Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Hag's Chair at Loughcrew - the throne, perhaps, of an ancient queen of the sky and the land

This is the so-called Hag's Chair at Cairn T, Sliabh na Calliagh, Loughcrew. Although it is part of the kerb of the cairn, it is unlike any other kerb stone on any Irish passage-tomb. We know very little about it, except what myth and folklore offer by way of mysterious and vague explanation.

Amid all the more modern graffiti, some of the really ancient carvings can still be seen on the Hag's Chair.

The Cailleach (or hag/witch/crone/goddess) of Loughcrew is ubiquitous on these hills. The story of the cairns is the story of this ancient figure of mythical intrigue. The creation myth of Loughcrew (for that is how it can be best described) suggests that she built the cairns, somewhat haphazardly, by dropping stones from an apron of stones as she jumped from hill to hill. She is said to have come from the north, which is interesting, because towards the northern aspect we find the rounded mountain of Slieve Gullion in Armagh - another place associated with the Cailleach (who goes by different names) and has a passage-tomb on its top which has a passage that points towards Loughcrew for winter solstice sunset.

"This is a very old lady whose shade still haunts the lake and carn of Slieve Guillion in the county of Armagh. Her name was Evlin, and it would appear from some legends about her that she was of De Danannite origin.... Does her name, Eibhlín bheurtha inghin Thuilinn, appear in the genealogies of the Tuatha De Dananns?"(1)

Cairn T at Loughcrew, also known as The Hag's Cairn.

Some sources suggest that the ancient Cailleach might have been the Queen Tailte(2), in whose honour the Tailteann Games were held at nearby Teltown.  As the Cailleach Bhéartha, she is the one who brought the cairns into existence, but not untypical of such creation myths, she is killed in the effort:
There are three hills about a mile asunder in this parish, having three heaps (carns) of stones on their summits, with which the following wild legend is connected. A famous old Hag of antiquity called Cailleach Bhéartha (Calliagh Vera) came one time from the north to perform a magical feat in this neighbourhood by which she was to obtain great power if she succeeded. She took an Apron-full of stones and dropped a carn on Carnbane; from this she jumped to the summit of Slieve Nacally a mile distant and dropped a second carn there; from this hill she made a second jump and dropped a carn on another hill about a mile distant. If she could make another leap and drop the fourth carn it appears that the magical feat would be accomplished, but in giving the jump she slipped and fell in the townland of Patrickstown in the parish of Diamor, where she broke her neck. Here she was buried and her grave was to be seen not many years ago in a field called Cul a' Mhóta about 200 perches to the East of the moat in that Townland, but it is now destroyed.(3)
I speculate here that the second part of her name, Bhéartha/Vera possibly derives from the Irish word bert or beirt, meaning "burden, load, bundle".(4)

It's interesting that she has several different names - Cailleach Bhéartha (Cally Vera), Evlin (Eibhlín), Garvoge and even Tailte. The hills also go by different names. Carnbane (carn bán) is the one we know today as Carnbane West. In one version, it is called Carnmore (from carn mór, the big cairn). Indeed, the largest cairn in the whole Loughcrew complex, Cairn D, is on Carnbane West. Carrigbrack, which does not feature in some versions of the creation myth, is from carraig (stone) and breac (speckled), thus "speckled rock", but is also known as Sliabh Rua (Red Mountain), for which there is a very obvious and fascinating astronomical reason connected with local alignments. Sliabh na Calliagh (also anglicised as Slieve Nacally) is, apparently, also known as Carnbeg (carn beag, the small carn). Although because there is a middle hill called Loar, one wonders if Loar was Carrigbrack or Carnbane East, possibly making Patrickstown Hill the Carnbeg of the variant. More research needed here I think!

Sliabh na Calliagh, crowned by the Hag's Cairn, in the dawn sky, viewed from Carnbane.

Wont as I am to engage in speculation, I have often wondered if the story of the old hag dropping stones as she leaped from hill to hill is not in fact related to the movements of the sun, moon and the stars somehow. We know that several cairns point to other cairns (Cairn L points to the cairn on Carrigbrack, for instance; Cairn I points to Cairn T, etc). Is the cailleach the moon? We know from research into the Boyne Valley monuments that Venus (the Morning Star) was known as caillichín na mochóirighe, meaning "early-rising little hag"(5). It is tempting indeed to view the moon, with its darker areas, as an apron or bag full of stones. As she drops the stones, the moon becomes smaller, until it fades to a slender crescent into the growing light of morning, before eventually disappearing (in the east) as the dawn comes.

It is possible also that the cairns might mark out various important lunar risings and settings which mark out its course through the sky during the 18.6-year rotation of its nodes. Observation of this cycle leads to the observation of lunar standstills and the prediction of lunar eclipses. Martin Brennan and his team of researchers (including Jack Roberts) made several important discoveries at Loughcrew in the 1980s, showing certain astronomical alignments. They made several observations of lunar events. It would be nice if this work was followed up. In the fullness of time, a greater story about the astronomical complexity of Loughcrew might emerge. And, perhaps, a "solution" that cracks the meaning of the myth of the Cally Vera.

Until then, we can only suggest that some day this ancient queen might return, and claim her throne once more.

(1) Conwell, Eugene, On Ancient Sepulchral Cairns on the Loughcrew Hills, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol. 9, p.357.
(2) For instance, http://www.duchas.ie/en/cbes/5070784/5063151/5095468
(3) From John O'Donovan's Ordnance Survey Letters (Meath).
(4) Dil.ie
(5) Murphy & Moore (2006), Island of the Setting Sun, p.167.

Further reading: 


  1. What a GREAT place to visit, so many places packed into the area, thanks for sharing!

  2. Eibhlín bheurtha inghin Thuilinn.
    I perish/sparkle, glitter; spark of fire.
    Genteel, well-spoken; sharp.