Irish Cromlechs

Their General Character—Tomb in Phoenix Park—Cromlechs of Howth, Kilternan, Druid's Glen, Mount Venus

From A Hand-book of Irish Antiquities by William F. Wakeman

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Letter A CROMLECH, when perfect, consists of three or more stones unhewn, and generally so placed as to form a small enclosure. Over these a large stone is laid; the whole forming a kind of rude chamber. The position of the table, or covering stone, is generally sloping; but its degree of inclination does not appear to have been regulated by any design. Cromlechs are occasionally found within the area of stone circles, as "The Broadstone," County of Antrim. They have also been discovered beneath tumuli and cairns. Without attempting to enumerate the theories brought forward by antiquarians of this and other countries, relative to the mode and purpose of their erection, we shall simply state, that, from the fact of sepulchral urns, containing portions of calcined bones, and, in some instances, of entire human skeletons, having been discovered in connexion with several, these monuments appear to have been sepulchres As to their probable era, it can only be said that they belong to some period prior to the introduction of Christianity into this island; and, as structures perfectly similar are known to exist in many parts of the world, even in the heart of India, we have no reason to suppose that some of them, at least, may not be memorials of a period when these islands had but lately received their earliest colonists.

The ancient sepulchre situated in the Phoenix Park, a little to the west of the Hibernian School, was discovered in the year 1838 by some workmen employed under the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, in the removal of an ancient tumulus which measured in circumference one hundred and twenty, and in height fifteen feet.Cinerary Urn During the progress of the work, four stone kists (Kist-vaens), each enclosing an urn of baked clay, within which were calcined bones, ashes, &c., were found. The annexed wood-cut represents one of these urns, which was fortunately saved in a nearly perfect, state by Captain Larcom, of the Royal Engineers, who happened to arrive at the place shortly after the discovery. It is now in the museum of the Royal Irish Academy. When the workmen had come upon the tomb, the works were stopped at the request of Captain Larcom, in order that a deputation from the Academy might assemble on the spot for the purpose of collecting and reporting upon facts relating to the discovery.

Tomb in Phoenix Park

The tomb at present consists of seven stones set in the ground in the form of an irregular oval, three of which support a table, or covering stone, which measures in length six feet six inches; in breadth, at the broadest part, three feet six inches; and in thickness between fourteen and sixteen inches The spaces between the stones which formed the enclosure were filled with others of smaller size, which, since the discovery, have fallen out or been removed. The following is an extract from the report of the Academy: "In the recess thus enclosed, two perfect male human skeletons were found, and also the tops of the femora of another, and a single bone of an animal, supposed to be that of a dog. The heads of the skeletons rested to the north, and as the enclosure is not of sufficient extent to have permitted the bodies to lie at full length, they must have been bent at the vertebrae, or at the lower joints. In both skulls the teeth are nearly perfect, but the molars were more worn in one than in the other. Immediately under each skull was found collected together a considerable quantity of small shells common on our coasts, and known to conchologists by the name of Nerita littoralis. On examination these shells were found to have been rubbed down on the valve with a stone, to make a second hole, for the purpose, as it appeared evident, of their being strung to form necklaces; and a vegetable fibre, serving this purpose, was also discovered, a portion of which was through the shells. A small fibula of bone, and a knife, or arrow-head, of flint, were also found."

It is greatly to be regretted that a monument so well calculated, at some period,—perhaps not far distant, when the Irish people, as a body, shall see in their antiquities something more than curiosities,—to awaken a desire in the minds of those who may visit it for further instruction, should be suffered to remain a prey to every wanderer in the Park desirous of possessing a "piece of the tomb," in order to shew it as a wonder; and if steps be not taken to preserve this most interesting remain from the hands of such plunderers, it is likely, ere long, to suffer the fate of other monuments presently to be adverted to.


The number of stones composing the cromlech of Howth is ten, including the table, a huge quartz block, of irregular form, measuring from north to south eighteen, and from east to west nineteen and a half feet. Its extreme depth is eight feet. The weight of this enormous mass appears to have been too great for the stones upon which it was placed to bear; and as they all have an inclination more or less towards the east, it is quite evident that the pressure gradually forced them from an upright position, till, bearing particularly upon a stone, which lies broken in two, the whole assumed its present dilapidated appearance. This cromlech, which must have been originally one of the finest in the country, stands almost in a line between the ruined church of St. Fenton and the castle of Howth, at a distance of about half a mile from the latter; and, since the formation of the railway, is most easy of access from Dublin.

Howth Cromlech


This cromlech, which is commonly called "The Giant's Grave,"* stands upon the side of a hill, a short distance to the north-west of the ancient church of Kilternan, and about half a mile from the Golden Ball, a village six miles from Dublin, upon the Enniskerry Road. From its enormous size, and perfect condition, it may be looked upon as one of the most striking monuments of its class remaining in Ireland. The covering stone, which rests upon six supporters, varying in height from two to four feet, measures in length twenty-three feet six inches, in breadth seventeen, and in thickness six feet six inches, extreme measurement.

Kilternan Cromlech


A similar monument in the Druid's Glen, near the village of Cabinteely, though of smaller size, is still a fine example.

Druid's Glen Cromlech


Upon Mount Venus, a hill situate about two miles and a half beyond Rathfarnham, in the county of Dublin, are the remains of a cromlech, the table-stone of which, like that of Howth, has slipped from its original form, and altered the relative position of its parts This stone, which is of granite, is in length nineteen and a half, in breadth eleven and a half, and in thickness nearly five feet. Of the stones which appear to have been supporters, two only retain their upright position; of these the greater measures in height eight, and in circumference nineteen feet.

Mount Venus Cromlech


We cannot conclude our notice of this class of monuments without making some mention of the very interesting example remaining at Shanganagh, near the village of Loughlinstown, and not far from the ancient church of Killiney. Though inferior in size to several which we have already described, its dimensions are considerable; and as it remains, to all appearance, in its original state, the student will find in it an object well worthy of his attention.

The covering stone measures in length nine, in breadth seven, and in thickness three and a half feet, and is supported upon four stones. The highest part of the pile is nine feet above the level of the adjoining field.

Shanganagh Cromlech

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* In reference to the name of this monument it should be observed, that the cromlechs are known in the south-east of Ireland by the very appropriate name of Giants' Graves, or Beds; while in the north and west they are called Beds of Dermot and Graine, Leaba Diarmada agus Graine, from a legend very current through the country of their having been erected by Dermot O'Duibhne, with whom Graine, the wife of Finn Mac Cool, eloped. Finn set out in pursuit of them, but the fugitives escaped for a year and a day, during which time they slept not in the same bed for more than one night. Hence the number of these in Ireland was 366, according to this legend.