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.
This tomb is at the summit of Slieve na Calliagh, and it is at the centre of the monuments on this hill. The cairn is designated T by Conwell (1866, 372-3; 1873, 25-45) who regarded it as the tomb of the mythical Olamh Fodhla. It is the most conspicuous of the cairns and the tomb was reconstructed by OPW in 1964. The passage was roofless and closed with large boulders and quartz pebbles before Conwell had it cleared, and the central octagonal beehive chamber (H 3.05m) was also collapsed, although the three side-chambers with their beehive roofs and sill stones were intact. The cairn (diam. 35m; H c. 7m) has a kerb of 38 stones, including the decorated ‘Hag’s Chair’ on the N side. Behind the kerb and overlying the base of the cairn originally was a layer of quartz stones. The segmented entrance passage is aligned E, and a sunrise event at the Equinox occurs when the backstone of the rear chamber (C8) with its all over decoration, including four petal-and-circle motifs that are almost unique in this cemetery, is lit (McCormack 2012). The side-chambers had traces of burnt bone, although the only artefact recovered was a bronze watch-winder pin from the Viking era (Herity 1974, 42-50).
Apart from the Hag’s Chair, none of the kerbstones are decorated, but 28 of the stones in the tomb have decoration. About half of these could be said to have all over decoration, and some of them are almost overcrowded with motifs. Ornament is not confined to the passage and chamber stones but some lintels, sills and corbels are also decorated. The decoration on some corbels extends out of view, indicating that these stones at least may have come from other tombs. All the motifs are copiously represented – circles, concentric circles, spirals, nested arcs, cup-marks, cup-and-circle, lines with off-sets, and rayed circles and dots, but serpents are rare, and chevrons and lozenges hardly occur. There is a tendency for particular motifs to be dominant on individual stones, and stones in the most prominent positions usually have the most decoration. These are in the entrance passage, and the bacsktones of the chambers. In addition to the petal-and-circle motifs, the backstone of the rear chamber also has rayed dots, and vertical lines with off-sets within ovals. The closing roofstone of this chamber is filled with a variety of motifs that extend beyond its visible edges, and it could be imagined as a skyscape.
This is a National Monument in state ownership and the hilltop can be accessed from a carpark c. 400m to the W, but a cracked lintel in the passage ensures that there is no public access to the interior or the tomb at the moment. For a guide service see this web-page access on 02/11/2108: http://www.heritageireland.ie/en/
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.