Slieve Gullion Passage Tomb, Armagh, Ireland

The southern tomb at Slieve Gullion, at 570M above sea level, is the highest such tomb in all of Ireland and England. The passage tomb also known as the Cailleach Beara’s House is steeped in folklore and legend and when one stands within the tomb and looks out over a huge expanse of south Ulster its easy to see why. The tomb dates from 3500-2900BC and the steep hike to the top makes one marvel at its builders. During the medieval era the mountain was known as Sliabh Cuilinn as it was where Cúchulainn spent his childhood. The mountains and tomb also feature heavily in the traditional story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill (aka Finn mac Cumaill), named ‘The Hunt of Slieve Cuilinn’. In the tale as put forth by Lady Gregory in her 1904 book ‘Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha de Danann and of the Fianna of Ireland’, Finn is out on the plains of Almhuin (The Bog of Allen) with his two hounds Bran and Sceolan. Finn spots a grey fawn running across the plain and calls to his hounds to pursue the fawn, but initially they couldn’t hear him and the fawn sprinted away. All three set about chasing the fawn, Finn following the hounds and soon they reached Slieve Cuilinn, but they all soon lost site of the fawn and split, Finn going eastward and the hounds westward. Finn came upon the lake that stands between the two tombs at the top of Slieve Cuilinn, and there he saw a beautiful woman sitting beside it. Her hair was the colour of gold, skin as white as lime and eyes like ‘the stars in times of frost’. Finn could see she appeared mournful and depressed but asked her if she had seen his two hounds, ‘I did not see them,’ she said; ‘and it is little I am thinking of your hounds or your hunting, but the cause of my own trouble.’ ‘What is it ails you, woman of the white hands?’ said Finn; ‘and is there any help I can give you?’ he said. ‘It is what I am fretting after,’ she said, ‘a ring of red gold I lost off my finger in the lake. And I put you under bonds, Finn of the Fianna,’ she said, ‘to bring it back to me out of the lake.’ Even one like myself with a rudimentary knowledge of mythology and legend knows that Finn had to accept any challenge put to him and so forth dived into the lake. Finn swam around the lake three times until he found the ring. He surfaced and handed it to the beautiful woman and immediately her face changed to that of the Cailleach Beara, the Hag/Witch of Beara, she laughed at Finn and leaped into the water and vanished. As Finn struggled to get out of the water he noticed he was an old, weak, and withered man with grey hair, his two hounds Bran and Sceolan came up to him but did not recognise their master and continued off in search of Finn. The chiefs of the Fianna set out looking for Finn and at last the came to Slieve Cuilinn and saw the old grey man sitting bedside the lake. The Fianna believed he was a fisherman and asked if he had seen Finn. Finn told them the story of how he had been tricked and when they realised it truly was their leader they gave three loud sorrowful cries and they named the lake Loch Doghra, the Lake of Sorrows. Knowing that Finn had been tricked by the Cailleach Beara (an Irish witch/hag that can be both generous and dangerous) the Fianna set about digging into the passage tomb that stood to the south of the lake. Inside they found a vessel full of an unusual liquid which Finn drank. Finn’s strength and shape returned but his hair remained grey. Other tellings of this tale say that the Cailleach Beara returned to her ‘house’ and the Fianna dug a trench from the lake to the tomb, threatening to drown all of Ireland, this caused the hag to reverse the curse, but she couldn’t undo Finn’s grey hair.

This story remained in the public pyshce for so long that in 1788 a letter written by Charlotte Brooke stated, “some peasants, expecting to find out this old woman, (who, however, has at no time thought proper to appear) threw down her house, and came to a large cave, about twenty feet long, ten broad, and five deep, covered with large flags, in which either the dame or money was expected, but only a few human bones were found.” The mountain’s rich history of folklore is also shown in this passage from TGF Patterson’s ‘County Cracks – Old Tales from the County of Armagh (1939),”On the mountain somewhere, there is a well of wisdom and magic meather [mead], from which if we only knew the recipe, we could go to that marvellous ale, that once tasted — ‘age could not touch us, nor sickness, nor death.’”

After the tomb was ransacked by treasure hunters 300 years ago further damage was done to the tomb by American Soldiers during World War 2 who dug foxholes in the area and into the north tomb. The tomb became packed with stone and rubble put there by local farmers to prevent their animals falling into the open top of the tomb and becoming trapped. It wasn’t until 1961 that a proper excavation of the site was undertaken, after removing all the rubble they found a chamber 3.66 metres wide with a corbelled roof 4.3 metres above them. In the centre of the tomb they found two large blocks of stone, with shallow depressions carved into them, believed to be ritual basins. Unsurprisingly due to the earlier breaches of the tomb little archaeological evidence was found with only flint tools and barbed arrow heads were found. They also noted that the tomb was aligned with the Winter Solstice and on a good day Loughcrew, another site associated with the Cailleach Beara can be seen from Slieve Gullion.

Slieve Gullion is certainly in my mind one of the most underrated areas of Ireland, the mountain itself is endlessly haunting and these tales only add to what already is a very unusual place. One can either trek the whole 15kms route around the mountain which is nicely marked out, or drive halfway up and park. From the car-park it’s a simple enough but steep thirty minute trek until the beautiful views of South Ulster come into sight before you.

GPS: 54.12178, -6.43352

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