that I understand a bit more, they clearly look like stars, the larger the rays (petals), the bigger, or more prominent the star as it appeared to them. Of course, these carvings look quite random to us, but it’s interesting that on the equinox, the beam of light starts in the top left symbol, and traverses across the stone panel over the course of an hour, finishing at the bottom right symbol, which looked extraordinarily like the sun, to me.
Another name for Loughcrew is Sliabh na Caillaigh, which means ‘Mountain of the Hag’. Local folklore tells of a hag, or witch, leaping from hill top to hill top carrying stones in her apron. As she did so, some of the stones fell from her apron and landed on the hills below, thus forming the cairns of Loughcrew. I have heard this same story told of the Morrigan, in her triple aspect of the Crone.
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