The Hill of the Witch is translated from the Gaelic "Sliabh na Caillighe" and refers collectively to the hilltops of Carbane East, Carnbane West, Patrickstown and Carrickbrack. There are approx 25 or more cairns scattered over these hills but the most interesting are on the 276m high Carnbane East which is mostly itself now referred to as the hill of the witch and it's impressive hilltop cairn is known as the "Hag's Cairn" or archaelogically as Cairn T. The scattering of cairns over these hills have all individually been given alphabetical letters.
The legend behind the name is that a giant witch while roaming across the lands of Meath dropped from her apron a large number of stones thus forming the widespread cairns. The myth states the witch or "Hag" was named Bhearta.
As stated Carnbane East is the most interesting and so that is where we headed on a quite breezy but sunny morning. The starting point to the hill was not hard to find and a small car park is provided. Our objective was not only to view the cairns but to gain access to the largest one, Cairn T. The key for this we procured from the coffee shop at Loughcrew Gardens a short distance away, which I would heartily recommend for refreshments. A refundable deposit of 50 euro is required or you can in lieu leave your driving licence. The gardens belong to the Loughcrew estate which was the seat of the Plunkett family and notably Saint Oliver Plunkett who was martyred in 1681. The family church, now in ruins, is a really worthwhile visit and is not far from the coffee shop. I covered this in a previous post (here).
The ascent of the hill while a little steep initially is not that strenuous. You just follow a set of steps and then a series of wooden posts up to a grassy ridge, then turn left and walk on toward the summit. It takes approx 15 minutes. During June to August there are often OPW guides who will give you a history lesson and guide you into the tomb. At present the interior is closed to the public because of COVID but hopefully that will change soon and anyway it doesn't inhibit you from viewing all the exterior cairn remains. When we visited it was still possible to gain the key and it was just before summer season so we could self guide.
As the magnificent 5000 year old Hag's Cairn came into sight it really was breathtaking. The atmosphere on the hill that day was invigorating anyway. The wind was strong and the views were magnificent in the sunshine and fast moving iron grey clouds. My son had of late undergone major surgery and he said that that day on the hill he had never felt so alive.
The hilltop is surrounded by a rudimentary fence and there is an information board and a pedestrian stile to allow entry. The area is scattered with the exposed remains of several cairns and there are many stones decorated with ancient carvings. You can climb down into the exposed chambers in a couple of cairns. (Cairns S and U). The main cairn is still intact with it's cruciform chamber within and is covered by a mound of stones and surrounding kerb stones. One of the larger stones is unusually shaped and is known as the "Hag's Chair" There is a cross carved into it and you can sit up upon it.
We were lucky, perhaps being off season, to have encountered no other visitors on the summit only a few walkers along the trail. You can indeed follow trails to the other hilltops but it is a fair walk of nearly a couple of hours and strenuous enough at times and some of them are on private farmland.
Once we had the iron gate open on the Hag's cairn we entered a different world. There are many beautiful carvings on the large stones within and a good torch is required to illuminate the beauty and mystery of the chamber. The passage way and chamber are not as large as say the one at Fourknocks (see earlier post here) but still nonetheless amazing. Cairn T was not only a tomb but a place of ritual and orientation to the heavens. On the Spring and Autumnal equinoxes the sunlight streams into the passageway illuminating the chamber and revealing the patterns adorning the stones.
Just like it was in the tomb at Fourknocks there is a feeling of being so divorced from the modern world, sheltered in ancient history and in the darkened chamber your senses are heightened and I felt truly conscious of the nature and importance of this venerated place.
We spent quite a bit of time on the hilltop examining the various features and taking in the wonderful scenery and I would highly recommend a visit here. If you are reading this Karl, thanks for the recommendation!
To find the site take the junction 9 exit from the M3 onto the N51 for Athboy. Once in Athboy take the right hand turn onto the R154 and drive approx 7KM until you reach a crossroads with the N52. Continue straight through on the R154 and drive another 12KM passing through Crossakiel and eventually reaching a T-junction with the R163. Turn left here continuing on the R154 towards Oldcastle. Drive approx 2.2KM and you will reach a small fork in the road. Take the left fork following the sign for the Loughcrew and if you want to get the cairn key drive approx 5KM until you see the sign for the Loughcrew Gardens and Limetree coffee shop on your left hand side. If you want to visit without the key then drive only 3KM and you will see the sign for Loughcrew cairns pointing down a right hand turn. About 1KM up this road is the car park and hill entry point.