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Callaigh Berra's House

Passage Grave

<b>Callaigh Berra's House</b>Posted by CianMcLiamImage © Ken Williams/ 2011
Also known as:
  • Slieve Gullion South

OS Ref (GB):   J025203 / Sheet: 29
Latitude:54° 7' 17.22" N
Longitude:   6° 25' 55.71" W

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Slieve Gullion: Volunteers help repair ancient cairn

A group of volunteers has helped to repair a 5,000-year-old burial cairn on one of Northern Ireland's most significant mountains.

Around 30 of them trekked to the top of Slieve Gullion in south Armagh at the weekend to carry out the work, under the supervision of an archaeologist... continues...
ryaner Posted by ryaner
18th May 2015ce

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I’ve been to Calliagh Berra’s house and lake 5 times, I think, and never written about it before. It’s well covered elsewhere and I haven’t felt the need. Experiences today, and newspaper reports, have given me second thoughts, so here goes.

The Ring of Gullion caldera itself would be impressive and worth a visit even without having one of the highest passage graves in Ireland, plus the lake, plus the second cairn. Then there’s Ballykeel dolmen to its west. So it’s a bit of a draw really, and not just for stone heads. Slieve Gullion forest park is a major attraction, with playgrounds, a café, various trails and easy access. Out of season, however, the crowds thin out, and there was no-one around on the snowy, January day I visited in 2016. Not today alas.

The car-park on the western shoulder that Gladman mentions below is still there. I’ve used it on all the occasions I’ve visited. It’s on close to the 350 metre contour, thus leaving you about a 226 metre climb. You could start from the car-park at the forest park centre, about a four kilometre walk below at the 120 metre contour, but I’ve always had the car and never felt the need.

The ascent to the summit and the cairn is quite strenuous but is now along a stone and gravel track. Access has been opened up and at many of the steepest parts the track turn into stone stairs. Work on this is ongoing and they’ve even gone as far as creating a track across the boggy top of the mountain, over to the lake and the second tomb.

All of this positive work does have its downside however. The erosion around the tomb is increasing. In fact, all of the top of the mountain is suffering. Who am I to complain about this? I get out as often as I can and how can we enthusiasts separate ourselves from the general mass of the populace seeking the benefits of the great outdoors?

And what of the tomb itself? It’s not the ultimate destination of a lot who come here. It seems to me to be an afterthought to most, a bunch of rocks without too much meaning other than vague notions of times past. Which is maybe its saving grace – most don’t bother too much with it, taking the odd selfie, clambering onto it and into it and leaving not long after. And then there’s the cohort that stick around a bit longer, maybe have a few beers and a few spliffs, who knows, maybe light a fire and fuck around a bit, carving names or initials into the rocks in the chamber, generally getting shitfaced and not giving too many fucks about anything. Been there, done that.

It’s been on my mind a bit, this general disregard for, and the popularising of, these places - and not just because it’s in the papers. I’ve been to some sites this year that have been trashed and I have felt caught between two stools. On the one hand I’m an enthusiast that photographs these places and put the results on an open website, partly guilty of the very popularising that I sneer at. And on the other, when I see these places restricted, like the cold houses of Knowth and Newgrange, I bristle.

I love Calliagh Berra’s house, even with its fake ass roof. The thunderously clunky construction of the chamber, the inexpert basin stones, the lintel over the passage entrance, the passage itself with its massive horizontal ‘orthostats’ and the quite massive cairn, all together make this tomb unique in passage grave-dom. We sheltered from the mini-storm back that day in 2016, in the mother’s womb, and were grateful. But this may be a luxury in the future. The general disregard of, even the vandalism and trashing of these places may end in them being closed to everyone. And in the end, who could argue with that?
ryaner Posted by ryaner
7th August 2020ce

The day dawns with perhaps as blue a sky as I ever thought possible in Northern Ireland. Certainly the weather is in distinct, sharp contrast to that which accompanied my first attempt to ascend Slieve Gullion a week before, that attempt aborted before even leaving the car due to a very low cloud base. In retrospect I'm glad I didn't push my luck, although I admit it would have probably been easier, yet undeniably foolhardy to carry on with such a prize waiting at the summit.

Slieve Gullion, at 1,894ft (573m) is the highest point in South Armagh and focal point of a vast ampitheatre of volcanic hills encircling the border town of Newry known as 'The Ring of Gullion'. Newry, infamous within the context of recent Anglo-Irish relations, is, on a happier note, the birthplace of the great Arsenal/Tottenham goalkeeper Pat Jennings. Reaching much further back into the mists of time, legendary Irish heroes such as Cuchulain, Fionn MacCumhail and the Red Branch are closely linked with this fine little mountain.

Those megalithically inclined - or even simply looking for a majestic view - are helped by a well maintained, well signposted 'Slieve Gullion Forest Drive', itself offering panoramic views, which can be followed to a car-park on the western shoulder of the peak. Here, a steep path heads eastwards towards the southern summit.... apparently there was a sign, but it keeps getting periodically, er, removed by persons unknown, so please make sure valuables etc are locked away out of sight. The terrain consists of springy peat, although erosion has made the path steep in places. Nevertheless the trek should not be overly taxing, the retrospective views over the surrounding countryside stunning and ample compensation for any flagging limbs.

Then, upon reaching the top, there's the magnificent passage grave crowning the summit, one of the highest 'opened' examples in Ireland. Although not quite in the same class as the Seefin cairn upon the Wicklows (it being much more accessible and thus bearing a little unsightly grafitti - but, hey, so does Maes Howe, albeit Viking!) it remains an outstanding example of this type of monument. The traveller is required to stoop in order to traverse the low entrance passage, the flanks of which are comprised of very large slabs, and emerge into the tall central chamber within the massive cairn. This is octagonal with a rear recess lined with orthostats, the interior illuminated with a stream of sunlight from a grilled sylight in the roof. Interestingly the aforementioned recess appears to contain a bowl-like receptacle similar to that within the great tomb at Newgrange.

I stay within the cool of the interior for a considerable time before finally emerging to take in the views; the Cooley Peninsular and sea to the south east, the Mountains of Mourne across Carlingford Lough to the east and, to the north beyond Callaigh Berra's Lough, the northern summit of Slieve Gullion bearing another, although chamberless cairn. Sadly, however, I've spent so much time inside that I must now begin the descent...

Incidentally it would appear that 'Callaigh Berra' is a reference to the 'hag' incarnation of the Mother Goddess trinity. According to legend, the giant Finn Macool (him again) was persuaded by Callaigh Berra to take a dip within the lough only to be transformed into a grey haired old man. It seems he managed to get his youth back (ha!) but was nevertheless left with the dodgy peroxide barnet. Because he was 'worth it', probably. A lesson to us all.
23rd March 2010ce
Edited 24th March 2010ce


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The cairn is rather convex at top; in the centre is the mouth of the cavern; the roof is formed by large flat stones, regularly placed to support the incumbent weight, and in the descent lapped over each other with a sufficient bearing. I have been told that within is a spacious apartment, and that, but a few years ago, it was easily entered; but now there are such huge blocks rolled in, and the entrance is so very narrow, that they could not be removed but by mechanic powers.

From the mouth of the cave there extends a wide and regular range of flagging to the edge of the lake, evidently the work of hands; it is said by the peasants in this district to be the roof of a covered passage, but this seems very improbable, as the soil here is a deep wet bog, which could not bear an excavation to support so great a weight as these flags must have; it rather appears to have been a dry passage outside from the cave to the lake, though, indeed, the magnitude of the stones, adn the same kind not being found in other parts of the mountain, render it very improbable that they should be carried up this long and steep way for any secondary or immaterial purpose.
He then mentions that 'there is no doubt' that this cavern was once the abode of robbers like the celebrated O'Hanlon ('long the scourge and terror both of farmers and travellers') - but this reads as romantic speculation despite his certainty.

p38 of 'Statistical Survey of the County of Armagh' by Sir Charles Coote (1804), now online at Google Books.
Rhiannon Posted by Rhiannon
18th June 2007ce
Edited 18th June 2007ce

At 1894 feet, this is said to be the highest surviving passage grave in the British Isles. greywether Posted by greywether
2nd January 2004ce