In the autumn of 2020, I went on something of a megalithic odyssey to County Sligo, to see some of our most ancient stone age monuments in the spectacular setting of the landscape of the Atlantic northwest.
Arriving at the Carrowkeel megalithic cairn complex at around 9am following a three-hour drive from my home in Drogheda, I found the place magically, and perhaps mysteriously, enveloped by fog.
I did try to bring the car further up the hill than might have been wise, but soon realised that there is only one way to approach 5,500-year-old megalithic passage-tombs – by walking, following the footsteps of people who passed here many, many centuries ago. Walking up the pathways, I expected at any moment to encounter spectral forms, perhaps some spirit who had been clinging to this place since time immemorial.
The Carrowkeel cairns are located on the Bricklieve Mountains overlooking Lough Arrow, although with visibility down to no more than 50 metres, I was hard pressed to see the cairns, never mind the distant landscape over which they dominate. Bricklieve is an Anglicised form of Breac-Shliabh, the speckled mountains. Speckled with what though? Speckled with cairns, perhaps. There are many place names in Ireland with the word breac in them. I think of Carrig Breac at Loughcrew, one of four hills there dotted with Neolithic cairns.
As I walked slowly up the mountain, through pathways among the heather, the first and perhaps most impressive cairn of the complex, Cairn G, loomed before me out of the mist. This complex definitely has much more of a Loughcrew feel to it than a Brú na Bóinne vibe. At Brú na Bóinne, the monuments dominate what is a lush but much less dramatic landscape in terms of its relief. Loughcrew is spectacular, occupying some of the highest hills in Meath, with fantastic views over the surrounding countryside. But the Carrowkeel monuments, and some of those on other mountains in Sligo such as Ballygawley, Knocknarea, etc., have views that (on clear days at least) take the breath away.
Cairn G has flashes of Newgrange too, though, not least because of the opening above the passage entrance, which resembles the roofbox of its much larger, and slightly later, Boyne Valley counterpart. One gets the sense too of a liminal, almost forbidden space, because to enter into the passage and chamber of Cairn G, one has to squeeze through a relatively narrow space between the entrance portal and the stone immediately in front of it. In fact, I may have had to suck in the belly a bit to complete the manoeuvre. But keep that between us!
Inside, the short passage soon opens to a cruciform chamber – again a reminder of its Boyne Valley counterparts on the opposite side of the island. While it is possible to stand up in the chamber, one has to stoop down to pass through the passageway. There are stones on the floor, making the surface somewhat uneven. But this is not a space that was designed for comfort or for easy passage.
Cairn G was excavated along with several others at Carrowkeel by RAS Macalister in 1911. The end recess is very interesting because the two upright stones on either side of it prohibit anyone but the smallest or thinnest people from entering in there. Looking around the chamber, into the three recesses, one thing that struck me was the complete lack of decoration in the form of megalithic art, something that adorns many of the chamber stones of the cairns at Loughcrew and indeed Brú na Bóinne.
A little further up the hill is Cairn H. Although its entrance portal looks inviting, a quick glance inside reveals that the passage is far too low and narrow to permit any sort of sensible or practical entry. Instead, I had to content myself with a view from just outside the passage entrance.
Higher again are two cairns, K and L, although L seems nothing more than a small heap of loose stones. Approaching Cairn K through the heather, I was reminded much more of Cairns G and H. There is no sign or immediately noticeable indication of kerb stones around these monuments. A quick examination of the entrance to the passage yielded a less-than-inviting sense of claustrophobia. This is another of those times when you ask yourself “will I or won’t I”, and after a few moments of hesitation you finally decide to pluck up the courage and crawl inside.
Looking back out through the passageway from inside makes you wonder about the size and dexterity of the people who built these monuments, and who carefully placed the bones of their deceased inside. It is an impressive and moving experience to stand in the same place as people did in remote prehistory, and to look out to the sky and the world outside and to consider how much has changed in all that time, and how much is still the same as it was then. The passage of Cairn K is oriented towards Queen Medb’s Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea, which we will visit later.
The chamber is cruciform, with three recesses. The right-hand recess has an interesting stone at its rear which is shaped much like the distant peak of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, something pointed out by Martin Byrne on the wonderful carrowkeel.com website. The recesses or side chambers all seem fairly equal in size and again one is struck by the lack of megalithic art on any of the stones.
While I was at Carrowkeel, I met my friend the artist Lar Dooley and two companions. Neither of us had been at Carrowkeel for years, and it was an interesting coincidence to meet him there. With planned visits to the Carrowmore complex and Queen Medb’s cairn, I reluctantly walked down from the Bricklieve Mountains which were still coated with dense fog.
My next stop on the adventure was less than half an hour’s drive away, at the Carrowmore complex. Situated on slightly undulating lowlands, this complex is perhaps less spectacular in terms of its scenic setting, but is impressive in terms of the sheer number of monuments and the age of some of them. The centrepiece of Carrowmore, visually at least, is the somewhat controversially restored Listoghil.
I had arranged to meet my old friend and tour guide Martin Byrne at the visitor centre at Carrowmore, and spent a delightful four hours in his company. He gave me an expert guided tour of the monuments, but we were also engaged deep in conversation about many other things, including astronomical alignments, mythology, geography, place names and much more.
The monuments at Carrowmore are fascinating. Many of them have what look like miniature dolmens in their centre. Quite a number are built on elevated platforms, and some have quite early dates. In some cases, the kerbs consist of upright stones rather than the recumbent kerbs which one encounters at Loughcrew and Brú na Bóinne. In certain cases, the Neolithic monuments were altered or added to in the Bronze Age. Sadly, much of the material in their chambers was removed by treasure hunters and early antiquarians in the 19th century. However, there is still much to see. Over 50 monuments were detailed by antiquarian George Petrie in the 1830s, although some of these dated from the Bronze Age and later. A number of monuments are within the OPW-owned lands at Carrowmore, but there are plenty more situated on private farmland in the vicinity.
The largest monument in the complex is Listoghil with its recently restored cairn. The entrance kerb stone has a unique feature which resembles a footprint, echoing traditions of coronation stones in Irish myth and folklore in different parts of the country. At Tara, for instance, the tradition of Lia Fáil is that it would scream out loud when the rightful king placed his foot on it.
Martin told me that the dolmen-like chamber of Listoghil was built first and that a cairn was only added about three centuries later. In recent history, stones from that cairn were taken to be used to build field walls in the area. In 1997, these field walls were dismantled and the stones returned to form the cairn which one sees today.
One of the great disappointments about the cairn, apart from the hideous modern look of those gabion baskets, is that it completely obscures what would otherwise be a tremendous view of the surrounding countryside that could be gleaned here before the excavation and restoration of Listoghil. The chamber points towards the Ballygawley Mountains for sunrise at the time of Samhain and Imbolc, at the beginning of winter and the beginning of spring. This has been documented by Padraig Meehan in recent years. The cairn, though, blocks views towards Magherabeg and the impressive Ben Bulben in the distance, not to mention Queen Medb’s Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea (the hill of the moon), which seems to quite dominate the landscape of the whole Cúl Irra peninsula upon which Carrowmore is located.
A lot of the stones are gneiss, which Martin tells me is not very suited to carving megalithic art. A lot of the decorated stones at Brú na Bóinne are of greywacke, a type of muddy sandstone, which lends itself better to the picking and incising of art.
One never fails to be impressed, when in the midst of these complexes of prehistoric structures, by the sheer number of monuments and stones which make them up, and the immense human effort that would have been required to create them in an era before metallurgy and when only physical exertion, and no mechanised intervention, was used to bring it all together. The people of the Neolithic were hardy, dedicated, tenacious and inventive. Carrowmore proves that beyond doubt.
My next port of call proved the most arduous of the day’s visits. I couldn’t come to Sligo without visiting probably its most famous, and indeed visually impressive, monument – Queen Medb’s Cairn.
For a not terribly unfit but not exactly sprightly fellow like myself, the walk to the top required a considerable expenditure of energy. For that reason, I concentrated on getting myself and my camera equipment to the top, so there is not much footage of the climb!
The journey from the car park to the summit took me exactly half an hour. I was quite out of breath by the time I got to the top, but if anything the impressive Medb’s cairn and the views over Sligo and the Atlantic left me even more breathless. The fact that it was a warm, sunny evening made it all the experience of being here all the more enjoyable.
Queen Medb’s cairn is made up of hundreds of thousands of loose stones. The fact that people came up to the top of this mountain around 5,500 years ago is impressive enough, but to then exert themselves carrying these rocks into position to create this humongous cairn is even more impressive. Bewildering even.
At 65 metres in diameter, Queen Medb’s cairn is only slightly smaller than the great passage-tombs of the Boyne Valley. There is no immediate sign of a kerb, and one can only speculate about what passages or chambers might lie beneath its impressive bulk.
It is a singularly impressive monument to the tenacity, imagination and fortitude of a people who lived short, harsh lives on the Atlantic coast of Ireland around five and a half thousand years ago. To approach it from any direction is to approach one of the last unexplored cairns of Neolithic Ireland. It has never been excavated, perhaps thankfully, and for now at least it holds onto its secrets.
Queen Medb’s Cairn is situated at an elevation of 320 metres, and offers superb views over the Atlantic Ocean and the Cúl Irra peninsula. Its dominant position on this natural rotund, belly-like mountain means that it is visible from most of the other Neolithic sites in the region.
Martin Byrne says that, “by placing the cairn where they did the ancients transformed the whole mountain into a monument”. There are several much smaller, ruined cairns on Knocknarea, and some 30 hut sites were discovered on the hill in the late 1990s.
With a three-hour road journey back to the Boyne Valley ahead, I had to leave Queen Medb’s Cairn and descend along the pathway to the car. I took one last look and promised I would be back to Sligo, sooner rather than later.
There are plenty of sheep on the slopes of Knocknarea, as there are at many other ancient sites such as the Hill of Tara and Dowth. Carefully, I made my way down the sacred hill towards the car park.
As I watched the sun setting over the Hill of the Moon, I wondered in awe at the great age of the Sligo megalithic monuments, which predate their Brú na Bóinne counterparts by at least a couple of centuries. Here, on the west coast, the first farmers established their stone-building culture which was later to find ostentatious and gigantic expression in the Boyne Valley. Their efforts stand as a remarkable testament to their wondrous ingenuity and cosmology.
Thank you Sligo, one of the greatest archaeological and mythological landscapes of the world.
I hope to return to your wonderful megalithic shrines again very soon.
Watch my short film 'Sligo: A Megalithic Odyssey'
Carrowkeel.com - Martin Byrne's comprehensive and wonderful website about the Sligo megaliths.