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Finn and the Cailleach: Slieve Gullion & Knock Iveagh - a Winter Solstice Alignment UPDATED 22/08/22

Updated: Aug 22, 2022

'Kingship is male; sovereignty is female' James Mac Killop in 'Myths and Legends of the Celts'

Although the sovereignty 'land-goddess' takes many forms in mythology, one that is common in Ireland is that of a 'hag' - an ugly old woman. She appears in many myths associated with Kingship and she can transform herself into the form of a beautiful young maiden as required. It is she who confers Kingship and she is sometimes referred to as the 'Cailleach Bhérre'.

There is large Neolithic passage tomb known as the 'Cailleach's House' at the summit of Slieve Gullion which is known to align with the setting Sun on the Winter Solstice. It looks in the direction of Loughcrew towards sunset on the Winter Solstice. The monument is in State Care.

The ancient 'heroic' poem 'The Chase'** by the poet Oisin (translated and preserved in the C18th by the incredible Charlotte Brooke), describes the story of Finn and the Cailleach at Slieve Gullion.

"Alas, my ring, for whose dear sake These ceaseless tears I shed Fell from my finger in the lake! (The soft-hair'd virgin said). Let me conjure thee, generous king! Compassionate as brave, Find for me now my beauteous ring That fell beneath the wave!"

In the poem, Finn (of the Fianna) comes across a beautiful young woman with golden hair who is weeping beside the lake at the top of Slieve Gullion. She tells him she has lost her ring in the lake, and Finn dives in to retrieve it for her. Once he finds the ring he becomes old, weak and frail. The beautiful young woman is really the 'Cailleach Bhérre', and she has cast a spell on him! The men of the Fianna eventually force the Cailleach to reverse her spell and restore Finn to his former youth and vigour.

"North of the mount, to Guillen's cave, The alter'd form we bore; Determin'd all her art to brave, And his lost powers restore."

This story can be seen as a metaphor for the weakened Winter Sun (the king) becoming renewed at the turn of the year, and regaining its strength after the Winter Solstice. The coupling of Irish kings and the land goddess was seen as incredibly important, so much so that it was given form in a 'ritual marriage' at the ceremonial inaugurations of kings. It was only through the union of king and his territory that the fertility of the land and the ongoing security of his people could be assured.

Whilst its importance as the ancestral hill of the Uí Echach Coba tribe might have not been recognised or formally recorded until recently, Knock Iveagh (which was probably a passage tomb) is, nonetheless, another far-seeing hill associated with royal inaugurations and an ancient monument ('Eochaidh's cairn') at its peak. The area around it also has many local associations with Finn and the Callieach.

One local story describes the fairies 'singing and dancing around the cairn' in the depths of Winter, but disappearing into a 'cave' to guard their treasures if anyone disturbs them*!

The journey of the Sun as it travels along the impressive outline of the mountains from Donard to Gullion is hard to miss from Knock Iveagh ridge. However, it is only upon reaching Knock Iveagh's summit that the views expand to the North and West and the stunning 360 degree views reveal themselves.

Knock Iveagh can be seen in the foreground (see wind turbine). Image Credit: PAK Aerial Media
The Mournes & Cooley Mountains & Slieve Gullion (L-R) viewed from Ballynafern Townland, Co Down.

The mountains which surround Knock Iveagh are home to other summit cairns such as those at Donard, Commedagh and Carn Mountain in the Mournes, and Dechomet and Croob in the Dromara Hills. To the SW  are the Cooley Mountains with Clermont Cairn and Carnawaddy, and of course the cairns on Gullion. The Knock sits at the centre of this 'amphitheatre', something of an isolated prominence within a geological bowl.

I am very grateful to archaeoastronomer Brian Doyle for his amazing skills with Stellarium and for his assistance in 'nailing down' this next part...

The North Cairn, Slieve Gullion

Using Stellarium (and travelling back in time to the sunsets of the Neolithic), Brian has helped me to prove my theory that there was an alignment between Slieve Gullion and Knock Iveagh at the Winter Solstice in the Neolithic.

There still is, of course, but over time the exact position has changed slightly!

Position of the Winter Setting Sun on Gullion in the Neolithic

When viewed from Knock Iveagh, the weakened Winter Sun appears to sink into the area of the lake on Gullion, adjacent to the Northern cairn!

The folklore talks about the sinking of a ring into this very lake, but of course such a phenomenon would be impossible to see from the mountain itself. In order to see it, you'd need to be in a position from which it could be observed at the right time - preferably a sacred site. Knock Iveagh is just such a place.

We know there was early ritual activity on Knock Iveagh before the cairn there was built, and this has been dated to the Neolithic period. This makes it considerably OLDER than the Northern cairn on Slieve Gullion. It is very tempting to wonder if the ancients may have observed the Sun descending into this part of the mountain from their 'ritual centre' at Knock Iveagh, and entering the waters of the Lough before emerging renewed after the Winter Solstice. Could this be the origin of the story of Finn, the Cailleach Beara and the ring in the lake?

Of course we can never know for sure, but one thing seems obvious to me: we have neither studied, nor properly appreciated the inter-connectedness of these mountain-top cairns and there is still much to learn!

You can read more of my musings on other alignments within the landscape here.

The views from the North cairn on Gullion are, of course, impressive, I have annotated some images below.

click to enlarge

Standing on Knock Iveagh Summit looking to Gullion (Autumn 2015)

My very sincere thanks to archaeoastronomers, Brian Doyle and Douglas Scott for their patient assistance with Stellarium & Google Earth, & for their encouragement with this research!

Hoping to emerge renewed myself (Summer 2022)


Department for Communities, Historic Environment Map Viewer

Google Earth (Pro) PAK Aerial Media

'Myths and Legends of the Celts'; James MacKillop

*'The Unexplained in County Down: Ghosts Legends and Folklore'; Annaclone Historical Society

'Ghost Stories of Ulster'; Annaclone Historical Society

'The Archaeology of Slieve Donard: A cultural biography of Ulster's highest mountain'; Sam Moore

Knock Iveagh and Drumballyroney, Co. Down: Investigation of a Royal Ritual

Landscape; Eamonn P. Kelly

** It is in this important poem that we find the only reference (I am aware of) to the correct name for the Lough on Slieve Gullion - Lough Shieve. Needless to say, I'm doing a bit more digging into the etymology of the name!

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