The sad destruction of Ireland's prehistoric monuments is a long-running problem

The sad destruction of Ireland's prehistoric monuments is a long-running problem

The news that a five-thousand-year-old Neolithic passage-tomb in Co Sligo was vandalised, possibly by treasure hunters, is sadly the latest in a long line of incidents in which ancient Irish monuments have been damaged. Anthony Murphy of Mythical Ireland examines the issue of the destruction of heritage and calls for better funding and a change in attitudes, along with new education schemes, to protect monuments.

Passage-tombs are precious things. There are at least 240 of them in the Republic of Ireland, and possibly many more, but their great age makes them cherished remnants of a long-past era. The best-known passage-tomb in Ireland is Newgrange, in the Brú na Bóinne complex in Meath, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Before Newgrange was taken into state care, it was in a dilapidated, forlorn state and the actions of vandals there in the 18th and 19th centuries are to be seen vividly in the graffiti etched into many of the stones in the interior of the monument.

In fact, the very survival of the Newgrange monument was under threat at the end of the seventeenth century, when the recently arrived Scottish Presbyterian tenant of the lands at Newgrange, Charles Campbell, ordered workmen to take stones from the monument for the construction of roads and farm buildings. A visit of the Welsh antiquarian Edward Lhuyd seems to have been fortuituos in preventing the vandalism from continuing, and we are fortunate that the damage caused by Campbell's disrespect and ignorance was not more widespread.

A passage-tomb at Ballygawley in Co. Sligo, known as Teach Cailleach a'Bheara (the Cailleach is an ancient deity of unknown date whose name is given to many monuments and landscape features), is currently suffering a similar fate to the late 17th century Newgrange. As reported in the Irish Times, and by Monumental Ireland, someone recently removed a large amount of stones from the cairn there, leaving a cavity in the monument big enough for an adult to lie down in.

The damage to Teach Cailleach a'Bheara (the House of the Cailleach) at Ballygawley, Sligo, captured by Simon Tuite of Monumental Ireland.

The damage being caused to our most ancient monuments led to archaeologist Dr Robert Hensey warning that "not only is there a fear that they won't be there for future generations, they may be lost to this generation".

Heavy footfall from increased visitor numbers at cairns and tombs on Ireland's hilltops and mountaintops is a problem. People are walking on top of cairns, causing damage, in some cases in clear defiance of signs distinctly requesting or ordering people not to climb on the monuments. This is certainly the case at Slieve na Calliagh, Loughcrew, where the interior of Cairn T, the monument widely known for its equinox sunrise alignment, is now closed to the public due to subsidence. Despite this closure, and despite the erection of new signs, people still climb on the cairn.

The beautiful equinox illumination of Cairn T can no longer be witnessed because the site is closed due to damage caused by visitors climbing on the cairn.

At Queen Medb's Cairn at Knocknarea in Sligo, similar ignorance continues. People walk on the giant cairn despite the signs asking them not to do so, but there is an even greater problem. Some people like to take stones as souvenirs, so slowly, stone by stone, these great monuments of the Neolithic (some of them may date back to 3500BC) are disappearing. 

Even though the white quartz at Newgrange is cemented into the front wall of the monument, that did not prevent someone from prising out a sample a number of years ago and bringing it home with them as a "souvenir". Years later, the staff at the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, which controls access to the monument, received a curious package in the post. It was a box, inside which there was a white quartz stone and a note. The note was from the repentant thief. The theft of the stone had, he claimed, brought him years of bad luck, which eventually compelled him to return it, by post, to the caretakers of the monument.

It is certainly a great shame and an inexcusable tragedy that in the modern age of apparent enlightenment and widespread education, that our ancient monuments should continue to suffer the neglect, damage and shameless ravaging that has been a hallmark of recent centuries.

Metal detectors

Those who walk upon the smaller cairns at Loughcrew may not realise the great age of the structures upon which they stand, or indeed that walking upon them is contributing to their steady demise. But those who bring metal detectors to places like Loughcrew (and this has been an issue at Loughcrew and other sites) are a particularly invidious coterie of criminals who have no regard for the laws, or indeed for the sanctity of these ancient places. 

Apparently some of these people believe that valuable gold or bronze objects may be deposited in and around these Stone Age monuments, which in itself is an indication of their own ignorance. One is unlikely to find gold in a monument that predates metallurgy by hundreds of years!

The use of metal detectors is banned in Ireland except under licence from the Minister for Heritage.

However, having said that, gold items were found by a labourer digging at Newgrange in 1842, but which were obviously deposited long after the monument had been built. I have speculated that it was this find that prompted the disastrous "excavation" of Dowth five years later, when R.H. Frith and his colleagues from the Royal Irish Academy defaced and ravaged that great monument, leaving an enormous crater in the top of the cairn. Thankfully they abandoned the excavation after two seasons, but not before almost wrecking it.

The damage inflicted upon Teach Cailleach a' Bheara in Sligo is significant. The indiscriminate removal of stones is a crime against archaeology as well as the ancient heritage of Ireland. Precious stratigraphy has been destroyed, possibly disallowing carbon dating of some of its layers. 

Those who perpetrated the damage may have believed there were hidden or concealed entrances or chambers beneath the stones, or indeed that precious valuables might be found.

Particularly notable is the fact that this monument is difficult to see from the surrounding terrain, and it takes physical effort to climb up the hill. Whoever did this knew the monument was there, and probably brought equipment such as shovels with them to the site to help them remove the stones. Simon Tuite of Monumental Ireland says:

The route up to the monument is tough going and it takes nearly hour to reach the summit. Also, to create a hole that size would also have taken some considerable time and effort.

Another cairn, at Corrin Hill near Fermoy in Co. Cork, was also damaged recently. The rate at which monuments are being damaged, vandalised and even obliterated is stark. A Facebook Community set up to highlight damage to Irish monuments, which has gained 21,000 followers, regularly highlights such incidents. (See Save Irish Fairy Forts, Heritage Conservation Community here).

It is an offence to be in possession of a metal detector at monuments and sites protected under the National Monuments Act. It is also an offence under Irish law to use a detection device to search for archaeological objects anywhere within the State or its territorial seas, without the permission of the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. There are, apparently, severe penalties for such offences under the National Monuments Acts 1930 to 2014.

However, the existence of severe penalties does not deter some people from continuing to use these devices. The vandals and treasure hunters unfortunately take advantage of the isolated location of some of these monuments. It is difficult, nay impossible, to police these sites on a 24/7 basis.

Notwithstanding this difficulty, perhaps an increase in penalties should be considered. A high-profile prosecution of a treasure-hunting vandal might go a long way towards preventing future incidents. In any case, we do have a national police force, An Garda Síochána. We could perhaps justifiably ask the Garda Commissioner exactly what resources there are to police our treasured monuments, and inquiries could also be made as to just how proactive the gardaí are in investigating such crimes. I don't like to be cynical, but perhaps such crimes are not very high on their priority list. And that leads us into discussion of a wider, more systemic, problem.

Government attitude

There is a bigger issue here relating to the sheer number of ancient monuments in the Irish landscape and the severe under-funding of the preservation of our precious ancient sites. While the problem of the destruction, vandalism and general neglect of Irish prehistoric monuments is not a new one, the attitude of successive Irish governments of recent decades in relation to archaeology and monuments has not exactly been exemplary.

We cannot blame the actions of a very small number of vandals on the government, and it would be disingenuous to do so. But there is a long-running perception that various governments have failed to recognise the true value of our ancient monuments and that, outside of the big sites like Brú na Bóinne (the visitor centre there was refurbished last year to the tune of €5 million), heritage has been cash-starved and thus deprived of resources which would aid in its conservation and protection for future generations to enjoy.

There is a perception among archaeologists, particularly those employed by the State, that the location of heritage and monuments services in basements and at the end of long corridors ("last door on the left") indicates the inferiority of heritage conservation in the minds of the powers that be, and the underprivileged status of archaeology in general.

In many cases, archaeology is only thrust into the public eye when accompanied by negative headlines such as the Irish Times' story about the damage at Teach Cailleach a' Bheara. The saga around the routing of the M3 motorway through the Tara-Skryne valley close to the Hill of Tara still leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. The chosen route was highly controversial and led to years of protests.

The government has been seen in recent decades to be all too enthusiastic about large infrastructure projects and allowing massive urban development, and in many cases the archaeological work around these projects takes the form of "conservation by record" – i.e. dig the site (often in a limited time frame), take photos and drawings of everything, recover salvaegable artifacts, and then let the bulldozers obliterate it.

However, there are isolated incidents where something is saved. In 1999, the design of a new bypass motorway in Co Clare was altered so as not to destroy a sacred fairy bush. But these successes are few and far between. 

The point here is that although monuments cannot be attended by custodians or protectors 365 days and nights a year, the government can be seen to send the wrong signals in relation to our monuments. It is apparent that archaeology can be sacrificed – if the price is right.

A historical problem

The destruction of monuments is a historical problem. Long before modern roads and cars and shopping centres and housing estates, monuments – even huge ones – were being obliterated from the landscape. 

There is a common misconception that the church was responsible for destroying monuments. However, it is apparent that most of the damage and destruction has been carried out in the past few centuries, and much of it by careless and ignorant landowners, tenants, farmers and foreign occupiers. 

I have spent years documenting the sad case of a monument known as 'Ireland's Stonehenge",a huge henge or embanked enclosure incorporating several circles of stones that was documented in the 1740s but which in the course of the following century was completely obliterated from the landscape, its very location unknown until its footprint was found in an old aerial image in the 1990s.(1)

A passage-tomb on Montpelier Hill overlooking Dublin City was largely destroyed in the 1720s when its stones were removed to construct a shooting lodge known as the Hellfire Club.(2)

The damage to Dowth caused by Frith's "excavation" of the late 1840s.

The excessive damage seen at Dowth in the 1840s was replicated in the same century at Loughcrew, where a large cairn on Carnbane (the westernmost of the hills of Loughcrew) was similarly despoiled. The cairns there were once covered with white quartz, but it was mostly gradually removed, apparently to be reused as decorative stone on modern graves.

These are just isolated examples but hundreds of prehistoric monuments, including many from the Neolithic, were destroyed or badly damaged over the past few centuries.

While many farmers are very respectful about monuments on their land, the historical record of agriculture in relation to preservation of ringforts, barrows and other structures has not been good. The fact that so many of these only become visible as crop marks during rare drought conditions is perhaps indicative of just how many of them have been levelled by ploughing in the past century.

What can be done?

The difference now is that the public should be much better educated about our monuments, our heritage and our history than before, so there should be little excuse for damage to and removal of monumental remains.

So what more can be done?

I think that we still fail to grasp the value of our monumental and indeed mythic heritage. Too often we see it as something for the tourists, and indeed the increased footfall to many ancient monuments is part of the problem. At the Hill of Tara, for instance, a conservation plan is being formulated, partly as a response to the gradual erosion of parts of monuments there caused by the constrant tramping of visitors' feet over them.

The Mound of the Hostages, a Neolithic passage-tomb on the Hill of Tara, fenced off to prevent visitors from walking on it. Pictured in March of this year.

A similar plan is needed for the Loughcrew complex, where many unroofed cairns lie open to the elements, slowly degrading and disappearing under the effects of the harsh Irish weather. The main image at the top of this page shows Cairn S at Loughcrew, one such monument which is clearly feeling the effects of decades of neglect, and at the same time the detrimental results of increased visitor numbers.

It may be that part of the solution here will be the fencing off of more monuments, to prevent any access to them. That would be a shame, but at least it would guarantee their survival for another generation.

Education would be a good starting place. There is a clear need for more education in our schools about the precious nature of the Neolithic monuments in particular, and the importance of protecting our historic and prehistoric monuments and remnants for future generations. After all, the reason many of them survive today is because our own ancestors ensured they were protected.

There needs to be greater awareness among young people of our mythology too. In former times, going back perhaps by only about three generations, a majority of Irish people would have been aware of, and indeed would have propagated, the old stories about the sacred places in their locality. Sadly, Irish mythology is not taught in our schools today, and apart from the very well-known tales, such as the Salmon of Knowledge and the Children of Lir, perhaps, little is done to teach young people about the stories of their own areas.

But if we can teach children the true value of our heritage, and not just the apparent value to tourism, as if monuments were a commodity, that would be a great starting place.

Perhaps a campaign to highlight the neglect of archaeology and monuments should be directed towards sitting government ministers and TDs? 

When the new coalition government was announced at the end of June, a friend of mine who is a very well-known and respected archaeologist, posted this as his Facebook status:

Arts and Heritage? Nope. Culture and Heritage? Nope. Tourism and Heritage? Nope. Housing, Planning and Heritage?! Really?

It is a further indication of the poor priority that heritage receives. The fact that heritage has been "lumped in with" housing and planning is not just supremely ironic, but indeed bitterly disappointing to many who are interested in the conservation of our past. Planning and housing have been responsible for the destruction of huge amounts of archaeology, and there is a demonstrable need for separation of the two. Many construction developments are green-lighted with little regard for the consequences to archaeology. It is a cynical and deeply upsetting situation to see heritage and planning as part of the same government department. 

I suggest we write to our TDs and ministers and let them know of our disgust over this conflict of interests.

More signage is needed at these monuments which clearly outline the penalties for interference with, or damage to, the structures. This will perhaps not deter the tiny minority of professional treasure-hunters who clearly don't care for the law, but it should help bring a better awareness, and indeed highlight the incalculable value of the monuments. Fines and prison terms for such offences should be publicised widely.

Heritage centres, tourist offices and visitor sites also have a role to play because they can help highlight to visitors the delicate and cherished nature of the stone age sites in particular, and thus advise people how to visit them without causing damage.

The very best way to protect monuments is to empower the local communities to do so. In the old days, this was done through custodianship, a practice still carried out in certain parts of the country. A local family or community group takes custodianship of a site and tends to it and keeps an eye on it. This might not work for mountaintop cairns, but is certainly a very positive and constructive step in protecting monuments elsewhere.

Who to complain to?

It is also important to publicise information about the authorities responsible for the monuments. I'm not sure that everybody knows it, but if you witness damage to a national monument you should contact the National Monuments Service by phone on 01-8882000 or email at as soon as possible.

If you witness someone causing damage to a monument or using a metal detector anywhere in Ireland where you suspect they are looking for archaeological treasures, immediately contact your local Gardaí. 

Also, it would be no harm in any case to contact your local minister, TD, senator, cathaoirleach, mayor, councillor or other public representative to highlight these issues. Every monument should have signs warning about the penalties of vandalism. Those in particular danger might need to be fenced off. And ask your representative to lobby for a new programme of education about our past.

Let us not hand down an empty legacy to those who come after us. Let them not be the ones who read in their history books about the great stone monuments of hoary antiquity that were destroyed, abandoned and left to ruin by a selfish, careless or ignorant generation.

Let us ensure the sad legacy of Ireland's Stonehenge is not repeated.

Ireland's Stonehenge can only now be appreciated in artists' impressions of the monument, which was obliterated some time in the late eighteenth century. Image © Kerem Gogus.


(1) For more about Ireland's Stonehenge, see Murphy, Anthony (2017), Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past, Liffey Press.

(2) See: Pictures from the excavation of a 5,000-year-old passage-tomb at the Hellfire Club overlooking Dublin.

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