Siabh gCuilinn (Mountains of the steep slope)
Slieve Gullion, County Armagh, Northern Ireland.
Article by Thomas Baurley and Leaf McGowan,
Technogypsie Productions: http://www.technogypsie.com/reviews/?p=4419 on March 27, 2014.
A mythical hotspot, “Siabh gCuilinn” or “Slieve Gullion” is a majestic burial cairn that rests atop a mountain known after the cairn itself. It sits atop the 573 meter tall mountain in the center of the area of natural beauty known as “The Ring of Gullion“. It is the highest mountain in County Armagh of Northern Ireland. It is also known archaeologically as the highest surviving passage tomb discovered in Ireland. It stands as a large Neolithic burial chamber located on the mountain’s southern summit. The mountain and its tombs are full of folklore and legend, the most notorious being that as “Calliagh Berra’s House” or the home to the wicked hag, Calliagh Berra who lived within this mound. The mountain is just over the border from Ireland in Northern Ireland, just a few miles west of the Cooley Mountains. All of these mountains were volcanic in origin. The hills in this area (Ring of Gullion) are remnant ruins of an ancient volcano dating to over 60 million years ago in age. (Around the time that Europe and North America were drifting apart) There is a lake atop the mountain called “The Lake of Sorrow” or “Calliagh Bheara’s lake”.
There are two cairns on either side of the lake. The Northern Cairn is a round circular mount of stones measuring approximately 40 feet in diameter, while the Southern Cairn (Slieve Gullion) is a large passage grave at 570 meters elevation. Evidence of habitation of the area date to over 6,000 years before the present with remnants of stone monuments, cairns, standing stones, megalithic tombs, and burial chambers. These tombs date to the Bronze Age and the Neolithic. There is also a stone feature called Calliagh Berra’s Chair lower down on a hillock called Spellick. It is a popular spot to visit during Lughnasadh to sit on this chair for various blessings. Evidence of early unsuccessful farming and quarrying can be found on the hill. The first recorded investigation of the tomb was done by locals in 1789 looking for the old lady Cailleach Berra and they only found a few human bones. The cairn was excavated in 1961 by archaeologists: The passage grave cairn was recorded at being 30 meters wide, 5 meters high, an interior chamber of 3.5 meters wide with a corbelled roof of 4.3 meters from the ground.The three large blocks within were believed to be used as basins. Artifacts found consisted of worked flint and a barbed-end arrowhead. It is believed all other artifacts was looted from tomb raiding through the ages. Entrance has been marked as being aligned with the setting sun on the winter solstice. Carbon dating states the cairn was built around 3500 BCE – 2900 BCE. The smaller cairn by the lake had a much later date, most likely Bronze Age. This other cairn consisted of two cist burials – one containing bits of burnt bone that was most likely that of a single adult. The cairns were disturbed during World War II by American soldiers training in the area.
The mountain is mentioned in many legends in Ireland’s history, especially withing the Mythological Cycle and telling of the Fae races of Eire. In the ancient battle epic “the Táin Bó Cuailnge”, the mountain was called “Sliabh Cuilinn”. The nearby gap here in the North is where Cú Chulainn single-handedly fended-off invading armies.
The legend of Calliagh Berra and Finn McCool
The Giant Finn McCool (Finn Mac Cumhaill) had encountered the wicked hag Calliagh Berra (or Miluchra) who was shape shifted into a beautiful enchantress. He found the beautiful maiden to be weeping in sorrow as she had lost her ring in the pool below. Touched by her sadness, he dove into the bottomless lake to retrieve the ring, only to surface with the ring and cursed by her to appear as an old man with hair white as snow. Some time later she did him a favor and removed the evil spell, returning him to his warrior-like physique, losing only his beautiful blonde hair. According to the legend, anyone who swims in this treacherous lake will have their hair turn permanently white. Calliag is Irish for “witch” or “hag” and Calliag Berra, a most notorious otherworldly witch, is attributed to this mountain as well as others, such as the hill of Loughcrew Passage Tomb and the hill of Bellewstown, all in County Meath.
Legend of Áine and Milucra
This tale states that Áine and her sister Milucra were obsessed with the hero “Fionn mac Cumhaill”. They competed for his attention and hand in marriage. Áine had once told her sister Milucra that she would never marry an old man, disturbed by the sight of grey hair. So Milucra cursed the lake atop the mountain that if anyone ever swam in it, their hair would turn white as snow, and their skin would wrinkle up in age. She tricked Fionn into swimming in it, causing him to gain age and white hair, hoping that Áine would no longer be interested in him. Fionn’s soldiers were quite disturbed with this act and forced her violently to restore his age – via a magic elixir from her cornucopia. His hair however never returned to his fairy blonde color he was famous for. Other versions state that Milucra is Cailleach Bhéirre, an ancient Goddess.
the legend of Cú Chulainn
Slieve Gullion in this legend was named after Culann the metalsmith. Originally called “Sétanta”, this young metalsmith spent his childhood here growing up and eventually was called “Cú Chulainn”. While living here, Culann invited Conchobar mac Neasa, the king of Ulster to a feast at his house along these slopes. During the King’s journey, he stopped at the playing field to watch the hurlers play a match. He was so impressed by Sétanta’s performance, he asked him to join him at the feast, and the boy promised to come along after the game. Conchobhar went ahead to the feast and forgot about Sétanta, and Culann had released his ferocious hound to guard the house during the feast, unknown to Sétanta who while approaching the house was attacked. Sétanta killed the hound by either smashing it against a standing stone or driving a sliotar (hurling ball) down its throat with his hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss of his hound so Sétanta promised to replace it and until he could find one old enough to do the job, he himself would guard Culann’s house and thereby was renamed Cú Chulainn, “Culann’s Hound” by the Druid Cathbhadh.