Slieve Gullion : a passage tomb on top of the world

Title picture : looking out from the entrance of Slieve Gullion Tomb

Sitting majestically on the summit of Slieve Gullion, this is the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland. At 573m Slieve Gullion is is the highest hill in Co. Armagh and from the tomb there are extensive views across Ulster and Leinster.

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Ascent to the tomb

The tomb is reached via a steep footpath which starts from the road through Slieve Gullion Forest Park. The single track road climbs high up the side of the hill and the views are spectacular – right from the start of the walk when you are looking down onto the green fields far below and the small knobbly hills of the volcanic ring-dyke surrounding Slieve Gullion, to when you approach the summit and the large circular cairn comes into view.

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A short passage with a lintelled roof leads into the octagonal chamber, which originally had a corbelled roof. Rather than using large orthostats to line the chamber, the walls were constructed from smaller stones, as in dry-stone walling.

When the tomb was excavated in the 1960’s, two basin stones were found in the chamber and another one (which is now in Armagh County Museum) was discovered in the passage. The tomb had been disturbed in previous centuries and as a result, there were very few finds, only some cremated bone, small flint flakes and arrowhead.

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Basin Stone

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On the winter solstice, the setting sun shines along the passage and lights up the back wall of the chamber.

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The Ring of Gullion from the passage tomb
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Trig point on top of the cairn

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From the tomb, looking across the summit to the Cailleach Beara’s Lough

The tomb is also known locally as the Cailleach Beara’s House (the Cailleach Beara being the old witch of Beara, Co. Cork) and in a shelter half-way up the hill is an information board which relates the folk tale. There’s a small lake on the summit and the story is that the Cailleach Beara enticed Finn McCool to swim in it and when he emerged he had turned into a weak old man.
The earliest record of the tomb is from when it was opened up in 1789 by locals looking for the Cailleach Beara!

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Annaghmare Court Tomb

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Annaghmare is one of the best preserved court tombs and is situated on a small knoll in a forestry plantation close to the Armagh – Monaghan border.
It’s secluded location in a clearing in the forest gives it an ambience that is often missing from other neolithic sites in the area and this is probably the best tomb to visit to feel a connection to the neolithic.

This long, trapezoidal-shaped cairn consists of a well-built court area which leads through two impressive portal stones to a gallery of three chambers.

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Towards the rear of the cairn are two more chambers (added at a later date), which lie at right angles to the axis of the cairn and are entered from the side. Excavations showed that these two chambers had never actually been used for burial.

The two rear chambers

The court is particularly well-preserved and contains some very large orthostats. Some of them are sure to have been chosen for their size and shape and probably placed in significant positions within the courtyard wall. Dry stone walling fills the gaps between the orthostats.
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When the cairn ceased to be used it was ritually sealed up by blocking the entrance with stones and then filling in the whole of the court area. It was filled with stones right up to the height of the tall orthostats, thus blocking the entrance and hiding all the large court stones from view until it was excavated about 5000 years later.

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