The Loughcrew hills near the centre of Ireland are little-known – but at the spring equinox they take on a special magic. On this spring bank holiday, Paul Clements looks back to his visit to this enigmatic site.
"Happy equinox", chuckles our guide as we are ushered in single-file through a low and narrow passageway, assembling in a dark circular chamber surrounded on all sides by ancient upright stones. We have gathered – a small bleary-eyed crowd – in the cold dawn light at a cairn with a mound of stones on the Loughcrew hills of County Meath. We're here to watch the spectacle of the sunrise on the vernal equinox.
Thirty stone passage graves are spread over these hills and the Boyne Valley is thick with historic monuments
The temperature is minus two and we stamp our feet to try to generate heat on this first day of spring. With favourable weather we should have a strong chance of seeing neolithic rock art engravings light up on the stones. Our luck is in. Just after 6am a faint orange banner of sunlight breaks through clouds in the east.
In the cross-shaped chamber there is a quiet air of anticipation. The guide illuminates by torchlight what is known as the "equinox stone". Its diameter is 35m with a circumference of 135m. We sit silently on the dusty floor, drinking in the sense of calm and reflecting on the continuity of 5000 years of history.
At 6.18am a tiny triangular sliver of amber sun penetrates the passage lighting up the top left corner of the back stone.
All eyes and cameras are focused on the smudge of light. No one speaks. Gradually, as it spreads, the colour of the light turns to pale yellow, and by 6.32am we are able to make out mysterious patterns on the stone resembling flowers with petals or leaves, alongside carvings and radial line patterns.
Not even archaeologists can say with certainty what their true meaning is, but it is believed they mark the expected variations of the sunbeam with the drifting of the equinoctial rising sun. The passage grave is thought likely to have been a focal point for a group or tribe, or was perhaps a territorial marker; the symbolic carvings and orientation to the sun reinforces the ritual nature of the monuments.
A further 10 minutes passes and the markings come into sharper focus. The stones have emerged riotously decorated with swirling motifs, whorls and an enigmatic range of arcs, zigzags and spirals. The sunlight is framed by the doorway and continues its slow movement across the stone, taking more than an hour to complete its journey. No light enters from above, but we notice how the original corbelled roof is still intact.
A wondrous aura surrounds this hill – a rich repository of archaeology, history and mythology
Blinking in the sunshine, we return outside to a torrent of lark-song. The hill on which the cairn stands, Slieve-na-Calliagh (‘the hill of the witch’), is a modest 277m. The witch is said to have jumped from one hill to the next, dropping stones from her apron to form the cairns.
Panoramic views from the top on this gloriously clear early morning stretch over the Boyne Valley and across 18 counties of Ireland. The countryside is a patchwork of velvet green fields, some divided by long stone walls with a few villages.
One hundred miles to the northwest lie the hills of Sligo which delimit the horizon. To the northeast the Mourne mountains of County Down and Cooley hills of Carlingford Lough crowd the skyline. Away to the southeast, the line of the Wicklow mountains comes into view.
A wondrous aura surrounds this hill, known more prosaically as Carnbane East or Cairn T. A rich repository of archaeology, history and mythology, it is the highest point of County Meath.
To feel a gentle breeze on your face on the first day of spring is an experience that leaves an indelible impression. Loughcrew has a captivating and bewitching quality, and is a numinous place producing a combination of wonder and bafflement.
We troop downhill for the ten-minute walk to the car park and onward to a warming breakfast served at the Vanilla Pod Restaurant in the Headfort Arms Hotel in Kells. Rarely can a "full Irish" have been enjoyed with such relish as we look back on the morning’s adventure. Having risen early, walked up a hill, explored the inscrutable stones, and watched the interplay of light and shadow, there is a feeling of achievement, in an area just half an hour’s drive north of Dublin.
Panoramic views from the top on this gloriously clear early morning stretch over the Boyne Valley and across 18 counties of Ireland
Thirty stone passage graves are spread over these hills and the Boyne Valley is thick with historic monuments such as Brú na Bóinne, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But the lesser-known Loughcrew hills remain a mythic place in the landscape, a touchstone of Ireland’s megalithic cultural heritage that more than anywhere else embodies the marketing gurus' new term: Ireland’s Ancient East.