The era of unrestricted access to Ireland's prehistoric passage-tombs is ending

Anthony Murphy of Mythical Ireland talks about how the increase in incidents of vandalism and damage to Ireland’s prehistoric tombs is leading to a policy of closing them off to public access.

How many of us have been lucky enough to have spent time inside one of the great Neolithic passage-tombs of Ireland? I have been particularly blessed, having been in the interior of tombs that were never open to the public, such as those at the great monument of Knowth. Visitors to Knowth are afforded only a tantalising glimpse at the interior of Knowth’s eastern tomb when they reach a locked gate, beyond which the longest megalithic passage of any Irish tomb can be seen reaching off into a cold interior, illuminated by well-positioned modern lighting.

In the year 2000, I was one of a small group that crawled through a souterrain at Dowth in the dark so that we could access the northern tomb there, which has been completely inaccessible to the public since shortly after that time.

Until 2018, I was fortunate to have been inside the chamber of Cairn T (the Hag’s Cairn) at Slieve na Calliagh, Loughcrew, on many occasions, sometimes witnessing the light of the rising equinox sun illuminating the interior. What an honour and a privilege that was!

Inside the chamber of Cairn G, Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo.

In recent years, I have enjoyed visits to the Carrowkeel tombs on the Bricklieve Mountains in Sligo, and again enjoyed the distinction of being able to enter the interior of a couple of those tombs.

I have been a regular visitor to the Fourknocks monument over the past 23 years and have always enjoyed the intimacy of that monument, and how you can admire and even touch decorated stones that were carved with intricate detail by artists more than five millennia ago.

I took all this access for granted. Well, certainly in the case of Cairn T, Fourknocks and Carrowkeel. I knew 22 years ago that my visits to the interior of Dowth North, Knowth East and Knowth West were all special privileges, such that are not enjoyed the vast majority of visitors. But the others were there to be enjoyed by the curious eyes of the modern visitor, and perhaps we didn’t appreciate just how rare and special a privilege that was.

No unauthorised access

The era of convenient and unfettered access to these precious ancient relics is coming to an end.

That news will shock some, and sadden many. But it is a fact of life, and it may even be a necessary hardship for those of us who have enjoyed exploring the most ancient of Ireland’s monuments.

In 2018, following the discovery of a crack in a lintel stone in the ceiling of Cairn T at Loughcrew, the Office of Public Works (OPW) took the unprecedented step of closing the interior of the cairn to visitors. Until that time, you could get the key to the gate of Cairn T from a nearby premises by paying a deposit, but suddenly this wasn’t possible any more.

The access we had enjoyed for decades was suddenly taken away. The reaction from the public was mixed, and there was some anger aimed at the authorities. The perception among some people was that the OPW was being heavy-handed in preventing access completely and that access could be facilitated once certain remediation work was carried out.

However, one sad fact about a minority of people remains. There are entitled individuals who feel that they have a right to access, and they think that that access does not come with any burden of responsibility.

Two visitors ignore the signs and climb to the top of Cairn T in May 2022.

These are the people who ignore all the signs at Cairn T asking visitors NOT to climb on the cairn because of its structural vulnerability. During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, I was at Slieve na Calliagh for filming for a Science Channel documentary about the claimed link between Cairn T and the Biblical Ark of the Covenant (a link which I absolutely dispute by the way). While we were filming, and even though the camera was clearly pointing at Cairn T, there were visitors ignoring the signs and climbing on top of the cairn. They were so brazen about it, they didn’t at all seem put out by the fact that they might be captured doing it on film.

A similar problem is evident at Queen Medb’s Cairn on Knocknarea in Co. Sligo, and at the Carrowkeel cairns on the Bricklieve Mountains in the same county.

Vandalism

During the Covid-19 pandemic, a series of incidents of vandalism at Irish prehistoric monuments caused growing concern at how vulnerable these ancient treasures are. Many are on isolated hilltops with no security cameras and no presence of OPW or National Monuments Service personnel to deter such occurrences.

It is simply not possible for OPW and NMS to provide staff to guard the hundreds of Stone Age monuments around Ireland.

And so a new solution to the problem of vandalism and damage to monuments by careless climbers is slowly making itself known.

At Carrowkeel, signs have appeared in recent weeks indicating that access to the cairns on the Bricklieve Mountains is to be restricted. Mythical Ireland understands that the Office of Public Works will soon be installing bars or gates at the entrances to Cairn G and Cairn K at Carrowkeel to prevent access to their interiors. In addition, well-placed sources have indicated that the gate on the laneway leading to the cairns is to be permanently locked.

Mythical Ireland understands the gateway on this lane leading to the cairns could soon be locked permanently.

I have no doubt this news will cause deep consternation and indignation. Perhaps that is an understandable reaction. However, the fact remains that our Stone Age monuments are slowly being destroyed by a generation of visitors who have shown scant regard for their long-term preservation.

The increasing visitor numbers of recent years at Loughcrew are putting huge pressure on the surviving monuments there, many of which are unroofed and open to the elements. Carrowkeel is likewise feeling the negative effects of growth in visitor volumes.

Any plan to repair and restore Cairn T at Loughcrew would necessitate archaeological excavation. The feeling is that Slieve na Calliagh requires significant intervention to prevent a further demise of its chambered cairns, which likely predate those at Brú na Bóinne. Such intervention would take years of careful excavation and conservation work, and would probably necessitate the entire hill known as Carnbane East (Slieve na Calliagh) to be closed entirely to visitors for the duration of the project. That work would come with significant financial costs too.

Outside the fence ... sheep grazing near Cairn T at Slieve na Calliagh.

It would seem that the simplest and most effective means of protecting the Neolithic monuments in the short term is to restrict access to them. This is lamentable for many reasons, but at this point seems wholly necessary. The alternative is to allow unfettered, unsupervised access and risk continued and perhaps irreversible damage to these precious remnants of the ancient past.

Keep off the cairns

If you care enough about them, then please do what the signs ask, and stop climbing on our prehistoric cairns. If you don't, then pretty soon you'll only be able to look at them from afar, from behind a fence. Don't say you weren't warned.

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This page was last updated on 5th July 2022 @ 11:21 AM