Ancient Ireland [7] : Loughcrew and Kells

It seems this year that my trip to Ireland could be divided into two ‘themes’. We visited several ancient sites and also many gardens.

Cairn T behind

Approaching Cairn T

Cairn T

Cairn T – Entrance

Loughcrew megalithic tunnel tombs in Co. Westmeath were under an hour’s drive from our Irish Landmark near Canningstown in Co. Cavan. They come under the stewardship of the Office of Public Works but to visit them (that is, to actually go inside the tombs) out of season you’ve to fetch the key from the cafe at Loughcrew Gardens a mile or so away. After a walk round the gardens (whilst waiting for the said key to be returned) we headed up the road to the small car park where the path up to the burial site begins.

Carnbane east

Typical Ruined Cairn at Loughcrew

It’s a lovely grassy path that leads up to the mounds (Carnbane East) where the large Cairn T dominates a group of six smaller ruined cairns at the top of the hill.

The Loughcrew Cairns, also known as the Hills of the Witch, are a group of Neolithic passage tombs dating to 3000 BC. The tombs are located on three different hills and Cairn T, one of the largest tombs in the complex, is situated on Cairnbane East. Inside this tomb lies a cruciform chamber, a corbelled roof and some of the most beautiful examples of Neolithic art in Ireland. During the Vernal and Autumn Equinox people gather at dawn in Cairn T to watch sunlight enter the chamber and illuminate the inside of the tomb.” [Source]

Entrance to Cairn T

Stone carvings within Cairn T

Cairn T markings

passage stone carbings cairn u

Interior of Cairn T – Entrance and Neolithic Art

After inspecting the interior carvings and markings in Cairn T and its satellites we returned to the car park. From the pleasant path down the hill we had excellent views all around and in particular of the neighbouring cairns (which are also accessible from the car park) at Carnbane West.

Cairn U

More Cairn U

Cairn U and Carved Stone

Hag's chair

The Massive Stone Hag’s Chair

Carnbane west from path

Carnbane West from the Footpath

On returning the key to the cafe we decided that we had time to visit the small town of Kells in Co. Meath for sustenance and to visit the Monastic Site around the church.

Kells is, of course, most famous for its great treasure The Book of Kells; the crowning glory of Celtic illuminated manuscripts and one of the most important early medieval treasures of Western Europe. From Kells the book was sent to Dublin for safe keeping in 1653. It was donated to Trinity College in 1661 and may be seen there by the public.

Book of Kells

At Kells we visited the Monastic Site which included a Round Tower and High Crosses in the Churchyard of St Colmcille’s. Being short of time we didn’t manage the other ancient sites around the town.

Kells tower

Kells Round Tower (90ft) with Conical Roof

kells front st pat x

Cross of St Patrick and St Columba

Kells x st patrick etc

Cross of St Patrick and St Columba

The Cross of St Patrick and St Columba is also known as the South Cross. It stands around 3.30 m high and was erected in the 9th century. On the east face you can see Adam and Eve and Cain slaying Abel, above that The Three Children in the Furnace and above that Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

kells west x

The West Cross

The West Cross or Ruined Cross, which stands at the west end of the graveyard must have been a very fine High Cross, it has some beautifully inscribed decorative panels on it’s north and south sides.

The west side has some scenes from the Bible, including Adam and Eve and also the Israelites returning to the promised land. The east side has many scenes such as The Marriage feast of Cana, Christ’s Baptism and Christ entering Jerusalem. The cross was probably erected in the 10th century and the damage to the cross was done by Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers.

kells west x detail

West Cross Detail

kells east x

The East Cross

The East or Unfinished Cross gives us an insight into how these High Crosses were constructed. The actual carving was done on site and the various segments of the crosses are clearly visible. You can see from the detail below that they had started to carve an intricate key design on the underside of the ring.

kells east x detail

East Cross Detail


6 comments on “Ancient Ireland [7] : Loughcrew and Kells

  1. How great and very interesting our trip was!

  2. Fran says:

    Such a rich history, and little known by me. Your posts have shown what riches are to be found in Ireland; somewhere I have yet to visit.

  3. dianabirchall says:

    Believe it or not, Peter and I were at the Hill of the Witches about 20 years ago! At least that’s what we though it was called, though Hills of the Witch does seem to make more sense. 🙂 For us it was a very magical trip, so out of the way and beautiful. We remember the business with the key! We were told we had to fetch it from a nearby farmhouse, so I guess different people are keeping it now. We had to cross fields filled with cows, which I don’t see in your pictures, but the cairns and everything look just the same. Our day was a bit sunnier, but also more mud underfoot. We had an informal project for a few years, of going to the UK and using topo maps (pre-Google, pre everything) to find and visit as many of the best neolithic ruins, cairns, stone circles, etc., that we could, in Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Wales, etc. Looking back, I realize we really did see quite a lot. This was what Peter liked to do; nowadays he’s not able to make such trips, and I miss them.

  4. Well, fancy that! I know of other people who do/did just the same thing. It’s a bit of a mystery as to why Loughcrew should be so little visited and Newgrange so commercial and popular. When we took the key back they asked what item we had left as security ie credit card/driver’s licence. We hadn’t been asked to leave anything. We must just have looked honest! Such a shame Peter is no longer up for such trips. Often the lesser known ones are much more satisfying to visit.

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