The Earliest inhabitants around Bailieborough

The peopling of Ireland started relatively late, for during the last ice age (the period known as the Pleistocene) Ireland was covered in ice. As the temperature warmed up and the polar ice sheet started to recede, humans started to populate the island. We have consistent evidence of this process since around the year 8,000 BC.

The earliest inhabitants, during the period known as Mesolithic (8,000-4,000 BC) were hunter-gatherers who lived in small bands and left few scattered evidence of their presence. But with the advent of agriculture and animal husbandry during the Neolithic (4,000-2,000 BC), population grew and we have the most enduring evidence of this earliest inhabitants. Monumental constructions for the dead were built by them in stone, often referred to as megaliths (from the Greek words for “great stone”). Some of these megaliths, originated in continental Europe and then spread to Ireland, showing that, despite being a seemingly remote island at the edge of Europe, this land was also connected through migrations of peoples, trade and ideas to other regions of the world since ancient times.

Passage tombs, consisting of a narrow passage leading to a funerary chamber covered by a circular cairn of stones and earth, are some of the earliest and most spectacular witnesses of this era, dating from 3,700-2,500 BC. The cairns at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth) and Loughcrew, all relatively close to Bailieborough, are among the best-known examples in the country. However, they are hardly the only ones, and closer to Bailieborough we have three examples at Loughanleagh: the MoyerCorraweelis and Mohercrom cairns. Unfortunately, all of them were looted by treasure hunters over the centuries. According to folklore, a Cailleach, a divine hag or old woman, was responsible for creating the cairns at Loughanleagh, after dropping the stones from her apron. These are the earliest evidence of the first people who called the area we now know as Bailieborough their home. DNA analysis of human remains in cairns as far away as Carrowkeel in Sligo and Newgrange in Meath show evidence that the people buried there were kin, suggesting that the passage tombs could have been used by a powerful elite family at the top of the hierarchy in Neolithic Ireland. It is therefore not too fanciful to think that the cairns at Loughanleagh would have related to this elite buried at those other better known sites.  

From these cairns there is a fantastic view, stretching all the way from the Dublin and Wicklow mountains to the Mourne Mountains on a clear day. From here, those early inhabitants could see other sacred mountains with cairns, such as Loughcrew, the Brú na Bóinne, Slieve Glah, Tara, Mullyash, Slieve Gullion, etc. It is like if those sacred sites were in communication with one another, as part of a complex network of holy sites for that ancient pre-Christian religious system of beliefs. We know that sites like those at the Brú na Bóinne were aligned with the solstice, while Loughcrew was aligned with the equinox, while the mound of the hostages in Tara was aligned with Samhain. It is not hard to imagine how all of these sites represented not only burial places for important people, but also markers for the religious calendar of those times.

Passage tombs were not the only forms of megalithic burial. Around the same time, we find court tombs being built between 3,700-2,900 BC, the most spectacular example in Ireland being at Creevykeel in Sligo. These were typically built with the entrance facing the sunrise to the East, although we find in Ireland examples of dual court tombs, with two court tombs built back-to-back, with one facing the sunset in the West. In the entrance, we find a “courtyard”, a semi-circular open space acting as an entrance hall before getting into the gallery where we find typically two or three chambers where human remains are found. Court tombs were covered with a rectangular cairn of stones and earth, dual court tombs sharing the same cairn. They were the most common type of megalith in Ulster, with some 185 recorded in total in this province. A magnificent example of a dual court tomb is the “Giant’s Grave” in Cohaw, near Cootehill, an impressive monument that originally was estimated to be 25 metres long. This dual court was aligned North-South and not East-West, making it unusual. During the excavations, evidence was found of wooden post-holes around both courtyards, maybe to hold a canopy for shelter during the rites practised here back in the days? An example of a single court tomb in the vicinity of Bailieborough is the also-referred-to as the “Giant’s Grave” in Cornaville North, a stone-throw from the Moybologue cemetery. It is placed in a beautiful location where you can view easily Loughcrew.

We also find a little later (3,200-2,000 BC), other type of megalithic structure, known as portal tombs or dolmens. These were structures built with large rocks, like a table, which housed a single chamber with prominent and impressive stones marking the entrance. The monument was covered with an earthen mound which in most cases has eroded away, leaving the rocky skeleton exposed. Typically, they were built facing sunrise to the East, providing further evidence of the cult to the Sun among the Neolithic people. The Proleek dolmen in Louth and Poulnabrone in Clare are among the best-known examples of this type of monument in the country, but in Cavan we have a few examples in the Banagher complex near Slieve Glah (that has also some spectacular stone circles and standing stones), and not too far from Cavan, we have Rathkenny portal tomb. Both at Banagher and Rathkenny we find evidence of rock art. In the vicinity of Bailieborough, we have a splendid example of a dolmen at Ervey, that although partially collapsed, gives evidence of a massive and grandiose structure that faces Loughanleagh.

Finally, the latest type of megalithic monument, the wedge tomb, was being built towards the end of the Neolithic and the early Bronze Age period, around 2,500-1,800 BC. It is much smaller in size, standing usually at around 1.5 metres, and typically 3 to 4 metres in length. Here we find a remarkable difference with the previous alignments: the entrance is typically facing the sunset to the West. These monuments are called wedge shapes because their width and height reduce progressively from West to East with gallery and chamber being largely undifferentiated, giving it their distinctive shape. They were also covered by a V or D shaped stone and/or earthen cairn/tumulus. The vast majority of the wedge tombs are found in the West and South-West of the country -for instance, there are 88 wedge tombs found in all of Ulster, compared to 337 of them in Munster! Notwithstanding this distribution, still we have two examples of wedge tombs in the vicinity of Bailieborough: one is in Edengora, where the tomb was later incorporated into the bank of a ringfort, and the other is in Drumeague, near Castle Lake. Near Shercock, we also have another example of this type of monument in Lisnadarragh. These wedge tombs mark the end of a period, the Neolithic, and the start of a new one, the Bronze Age (2,500-500 BC), that saw the arrival of new populations, belief systems and a different culture that forged metal and created splendid works of art in gold.  

During the Bronze Age the pattern of megalithic structures for the (important) dead gave way to the generalisation of smaller, shallow cists for burial, although some of the old megalithic structures were still re-used for burial purposes during the Bronze Age. However, the religious systems of the people at the time were being expressed through other, non-funerary, megalithic structures, such as stone circlesstone rows and standing stones. Stone rows, in general, are believed to be aligned with topographical features, such as mountains, as well as astronomically aligned, reflecting an advanced knowledge of the nature and the universe. A number of stone circles and standing stones are found in the Banagher Complex near Slieve Glah, while not too far from there, in Shantemon, near Castletara, there is a magnificent stone rows with impressive views of the surrounding drumlins. Legend says that at this spot Fionn mac Cumhaill, the gigantic warrior of Celtic myths, lost a hand in battle, eventually being buried except for the five fingers sticking out of the ground (the five stones that make this stone row). This is why this stone row is often called “Fionn mac Cumhaill’s Fingers”.

A remarkable evidence of the religious beliefs of the Bronze Age people, the wooden Ralaghan idol, found in the outskirts of Shercock, was preserved in the exceptional conditions created by bogs, which preserve organic material for millennia. Therefore, we have a chance to appreciate other aspects of the material culture of this people in other materials than stone, which normally would not be preserved. This figure, with its hole in the pubic area, has been long associated to fertility rites.  

People started buildings raths or ringforts, protective circular structures with an earthen bank, a ditch and a timber palisade, inside of which people lived in huts, or kept animals. These are peppered all over Cavan, with the vicinity of Bailieborough having some impressive examples in EdengoraLeiterKilinkere and Castle Lake (the latter, unfortunately, really hard to appreciate because of the extensive plantation of pines on it). If the fort was built with stones, it would usually receive the names of cahercashel or dún. Most of the examples around Bailieborough are earthen ringforts, although not too far from here we have a wonderful example of a cashel in Shantemon, a short walk from “Fionn mac Cumhaill’s Fingers”. What makes this cashel so peculiar, is that its walls are vitrified, as the result of the application of intense heat. Some people believe that vitrification was used to fix the stones together, like a cement, while others think that this was the product of attacks or the destruction of the structure with fire. Whatever the case, while vitrified forts are common in Scotland, this is one of only two vitrified forts in Ireland. Another type of defensive structure were the crannogs, artificial islands built towards the end o the Bronze age (around 800 BC) in lakes where people lived and kept cattle, safe from raiders. Since Cavan can boast of having the impressive amount of 365 lakes, it is only natural that crannogs are ubiquitous in our county. However, neither Castle Lake nor Town Lake have any visible traces of crannogs, the closest examples to Bailieborough being found in ErveyDrumeague and Kilbride. Crannogs kept being built and uninhabited well into the Christian era.

Although it is debated if the Iron Age (500 BC -400 AD) arrived with the Celtic mass migration into Ireland, it is accepted that both phenomena happened at around the same time. Coming from Central Europe towards the West, Ireland was one of the last places to be colonised by the Celts, but it became one of the strongholds of Celtic culture to this day, with the Irish Gaelic language being one of the most prominent examples still spoken today (the others being Scot, Manx, Welsh and Breton). One of the most emblematic symbols of this era in all of Ireland, the Corleck head (now in the National Museum of Ireland), comes from Drumeague, in the vicinity of Bailieborough. This is a limestone head with three faces carved on it, all similar but representing different moods, whose precise meaning has been lost in time, but that is generally assumed to represent a Celtic god and associated to Lughnasa. It is supposed to have been originally part of a pagan altar or shrine. In Cavan also, in the region known as Magh Slécht, near the townland of Killycluggin, there was supposed to be the altar of the idol Crom Cruach, an important Celtic deity. Not too far from it, the Killycluggin cult stone, now housed in the Cavan County Museum at Ballyjamesduff, while a replica stand in the original position, one of only three cult stones in Ireland, carved in fantastic Celtic designs and associated to religious rites (the other two from Castlestrange in Roscommon and Turoe in Co. Galway). All this region seems to have been of a particular religious significance for the Celtic people -and it is therefore little wonder that the early Christians, entered later into strong disputes with the local pagan gods and capitalised on the religious significance of some of these places for their own new religion.