Take on Nature: Stop acting the maggot – it could help save our ancient heritage

A 5,000-year-old cairn at Loughcrew in Co Meath is in danger of collapse because of people clambering on top of it

THE idea that a structure which has stood for more than 5,000 years should be in danger of collapse because of people clambering on top of it is a sobering one.

Loughcrew in Co Meath is one of my favourite places to visit and crawling inside to gaze at the enigmatic carvings on the stone walls of the inner chamber is positively mind-shifting.

The experience is even more surreal on the mornings of the spring and autumn equinoxes, which fall on, or on the days either side of, March and September 21.

Loughcrew is aligned to the rising sun and on these mornings its rays beam directly along the short entrance passage to illuminate the chamber in a breathtaking golden hew.

Only once during a number visits over the years, rising at 4am to get there for sunrise, have I actually witnessed this, as the skies were usually covered in dense cloud. But on one particular equinox, while squatting inside with five or six others, the clouds shifted and a beam of light pierced though and for all of 10 seconds the chamber seemed to shift into an alternative dimension.

I didn't expect the chamber to be open on Saturday past when I visited, due to ongoing restrictions, but it is always worth the short climb anyway to take in the stunning views that open out to Slieve Gullion and the Coolies in the north, Wicklow Mountains in the south and distant hills to the west.

However, staff from the Republic's Office of Public Works were on site and were telling visitors not to climb on to the main cairn because it was structurally unsafe and that this was being attributed to people standing on it.

Full disclosure – on past visits I have climbed up on to the cairn, to enjoy the raised view, but the revelation that I and the thousands of others who have done so might now have endangered this ancient monument was upsetting.

It is perhaps a testament to the success of the various tourist bodies throughout Ireland that places such as Loughcrew have become so popular.

When I first started going there you had to go to a nearby garden centre to get a key that opened a barred gate to let you inside the cairn, lock it behind when you left and drop the key back. But in more recent years, until a few months ago, there were staff on site with torches and information for visitors.

The success in bringing people has come with a price – a walk in the Mournes in Co Down, or up Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo will reveal the impact of tens of thousands of people traversing a small area of sturdy mountain, never mind the wear and tear caused to a 5,000-year-old structure made of stones and rocks tightly packed on top of one another.

Last year in nearby Tara I saw a gangly visitor balancing on the iconic Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny). He was showing off for his friends who were taking pictures of him as he pirouetted on one leg on top of the phallic standing stone.

Back down where his tour bus was waiting the driver came over to confront him, a stocky middle-aged man with a broad north Dublin accent, pointing his finger at the visitor who towered over him.

“That is a a sacred site and should be treated with respect. If I see you acting the maggot like that again and disrespecting our heritage you're off this bus. Understand?”

I'm not sure if the lanky visitor understood the expression “acting the maggot”, but he wilted and pouted like a naughty child under the bus driver's reprimand.

We need more bus drivers like that to protect our ancient and natural heritage.

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