vernal equinox

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Cairn T, on Carnbane East, near Oldcastle, Co. Meath. The entrance is locked in this picture, but guides are present for much of the summer months.

About 6000 years ago, construction began on a large complex of passage graves atop three hills near Oldcastle, Co. Meath. Known as Loughcrew or more picturesquely as Sliabh na Callighe/The Hills of the Witch, these are relatively small cairns (in relation to the famous passage grave sites at Brú na Bóinne), but what they lack in size they make up for in number (30), several of which feature carvings and contain triple (or cruciform) chambers. One of the largest, known as Cairn T, is illuminated by the sunrise on the spring and autumn equinoxes. The passage is very short, the back of the chamber a mere couple of meters from the entrance, but this tiny chamber is heavily carved, and the slab illuminated by the sun contains many enigmatic images and symbols.

As well as the usual circles surrounded by rays (often thought to represent stars or the sun), and groups of semi-circular lines and various shapes (which some have suggested may be calendars or some form of scale) there are what appear to be child-like depictions of flowers and leaves, perhaps trees. Alright, that’s my own theory; but, given that the equinoxes represent the pivotal points in the natural cycle (spring for planting and autumn for harvesting) it makes sense to me. However, there are probably as many opinions as there are observers, so I’ll reserve judgement until I have a chance to watch the carvings emerge from the darkness with the sunrise on some future equinox.

The rear of the chamber at Cairn T, in the Loughcrew complex in Co. Meath. Somebody seems to have used chalk to better outline the carvings, and the green may be some mold or lichen growing due to the damp conditions in the cairn.

Today, Loughcrew is off the major tourist trail and definitely one of the lesser-known passage grave complexes, but it’s thought that at one time it was extremely important. The hills on which the main cairns are located are called Carnbane East and West; in Irish, that translates as white-cairn. There are walls of white quartz running around some of the fields on these hills, stones that are believed to have been taken from the cairns when the English passed laws requiring the enclosure of agricultural land. As we’ve seen at Newgrange, some passage graves were covered with white quartz, which would have glittered in the sun and drawn the eye for miles around — in the same way that Renaissance Christians built cathedrals to inspire awe at first glance. Perhaps these tombs enjoyed a similar level of importance in prehistoric society? Cairn T is also known as the Tomb of the Ollamh Fodhla, the learned judge who codified Ireland’s ancient Brehon laws, and was presumably an important man who could conceivably have had his ashes interred at a significant site.

The blessing of Loughcrew’s relative anonymity is that anyone can show up at sunrise on the equinoxes and watch the illumination take place. It apparently lasts for almost an hour, and as the rear of the chamber is clearly visible from just outside the entrance, there is no need for a lottery to get inside. In the summer months, an official guide is resident on Carnbane East to admit visitors to Cairn T and tell them the history of the site. I hope whoever manages to be there for the equinoxes enjoys the show, and the rest of us can use the equinox illumination as a reminder that it’s time to get on with our planting or harvesting.