The passage tomb cemetery often referred to as Loughcrew is dispersed between three of the summits of the ENE-WSW Slieve na Calliagh ridge. It escaped attention during the making of the 1836 edition of the OS 6-inch map, and almost the first notice occurs in 1864 when E. A. Conwell published an account of the cairns in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy and in subsequent papers (1866, 1873, 1879). From the west the principal hilltops are known as Carnbane West, Carnbane East, also called Slieve na Calliagh, and Patrickstown. In the folk tradition as recorded by John O’ Donovan in the 1830s (Herity 2001, 38) the cairns were created when a witch, the Calliagh Bhéarra (Beara peninsula, Co. Cork) was performing a magic ritual by jumping eastwards from hilltop to hilltop, depositing stones from her apron. The leap from Patrickstown was too strenuous and she slipped and died on the hillside. She is reputed to be buried on the S side of that hill.
Conwell had been digging the cairns since 1863 with the support of J. L. W. Napper, a local landowner and savant who owned most of the land at Carnbane East and West, while Patrickstown was owned by E. Crofton Rotheram, also an antiquary. Conwell’s descriptions are invaluable and are still used, while his scheme for identifying the tombs by letter, sometimes with additional numbers, is still adhered to today. Apart from an article published in Scotland (Frazer 1892-3) with drawings by du Noyer, and inclusion in Borlase’s work on the dolmens of Ireland (1897) little attention seems to have been paid to the discoveries at the time. There were smaller excavations by Coffey (1897) and Rotheram (1895, 1897), and Morris (1930), misled by Conwell’s belief that the cemeteries might be part of the location of the great fair of Tailtean, speculated further along those lines. These various investigations have revealed the internal structures and the art of many of the tombs, and most of the artefacts recovered during them are now in the National Museum of Ireland.
Since the late nineteenth century there was little further notice of the cairns, apart from an investigation and restoration of Cairn H in 1943 by Joseph Raftery of the National Museum of Ireland and passing references in general prehistories, until Professor Herity’s work on Irish Passage Tombs (1974). This drew together the results of all the previous work, catalogued the artefacts recovered, and highlighted the tombs and the great wealth of prehistoric art they contain. Since then they have hardly been out of the public eye, with academic studies (McMann 1991; Shee Twohig 1981) as well as popular guides (McMann 1993). Herity’s survey and Shee Twohig’s work on the art are the most comprehensive to date, and their records form the core of these descriptions. More recently attention has switched to theorising about the development of the tombs and the cemeteries (Sheridan 1985/6; Cooney 2000, 158-63), researching the solar events that can be observed at cairns on Patrickstown Hill (O’Sullivan et al. 2010) and Carnbane East (McCormick 2012), and recording the rock art that can be found on the lower slopes of the hills (Shee Twohig et al. 2010).
The cairns are distributed between the hilltops of Carnbane West in Loughcrew and Newtown townlands (14) together with at least three standing stones, on Carnbane East in Corstown townlnad (7) with a standing stone, and at Patrickstown (4). There are other cairns (6), a ring-barrow, and standing stones in the col between the first two hills. Today only the monuments at Carnbane East and Patricktown, which are all National Monuments, can be visited. In his first communication Conwell (1864, 47-8) stated that 21 cairns in Thomastown townland on the S side of Patrickstown Hill, of which (ME015-111----) is probably the last survivor, were being removed at that very time.
Located in a slight col at the summit of Carnbane West, this tomb (H) is c. 15m SW of Cairn L (ME015-003010-). The cairn is circular (diam. 16.2m; H 1.7m) and was investigated by Conwell (1866; 62-4; 1873, 51-8) who describes its passage as blocked with a dense deposit containing burnt bone, and over 200 seashells. Further work was carried out by Raftery in 1943, and the tomb with 25 kerbstones, alternating with drystone walling, is reconstructed based on his work. It has a cruciform chamber with the passage opening to the SE, and there is a stone basin in the right-hand recess. Seven of the orthostats in the passage and chambers have decoration, although it is not very accomplished, and there is decoration on one kerbstone. One passage stone has all over decoration, consisting of a nest of lozenges at the centre with a zig-zag, serpent, U-motif, some cup-marks and a cup-in-circle. Some stones have collections solely of cup-and-circles, or of spirals on a sillstone. (Shee Twohig 1981, 208-09)
The tomb had had been broken into during the Bronze Age and again during the Early Iron Age as there were large secondary deposits of material from these eras. Surviving artefacts from the primary deposit can be identified as a sherd of Carrowkeel Ware, a bone disc and three stone balls from an original seven or eight as well as four flint or chert implements. The surviving secondary material includes three sherds of Beaker pottery and three sherds of Vase Food Vessel, seven bronze rings and four glass beads. There is a bone pin and hundreds of fragments of bone trail-pieces. The trial pieces are decorated with incised lines in the curvilinear geometric patterns of La Téne art (Crawford 1914), dating from c. 100 BC. In addition, Conwell (1873, 51-8) mentions seven amber beads, thirteen combs, seven iron implements and hundreds of shells and water-rolled pebbles (Herity 1974, 235-37). This tomb is not accessible to the public at the moment.
The above description is derived from the published 'Archaeological Inventory of County Meath' (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1987). In certain instances the entries have been revised and updated in the light of recent research.
Revised by: Michael Moore
Date of upload: 9 January 2019Description Source: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.