A great stir was created in September 1932 when
County Council workers discovered human remains in what is today
known as the Bellaheady Cairn. A few days previously Michael McTeague,
Killaragh, one of the owners of the Bellaheady mountain as it is
locally called, made a deal with the Assistant Co. Surveyor Thomas
Sheridan, to sell the stones in the Cairn to Cavan County Council
for use in widening the local roads under the new Government grant.
One of the workers who had been cutting cart tracks through the
turf banks, to facilitate the removal of the Cairn stones noticed
that no heather was growing where he stood and that there was an
opening in the Cairn through which animals such as foxes or rabbits
could enter. His curiosity was aroused and being joined by other
workers they proceeded to lift stones until they had an entrance
several feet wide in the Cairn. Under a large limestone flag which
rested in a sloping position on a stone placed beneath it, they
noticed a human skull and other human bones.
The skull was removed and the other bones were
left undisturbed. No further interference took place before experts
could examine the find. The front of the grave was closed by a low,
roughly built, dry-stone wall which formed the arc of a circle.
The ganger, Francis McGovern, on the discovery,
at once proceeded to Mr. Sheridan, who visited the scene as well
as Michael McTeague and they decided that they would replace the
stones in the Cairn. Mr. McTeague however, asked them to commence
operations at the far side of the Cairn, and that he would accept
responsibility. Mr. Sheridan advised him to consult a solicitor
and said he would await developments. Mr. McTeague insisted that
the Cairn was not minerals as it was above ground.
Shortly afterwards Sergeant O’Sullivan, Ballyconnell,
came on the scene and took possession of the skull to be sent to
Professor McAllister, Dublin. Mr. John Donohoe, Lecharrownahone,
a returned American, also visited the place and protested against
any interference with what he considered to be a national monument.
He subsequently took steps to get in touch with a solicitor, and
with Mrs. Bridie Smith Brady M.R.S.A., the Breffni antiquarian who
contributed so frequently to the Anglo-Celt.
The local theory was that the skeleton was that
of Conall Cearnach, one of the Red Branch Knights, from which Ballyconnell
takes its name. It was pointed out by local history students that
Conall was killed at the Ford beside the town, his body carried
to the spot for burial, and that to mark his grave the women of
the district carried stones on their backs till they raised the
enormous pile which stands as a memorial to a national hero. Another
legend tells that Conall was killed in an engagement with the forces
of Queen Maeve of Connaught.
The discovery of the skeleton led to many local
stories, one being that a man living two miles away, and in view
of the Cairn, decided to build a house from the stones and drew
some of them away for that purpose, but that each morning it was
found that the work of the previous day had been demolished, so
that he abandoned the work. Another story is that each night a light
is seen in the Cairn and that an English Captain in charge of Militia,
came to the locality and explored the hole in the Cairn, but becoming
ill soon died, while still another story relates that a local man
carried stones by night to build a byre for his cows, but that when
he had it finished it fell and killed the animals.
Many sight-seers continued to visit the scene but
they were requested not to interfere with the cairn. Michael McTeague
reported that a year previously (1931), within a few yards of the
cairn, he discovered a ring of stones 12 feet in diameter, two missing
at one side and one in the centre. His theory was that the ring
represented where a heather house stood and that the stones missing
in the ring represented the door, with the house built like a stack
A week after the discovery of the skeleton inside
the Cairn, Mr. Sean P. O’Riordain M.A., National Museum of
Ireland arrived on the scene. Operations were begun a few yards
in front of where the skeleton was seen on the East side. An obstruction
of stones and peat having been thrown back, the face of the cave
was revealed, built up in ditch-like fashion with stones which could
be lifted by a man. This was photographed and a sketch made, after
which it was taken down stone by stone revealing a large flat stone
seven feet long by four feet across and ten inches thick. It rested
on rough stones at either end and was about three feet above ground
level at its eastern extremity, and sloping back westward until
it reached the gravel behind. Close in at the edge of the stone
lay the skeleton with the head to the north. The flag preserved
the skeleton from wet or rain. The skull which had been sent the
previous week to Professor McAllister, Dublin, was then replaced
in its original position by the investigator, after being satisfied
on this point by those who had found it.
Further photographs and sketches were taken from
different angles, and then commenced the packing of the remains
into three parcels, every particle being sifted as work progressed.
When the finest particles were sifted and stones removed, a further
jawbone was discovered which showed that there were two bodies in
the cave. The teeth in the jawbones showed a good state of preservation.
The skull showed a dent on the top and the front portion, jaws,
nose and chin had fallen off.
The following Sunday hundreds of people visited
the place. Mr. O Riordan expressed satisfaction that although the
Cairn had been opened and again closed, it was done so carefully
that his investigations were not interfered with in the least. Next
day the work of clearing from around the slab started and after
it had been accomplished, it was reported that under the edge of
the stone at the back, resting on the gravel, was found the ashes
of cremated bodies. The work ceased the same evening and Mr. O Riordan
returned to Dublin to report.
Meanwhile many theories were put forward. The finding
of cremated remains independent of the two skeletons, convinced
people that there were interments at different periods while the
ring of stones which Michael McTeague had seen in 1931, about fifteen
yards from the Cairn was now being mentioned as the place where
the remains were cremated.
The human remains found bear witness to both inhumation
and cremation. The remains of two human beings and perhaps three
may be represented but until we have a complete anatomical report
on the bones we cannot be sure on this point. These remains are
fragmentary and incomplete, but that they belong to the Bronze Age
is a reasonable assumption. Some of the bones showed traces of fire
but the cremation process was not thorough, as some large pieces
No Bronze Age objects such as have been found in
similar burial places were discovered and the absence of such finds
makes dating difficult. About the middle of the Bronze Age the rite
of inhumation was giving way before that of cremation. In Ireland
the Bronze Age was roughly 2000 B.C. to 400 B.C. so that the Bellaheady
burial belongs to a time 1000-1200 years B.C.
The fact that the burial is in a projection of
the Cairn, a most unusual position, leads to the conclusion that
the grave is a secondary one, constructed at a later period than
the Cairn itself, and outside its periphery. It would appear to
have been joined up with the Cairn by the addition of further material
or by shifting some of the stones already belonging to the Cairn.
Plan and section of grave at Killaragh
The remains were subjected to a minute anatomical
examination. Dr. C.P. Martin gives the following details.
The remains belong to three individuals –
The cranium, mandible and many of the bones of a female.
The bones of a male.
Very fragmented remains of a child.
The bones had been disturbed undoubtedly by animals
and some fragments of the humerus of a hare were found. The structure
of the tomb would not have prevented the entrance or exit of rats
or even foxes.
MALE : Cremation incomplete and non-burnt bones
were of the head and feet. From bone size, the man appeared to be
over six feet tall. The worn condition of teeth showed him to be
of adult age.
FEMALE : Skeleton of female was more complete and
bore no evidence of cremation. A young adult, 5 feet tall. Some
teeth showed signs of dental caries, a disease which appears to
be one of modern civilization, being very rarely observed in pre-historic
CHILD : Remains too fragmented to provide information.
Some people hastily inferred that Bellaheady Cairn was the grave
of Conall Cearnach and that the remains discovered were in part
those of Conall. This theory creates insuperable difficulties. Conall
Cearnach was an Iron Age personage and he flourished in the early
Celtic period 400 B.C. to 100 A.D. , the Red Branch, Queen Medb,
Tain Bo Cuailgne first century of Christianity. He lived 1000 years
after the people whose remains were discovered in the Cairn. Conall’s
remains probably rest near the river Graine but only future excavations
can say if he is buried in the Cairn.
The Cairn is now preserved under the national monuments act 1930.
Before leaving the district Mr. O Riordain visited
the townland of Killycluggin and inspected the La Tene stone on
William Bannon’s land. Mr. John Donohoe, Lecharrownahone who
wrote to professor McAllister, Dublin received an encouraging reply
“You have done a great service in calling attention to the
destruction that was going on at the Cairn in Bellaheady…..I
shall call at the Board of Works office tomorrow to take the necessary
steps to have the monument or what is left of it, protected:…..Thanking
you most sincerely for your prompt action. Yours faithfully R.E.
It was learned at this time that Mr Bernard O Reilly, P.C., Lissanover,
had reported finding three stone axes, and arrangements were being
made to have them handed over to the National Museum.
They were found in Lissanover bog a few yards from
Eskelawney drain which lies between the townlands of Cor and Lissanover.
The finds were made in deal or birch stumps which appeared to have
been partly burned. It is stated that no stone axe in the Dublin
Museum reaches the size of the largest which was found on top of
the ground, apparently thrown up without being noticed. The second
largest was discovered about two feet down, and the smallest nine
These axes were found eighty yards East of a rock
standing in an island on the marshy bog or waste. It was in this
same place that Philip McAvinue, Lissanover, discovered the Collar
of Gold, now in the National Museum, Dublin, in 1909.
Collar of Gold