Loughcrew – the research trip that wasn’t

So I promised to post about Loughcrew, or the stop off on our journey home from Ashford Castle where we did this.










A rather important scene in my WIP is set in the Hag’s Cairn on Slieve na Cailleach (Loughcrew), and so I kindly suggested, as it was a lovely day and we were travelling along a completely different road, wouldn’t it be nice to take a detour and visit it. For fun. Because I’m like that. All about fun. And not about research at all. OH NO. NO RESEARCH INVOLVED HERE. *ahem*

Loughcrew is near Kells in the Boyne Valley. It’s one of the most important passage grave sites in Ireland but for some reason doesn’t get the attention that Newgrange does. I’m not really sure why because it’s wonderfully atmospheric. Of course the fact that its wonderfully atmospheric might be due to the lack of attention it receives. Guidebooks etc will tell you that there will be a guide and that only seven people are allowed in at the time which is true, in summer. We went off season which led to a little bit of an adventure in its own right.

You see, outside of summer, off-peak and off-season as it were, there is no guide. There is Loughcrew House a few miles down the road which has a coffee shop where we had discovered we could pick up the key. And we did – after a lovely lunch, and some paperwork and a deposit, we were handed the key, which was attached the type of torch you could use for bashing in a few skulls. We loaded up into the car – myself, my husband, two kids and the torch (with the key), and drove off along the main road, following the heritage signs. Almost missed the turn as (a) the sign had a hole in it so we missed the word Neolithic and (b) it looked like a driveway and there was grass growing up the middle of the road.

But we are Irish. Even if the road is scarcely wider than your car and has grass growing up the middle, it is still a road. Road in Irish is bothar (bó thar) which apparently means “the width of a cow” – a road should be wide enough for two cows to pass, or one cow to stand across completely blocking all traffic.

No, I’m not joking.

Anyway, OH, myself, the kids and the torch (& the key) parked the car and set off up the hillside. UP being the operative word. One of the websites describes this as
“a shorter but steeper walk.”


But we have done this before and sometimes family walks turn into scrambles – although usually only when a certain writer is determined to get to the top because of a key piece of research she wants to do. (but there have been other occassions. Well, I can think of one anyway). Otherwise its more of a family stands around while said writer complains bitterly about “the countryside”. I am a city girl at heart.

Then we saw the fairy tree I posted about the other day, and I got a bit giddy

Then there was more hill.






At the top we found Cairn T of Slieve na Cailleach*.


















Spooky, huh?

Slieve na Cailleach means Mountain of the Witch and the Cairn is known locally as the Hag’s Cairn. There is a particular stone called the Hag’s throne which faces north. We had a sit, and admired the view, played “where’s north” until remembering there’s a compass app on my smart phone. The kids climbed on bits of national monument while we shouted at them to get down. There was scrambling involved. The central cairn is pretty much intact, while the four around it have collapsed. This gives a really interesting contrast because you can compare before and after and see the similarities in construction. You can also look at alignment. Cairn T is aligned to the equinox. Which means that at sunrise on the equinoxes the chamber is illuminated by the rising sun. There are the most amazing carvings inside. They aren’t as elaborate as those at Newgrange, but there’s something primal about them that is very appealing.

The chamber itself is like a dome with three smaller chambers off it in a cruciform shape.

It was actually quite cosy. As I was researching a scene where several people are inside this Cairn, we all piled in, too pictures, had a chat. Turned off the torch and terrified the children. That sort of thing. Family fun.

As we left a couple who were out walking on a mountaintop (!!!) approached, probably to find out who the lunatics were and what were they doing inside the national monument. Husband offered to let them in (we had the key remember! And the torch!) and while the guy seemed pretty interested his girlfriend refused on the grounds that it was creepy. Well, yes it was I suppose. Especially as the complete strangers with the key could potentially lock you inside the 6,000 year old tomb and then run away!
Meanwhile our kids climbed on bits of national monument while we shouted at them to get down.***



The other collapsed tombs were interesting but one of them REALLY caught our interest.






















As we’d been looking at the alignment of the various passages I remembered the GPS based compass app on my phone again, so we were using that to check out what faced north etc. (Yes, the throne faces north, you’ll be glad to know). When we got to the third small collapsed tomb, whcih should have been facing West, we found something a bit odd.

The dance went like this:

  • Walk up towards tomb, “compass” says West.
  • Enter stone circle, “compass” swings around dramatically to face North.
  • Step outside, no change.
  • Walk around to other side. Still north.
  • Turn phone to face me, “compass” swings around to East, indicating tomb faces west
  • Turn phone to face tomb, “compass” shows north.


It also gave a “magnetic abnormalities detected” message.

The things that worry most about this little bit of wierdness are
1) It’s a phone.
2) NOT a compass.
3) It’s using GPS.
4) We’re on top of a mountain, it had detected where we were and there was nothing to block it

So, Slieve na Cailleach still maintains its mysteries. It’s a cool, beautiful and rather eerie place. Frequented by possibly slightly odd people, and a young woman who has a lot of sense. And two small children who think all parents drag them up mountains to look at very old piles of stones.

Shadows were lengthening and we were losing our golden day. I had realised I had to rewrite a whole scene because the bloody entrance faces the wrong bloody way, and had been spooked out by a phone. We skidded down the incredibly steep hill avoiding some startled sheep and all that they had left behind****

We also remembered to drop the key back to the coffee shop. And the torch. I promise.*****









*Your spelling may vary. In fact all Irish spellings appear to vary. It’s a known fact that basically up until recently Irish spelling was entirely optional.**
**This is not actually a known fact. But the evidence is pretty strong.

*** Ireland and England are the places most likely to protect their national monuments, especially the prehistoric stuff. In Brittany, we found, once away from Carnac there seems to be a free for all option to scramble over them and have your picture taken. Usually while Irish and English people stood around, holding on to their children and looking shocked. We eventually got up the courage to take photos of members of the family standing nervously beside a stone, maybe with a hand on it, expecting to be shouted at any given second.  At Wayland’s Smithy in England earlier this year I had my photo taken while my children said in horrified voices “You can’t DO THAT! Get DOWN!” So we’re teaching the next generation well.

****Well, what do you think startled sheep leave behind?

*****Picking a key and a torch up from the local coffee shop is by no means the strangest instruction I’ve ever seen for visiting a heritage site. My favourite so far was for the Hill of Uisneach which basically consisted of “Pull into the layby and phone Dave.”