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 at the N edge of the summit of Slieve na Calliagh, and c. 10m NE of Cairn T (ME015-012004-), the central monument on this summit. This is designated Cairn U and the cairn (diam. 13m) was investigated by Conwell (1866, 373-4; 1873, 66-7) when it was already roofless (max. H c. 1.6m) but had 16 kerbstones in place. The passage is unclear at its outer extent but it is aligned 20 degrees S of E and leads to a cruciform chamber that has two cells on the S arm. Conwell recorded a deposit of clay and burnt bones in the passage and chambers, and Rotheram may have explored the cairn also (Coffey 1897, 35). The artefacts in the National Museum of Ireland were probably recovered by Roteram and consist of a sherd of Carrowkeel Ware and two other plain sherds, part of a tanged javelin head made of chert, one flint and one chert flake (Herity 1974, 242-3).
Thirteen of the orthostats are decorated, some on more than one face. Six of the stones can be said to have all over decoration and they take the most prominent positions, being the backstone and right-hand stone of the three principal chambers. Nested U’s, and circles predominate, occasionally mixed with chevrons, lozenges and serpents, but spirals and rayed circles are rare. The largest stone, which is the backstone of the right hand or N chamber, is the most richly decorated with circles and nested U’s extending from the top left corner until it encounters lozenges and chevrons that seem to be extending from the bottom right. The E part of this stone is not decorated, suggesting that it was in a different cell, mirroring the arrangement on the S side. This also suggests that the decoration was applied in situ. (Shee Twohig 1981, 217-19)
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: 11 January 2019Description Source: National Monuments Service, Department of Arts, Heritage Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.