What to do with Loughcrew?... Ancient monument in need of protection for future generations

The National Monuments Service and Office of Public Works (OPW) have confirmed that work on developing a Conservation Management Plan for the Loughcrew site is to commence this year.

Loughcrew cairns, also known as the Hills of the Witch, are a group of Neolithic passage tombs near Oldcastle that are believed to be more than 5,000 years-old and could even pre-date the world heritage site at Newgrange.

Cairn T is one of the largest tombs in the complex and is aligned to sunrise at the spring and autumn equinoxes, when the sun lights up the chamber in a similar phenomenon to Newgrange. It has a cruciform chamber and a corbelled roof with some stunning examples of Neolithic art in Ireland.

However, concerns have been raised for some time over deterioration of the cairn and how best to preserve it.

When questions were put to the OPW and National Monuments Service regarding the condition of the Cairn T and the future of the site, a spokesperson confirmed that a conservation management plan is to be carried out, which will inform future works at the site.

"The OPW recognises the archaeological importance of Loughcrew and in this regard is committed to establishing a Conservation Management Plan to guide and inform future works and visitor services provided to the site," the spokesperson said.

"Resources will be allocated through the 2023 Business Planning process to commence the development of a Conservation Management Plan for the site. Any works to be carried out, will be in the context of the recommendations that the Plan may make for the long-term protection of the monuments."

Loughcrew is a large spread out site and while parts of it are in private ownership, the main site is state-owned and managed by the OPW. A portion of the site, which includes Cairn T is fenced with three entrance gates, though one of those is in a particularly poor state rusting away and is chained locked, while a portion of the fence beside it has fallen down.

Loughcrew is free and open to the public to walk around though there is very little interpretative information to guide the visitor. The OPW has guides at the site during the summer months and private tours also visit. According to the OPW, visitor numbers are approximately 30,000 per year with final figures for 2022 not yet available.

Traditionally visitors could get a key to gain access to the interior of Cairn T but it was closed off in October 2018 over health and safety concerns. A steel prop is clearly visible through the gate to the passage tomb, which is propping the cracked lintel stone.

"A condition survey revealed that there were structural issues, which informed the OPW decision to close off public access to the cairn as a protective measure for the monument as well as motivated by visitor health and safety. OPW have installed an acrow prop in order to secure the roof of Cairn T," the OPW said.

There are fears that if nothing is done to preserve the monument it could be lost to future generations but what should be done with it is not an easy question to answer.

Dr Stephen Davis, Lecturer in Archaeology at UCD feels that before any decisions can be made a full engineering report and regularly monitoring is needed.

"It is important to know what the state of the structure is at the moment. From there you can start to come up with plans as to what to do with it going forward."

One local man who feels the monument has been somewhat forgotten about is Lar Dooley who has lived at Loughcrew for the past six years but has visited since he was a child. He feels that a concrete slab and vent that were installed by the OPW is causing subsidence and that the moisture and freezing and heating within the chamber is damaging the engravings.

He believes less visitors are coming to the site because you can no longer access the interior and that because there are less visitors, there is less investment.

"This is the single most important monument in the neolithic history of Western Europe, aligned at equinox. There is a complete Neolithic calendar right here on this hill."

"What needs to happen to stop the damage and vandalism is that the cairns are publicised and people understand what they mean and that a proper conservation plan is put in place to ensure these structures are maintained.

"It needs to be excavated in order to be preserved and it also needs to be dated because we don’t know how old these structures are. People say they are 300 years older than Newgrange. It could be 500-800 years older "

Lar believes the last thing they need at Loughcrew is a visitor centre. "The first thing we need is that cairn to is stabilised and opened to the public again. It such an important part of our culture it needs preserving for the next generations, we should not be the generation that allowed these beautiful cairns to be totally destroyed.

"In the 1960s when we were a third world country, when we had no money, we still excavated Tara, Newgrange, Fourknocks, Townley Hall. We spent millions putting in access to all these places. We spent 20 years excavating Newgrange, 30 years excavating Knowth, we pumped a hell of a lot of money into our culture, yet the root of it that is here, is totally neglected."

Lar has been highlighting what he believes is the neglect of Loughcrew on social media. One of those who saw Lar's post was Aine McGarry who also feels it is a very special place and said the OPW and heritage ministers should be "embarrassed by the lack of action". "Why this special place has been left to decay and it's precious carvings made by our ancestors 5,500 years ago being allowed to erode day by day is beyond me?” she said.

Derval Diamond who was at the site when the Meath Chronicle visited, said: "I think it is a real connection to our Irish heritage, to our ancestors and its all about being at one with nature, leaving no trace, being honourable and respectful. If anyone is ever feeling a bit out of sorts or anxious to come up here and sit in nature in this space at this cairn, is just magical and healing, it is wonderful. I think it should be protected for our children and our grandchildren and the generations to come."

Niall and Sarah Shortt run the Loughcrew Megalithic Centre and the Shortt family has lived at the foot of Loughcrew for hundreds of years. "It is a great pity to see such a historical site lying in disrepair. Unfortunately Cairn T was closed a number of years ago. It was meant to be for two weeks for conservation work but it was decided it would be closed for the foreseeable due to health and safety concerns. However since its closure there has been no conservation work carried out."

"At the end of the day, the OPW are the governing body in charge of protecting and maintaining our heritage sites, including Loughcrew. If there is an issue with Cairn T the OPW must take action to fix it and re-open it. If there is no real issue regarding the structure of Cairn T, which very well could be the case, then we see no reason why Cairn T is not re-opened to the public."

Local TD Johnny Guirke is calling on the OPW to invest in Loughcrew saying it is one of the most historical sites in the country and that it should be properly maintained. He is asking the OPW and National Monuments Service to outline what exactly the issues are and what they intend to do about it.