Jul 18, 2014

The Mountain of the Witch


I was distressed recently when vandals took to The Hill of Tara recently and threw paint over Lia Fáil, an iconic 5,000 year old standing stone. Sometimes referred to an The Stone of Destiny, it played a significant role in Shades of Atlantis. I can’t even contemplate what kind of a person would do such a thing. Certainly someone with no respect for the people of history of the island.

Picture from Independent.ie

Over the years I’ve spent quite a bit of time on The Hill of Tara. Although there’s been significant restoration and excavation, it’s a peaceful place. There are other places like Newgrange and Knowth, where folks have been maybe a little over enthusiastic in their attempts to establish their ideal of what these places were. They are stunning no doubt and soaked in heritage but have been altered in such a way it’s difficult to get a real sense of the rawness of the site. At Tara, the history seems to radiate from the very ground you walk on, despite this.

Another place where the rawness has been persevered is Loughcrew, Sliabh na Caillighe – The Mountain of the Witch, alternatively sometimes called The Hill of the Witch or The Mountain of The Hag is one of a collection of peaks in the hills of County Meath. Although in this case it’s with significant disruption to the site over the natural passage of time and land clearance during 19th century. It’s thought many internal stones and kerbstones were used in the building of walls nearby. The traces of quartz once there are gone. Quartz(sun stone) is not natural to the area and most likely came from Wicklow like the quartz at Newgrange.

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Like Tara, the energy of this site(Carnbane East) seems to radiate from somewhere below. Unlike Tara, I personally found it almost overpowering, and came away feeling unwell, although felt the views were worth it.

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There are traces of 25 passage tombs at Loughcrew over 4 peaks, although it’s thought there were as many as twice or three times that many once. We call them passage tombs, but the truth is we don’t really know if that’s what they were. We know from excavation that teeth and bones were found at thes2014-07-15 14.14.54e sites, although it’s possible these places also functioned at land markers, focal points for the people who built them, storage, ritual, and very possibly astrology since like other passage tombs, Loughcrew’s craved stones show symbols and formations thought to chart the skies or seasons. At the equinox, the sun lights the internal chamber of Cairn T(above and right) and travels across the internal carvings of the chamber. Another possibility given their location the the view across the 18 of the 32 counties of the island is that some of the wall carvings are early maps. 2014-07-15 14.03.41






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What we do know for certain is even 5,000 years ago and very likely longer, the builders at Loughcrew knew what they were about. The dome is corbaled. Slabs of stones are layered, each layer inching inward to form a dome. There is also a tilt to the stones, visible but not immediately obvious that allows for any liquid run off. Most are cruciform, three 

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Carnbane East is a steep climb up a grassy slope where sheep potter, not paying much attention to visitors. At the top, with good visibility, a good deal of the island is on display in every direction. This is Cairn V, looking in the direction of The Hill of Tara.

I approached the site with a sense of elation, somewhat expecting the same positive energy as Tara, or other sites I’ve visited. As I said above, this was not the case. At a couple of points during my time there I felt a mildly nauseated, which was easy enough to ignore. By leaving, I felt unwell. I’m not at all sure how to account for this, although it’s by no means a unique experience. The Loughcrew site, along with Knocknarea(Queen Maeve’s grave), Carrowmore, Tara, and the Hill of Howth sits on a ley line across Ireland. This is a mystical energy line. Many cultures subscribe to their existence and uses although it comes under some criticism as being new age nonsense. I’ve felt it, but I don’t claim to know what it is or why only some people do. I don’t think it’s a possibility that should put anyone off visiting.

Sliabh na Caillighe’s name can be attributed to The Cailleach. This is a female figure from Celtic folklore, Irish and Scottish. As a people, both Irish and Scottish have a rich history of storytelling and is an art form in itself. Verbal as it is, there will always be inconsistencies in the folklore. The Cailleach is a witch, a wise woman, a great beauty, or a hag, depending on the story and the location. Very possibly there was many more than one who claimed or was cured with the title, and many locations named in The Cailleach’s honour. Sliabh na Caillighe, Ceann Caillí(The hag’s head) at the Cliffs of Moher, Glen Cailleach in Pertshire, Scotland, and Beinn na Caillich on the Isle of Skye are just some.

I said cursed because The Cailleach was said to be a destroyer figure. That’s not to say evil. She was said to have described herself as ancient, was responsible for storms and for winter weather and often cut a lonely, disgruntled figure who was either regenerated or reborn on a regular basis, so that she outlived her husband. Although honoured and revered, perhaps more so from fear of her power than love, she was depicted at a crone, a villain. This left her envious of other women. She cried stones and left mountains and lakes in her wake as she crossed the landscape on her pony(alternatively a large dog). She was also capable of bringing life and fertility to land usually as her younger count2014-07-15 13.56.16erpart.

One story says she set out to carry stones in her skirts across Ireland. If she succeeded, she was to be rewarded with a great power. When she reached Loughcrew she left cairns on two peaks where her stones fell and dropped one stone on another peak. Outside Cairn T is a 6 foot kerbstone called ‘The Hag’s Chair’ or sometimes ‘The Witch’s Chair’. This is where the Cailleach sat and watched the night sky.

From here she leapt to the hill at Patrickstown where she fell down dead, either by accident or having failed her task.

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