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August 4, 2011

Most of my recent blogs have been focussed on historic sites within Cork city so I wanted to look at something a bit further afield this time. This will also be the oldest site I have written on so far.

Labbacallee is a prehistoric wedge tomb located 2km from the town of Glanworth in North Cork. It dates to the Neolithic or Late Stone Age in Ireland. The Neolithic period is when people in Ireland began to change from a hunter gatherer lifestyle to a more settled farming one. It is also the largest surviving tomb of it’s type in Ireland.

Wedge tombs are so called because of their shape. They are so named because the burial chamber itself narrows at one end (usually decreasing both in height and width from west to east), producing a wedge shape in elevation. Some of the wedge tombs have a front chamber called an ante-chamber and this is divided by a septal stone from the main chamber in the rear. Other tombs do not have this division.  The side walls usually  have a double wall on either side.  These walls are of large upright stones called orthostats. On top of these orthostats large flat stones are laid to form the roof.  The entire tomb was usually covered with a cairn or mound of stones and this was usually edged with large stones in the ground. The cairns have almost in all cases disappeared due to erosion over the millenia. They are mostly located to the west of a line from Belfast to Cork with a concentration in the west and south. The counties of Clare, Tipperary, Cork, Limerick and Kerry have almost half the entire number. In the northern half of the country there are some differences from tombs in the south that may reflect a different period of building for north and south.

The name comes from the Irish ‘Leaba Chaillí’ meaning ‘The Hag’s Bed’. Legend associates it with the Celtic Hag Goddess ‘Caillech Bhearra’. Interestingly when the tomb was excavated during the 1930’s, the skeletal remains of a woman were found. The skeleton was found inside the tomb but her skull was located in another part of the tomb. This might suggest she was decapitated at the time of death. Fragmentary remains of an adult male and child were also discovered.

From certain angles you could understandably mistake it for little more than a disordered pile of rocks.

Closer examination however reveales the distinctive and obvious wedge shape.

The gallery is aligned WNW-ESE and divided into a 6.2 meter long main chamber and a smaller (0.9 meter long) rear chamber. This two- chambered gallery is surmounted by three massive roofstones. The westernmost of these measures 4.85 meters by 2.45 meters. The middle roofstone measures 3.35 meters long by 1.85 meters wide and the rear (easternmost) is 2.75 meters by 1.8 meters. The gallery is flanked on both sides by an outer wall of huge stones, part of which abuts a modern field wall for the adjoining pasture. The western end of this tomb is a rather confusing mix of great orthostats and prostrate stones, some of which may have formed some type of double facade, but nothing certain can be determined for certain of the design of this western section of the tomb.

Given the size and weight of the tombs I’m sure a lot of manpower was required to construct it. Like large construction projects in modern times, a lot of wealth and influence would have been necessary. This area is near the river Blackwater and known for the fertility of it’s land. It’s not difficult to see what would have attracted prehistoric farmers to the area and allowed the accumulation of wealth necessary to build such a tomb. The river would have also opened up trade routes with other parts of the country and may have even been used for transporting the stones.

The interior of the tomb

From this angle it is possible to see the divisions in the chambers.

More views of the exterior

Here is an excellent illustration of what a wedge tomb may have looked like when originally constructed

This small cairn lies to the south of the tomb

Labbacalle is located right next to the road and is clearly signposted. It is well worth a look if you’re ever in that area. It certainly makes you wonder how well some of our modern constructions will stand the test of time.


Further Information

On Labbacalle:

Folklore on the tomb and the Hag:

Irish Prehistoric Tombs:

Illustrations of Archaeological Reconstructions:

One Comment leave one →
  1. kris permalink
    August 5, 2011 2:16 pm

    Interesting! And great photos.

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