Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Today we left Dublin behind and headed for the Boyne Valley where we are staying in Navan for 6 days as it is such a hot spot of ancient monuments. We started with Fourknocks a Passage Chamber Tomb built about 5000 years ago. The name Fourknocks comes from the Irish 'Fuair Cnocs' which means 'The Cold Hills'. The mound is part of a complex of small sites in the area, and is significant to Newgrange because it is aligned with the line of Winter Solstice sunrise from Newgrange. Strangely though, the Fourknocks mound is not visible from Newgrange. The mound (known as Fourknocks Site I) was excavated along with the nearby Site II in the 1950s by P.J. Hartnett. The site was reconstructed with a metallic domed roof, although no roof was found during excavation. Near the centre of the floor was found a posthole which it has been suggested may have formed a support for a wooden roof on the mound. A number of individuals were interred in Fourknocks, with deposits of cremated and inhumed remains found in both the passage entrance and in the chamber. - Zig-zags are a prominent feature on many engraved stones from the Neolithic. This stone was originally found over the interior of the passageway, but has now been placed to the left of the entrance. - The large size of the chamber of Fourknocks meant it would be difficult to envisage a beehive-style stone roof on the structure. P.J. Hartnett, who excavated the site, suggested the roof was finished by using timbers supported on a central post. There was, of course, a post hole found in the centre of the chamber floor, but whether this indicates the presence of a wooden roof is open to debate. Some believe the roof may have been made of a tarpaulin of cow-hide or similar material. Others believe the chamber was never roofed. Because the passage of Fourknocks is oriented to approx. 20 degrees east of north, it does not point to a sunrise or indeed a moonrise, so an astronomical function would probably have involved the stars. - The presence of zig-zag patterns on a number of stones in Fourknocks is suggestive of the W-shaped constellation, Cassiopeia, which would have been visible through the Fourknocks passage between 3000BC and 2500BC, around the time the site was constructed. Martin Brennan (The Stones of Time) has suggested that quadrangles and zigzags could be images of star fields. He says the association of quadrangular patterns and stars is common to many cultures.

View from the top of the tomb

Balrath Cross (1727) a 16th century wayside cross use to stand at Balrath Crossroads now in the graveyard as a memorial to John Broin.

The graveyard in which the cross stands
Our next stop was Loughcrew - Sliabh na Cailleach, (The Hags Mountain) or the Mountains of the Witch as Loughcrew was known in the past, lies west of the town of Kells and south of Oldcastle in west Co. Meath, a strange and ancient piece of territory. Stretching in a chain over four tall peaks which spread out across 4 kilometres in an east/west chain, the area is littered with monuments from all eras. This has to be one of the most beautiful and powerful sites in Ireland. The neolithic chambered cairns are the oldest monuments, and along with Carrowkeel 75 km away in Sligo, is the best example of a stone age landscape remaining in Ireland. The landscape is gentle and female: rolling hills and soft contours, with fabulous views from the neolithic monuments.

The top of each summit is capped by a group of chambered cairns, originally at least 40 to 50 monuments, though some say up to a hundred. The neolithic cairns at Loughcrew are dedicated to the earth Goddess in her form as a Witch or Hag, a wise woman. According to Borlase in his 1895 volume The Dolmens of Ireland, the hag was named Garavogue, also the name of the shelly river in Sligo. This is interesting as Loughcrew and Carrowmore/Knocknarea/Sliabh da Ean are on the same line across the country. A ley or energy called Garavogue? The line continues on through Tara to the Hill of Howth, Benn Eader, with three neolithic cairns and a dolmen which is claimed to have the second heaviest capstone in Ireland, Aideen's Grave.

The Hill of Howth is also featured in many, many mythological stories. Garavogue (The Witch) is said to have dropped the huge heaps of stones from her apron as she hopped across the hills forming the massive cairns, only to fall and die at Patrickstown. A mound on the west hill was pointed out as her grave in the last century. The neolithic sites consists of groups of chambered cairns clustered in bunches across the three peaks, and Cairn M alone on the fourth. The hills are called Cairnbane to the west, Sliabh na Cailli at the centre and Patrickstown to the east. There is one cairn on the fourth hill, called Sliabh Rua or Carrigbrack.

The hills have an extremely feminine presence, and, especially from Carnbane West, Sliabh Rua and Sliabh na Cailli appear like a pair of breasts with cairn nipples, just like the Papa of Anu in Kerry. The sites are mainly built above the 200 meter line, and the highest place is the top of Cairn T at 276 m above sea level. Seven monuments remain on the summit Sliabh na Caillí, the central and highest peak. Cairn T, main structure is 35 meters in diameter and in good condition, with roof and chamber intact due to a Board of Works reconstruction in the 1960's. The other monuments lie in various states of disrepair due to removal of stones in the past. There are many fine engraved slabs within the chamber of Cairn T, and several more can be seen in the surrounding satellite mounds, S, U V, R, R1 and W.

View from the carpark of Loughcrew

Views as we begin walking up the mountain

Inside Cairn U

Beside the decorated stone of Cairn U

Carvings in Cairn T

Cairn T famous for its alignment with the rising Sun on the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes. First striking the back stone in the top left hand corner and slowly over 50 -60 minutes sitting the circular carving on the front stone on the top right hand corner.

Seating on the Hags Chair
The Hag's Chair (Chair of the Witch, Chair of Queen Tailtiu or Queen Mauve), a kerbstone just within the northern periphery of Cairn T, is a massive block with imposing armrests carved from the stone. It is 3m (10ft) long and 1.8m (6ft) high, with an estimated weight of 10 tons. Its carvings are now much degraded and not able to be seen. Cornwell is responsible for creating the enduring legend that considers this rock to be the throne of the mythical lawgiving-king Ollamh Fodhla. The earlier tales, of An Cailleach Bheara suggested that she sat on this chair and looked out over her domain. Local lore states that a modern visitor seated on the chair will be granted a single wish.

The view from the Hags Chair towards Cairn V

The view from the Hags Chair towards Cairn S

Cairn S

From Cairn S looking towards Cairn T

Kevin contemplating on the Hag's Chair

Cairn S

Cairn S looking towards Cairn T

Cairn S

Cairn S
Excerpt from Pagan Ireland by Wood-Martin.

What the peculiar marking called 'rock-scribing' represents is a question still unanswered, though numerous conjectures have been hazarded. Cup - markings, incomplete rings, a series of circles round a central cup ó sometimes with a radial groove through the circles ó these are the commonest types. It has often been advanced that these incisions in the hard rock could only have been produced with metallic implements, but it is stated that a person experimenting, with only the assistance of a flint chisel and a wooden mallet, cut, in the space of two hours, nearly an entire circle on a block of granite which bore archaic devicess.

The megalithic chambers in the cairns on the hills over Loughcrew, County Meath, are more lavishly adorned with types of primeval sculpturing and devices than those at present known in any district except France, for Ireland possesses a collection of this species of pre-historic ornamentation which, in singularity, number, and quaintness of design, is approached in point of interest only by some of the great stone chambers of the district of the Morbihan. In Ireland, cup-markings appear to be the commonest form of ornamentation, and they present two leading varieties, i.e. circular hollows of more or less depth, and of a diameter varying from eighteen inches to as little as one inch. These depressions sometimes occur singly, but usually they are in groups; not unfrequently around, or partly enclosing each, may be observed one or more incised lines, often of considerable depth, to which other markings and variations are occasionally added. Somewhat similar rock-scribings abound in Yorkshire, in Northumberland, on the Cheviot Hills, near Edinburgh, and in the Orkneys. Various attempts have been made to decipher their meaning. The Right Rev. Charles Graves, Bishop of Limerick, propounded the theory that these circular rock-carvings were rude maps of raths, and observes:

'It was to be presumed that the persons who carved the inscriptions intended to represent circular objects of some kind; but what could these objects have been? Some have suggested shields. This notion seems inconsistent with the fact that the same stone presents so many circular symbols of different sizes, varying from the small shallow cup of an inch or two in diameter to the group of concentric circles two feet across. It also seems probable that, as shields, in general, used to bear distinctive devices, these would reappear in the inscriptions; but the inscribed circles exhibit no such variety as might have been expected on this hypothesis. Again, if the circles represent shields, what could be meant by the openings in the circumference of many of them. Lastly, what connexion could there be between the idea of shields and the long lines appearing in the Staigue monument, or the short lines on that of Ballynasare? '

Another idea was, that these figures were designed to represent astronomical phenomena. This notion was perhaps the most obvious, and the least easily disproved. It harmonizes also with what has been handed down respecting the elemental worship of the Pagan Celts. Nevertheless it seems open to obvious objections. In astronomical diagrams, one could hardly fail to recognize a single symbol conspicuous amongst the rest as denoting the sun or moon, or two such symbols denoting both these bodies. One might also expect to see some delineation ó even by the rudest hand ó of the phases of the moon. We look in vain for these indications of an astronomical reference in the groups of lines and circles. Again, this supposition fails to account for the openings in the circles, and the lines which appear in connexion with them.'

It has been suggested that these circles were intended to serve as moulds in which metal rings might be cast. This explanation is decisively negatived by the fact that the circle occurs on parts of the rock which are not horizontal. Another proposed idea is that the circles were used for the purpose of playing some game. The great dissimilarity which exists between the figures on the different stones renders this explanation untenable. The theory which appeared the most probable, was that the circles were intended to represent the circular buildings of earth or stone of which traces still exist in every part of Ireland. This conjecture was supported by the following considerations:

'The circles are of different sizes; and some of them are disposed in concentric groups. The dwellings and fortified seats of the ancient Irish were circular; they were of various sizes, from the small cloghan or stone- house often feet in diameter to the great camp, including an area of some acres; and the principal forts had several concentric valla. The openings in the inscribed circles may have been intended to denote the entrances. The other inscribed lines may have represented roads passing by, or leading up to, the forts.'

The conjecture that these carvings were primitive maps, representing the disposition of the neighbouring forts, appeared to be a fanciful one, and the drawings were laid for many years on one side ; finally, however, Bishop Graves having re-examined this subject, came to the conclusion that his original theory was correct, that the centres of the circles and the neighbouring cups and dots arranged themselves, generally, three-by-three; in straight lines, or approximately so, and that the ancient raths marked on the Ordnance Survey maps appear, to some extent, to be also arranged three-by-three in straight lines.

Another class of 'rock-scribings' consists of scorings, such as are found upon the flagstones of sepulchral cairns, as at Lough Crew, Dowth, and New Grange. There is also a class of irregular scorings, some of which may be genuine Ogham, although roughly and irregularly executed, whilst others are of a character which precludes their classification under this heading.

Some of the so-called 'cup-markings' on sepulchral monuments have been caused by the action of Nature, being the well-known 'ripple marks' common in the old red-sandstone series; but anyone familiar with geological formations would not confound the artificial with the natural work, though depressions ó very like genuine 'cup-markings' ó are created on the upper surface of calcareous rocks by the solvent action of rain-water; but even ignoring the undoubted traces of the pick or pointed instrument occurring on some of the 'cup-markings,' it is impossible to suppose that the concentric or spiral rings, which frequently surround the 'cups', could be the result of geological causes.

'We shall, I think,' remarks H. M. Westropp, who advances a very simple theory as to their formation, ' be led to a more just conclusion as to their origin, if we bring before our mind that the savage and primitive man has the same fondness for imitation, the same love of laborious idleness as the child. A child will pass hours whittling and paring a stick, building a diminutive house or wall, and tracing forms on the turf. The savage will wear away years in carving his war-club and polishing his stone-adze. These considerations lead me to attribute these carvings and sculpture to the laborious idleness of a pastoral people, passing the long and weary day in tending their flocks and herds ; they amused themselves by carving and cutting those various figures, and the rude outlines of primitive men, in various countries, like the rude attempts at drawing by children, cannot but bear a family resemblance to one another, their utter absence of art being frequently their chief point of relationship.'

W. F. Wakeman thus depicts another aspect in which these rock carvings may be regarded: ó ' Many men of ancient and modern times, confined by necessity to a listless existence, in an inhospitable region, might very naturally have beguiled their hours by carving with a stone, or metallic instrument ó such figures as their fancy prompted ó upon the nearest object which happened to present a surface more or less smooth. Scorings or designs made under such circumstances, would be, in character, as various as the skill or humours of their authors. Now, when in many districts of the country, and some of them widely apart, we find upon the sides of caves and rocks, and within the enclosure of Pagan sepulchral tumuli, a certain well-defined class of engravings, often arranged in groups, and with few exceptions, presenting what may be styled a family type, we can hardly imagine them to be the result of caprice.'

Some 26 stones within Cairn T bear decoration, most notably the backstone of the end-recess (Elizabeth Twohig's illustration is shown, below). American researcher Martin Brennan demonstrated in the early 1980's that the equinox sunrises illuminate this complex slab of megalithic symbols. This is Brennan's great contribution to Irish megalithic research: how the engravings interact with the beams of light and by extension the heavenly bodies. Brennan's groundbreaking book, The Stars and the Stones has line drawings of many of the engravings at Loughcrew. The book has recently been re-published as the Stones of Time.

The only surviving engraved kerbstone at Loughcrew, the Hag's Chair, is positioned on the north side of Cairn T. The engravings are very much weathered today, and not obvious at all on the stone except for some relatively recent graffiti.

Cairn U also has several engravings within its chamber, including a long set of inverted nested arcs on the backstone, which may represent a sunrise. The stones in the recesses on either side also bear interesting compositions. There are scattered engravings on the other monuments, which can be found by a careful search in good light, but not a great amount remains.

Cairn V

Cairn V

View from the top of Cairn T of Cairn U

View from the top of Cairn T of Cairn S

View from the top of Cairn T of Cairn V

Mountain Bee on Thistle

One of the many rabbits living on the hill
We ended our day walking through Loughcrew Historic Gardens.

St Oliver Plunkett's Church and Tower House

Harp of Luo made of Yew

Yew Walk


Stirring the cauldron

Loughcrew House enormous pedimented Portico, four columned with superbly carved Ionic capitols. This portico now re-erected as a ruined "Temple of the Rains".

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