The Calf House, or Druid’s Altar

Burren Forest Park, Co. Cavan

These savage and desolate places were those that the Druids usually chose for their cult…It is truly inconceivable how they were able to place such rocks so high from the earth, and so solidly fixed in the ground!…To give an idea of the size of these stones, let me tell you what I have seen: Near the village of Cabinteely…there is a family with a father, mother, ten children, a dog, a cat, a goat, a pig, and some poultry who have lived for several years under one of these altars. They left their habitat only because the owner desired to exhibit the monument to the public and built them a hut in the neighborhood.

‪Jacques-Louis de La Tocnaye, A Frenchman’s Walk through Ireland, 17971
 


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Known both as the “Druid’s Altar,” for the legendary bloody sacrifices it was reputed to have witnessed, and as the “Calf House,” for its actual use as an animal shelter in the historic era, this 4000-year-old portal tomb is located within the small limestone plateau of Co. Cavan’s Burren Forest Park. The entire area is the property of The Irish Forestry Board (Coilte Teoranta) and has, since the mid-1950’s, been planted in a conifer mix. The park, however, is internationally recognized as a “relict landscape,” with key features remaining from eons of geographical change and from its human occupation from the Neolithic onwards. Together with Co. Fermanagh’s Marble Arch Caves, it forms a UNESCO-recognized “global geopark.”

The Burren Forest, not to be confused with Co. Clare’s stunning landscape of the same name, takes its title from the townland of Burren (from the Irish an boireann, or “stony place”). Nearby is the wedge tomb known as the Giant’s Grave. The Calf House (or Druid’s Altar) is incorporated into a stone wall that is at least several millennia younger than the portal tomb. At some point in history, the owner of the farmstead decided to make a practical use of the ancient portal tomb on his land and built up one side so that it might serve as an animal shed; hence the name “Calf House.” Within the stone wall are several remnants of other farm buildings, including the farmhouse and a cattle byre.2

In 1972, the Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland described the monument as “greatly deranged.”3 This description stems from the fact that one of its chamber walls to the east has apparently disappeared, and its massive capstone, 5 m x 4.2 m (16.4 ft x 13.8 ft) has either fallen, or has been intentionally displaced, so that it is lodged in the ground at one end. Although early antiquarians considered such monuments as belonging to a separate class of “earth-fast dolmens,”4 archaeologists today reject such an interpretation. Whatever the cause of the capstone’s position, it enabled an industrious farmer sometime in the historic era to build up a masonry wall at the south and east and on top of the long stone at the north. A smaller construction partially fills the gap between the two tall stones at the western end. This modern addition extends to a lintelled entrance at the northeast side of the monument, creating a small doorway.5 The survey authors wrote:

The conversion of the monument into a shelter adds to the difficulty of interpretation. It is possible that the modern walling obscures further structure and interference with the existing structure cannot be ruled out.6

Schematic drawing of tomb. (JRSAI, 1937)

The Calf House is not alone among Irish megalithic tombs to have also served—thousands of years after their initial construction—a very prosaic domestic purpose. Some still do. The Creevykeel Court Tomb in Co. Sligo had an Early Christian metal workshop built within it. The Cabinteely (Brennanstown) portal tomb residence was mentioned in the 1797 quotation at the top of this page. The wedge tomb near the shoreline of Co. Limerick’s Lough Gur was, prior to its excavation, the home of an elderly woman.7 In Co. Carlow, the Haroldstown Dolmen may have had its chamber, now 4 m x 2.7m (13 ft x 9 ft), enlarged to better accommodate the impoverished family living within it. An 1897 observer noted that the family “…plastered up the interstices with cob, some of which is still to be seen between the stones.”8 The 19th century reuse of some megalithic monuments as domestic spaces may not be that inconsistent with the spiritual beliefs of their original architects. These structures, most archaeologists now agree, were always more than simple tombs. They were a presence in the lives of their communities, serving as a liminal area, a gateway between realms of existence.

Strong spatial links can be discerned between the burial places of the dead and the houses of the living. Indeed the landscape of the living and the landscape of the dead may well have been indivisible for the builders of the Irish megalithic tombs.9

The other local name for the monument, “The Druid’s Altar,” was probably not derived from any indigenous folklore connecting the tomb to the Druids, the storied priestly class of the pre-Christian Irish Celts. It is more likely that the Ordnance Survey recorded the name in the 1840s as a reflection of the prevailing fascination—even the revival—of the supposed druidical way. As evidence of this, one only needs look to the names given to other monuments in the immediate vicinity, such as the rock formation known as The Druid’s Chair , and a small gorge called The Druid’s Alt.10 This mid-eighteenth century example of antiquarianism as fashion statement was largely promoted by its “Arch Druid,” William Stukeley, who most famously nominated Stonehenge as a Temple Restor’d to the British Druids.11 As Evan Hadingham put it in 1975:

The legendary powers of the Celtic priesthood [Druids], distorted by centuries of interest and enthusiasm from antiquaries, poets, and mystics, naturally became associated with…megalithic remains. Despite the fact that there is no single early written source mentioning Druidic ceremonies at stone circles, one does not have to travel far to find local nicknames such as Druids’ Stones, Rings, Temples, Altars and Beds, sometimes associated with entirely natural rock formations…Yet the popularity of the Druids was a measure of something more than the success of one man’s theory. It was a symptom of the growing tastes for the primitive and the exotic…12

There are some theories in Irish archaeology that may be tested by the scientific method, such as the proposition that the Iron Age artificial water troughs known as fulacht fiadh might have been used for cooking. Experiments at a fulacht fiadh near Co. Cork’s Drombeg Stone Circle demonstrated that by dropping red-hot stones into the trough the water rapidly came to a boil.13

Other theories regarding megalithic monuments are not subject to experimentation, thankfully. Geoffrey Keating, in the early seventeenth century, described how the Irish Druids carried out their bloody sacrifices on the capstones of megalithic tombs. As Professor John Waddell noted,

Many joints of lamb have been boiled to try to prove the [usage of the fulacht fiadh] but the function of these puzzling monuments is still debated. Fortunately there is no record that Keating’s account of Druidical animal sacrifice on the capstones of megalithic tombs inspired similar re-enactments.14

Click here to see all the notes from this page.

 

The Calf House, Co. Cavan
Nearest Town: Blacklion
Townland: Burren
Latitude: 54° 15′ 53.28″ N
Longitude: 7° 53′ 3.71″ W


External Link:
The Cavan Burren

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