In March we left for one-week study trip to the Boyne Valley. It was just a few days after heavy snowfall swamped the whole Ireland. Dubbed by the media as the “Beast from the East”, the cold wave had subsided after three days leaving behind white patches of snow and a hope for spring. Personally, as somebody who comes from Poland, I was used to the view of bigger snows and lower temperatures and so I got surprised by the reaction of people cleaning the shop shelves from food products on the day of the sinister weather forecast.
Brú na Bóinne
According to archaeological studies, the Boyne Valley, called in Irish Brú na Bóinne, has been inhabited uninterruptedly since the end of the Ice Age, and is said to be the birthplace of Ireland’s Ancient East featuring one of the most sacred and mythical landscapes in the country. For these reasons, the region has always been very attractive in terms of archaeological research and international tourism (“About Boyne Valley Tourism” 2018).
The Boyne Valley mainly encompasses two counties, namely Co. Meath and Co. Louth, and it is itself a hugely attractive and unique region of Ireland to be explored by researchers, scholars and tourists. Unfortunately, its well-deserved fame and grandeur of incomparable monuments are not sufficiently illustrious and extended, except for the Stone Age passage tomb of Newgrange, which has become a significant ambassador of the local history encouraging the development of tourism in this area. Except for scholars and archaeologists widely interested in the region, tourists mostly head off to the Boyne Valley to visit only the passage tombs of Newgrange and Knowth, and possibly also the Norman Castle of Trim, which was the location for King John’s Castle in the film Braveheart (1995). Other monuments appear to generally exist in their shadow, and seem to be less attractive and more obscure to a broader group of visitors.
Less known but essential
The key role of promoting the Boyne Valley is to point out and attract attention to other significant archaeological sites in the region, and simultaneously interesting tourist spots to be taken into account. It concerns prehistoric monuments of Dowth, Fourknocks and Loughcrew, royal and mythological Hills of Tara and Slane and finally medieval monuments of Mellifont, Duleek, Bective and Fore Abbeys as significant witnesses to European influence on insular tradition and architecture of Ireland (Michael 2018). Not without significant importance to the Irish history is also the site of the seventeenth century Battle of the Boyne (Ibid.). Last but not least, there are ones of Ireland’s earliest Christian monastic sites, especially early medieval monuments of Irish sculpture – exceptional High Crosses of Kells in County Meath and those of Monasterboice in nearby Co. Louth (Ibid.). The monastic sites also feature Round Towers, which are not less interesting than the High Crosses themselves.
Archaeological assignments under the Irish sky
Yet before our study trip, we were divided into groups who each worked on a project dedicated to one particular site within the Boyne Valley. During our one-week trip, we stopped daily at three or four different sites and every group was supposed to give a lecture on a given monument in front of other students. Such a procedure would have been quite interesting unless a typical Irish weather that usually occurs in March. The snow gave its way to lashing and freezing rainfalls. Mixed with the prevailing winds, the rain was literally attacking us at each possible angle while we were trying to listen to the lectures in front of unmoved ancient stones, in the open space. Speakers suffered terribly: their voices were howled down by sudden blasts of icy cold air and their damped notes were literally falling apart between their fingers or were torn out by the wind.
I and two of my colleagues were assigned to the ancient site of Loughcrew. However, the Beast from the East efficiently cut it off from the outside world due to the heavy snows, which still covered its ancient hills. Consequently, we were left without the subject of our study. To makes things even worse, our group was caught by an epidemic of stomach flu and some members of the study trip got sick and had to come back to Dublin, including one colleague of our three-person group. Therefore, two of us were left in the battlefield.
As it turned out later on, we were compensated for all the inconvenience as we got a chance to present our project in much more favourable conditions than others. To make up for another rotten day, after visiting the High Crosses under the crying sky, we finally entered a warm coffeeshop in Kells where we were served fragrant sweet pastries and freshly ground coffee. Suddenly, our Professor came up with the idea of presenting the site of Loughcrew inside. We looked hesitantly at each other and then at clients curiously looking in our direction, possibly waiting for further development of the situation.
‘Well’, my colleague stopped the awkward silence. ‘Why not?’, he asked. ‘Unless it disturbs others …’ By saying ‘others’ he actually meant clients of the coffee shop.
‘No, not at all’, we heard some voices. Some members of the unexpected audience also approached our group to listen to what was going to be said. At once I got nervous. One thing is giving a lecture in front of my colleagues, the other thing was to expose yourself to criticism of strangers. I took a sip of my coffee, gathered my notes and joined my colleague who was already standing in a more open space, by the door.
Ancient site of Loughcrew
Loughcrew “gets its name from a nearby lake, originally called Lough Creeve: meaning lake of the tree, and is believed to refer to an ancient tree where rituals were held” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The site is deeply ancient as it dates back to around 3500-3300BC (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). It is spread across four hills: Carnbane West, Carnbane East and Patrickstown, the highest of which is around 274 meters above sea level (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). The hills were also known in the past as Sliabh na Calliaghe, which can be translated from Irish as Mountains of the Witch, referring to a folk tale surrounding the cairns (Ibid.).
“Nowadays [Loughcrew] is probably the best preserved example of a Neolithic landscape in the world. Nevertheless, the site initially “escaped the attention and well documented archaeological investigation devoted to other Boyne Valley [monuments]” (Brennan 1994:46).
“All things are full of gods” – Thales (c. 636 – c. 546 B.C.)
There are a few legends about the hills of Loughcrew, but perhaps the most famous is “the story of the hag for which the hills are named” (Celentano, Mulcahy, Pyrgies 2018). “The story goes that to rule over all of Ireland the Hag [or Witch – Calliaghe] had to complete a feat of enormous strength. She had to leap from hill to hill with stones in her apron. As she jumped from peak to peak she dropped a handful of stones. These stones became the cairns. On her final jump, to make her [ruler over] Ireland, she broke her neck and was buried under the stones on the side of the hill” (Shortt, Heery 2020). Another folklore says it was actually “a giant goddess named Garavoge, who came from the north-west with a collection of rocks which she dropped from her white apron” (Byrne 2020). In Celtic Folklore by John Rhys (1901-2015:393), the author gives an account of the legend he heard from his guide – a young shepherd, when he was visiting the cairns of Loughcrew in the summer of 1894. “He knew all about the hag after whom the hill was called except her name: she was, he said, a giantess, and so she brought there, in three apronfuls, the stones forming the three principal cairns” (Ibid.).
One of the most significant cairns of Loughcrew, Cairn T is commonly known as the Hag’s Cairn as it is believed to be a burial place of the Witch. Furthermore, outside the Cairn T, there is a large stone, possibly a kerbstone, in the form similar to an armchair, named the Witch or Hag’s chair. Rhys’ guide also describes the same stone, which was “placed there by the hag to serve as her seat when she wished to have a quiet look on the country round” (Rhys 1901-2015:393). Yet he added that “usually she was to be seen riding on a wonderful pony she had: that creature was so nimble and strong that it used to take the hag at a leap from one hill-top to another. However, the end of it all was that the hag rode so hard that the pony fell down, and that both horse and rider were killed” (Ibid.). The author also notices that “the hag appears to have been Cailleach Bheara, or Caillech Berre, ‘the Old Woman of Beare’, that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork” (Ibid.).
The figure of the Witch or Giantess flying on her broomstick and dropping the stones seems to be always associated with the megaliths built on the summits (Hugh 2017). Her mysterious character not only joins the cairns of Loughcrew with those of Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo, of Sheemor and Sheebeg in Co. Leitrim or of Corn Hill in Co. Longford (Hugh 2017; Byrne 2020), but she also appears in folklore far beyond Ireland.
“Determined now her tomb to build, Her ample skirt with stones she filled, And dropped a heap on Carnmore; Then stepped one thousand yards, to Loar, And dropped another goodly heap; And then with one prodigious leap Gained Carnbeg; and on its height Displayed the wonders of her might. And when approached death’s awful doom, Her chair was placed within the womb Of hills whose tops with heather bloom”
Jonathan Swift, c. 1720
Some sources say that Loughcrew became known as Mountains of the Witch because Ireland was once a matriarchy (O’Bryan 2017). After the Annals of Irish High Kings, women judges, who were later nicknamed as witches, could take away human life as a penalty for heavy crimes, which was believed to have been imposed at the time of year referred today as Halloween (31st October) (Ibid.).
Loughcrew as a passage tomb
Loughcrew is one of the so-called passage tomb sites in Ireland. The centre of the passage tomb typically consists of several upright supports (orthostats) topped with a corbelled roofing or covered with a flat slab or capstone (Brennan 1994). Its plan usually creates a cruciform chamber, like in the case of the ground plan of Cairn T at Loughcrew, which takes the shape of one of the most ancient and universal sun symbols known as the equinoctial or Greek Cross (Ibid.). Another element characteristic of passage tombs is the passage itself, which is formed by the addition of a long entrance passageway to the central chamber (Ibid.). The entire structure is furthermore covered with a circular mound of earth, occasionally edged with external kerbstones (Ibid.).
Structural stones of the Loughcrew monuments were made of local green gritstone, which is soft to carve (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994; Murphy 2018). “Cairn T may [also] have once been covered with milky white quartz, the same stone which was used on the facade at Newgrange” (Murphy 2017-2020).
An author Jean McMann (1993) claims that “large pieces of quartz could be found behind the kerbstones and around the entry. Conwell also reported small lumps of quartz ‘strewn about’ at the base of the Hag’s Chair” (Murphy 2017-2020). It is generally known that quartz crystal is usually found at constructions known as passage tombs. Unquestionably, it was “valued and held in awe by almost every ancient culture as a magical stone (DeSalvo 2012:11)” Quartz is an example of hard mineral (7 on the Mohs’ scale) with a few interesting properties (Ibid.:14), of which “[the] piezoelectric effect is perhaps the most fascinating. [Namely], when stress is place across the crystal it develops an electrical potential. [Additionally, quartz is] able to transmit ultraviolet light, which glass cannot” (Ibid.:14-15). Why did the builders of passage tombs were so interested in using it at their constructions? Was it just because of its beautiful appearance or magical powers? If it was the second option, what should be understood by term “magical”? Some authors suggest that quartz crystal was selected due to its mentioned properties “and its use in information storage. […] Can quartz record information like a video recorder and then be played back centuries later? These are questions to consider” (Ibid.:15)
The Loughcrew mountains give a panoramic view nearly “from coast to coast and into both northern and southern provinces of Ireland” (Brennan 1994:46), which actually bears out is astronomical function. Undeniably the Loughcrew mounds constitute a large complex of astronomically aligned megalithic mounds (Brennan 1994) and after such authors as Martin Brennan (1994) they could have been originally designed as astronomical devices – not tombs.
Stone Age writings
Inside passage tombs, there are usually multiple megalithic petroglyphs (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). They are typically carved in stone in the forms of lozenge, triangles, leaf shapes, spirals, zigzags, circles, some surrounded by radiating lines, as it is observed in the Cairn T at Loughcrew (Ibid.). At some sites, anthropomorphic elements are believed to have been represented (Ibid.). They are usually interpreted as various facial features or body outlines (Ibid.). Some researches, as George Coffey claim such motifs are mostly ornamental and they may represent the style of decoration of the period (O’Kelly 1978). At the same time Coffey admitted himself that some of them may originally have been symbolical (Ibid.).
Usually the motifs are picked or pitted on the natural surface of the stone slabs, using a sharply pointed tool (O’Kelly 1978). Sometimes, however, the same motifs are just incised or scratched, which can be explained by an assumption they are unfinished petroglyphs (Ibid.). Accordingly, in the process of their creation, the outlines were first scratched on the slab and then picked over (Ibid.). The most sophisticated effect was achieved while picking back the stone surface, leaving an unpicked area in relief, which eventually forms the pattern or motif (Ibid.). This technique is seen at Newgrange and Knowth (Ibid.).
Some researchers believe the Loughcrew complex is earlier than other Neolithic sites in the Valley as its engraving techniques seem to be more primitive (Brennan 1994:46). Still there are not radiocarbon dates to support this thesis (Ibid.). Motifs found at passage tombs were generally carved on the surface of well displayed slab stones, whereas some others were mysteriously hidden – such signs are placed in or above the passage roof, at the bottom of orthostats, and even below the ground level (O’Kelly 1978; Brennan 1994). However, the group of well visible motifs placed at the backstones could have played an essential role at the time of important astronomical events, such as equinoxes and solstices, giving an encrypted message by their interaction with the beam of sunlight (Brennan 1994).
Cairn T at the equinox rising sun
As it is mentioned above, within the Loughcrew complex, Cairn T (Hag’s Cairn), situated on Carnbane East, is the most outstanding of all. As if designed as an astronomical construct, the mound “stands in the focal position and takes the most prominent place on the highest summit of a megalithic area” (Brennan 1994:46). Originally there were fifty to a hundred mounds (Ibid.). In the seven remaining mounds, sufficient stones are in their original alignment for a beam of light to be projected into the chamber and against the backstone, presenting a clearly defined frame of light (Ibid.). The number of remaining mounds allows to reconstruct the main elements in a planned astronomical and calendrical scheme.
In 1980, two researchers, Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts studied the two most important cairns, T and L, which are supplemented by smaller satellite mounds linked to their larger counterparts by orientation and alignment (Brennan 1994:46-50). “Cairns L and T – [initially] appeared to be oriented in the same direction according to archaeological surveys done before 1980s, however in terms of real function, the equinox rising sun is focused on Cairn T, but does not approach anywhere near the passage of Cairn L” (Brennan 1994:48).
While their studies, the researchers had encountered similar problems as we did while trying to reach the Cairn T in March to observe the spring equinox. Martin Brennan (1994:46) writes that “the mountains were covered in snow and the […] winds from the east blew icy gusts down the passage of the mound.” Actually, 5000 years ago the climate was more favourable to celebrate the spring equinox.
What does the equinox mean?
“Equinox literally means equal night. In terms of hours, equinox is the date, when the hours of day and night are equal. The two extremes of this are winter solstice, when the night is longest, and summer solstice, when the night is shortest” (Brennan 1994:90). So equinox (spring and autumnal) is midway between these two points (Ibid.:90). “At equinox the sun is raising due east to the horizon” (Ibid.:90).
As the major mound, Cairn T “dominates a group of smaller satellite mounds clustered around it on the summit of the Mountain of the Sorceress, [called like that for the mentioned reasons]” (Brennan 1994:48). It is orientated about nine degrees south of east and above the horizon (Ibid.:90). Therefore “the beam [of light] does not enter the mound until the sun rises to the proper altitude. At the spring equinox the angle of the sun’s path is very high in relation to the horizon, whereas at the autumnal equinox the angle of the ecliptic is lower. […] What [one can witness] at Cairn T [at the equinox is] the intended projection of light and its interaction with [the carved symbols]” (Ibid.:90).
During their research at the time of the spring equinox, Brennan and Roberts noticed a rectangular patch of light on the upper left of the backstone inside the Cairn T (Brennan 1994:47,93). It was starting to take a regular form, “brilliantly illuminating the entire chamber in a glowing splendour of shimmering golden orange light” (Ibid.). As the researchers notice, it gives a different effect from the one observed at Newgrange at the winter solstice. Whereas in the latter, the beam of light sweeps across the chamber, inside the Cairn T at Loughcrew, “the light [assumes] a clearly defined geometric shape that [is] projected on to the upright backstone and [moves] diagonally across it, tracing the path of the sun against a mural of prehistoric art” (Ibid.).
Encrypted message of Loughcrew?
“The arrangement of the engravings in relation to the sunbeam reveals that there is quite precise time reckoning and careful determination of the equinoxes” (Brennan 1994:92). The beam of light is concentrated on one stone at the back of the passage chamber (C8) and in its journey it progresses from left to right (Ibid.:94). Finally it gradually moves down the stone, “reflecting the movement of the rising sun” (Ibid.:94) and “illuminating key symbols as it progresses” (Ibid.:92). “It is the beam of light itself which finally and conclusively identifies the inscriptions as solar symbols” (Ibid.:94). The focal point of the entire process is a petroglyph representing “a large circular radial sun on the right of the stone” (Ibid.:93; see 94).
The researchers were highly impressed by the observed phenomenon, where the sliding beam of light played the role of a guide or key to the encrypted message left by the builders of Loughcrew. In this context, the petroglyphs on the backstone (C8) in Cairn T may “be interpreted as the language of unknown archaic astronomers” (Brennan 1994:92).
“For the first time we were seeing the signs and symbols in the context in which the artist had meant them to be seen. Suddenly markings that had appeared to be random and haphazard became part of an intricately structured system that derived its meaning from the solar event we were witnessing” (Brennan 1994:47)
Furthermore, the entrance stones and the narrow passage shape the beam of light into a regular geometric form of a rectangle (Brennan 1994:94). At the end it disintegrates in the process of moving on the right and away from stone C8 (Ibid.:94). The rectangular shape reconstructs itself reaching stone C10 (Ibid.:94). At autumnal equinox the process is repeated (research carried out at the site on 22nd September, 1980 by Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts) (Ibid.:98). “The beam of light clearly centres on the sun’s disc, repeating the imagery of the spring equinox. [Although the] focal image in both events remains the same, […] different sets of engravings are utilized to measure the beam of light” (Ibid.:98). With the same width of the beam as at spring equinox, at the autumnal its length changes and is about double as it is in the spring (Ibid.:98). In both cases, however, “the illumination of the sun wheel unambiguously links the prehistoric art and the astronomy” (Ibid.:100).
Precise solar construct
According to the results of research done at the site on 20th March in 1980 (on the day of the spring equinox), Cairn T turned out to be a precise astronomical instrument or a solar construct (Brennan 1994:48). Combined with the prehistoric petroglyphs, the visible differences in the movement of the sunlight on the backstone made it far easier and more precise in identifying the actual day of equinox at Loughcrew than the day of winter solstice at Newgrange (Ibid.).
Epitaph for Jeremiah …?
There is a growing belief that Cairn T is actually the burial place of the Bible Prophet, Jeremiah! Some authors claim that Jeremiah’s message is encoded in the petroglyphs inside the entrance to the Cairn and that they even reveal the exact date of his death on 21st of September in 581 BC (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017). According to the same authors, the Cairn T itself would have been designed to demonstrate the autumnal equinox just in memory to the Prophet (JAH 1998-2006). “These are the same [authors] who also believe that the Ark of the Covenant is buried on the Hill of Tara” (Murphy 2017-2020).
Jeremiah was the Jewish prophet known from the Old Testament from his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem (O’Bryan 2017). According to one of the versions reporting a possible story of the lost Ark of the Covenant, Jeremiah may have been a person who escaped Jerusalem with the Ark in 587 BC (Ibid.). It may have happened just before “the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar took the city and destroyed the First Temple” (Ibid.). After the Book of Jeremiah, the Prophet escaped the conquered city together with other Israelites, among whom there was a Jewish princess and the scribe Baruch (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017). As the legend says, the group sailed to Ireland, after stopping in Egypt (possibly Tanis) (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017) Other accounts state, however, that the Israelites actually headed off to the south, in the direction of Abyssinia (today Ethiopia).
Bethel aka Stone of Destiny
It is also believed that Jeremiah brought to Ireland the Stone of Destiny aka Jacob’s Pillar, which was once used by the biblical patriarch Jacob (Genesis 28:11-22) as a pillow while he was dreaming of angels ascending and descending on a ladder suspended between the Earth and Heavens (JAH 1998-2006; Gilbert 2015). Jacob thought he had found himself at the door to God’s realm and so he put the stone in a vertical position and called the place the Bethel, which means the House of God (Gilbert 2015). The Stone of Destiny, in turn, was called in Irish Lia Fáil, which means the Speaking Stone or the Stone that Roared to give an explanation for its oracular function (JAH 1998-2006; Keyser 1999-2009). It is believed that it became later the coronation stone for the High Kings of Ireland (Keyser 1999-2009; Gilbert 2017). Herbert W. Armstrong writes that “many kings in the history of Ireland, Scotland, and England have been coronated over this stone – including the present queen. The stone rests today in Westminster Abbey in London, and the coronation chair is built over and around it” (Keyser 1999-2009). Additionally, the stone has got the plate behind it labelling it as ‘Bethel’ (Gilbert 2017).
Jeremiah, Ollamh Fodhla and Tuatha de Danann
Some authors look for evidence for the story in Irish Annals. None of those refers to Jeremiah (Keyser 1999-2009). However, the Annals of Clonmacnoise mentions a mysterious personage of Ollamh Fodhla who appeared on the Island accompanied by an Oriental princess (Gilbert 2015). As the story goes they brought to its shore ancient relics: a harp, chest and a stone (Ibid.). A leading authority on Irish history, Roderic O’Flaherty, however, states that Ollamh Fodhla could not be the same person as Jeremiah due to completely different origins and lifetime of both characters (Keyser 1999-2009). Some scholars also suggest that the Stone of Destiny was brought to Ireland already prior to 700 BC by mysterious people, the Irish myths refer to as Tuatha de Danann – a supernatural race who came to Ireland in ships (Gilbert 2015). It is suggested they were actually representatives of the Tribe of Dan – one of the tribes of Israel, according to the Torah, who had lived along the coast in the north of Israel (today Palestine) (Ibid.). Simultaneously, it was the place where Jacob had got his vision. Israelites from the Tribe of Dan were in danger of becoming captives of other invaders – the Assyrians (Ibid.). As they were excellent sailors, they may have escaped by the sea and reached the shores of Ireland together with their treasure – the Stone of Destiny (Ibid.). In this version, however, Jeremiah could not have played the role he has been ascribed to by the legend.
Although such stories are fascinating, they are decidedly criticized or even ignored by academics. First of all, the Cairn T of Loughcrew was not built as a burial place for Jeremiah or aligned according to the day of his death as it is itself dated back to the second part of the fourth millennium BC, whereas Jeremiah lived in the sixth century BC. Most authors point to the fact that Irish records do not mention Jeremiah’s landing in Ireland or the fact he brought there such treasures as the Bethel or the Arch of Convents (Keyser 1999-2009). The assumption that the Prophet was buried in the Cairn T of Loughcrew is not borne out either by Irish Annals, petroglyphs of the cairn (unless somebody has deciphered their meaning) or by archaeological evidence. If the Bethel is the same as the Stone of Destiny, which is still under question, it seems more possible it was brought by the Israelites from the Tribe of Dan. Still these are also speculations …
Inside the Cairn T
We did not have a chance to visit Loughcrew in March. Yet I had already climbed up the Hag’s Hill together with my sister when she came to Ireland several months before our study trip. It was in October and we travelled with a group of tourists to the Boyne Valley. The weather was a little bit better than in March. There was a shower from time to time but without strong winds or low temperatures. Still it was wet and some people slipped down the side of the Hill and got covered in mud before they reached its summit. Although the visibility was quite poor because of the mist, we could eventually enter the Cairn T in small groups and admire the mysterious symbols on huge stones inside the passage. Together with my sister we were amazed by their circulating lines, zig-zags and circles engraved in stone. Fascinated with their various shapes I was tracing enigmatic lines with my fingers as if I in hope of understanding the prehistoric writing by touch.
Do they contain any encoded messages at all …?
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