Bawnboy and Templeport
History Heritage Folklore
by Chris Maguire

BELLAHEADY CAIRN

 

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 of corn.

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.

PRELIMINARY REPORT

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 remained.

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
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.

DETAILS :

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 skulls.

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 as follows
“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. MacAlister.


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 feet down.

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
Collar of Gold

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