Autumn Equinox at Loughcrew in Ireland's Ancient East
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We took a notion to go somewhere for the autumn equinox this year. It was extremely last minute. It all started with deciding where to go in Dublin city for culture night and somehow, through our research, the Autumn Equinox and Loughcrew Cairns came up! I can’t remember quite how the plan changed so drastically but I’m glad it did! We packed the car with our gear, tent, the veggie chilli we planned for dinner and all of Neil’s equipment in under an hour. We had never been to Loughcrew so we didn’t know what to expect. On the drive up to Meath, Neil was busy finding out all he could about the place and he found a hostel and campsite (Loughcrew Megalithic Centre) right beside the trail head for easy sunrise access and he rang ahead to make sure there was a space for us. The drive itself was easy and we found our way no problem. We were delighted to find that the Centre has excellent facilities and we were warmly welcomed by Fechin, one of the centre’s managers. He showed us around and helpfully explained everything we needed to know about the next morning’s event.
By the time we had the tent up and our chilli safely tucked away in our bellies it was dark but we decided to head up to the trail anyway, we were too curious! The skies were clear, no clouds and no rain – perfect conditions for a night-time walk. After climbing the steps from the car park we could see the trail marked out ahead of us with posts that had reflective bands around them – a really great idea for walkers going by torchlight. When we got clear of the treeline we were thrilled to see that the Milky Way was clearly visible right over the top of the hill. We couldn’t believe our luck and we hurried on as fast as we could to the top. When I say hurried I mean we were just about at a walking pace because it’s steep and we are not in shape! Sure we had plenty of stops on the way up to point out the constellations we recognised – a great excuse to take a rest.
The cairn loomed out of the darkness at the top of the hill and we could make out a tent pitched near it. There was a fair breeze at the top so we were glad we kept our tent down at the campground. We walked all around the cairn, taking in the vast 360-degree views stretching all the way back to the orange glow of Dublin. We felt that even if it rained the next day, just the sight of the Milky Way arcing over the giant cairn was worth the trip.
There were a few other late-night visitors to the site and we all agreed what a beautiful night it was to be there. It turns out the tent belonged to photographer so Neil had a good chat with him and another fellow enthusiast about astral photography (Neil has a blog on that here). We must have spent two hours up at the cairn but the wind was picking up and knowing we had to be up early to get back there for sunrise, we decided to head down. When we got back the tent was cold but soon we got warm snuggling under our two duvets – no sleeping bags on our glamping trips!
Cairn under the stars
At our 6.30a.m. wake-up call we were out in the brisk morning air. Already we could see people heading up the trail to the cairn and realised how popular the event is. I don’t think we have ever hiked at six in the morning. I thought we’d be grumbling and wishing for bed but instead, we both felt invigorated. We might make this a new activity in our lives – watch this space! At the top, we could finally grasp what we had a hint of the previous night. It was cloudy unfortunately but the views all around the cairn were still mighty impressive. On a clear day, you can apparently see the Mourne Mountains to the north, south to the Slieve Bloom Mountains, even as far east as Wales. Not surprising considering it’s nearly 300 meters above sea level, dominating the surrounding flat landscape.
There was a queue to get into the tomb to try to catch the moment the sunlight hits the back of the chamber so we were happy to wait and watch the shamans and Wiccans perform their equinox rituals outside the cairn. The revellers created a lovely atmosphere with singing and drumming and it rose to a climax when the sun peeped through the bank of cloud on the horizon. Young and old all gathered for the event, turned to the east and watched the sun rise – it felt really special, everyone sharing the experience and I look forward to going back for the Spring Equinox.
Although we didn’t see the sunlight enter the chamber, just being inside it imagining the years of careful alignment and engineering of the structure and the beautiful mysterious carvings inside left us awe-struck at the genius of these people that lived five and a half thousand years ago. It made us want to learn more about that period of Ireland’s history and we decided we’d make it our purpose to visit all the Neolithic sites in the country. On another adventure, we had the pleasure of celebrating Samhain at the Hill of Tlachtga, the home of Halloween. It was a magical evening and we learned even more about Ireland’s ancient sites.
Inside the ancient tomb
Heading back down the trail we were looking forward to breakfast down at the hostel – rashers, sausage and delicious relish all encased in a fresh fluffy bap washed down with a large cup of tea – just what we needed!
After breakfast, the centre hosted a talk by one of the local experts on cairns in the area (there’s 36!). It was a very interesting insight into the history of how they were discovered and the legends and names associated with them. You can find out all about the lore and get guided tours of all the sites at the Loughcrew Megalithic Centre. They also arrange tours direct from Dublin if you don’t have a car.
This blog post is the first of a series on day trips that you can do from Dublin. If you want to get more out of your visit to Dublin, check out these easy day trips that provide an escape from a busy city and will give you a taste of what the rest of Ireland hast to offer: Newgrange, The Vale of Clara, Glendalough Monastic Settlement, The Rock of Dunamase and The Hill of Tara.
Off season travel in Ireland gives you the opportunity to see its beauty without battling with high season crowds. Bring your sense of adventure and some rain gear (just in case!) and you’ll have deserted beaches all to yourself and you’ll still be greeted with the warmest of welcomes. For more off season travel in Ireland you should read all about walking among the spring wildflowers in Burren National Park, or discover why Ireland’s northwest is best for off season travel.