Ireland’s Neolithic Era, which lasted from 4,000 BC to 2,000 BC, is one of the most fascinating periods in history to have left its mark on this emerald island. Despite its great age, the landscapes of Ireland owe a lot to this piece of distant past, including hundreds upon hundreds of stone megaliths, often perched on hilltops. Many of these ancient sites can still be seen and experienced today. There is something extraordinary about coming face to face with a monument with a history stretching more than 5,000 years.
While Neolithic monuments are dotted throughout the entire island, there are a few locations that contain an amalgamation of these ancient burial sites. The most famous Neolithic site in Ireland is UNESCO-awarded Newgrange and the surrounding Bru na Boyne. Two more concentrations of Neolithic sites dot the hills of Sligo on the west coast: Carrowmore and Carrowkeel.
Back on the east coast, the last major Neolithic hotspot to highlight is the Loughcrew cairns.
Located 20 km northwest of the town of Kells (the Book of Kells namesake), Loughcrew is part of County Meath.
The megalithic site is just over an hour’s drive northwest of Dublin – 80 km or 50 miles – making it a potential day trip out of the capital. Standing atop the quiet hills and walking through sheep-shorn fields offers an idyllic break from the hustle and bustle of busy city streets.
There is a car park by the trailhead that leads up to the cairns. Car is really the only way to visit the area as it is quite rural.
In its simplest meaning, cairns are ancient stone monuments, piles of stones shaped into a dome or pinnacle, and raised by humans for a purpose. In the prehistoric sense, cairns were built in honour of the dead –generally as their final resting places.
Often, such cairns secreted interior passages and chambers within, used for communal burials – places that are today known as passage tombs. These were usually erected in places of prominence that could be seen from a distance, or from other significant spots or cairns.
Loughcrew is a hilltop complex home to a staggering 32 cairns spread across several slopes. Similar to Newgrange, some of the monuments at Loughcrew are decorated with ancient art called petroglyphs (carved into the stone), swirls, lozenges, circles and other curving lines.
The Loughcrew Cairns are millennia old. Roughly 5,200 years old, in fact. The estimated date of construction of the Loughcrew Cairns is 3,300 BC, which puts Loughcrew’s age in line with Newgrange (3,200 BC). It is worth noting that the smaller west coast tombs of Carrowkeel are estimated to date to 3,500 BC, meaning these smaller sites like Carrowkeel predate both Newgrange and Loughcrew.
A common question is – are the Loughcrew Cairns aligned with the summer or winter solstice?
The answer is no – the prominent ancient site that is aligned with the winter solstice is Newgrange (though there are other smaller sites aligned with the winter solstice, such as Slieve Gullion in Co. Armagh). As for the summer solstice? That would be Carrowkeel, among others.
However, that does not mean that the Loughcrew Cairns have no alignment. Instead, the Loughcrew Cairns are actually aligned with the rising sun of the spring and autumn equinoxes, which happen in March and September. The predawn light slowly illuminates the passage of Cairn T, the complex’s preeminent tomb, casting sunrays on the art in the back of the chamber.
Curious about the solstices in Ireland? Learn more here.
The best time of year to truly appreciate the magic and majesty of this place of yesteryears are on equinoxes – the two days a year the monuments were designed and built to be seen by their builders.
Modern “Equinox Festivals” are held each year on the 21st of March and 23rd of September, respectively, in an effort to connect the people of ancient Ireland with those who inhabit the island today.
Due to the site’s connection with the Cailleach, or winter witch of Irish mythology (more on that below), October is another important time to make the pilgrimage to Loughcrew. Samhain (today known as Halloween), is an ancient Celtic pagan holiday that marked the end of the autumn harvest season and the start of winter, ushered in by the Cailleach. Autumnal offerings in the hopes of a gentle winter, reminiscent of the harvest time of year, are not unusual around Samhain.
Visit during a crisp winter’s day, particularly around sunset, to fully appreciate the stark beauty of the storied landscapes – and chances are, you’ll have the site largely to yourself.
That said, the tombs are magical all year round. Sunrise and sunset are especially lovely times of day to visit if you can make it there, but you will soak up the ancient history of the site no matter when you visit.
The region of Loughcrew is collectively referred to as the Slieve na Calliagh (or sometimes Sliabh na Caillí), which roughly translates as the “mountain of the witch.”
Once the Neolithic era ended and new traditions came and went, local people did not understand the meaning or purpose of these ancient sites. A lack of understanding can often lead to suspicion or fear. Myth and legend were used as a way to make sense of a confusing and nonsensical world. As such, ancient sites and unusual landscapes, like the Giant’s Causeway or megalithic monuments, often became intertwined with Irish mythology. This is how Loughcrew Cairns came to be collectively known as the Slieve na Calliagh – the mountain of the witch.
The referenced witch is the Cailleach Beara, the Hag of Beara, the queen of winter queen or the divine witch. While similar myths are sprawled across Celtic cultures, her story is intertwined with the landscapes of Ireland. Her name is tied to placenames across Ireland, and Loughcrew’s Sliabh na Caillí is a prime example.
The Cailleach is said to bring the end of the harvest and the coming of the winter, presiding over the island until the arrival of spring on St Brigid’s Day, the 1st of February. But that’s another story!
Learn more about the Hag of Beara here.
Cairn T is sometimes called the Hag’s Cairn, and a huge kerbstone on site, decorated with petroglyphs, is known as the Hag’s Chair.
Similar to other ancient sites, the legend goes that the witch herself created Loughcrew as she was jumping over the hills carrying a heavy apron full of stones – a feat dictated by the powers that be in order for her to prove her worth to rule all of Ireland. She dropped some of her heavy burdens and voila, the Loughcrew Cairns were born. Unfortunately for the witch, she died before completing her feat.
Interested in Irish folklore? Have a look at our folklore series to discover the range of stories emanating from the Emerald Isle.
To access the main monuments, there is a maintained car park. From there, a short trail brings you up to the first of the sites.
Continue up the left to approach Cairn T – Loughcrew’s most iconic monument – and its surrounding satellite cairns. The walk up to Cairn T and back is just 2km, meaning that visitors can experience the site by arriving on foot, but with a short enough trail to render the site very accessible.
From Cairn T, you can gaze out to the next hill, where those with sharp vision can see a row of other cairns erected on the hillside. Some of the other cairns are located on private land, with access to them limited. Landowners’ rights should be respected.
Visit the official Loughcrew site here.
Loughcrew is one of many incredible sites from Ireland’s distant stone age past. Learn about other sites like Carrowkeel, Newgrange, the Grianan of Aileach stone fort, Knocknarea and more.
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