I went to Loughcrew a few days ago to see the passage tombs. It’s not too far from my home town of Trim. You can visit Loughcrew any time you like during daylight hours, walk around the outside of the cairns, and enjoy the 360 degree view.
But … if you want to go into the passage tomb at Cairn T, you have to get a key from the coffee shop in the Loughcrew Gardens, about three kilometres away. There are only two keys. I got the last one. As I was heading towards my car, a woman caught up with me. She’d missed the key but I’d been pointed out, and we agreed to drive up together in her car because she’d been to the cairns a few times before and knew the way.
We left the carpark and she drove down the road, heading into a wooded valley. It struck me then (because I could see the cairn on top of the hill, in a completely different direction), that I had just gotten into a car with a stranger, and that perhaps she wasn’t really as friendly as she looked but was instead a murderer, or a starting-off serial killer. After a couple of minutes, when I’d sweated enough to steam up all the car windows, I suggested that perhaps we were going the wrong way. And it turns out that she wasn’t a murderer at all. She was a druid. With a poor sense of direction.
So we turned around, and we got to the car park and panted up the hill to the cairns, which date to around 3000 BC. The hill is also known as Slieve na Cailligh, the hag’s mountain, and pretty much the first thing you see when you get to the top is the hag’s chair. It faces north, and forms part of the kerb of Cairn T. In some stories, the cailleach (hag) sits on the chair to smoke her pipe. Local folklore says that you should sit on the chair and make a wish. This I did and my new druid friend took my photo.
Cairn T is the largest on the Carnbane East hill, and dominates the other smaller, ruined cairns.
Opening the gate and entering the passage tomb feels like a huge privilege.
The entrance and the chamber are lined with massive stones, carved with the most amazing rock art.
After leaving the passage tomb, I walked around the hill, soaking up the landscape. The cailleach is said to sometimes appear in the form of a crow, and on cue, one flew down and gave me a long and piercing look. Slightly unnerved, I concentrated on looking at the stone circles and the view from Loughcrew.
When we could no longer feel our fingers from the cold, and as dusk was drawing in, the druid and I walked back down the hill to the car park and the twenty-first century. And I had a large pot of tea and a warm bakewell tart in the coffee shop.
McMann, J. 2005 Loughcrew: The Cairns: A Guide to an Ancient Irish Landscape. Oldcastle: After Hours Books.
Zucchelli, C. 2016 Sacred Stones of Ireland. Cork: The Collins Press.