Archaeology: For some a boring subject, while for others it’s about ‘digging up dinosaurs’ or as my dear departed brother would say ‘ah they're only auld stones’. I think I can safely say for me, as with tens of thousands of other folk, it’s the most fascinating scientific subject of them all. And while Hollywood films such as ‘Indiana Jones’ & TV programs like ‘Time Team’ have made it a very popular subject in recent times, it is still perceived in the wider scope of modern society as too ‘highbrow’ for ordinary folk. And so, some weeks ago, Tom asked me would I be interested in writing a ‘Guest Blog’ for The Standing Stone. I would be delighted I replied and inquired what subject or topic would be appropriate. ‘Whatever you wish’ he replied. So decisions, decisions. For some days I poured over the many awesome megalithic structures I have researched & visited over the years but one has always held a very special place in my heart. When, or indeed where, my love-affair with archaeology & history in general began is hard to pin-point but I suspect it would have been when I was around six or seven years of age (1960s). My late father was employed with Bórd Fáilte (the Irish Tourist Board, now Fáilte Ireland) since its inception in the early 50s and part of his work involved extensive travel around the country. He often commented about various places he had been and the wonderful historical places he had seen. Of course, for a young impressionable boy like me, this brought about magical imaginary events involving Cú Chulainn; Oisín & Tír na nÓg; Brian Boru & those dastardly Vikings among others. However, he did say how at times the travel became somewhat of a bore and wished he had company of sorts. On one occasion, my mother, eager to get the kids out from under her feet, suggested he bring me along to keep him company. He reluctantly agreed and on his next trip I was packed away with my ‘sambos’ & milk in the front seat on my first trek down the country to Cork. He had to visit the South-West Regional office in Cork city & long before motorways or good surface roads, it would take upwards of 3 ½ hours.
As we travelled through counties Kildare, Laois & Offaly, my father would point-out various castles, round towers & churches along the way and when we came to Cashel, I was awe-stuck by the famous Rock, and this enormous edifce perched on top of a large hill and imagined the tales of heroes that once surrounded this magnificent structure. As we passed Mitchelstown, heading to Fermoy, my father asked would I like to visit a very ancient and special place called ‘The Witch’s Bed’. I at once replied ‘yes’, with a gleam of excitement and a little trepidation that perhaps the ‘witch’ may still be there or at least close-by. As we pulled up along-side this small green area on a country back-road, I have a distinct memory of huge slabs of stone, rising up to what seemed to me, gigantic proportions. We got out of the car and walked the short distance to the gateway and entered the witch’s bed, which I later discovered was Labbacallee wedge tomb. I was speechless seeing this huge stone structure and dark, seemingly foreboding interior standing before me. As we entered I remember my father hunched down, me walking along, as we moved deep inside the cavernous tomb. After a while of my fruitlessly searching for precious jewels or shiny swords, we departed, leaving behind a memory that would endure and help to shape my future understanding & appreciation of the achievements of my ancestral megalithic builders & their long forgotten lives and deaths. Since that fateful day many decades ago, my insane interest in Labbacallee has grown and indeed, has never wavered. But of course, I am not the only one to be enchanted by the ‘Witch’s Bed’ or to give it it’s more commonly known name Labbacallee wedge tomb, locally known as ‘The Hag’s Bed.’ Local folklore links this site with the Celtic Hag Goddess - Cailleach Bheur, which would appear to have been Cailleach Bheara, or Caillech Berre, (the Old Woman of Beare), that is, Bearhaven, in County Cork. Leaba Caillighe in Irish means ‘The Hag’s Bed’. There is also a parish in the town-land of Lismore, County Waterford which has the same name, in the form of Labbanacallee, ‘Leaba na caillighe’. The ‘Witch’s Bed’ form of the name may also have a link with the Neolithic passage tomb complex of Loughcrew - Sliabh na Caillí or Sliabh na Cailleach, meaning ‘The Mountains of the Witch’. Mary Hickson, also refers to the tomb as ‘the Nun’s or Old Woman’s Bed’ (JRSAI).
Historically, published references to the Hag’s Bed or indeed any other megalithic tombs in County Cork, before the original Ordnance Survey 6 inch maps in 1841, are very scant. Indeed, it wasn’t until Charles Smith (1750) that we have any reference to it. Written about 1759, Smith gives a sketch of it as it then could be seen and notes that ‘the Irish say it belonged to a giantess’ and that by ‘the shape of this monument it seems to have been the tomb of some noted person, probably one of the ancient kings of Fermoy, in whose territory it stands’. Subsequent writers like Gough (1789, Vol. 3, p. 506), Townsend (1815, pp. 116-120), Beaufort (1828, pp. 121-122) and Lewis (1837, Vol. 1, p. 655) made passing references to it but it was John Windele (1801-1865) who made the most significant contribution to our knowledge of Labbacallee during the latter part of this period. From 1841 to the first revision of the County, (c. 1896) published references to Co. Cork tombs seem to be confined to four sites, Labbacallee, Kilmaclenine, Scrahanard and Altar and it was not until a British architect, George Wilkinson (1845), that we have our first good drawing of Labbacallee (image 1). Comparing these early tombs, he notes that ‘near Fermoy is a very peculiar variety of these early structures, being an oblong building constructed with large blocks of limestone of the locality’. Other writers between the Ordnance Survey editions such as Brash (1853, pp. 272-273; 1874-75, pp. 101-102), Stokes (1882) and Coleman (1895, pp. 282-283) mention the same sites but add little or no extra information.
(image 1) Labbacallee by George Wilkinson (1845)
William Borlase (1897) in his opus ‘The Dolmens of Ireland’ (Vol I pp. 8-11) wrote of his visit to the tomb and published a plan of the tomb (image 2). He tells us that ‘on the old road to Fermoy, is a Giant’s Grave called Leaba Caillighe. This is, without exception, the most noted dolmen of extended form in Ireland. It has been frequently noticed, described, and figured. It is now so overgrown that the drawings made of it, when it was uncovered by vegetation, are valuable, and, indeed, the only representations obtainable. I myself found it difficult to measure and impossible to sketch’.
(image 2) A plan of Labbacallee, drawn by William C. Borlase from
‘The Dolmens of Ireland’ Vol. 1 (1897)
William Wakeman (1903) describes the tomb as consisting ‘of a double range of stones, the internal lines forming the supports of the covering stones. The largest of the cap-stones measures 15 feet by 9 feet, the second being partially buried in earth. The entire measurement is estimated to have been not less than 42 feet. The line of direction is east and west; the width of the inner chamber is 6 feet, and it is now 5 feet high, and sinks towards the lower end’. While Eric Peet (1912) in his book ‘Rough Stone Monuments and Their Builders’, describes the tomb as ‘shaped roughly like a ship, and runs to a point at the east end, thus representing the bow’. Later eminent archaeologists like Joseph Raftery (1951) describe it as a ‘fine example’ & Peter Harbison (1970) said it to be ‘one of the biggest wedge tombs in Ireland’.
The Irish Wedge Tomb:
Wedge tombs, formally known as ‘Wedge-Shaped Gallery-Graves’, are the most numerous megalithic tombs in Ireland, with just over 500 examples being recorded, which represents about one third of the total megalithic tombs on the island. They were generally built around 2,500 BC - 2,000 BC, the last phase of the great megalithic tomb building in Ireland and are mainly distributed in the west, where over 75% of them occur (image 3)
(image 3) Distribution of Wedge Tombs in Ireland
They are so called because of their narrow, wedge shaped chamber which decreases in height and width from the front to the rear. The main chamber is constructed of orthostats and is roofed with one or more roof stones which rest directly on the side stones. Some have a portico or antechamber at the front while some, like Labbacallee, have a small chamber at the rear. This division can be with a roof high slab, a pair of jambs and on rare occasions a sill stone. Usually the chamber is flanked by one or two lines of outer walling which taper towards the rear to form a straight or U-shaped end with a straight facade at the front of the tomb. Cairns may be round, oval or D-shaped and they consistently face west, the majority being aligned to the south-west & west towards the general position of the setting sun. As only a small number of wedge tombs have been excavated to date (20), our knowledge of burial rituals & grave goods is very limited but cremation seems to be the preferred burial rite. Un-burnt burials have been recorded in a few cases, Labbacallee, for example, where un-burnt bones were found in both the main chamber and the end chamber. The origin of the Irish wedge tomb can be traced directly to NW France, as tombs similar in design and alignment are very common in the Breton Peninsula (et al Raftery).
Labbacallee Wedge Tomb (Co. Cork) SMR No. CO027-086
(image 4) Labbacallee viewed from the SE
Labbacallee is a well preserved monumental wedge tomb, one of the finest & largest of its type in Ireland and was excavated over eighty years ago in 1934 by Harold G. Leask & Liam Price (image 5). It is a National Monument in State care (Registration Number 318). It is located in pasture, on top of a low gently sloping hill, 450m south of the River Funshion, (An Fhuinsinn) a tributary of the River Blackwater, (An Abhainn Mhór), SE of the town of Glanworth (Gleannúir) and NW of the town of Fermoy (Mainistir Fhear Maí). The present remains consist of a long, sub-rectangular gallery, aligned WNW-ESE, and divided into a west main chamber, 6.2m in length and 1.7m in width, and a small east end chamber, 0.9m in length and 1.2m in width, and the whole tomb is covered by three roof-stones.
(image 5) Labbacalle (after Leask & Price 1936)
The main chamber (image 6) is 1.8m in height at the western end, decreasing in both height and width towards the eastern rear end which is 1.2m in height. The gallery walls are doubled and flanked on either side by massive outer-walling with three buttress stones standing at the east end of the gallery. There is a further row of outer walling 0.5m to 1.2m from either side. A line of low kerb-stones to the south of the gallery, enclose the low remains of a cairn and some remains to the north of the gallery.
(image 6) The main chamber viewed from the West
The contents of the main chamber included a 0.60m deep fill of earth and stones, in which contained a bone point, a spindle whorl and a fragment of human skull. Fragments of two human skeletons, an adult male and a child, were found at the eastern end of the chamber, along with a female skull (lead image & image 7), found standing upright. A headless female skeleton lay at the bottom of the eastern chamber. A medical expert who examined the bones considered that the female skull, found in the main chamber, belonged to this skeleton. In 1984, some 50 years after the excavation, three radiocarbon dates of samples of un-burnt bone have produced dates for these burials. The two skeletons in the main chamber were dated to 2,458 - 2,038 BC and 2,202 - 1,776 BC respectively while a long bone from the headless skeleton in the end chamber provided a date of 2,456 - 2,138 BC. These dates would indicate primary burials in the second half of the third millennium BC at intervals over two and a half centuries or so. Fragments of one well-made pottery vessel with incised lines decoration, considered to be Beaker (image 8), and some of coarser, flat bottomed pottery (Knockadoon Class II) were also recovered from the same levels.
(image 7) ‘The Old Hag’s Head’
female skull from the eastern chamber
(image 8) Beaker pottery from Largantea, 2,400-2,000 BC
(After Ivor Herring 1938)
Not since the construction of the massive passage tombs in the Boyne Valley in the Middle - Late Neolithic, had the inhabitants of this island undertaken such enormous projects as wedge tombs like this. Indeed, it was the craftsmanship, knowledge & skills, honed over many millennia that were finally expressed in mega wedge tombs like this one at Labbacallee. As for the ‘Old Hag’!! Her name or title we will never know but I think one thing we can be positively sure of. She was a person of very real importance who, for whatever reason, commanded great respect in life, so much so that in her death, her kin ensured that this monumental tomb would mark her last place of rest for all & future generations to see. I hope you enjoyed this Blog Post as much as I have in writing it. Thank you Tom & The Standing Stone for giving me this opportunity to indulge myself in what is most possibly one of my favourite megalithic tombs.
Go raibh míle maith agat agus fáilte.
Borlase, William C., - ‘The Dolmens of Ireland’ Vol. II (1897)
Brash, Richard, R., - ‘The Ogam Monuments’ (1869 p.92)
Gough, Richard, - ‘Camden’s Britannia’ Vol. III (1789 p.506)
de Valera, R., & Ó Nualláin, S., - ‘Survey of Megalithic Tombs of Ireland’ Vol. IV (1982)
Harbison, Peter, - ‘National and Historic Monuments of Ireland’ (Gill and Macmillan. 1970)
Journals of the Royal Society for Antiquaries in Ireland (JRSAI)
Leask, H. G., Price, L., Martin, C. P. & Bailey, K. C. - ‘The Labbacallee Megalith, Co. Cork’
(Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol. 43, (1935 - 1937), pp. 77-101)
Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary (1837)
Peet, Eric, - ‘Rough Stone Monuments and Their Builders’ (1912)
Raftery, Joseph, - ‘Prehistoric Ireland’ (London. 1951)
Smith, Charles, - ‘The Ancient and Present State of the County and City of Cork’ (1759)
Wakeman, W. F., - ‘Handbook of Irish Antiquities’ (1903)
Wilkinson, George, - ‘Practical Geology and Ancient Architecture of Ireland’ (1845, p.50)
Windele, John, ‘Topography of Desmond’ (p.17)
Philip Powell is a blogger who runs Megalithic Monuments of Ireland which is one of the largest databases of Irish megalithic monuments on the web. It is regularly updated with detailed information on sites. We are very grateful for his contribution...