John Arnold: Legends, tales and myths about a North Cork megalithic tomb

These last few days have seen the Autumn Equinox occur. In his weekly column John Arnold talks about a special place built by our ancestors, Labacally ‘wedge’ tomb.
John Arnold: Legends, tales and myths about a North Cork megalithic tomb

Picture showing sunlight reaching the outer chamber of Labacalee wedge tomb. Picture by Eamonn Cotter.

About 30 years ago a group of American tourists were visiting Ireland’s largest megalithic tomb at Labacally, between Fermoy and Glanworth.

They were gobsmacked and amazed at the sheer size of the ancient structure. One of the party was examining the huge capstone on the top of the tomb — estimated to be at least ten tonnes in weight.

“I reckon this stone is different to all the others in the structure,” he declared kind of knowingly. A local man who was a sort of ‘unofficial’ guide and ‘expert’ piped up: “You’re right about that, ‘twas the way that many years ago there was massive flood in the (river) Funcheon and didn’t the flood bring down the stone with it from way back along and by pure chance landed it on top of the others and sure ‘tis here since!”

I suppose any structure, whether God-made or man-made, that’s been in situ for close on 4,500 years will certainly merit stories, yarns and legends.

These last few days have seen the Autumn Equinox occur — always around this time each September. An equinox is normally defined as ‘the instant of time when the plane of Earth’s equator passes through the geometric centre of the Sun’s disc.

This occurs twice each year, around March 20 and September 23. In other words, it is the moment at which the centre of the visible Sun in the sky is directly above the equator.’ Whew there’s a scientific mouthful for ye! Some people give a shorter definition of equinox by simply saying it’s a time of equal day and night.

Astronomers, scientists and other experts have built up a huge array of knowledge over the centuries and millennia about the movement of the sun and the moon and their relationship to the earth we live in. In my opinion then it’s nearly beyond comprehension to realise that the people who built Newgrange and Stonehenge and Labacally too, thousands of years ago, had such knowledge.

Just a few evenings ago I stood at Labacally close to sunset. As the sun declined it’s slanting rays lit up the darkened chamber of this massive ‘wedge’ tomb. It’s perhaps easier to understand how our very ancient ancestors could mark the shortest day of the year at Midwinter and the longest day at Midsummer but how did they estimate precisely that ‘half ways’ time between these two extremes — when day and night are equal, when the sun shone on a certain spot at a certain time?

Labacally is translated as ‘Leaba an Cailleach’, the bed of the hag or perhaps the grave of the hag. Who was the ‘cailleach’ or hag? Was she the mysterious Hag of Beara - an important figure in Irish Celtic mythology? Or perhaps a local Queen or chieftainess?

Back in 1954, when Labacally was excavated, human remains were found dating back to at least 2000 BC. A woman’s skeleton was found in one chamber — her skull in another.

In the 1930s, when the Irish Folklore Commission undertook the National Schools project, the aim was to collect local history, tradition and lore and record it for posterity. Peggy Foley, a pupil in Grange NS took down the following story from her neighbour Mrs Roche;

‘In the town-land of Labbycally where I live there is a Cromlach or ancient grave called the “Hag’s Bed” It is said that an old hag and her husband lived there with their five children. It is supposed that they were all buried there. There is one big grave and five small ones.

In one of the stones there is a dent. The story that is told is that the Hag made an attempt to strike her husband with a hatchet and that she hit the rock.

The dent is to be seen up to this day. The river Funcheon flows near the Hag’s Bed and a big rock is to be seen in the middle of the river. The old saying is that the hag and her husband had a fight. He ran to the river and she flung the rock after him and killed him.’

Coincidentally, it was in 1934 — just a short time before the schools started collecting material, that Professor H.G. Leask began working on the Labacally site. He noted the female remains minus the nearby head. Was this the burial place of a Queen or an adulteress or a criminal — was she decapitated on a chippy, chippy chopper in a dull dark dock and left in a pestilential ‘prison’ with a life-long lock?

Perhaps the ceremonial burial-place which was discovered, might have been relatively ‘modern’ —maybe ‘only’ 2,000 or 3,000 years old — long after the megalithic tomb was constructed. It’s reckoned the wheel was invented in Egypt around 3,500BC and about ten centuries later the builders got to work near Glanworth. If one marvels at the Pyramids in Egypt, and I do, then equally the feat of those people who moved ten-tone rock slabs in North Cork is as equally stunning.

Another story collected in the 1930s was told to John Collins by Michael Collins:

“The townland of Labbycally, Glanworth, Co Cork is situated about four miles north of Fermoy on the road to Glanworth village. Near the road on the land now owned by Mr Quinlan there is a well known cromlech which is called the Hags Bed. An old hag and husband are said to have lived there long ago. People say that it was the hag that lifted the huge flat stone out of the river Funcheon and put it up on supports.

‘There is a big underground tunnel running from the Hag’s Bed to the river. One day the hag and her husband quarrelled and she is said to have flung a big stone at him. The stone landed in the Funcheon and is still there. There are marks on it which are said to be the print of the hag’s fingers.”

So even thousands of years after it’s construction Labacally was still the subject of debate and remains so today. The finding of female remains links in well with the local lore and of course over the years variations of the story have come down to us -changed, added to, subtracted from but yet all still bearing a smidgen of truth from our ancient history.

During the week, Eamonn Cotter, an archaeologist friend of mine, and a few others marvelled at the sight of a dark stone ‘room’ filling up with the shafts of sunlight to mark halfway point between Summer and Winter. These ancient ‘professors’ or wise men were obviously in tune with nature — something that the world’s populace have lost in a rush to modernity. Could you imagine marking, with a pointed stick perhaps, where the sun’s rays hit the ground each evening? Then to keep a ‘record’ of all this information and inform the prehistoric ‘building crews’ the exact spot to erect a massive structure? One might glibly say that 4,500 years ago they had precious little else to do save observe the sun, moon and stars.

Fair enough to look and observe but what brains and ingenuity and skill did it then take to accurately construct something on such a massive scale that would last so long.. How did they move stone slabs of five and ten tonnes weight? Okay, they had plenty ‘help’ but no equipment or tools or chains or hydraulic machines. One theory is that they cut down massive oak trees and split them in half. They then hollowed out a channel down the centre of the halved trees. Into these channels were placed stone ‘ball bearings’ and on these track-ways the massive stones and rocks were moved to the ‘building sight’.

Whatever about the construction process those responsible knew all about alignment and angles and they had the ability to make their mark on our countryside. We will probably never know the full story behind the legends and tales and myths of the hag or the queen or whoever she was but her memory will never dim thanks to those who built the megalithic wedge tomb at Labacally. It’s certainly one of the wonders of this wonderful country.

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