Looking back on this trip to Ireland, my time at Loughcrew was perhaps the most unexpected highlight. It was the last Neolithic site of our trip, the last of several ancient stone circles and similar sites, and yet by far the most impressive, even if just for its location.
Loughcrew sits on the Slieve na Calliagh hills, the highest point in County Meath. The site originally included approximately 30 cairns with some estimates dating them back as early as 4,000 BC. Thus, it’s widely accepted the cairns are at least 5,000 years old.
Two of the hills, Carbane East and Carbane West, hold the largest concentration of individual cairns. Of these, Cairn T and Cairn L are the most complete and, like Newgrange, are illuminated for short periods of time each calendar year. Cairn T aligns with the spring and autumn equinoxes (Ostara and Mabon, respectively), while Cairn L corresponds to sunrise on Samhain and Imbolc. The other cairns, now mainly visible as stone circles, are also believed to have corresponded with certain days, leading to the theory that the monuments were used to mark time rather than burry the dead.
Cairn T on Carbane East is open to the public and managed by the Irish Office of Public Works. However, Carbane West is situated on private land, making Cairn L inaccessible to most visitors.
Unlike Carrowmore in Sligo or Newgrange fifty minutes to the east, Loughcrew boasts no visitor center. Travelers, instead, start their journey at the bottom of the hill in a nondescript parking lot. Or, like me, even farther down the hill at a small café I mistook for the visitor’s center at first glance.
Ireland’s rains finally made their appearance as we reached the café, leading my mom to decide I should go to the site on my own. So after a quick word to get direction from the serving staff, I was off, hood thrown up to keep the rain from soaking me to the bone.
A staircase cut into the hillside greeted me when I reached the site’s empty parking lot, quickly giving way to open pasture. The way to Cairn T is clearly marked – I merely followed the trail up the gentle slope. Before too long – definitely not the 45 minutes the serving staff had mentioned – I saw a small capstone come into view. No one had mentioned this smaller site in my previous research, so I was thoroughly confused. It felt too small to be the right site, but with the rain and wind buffeting me this way and that, I made up my mind to quickly take some pictures and head on back down.
Quickly, I knelt and got out my camera, tucking it inside my raincoat so the casing wouldn’t soak and ruin. I had to run a dry cloth over the lens every few shots to keep the rain at bay all the same, but it gave me a chance to look around some more. Then I noticed the trail continued, turning sharp enough to the left that I hadn’t noticed at first. The dolmen was all I’d focused in on, nothing more.
I couldn’t see where the trail led, as it disappeared near the top of another hill, steeper than the part I’d climbed so far. But with nothing to lose except a few more dry patches, I repositioned my camera bag and kept climbing.
The rain eventually slacked then died away completely. As I looked out on the surrounding hills and valleys, all was veiled in beautiful hazy mist. And still the path led on.
Finally, a fence came into view, the gate unlocked. I couldn’t help but giggle and let out a small shout, certain I was still alone. Cairn T sprawled out before me, the remains of other cairns clearly visible near it.
I wandered around the perimeter of the site for a while, simply looking on in awe before I approached the main cairn. One of the two government workers at the site noticed me then, and I followed him around Cairn T’s base to its entrance, where I met his coworker. She was busy pulling their information booklet and tickets out of the cairn – the rain had caught them off guard, and expecting everyone to turn around to wait the shower out they’d decided to store their equipment there. They seemed quite surprised when I showed up!
We talked for a few minutes about the site and how my trip had gone thus far, then she asked if I wanted to go inside and handed me a flashlight.
I have a tendency towards claustrophobia, and am afraid of both the dark and being buried alive, so I didn’t stay inside the cairn for very long. But I’m definitely glad I did – the overwhelming sense of awe at the cairn’s existence and the mystery surrounding its purpose leave me with chills even now.
After returning the flashlight, I wandered around the site a while longer, alone for the most part. I felt a sense of fulfillment, like a major chapter of our trip had come to a close. I’d only known of Newgrange’s illumination when I started the trip, but to see it repeated again and again across Ireland, from Listoghil at Carrowmore to Cairn T and Loughcrew… That’s something that will stick with me and fuel my novels onward.
As I made my way back to the gate, I noticed other tourists had climbed the hill while I explored. The silent spell passed, and with one last look at the cairn, I made my way back to the car, ready for the next adventure.
Admission to Cairn T is free. OPW employees are on site from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm daily during the summer months. However, it is possible to see the cairn during other parts of the year – simply visit the café at the bottom of the hill and ask for the key. You’ll need to leave your driver’s license as a deposit, but there is otherwise no fee.
If you wish to see more of photos from Loughcrew, please check out my dA account here.
Additional Links & Resources:
Ireland Legends & Folklore, pages 172, 190-191