Feature Articles – The Irish stellar giants
In the west of Ireland, the area of Knocknarea and Carrowmore forms an enigmatic but incredibly old sacred landscape, which archaeology has only recently begun to understand.
by Philip Coppens
Knocknarea is the magical cairn decked mountain just West of Sligo town, at the end of the Coolrea Peninsula. The mountain is a 320 metres high limestone hum sculpted by the retreating glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age. The area around Knocknarea is covered in ancient remains, including Carrowmore, which is one of the largest megalithic sites in Western Europe, and the largest in Ireland.
I climbed the hill on a grey, soaking July morning. These were the days that the ancient Egyptians had labelled the “Dog days”, the end of July, when the temperatures are normally the hottest of the year; but Ireland was drenched in grey wetness. The panoramic view from the mountain top has few equals and a number of travellers have recorded their impressions, but none more eloquently than William Bulfin in his Travels in Eirinn. Obviously making his ascent in sunnier conditions, he wrote: “Knocknarea has an epic suggestiveness which you cannot miss if you climb the mountain. It looks down on wide Tir Fiachra, where dwelt the music-loving hosts of fierce engagements. Away to northward and eastward and southward are mountain and valley and river and lake and woodland. To the westward rolls the thundering ocean. The mountain has no partner in its glory. It stands proudly over the rocky coast in solitary grandeur. The mourners who erected the burial mound on its stately summit could not have chosen a more royal throne for their kingly dead.”
Vast amounts of land (five counties) are visible from the top on a good day. Originally, the hill and the land were believed to be under the “patronage” of the goddess Maebh. The hill became the central place of worship for her, and as such, the hill and the cairn remained identified with her throughout the ages.
Who was Maebh? She was the Warrior Queen, who lived in Crúachain, in Roscommon, where she lived with her husband Ailill. The Queen takes part in one of Ireland’s most famous sagas, The Cattle Raid of Cooley or Táin Bó Cúailnge, which is linked with another Irish county, Louth. Similar legends in Connacht state how Maebh is not buried under the cairn, but instead stands there, waiting, spear in hand, with her best warriors, facing to attack Ulster, the county which did not allow her to have her Brown Bull, as stated in the legends. The link between the goddess and Knocknarea is because of a gigantic cairn at its top, known as the “Tomb of Queen Maebh”, a large collection of medium to large-sized stones. More than 40,000 stones make the monument rise to 35 feet high, measuring 200 feet across. “Such immense labour as went into the making of this monument would only have been undertaken to perpetuate the memory of some person or event of the most outstanding importance”, wrote Richard Hayward. It “had” to be a tomb, and it “had” to be an important figure buried there.
Though the cairn is visible for miles around, even in the grey conditions I encountered it, no archaeological research has occurred on the pile itself, though some digs have occurred on surrounding, much smaller cairns near the top of the hill. The earliest date recovered so far suggests that the monument was built in approx. 3000 BC, making it much older than e.g. Stonehenge.
Folklore says that Maebh’s remains are buried in an inner chamber in the cairn, and hence archaeologists have stated that the cairn probably covers a passage tomb similar to those at Carrowkeel and the Boyne valley. But, in the absence of excavations, this is speculation. In the valleys surrounding Knocknarea is the important Neolithic site of Carrowmore (from the Gaelic Ceathrú Mór, meaning Great Quarter), one of the most important Neolithic cemeteries, together with Carrowkeel, further inland, in the Bricklieve Mountains.
Carrowmore hosts the remains of the oldest and one of the largest collections of Stone Age structures in Western Europe. 27 monuments remain today, in varying states of preservation. The remains of at least 65 monuments are known, and it is thought that there may have been up to 120 monuments at Carrowmore in its original form. The tombs were built in a ring surrounding the largest monument called Listoghil, their entrances usually facing inwards towards it.
Carrowmore was mapped by the antiquarians, including Beranger, Peitrie and Wood Martin. A local landlord, ‘the notorious’ R. C. Walker looted many of the monuments and sold off his finds to collectors. The site has more recently been excavated by archaeologists from Sweden who have made a number of interesting discoveries. The oldest date recovered so far from Carrowmore is 5,400 BC, an extremely early date which most Irish archaeologists have dismissed. The general opinion today is that Carrowmore is an early site from around the time when Mesolithic hunter-gatherers were turning into Neolithic farmers. At Carrowmore, passage graves and standing stones rise with the mountain and Maebh’s Grave in the background. By the time I had descended Knocknarea and made my way towards Carrowmore, the grey clouds had been slowly lifted by the ocean winds. It revealed the unique relationship between the megalithic stones in the valley, the sacred hill of Knocknarea and the tomb on top.
The visitor centre at Carrowmore states how the interplay of landscape and the Neolithic burial site was not haphazard. The graves in the cemetery have been orientated towards key solar risings and settings, such as the spring and fall equinoxes, and the summer and winter solstices – the four points of the calendar, marking the four seasons. It showed how the builders of the tombs held specific reverence to the sun – and seemingly brought that reverence in relationship with the souls of the deceased.
At the same time, observations by scientists and amateur archaeologists had revealed what possibly might have set Knocknarea apart from all other hills in the county – i.e. what gave the hill its sacredness. The documentation handed out in the visitor centre stated how “the viewer who stands on Maeve’s Cairn on Knocknarea can watch the sun or full moon rise over Lough Gill, which translates as ‘The Lake of Brightness’ at the equinox. Then at sunset, the observer may stand on Cairns Hill, another important megalithic site just south of Sligo Town, and watch the Knocknarea alignment.” Other observations have shown that the summit of Maebh’s Cairn was at the same altitude as Cairn K at Carrowkeel, the other megalithic cemetery, which is oriented to Queen Maebh’s Cairn. “If you draw a circle from Cairn K which touches Maeve’s Cairn on Knocknarea, you would find that it also touches Maeve’s Palace, the mound of Rathcroghan in Roscommon. Coincidence? Whatever the case, it is one of the most important and visually dominating Neolithic monuments left in Ireland.”
Author Cary Meehan adds the observations of Martin Byrne to this already impressive list of interrelations between the megalithic sites and the landscape: “He [Byrne] has noticed that the lunar standstill is an important time at Knocknarea. The Moon’s cycle takes 18.6 years to complete as it moves from its most northerly to its most southerly position. At its most southerly rising position, which last happened in the summer of 1987, the moon, when viewed from Maebh’s Cairn, rose over the Carrowkeel sites in the Bricklieve Mountains. If the inner passage in Maebh’s cairn was open, maybe the moon, as its most southerly point, would shine inside it.”
The observation cannot be tested, as archaeologists have not excavated Maebh’s cairn, or have verified the existence of a passage. Knocknarea is linked with Cairns Hill. The latter’s name is obviously derived from Neolithic cairns discovered on its slopes. Importantly, Cairn Hill is due east of Knocknarea. The east-west alignment is important, as sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes are always due east and west, irrelevant where one is on Earth.
Knocknarea is also linked with Queen Maebh, but the west cairn on Cairn Hill, visible from Knocknarea, is said to be the tomb of Daghdha, husband to Maebh, chief of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the father God of the Celts. It is clear how the interplay of solar and lunar phenomena was transposed on the landscape, and was specifically linked with sacred hills, on whose tops were cairns, who were later identified with the tombs of gods, particularly linked with the moon and the sun.
As such, Knocknarea (Knock na Ré in Irish) is known as the “Hill of the Moon” and Maebh must be seen as the moon goddess. If indeed built around 5,400 BC, they would be older than more famous Irish prehistoric sites such as Knowth and Newgrange. Further radiocarbon dating has supported the Mesolithic date for Carrowmore’s inception, but conservative as archaeology is, it places the bulk of the megalith building to between 4300 and 3500 BC, more in keeping with Neolithic dating but still unusually early. Excavation of other tombs in the area has indicated that although they employed different architectural styles, they were all contemporary with Carrowmore. It shows a long presence of a megalithic culture in the area.
Almost all the burials at Carrowmore were cremations with inhumations being only found at Listoghil. Even from the cremated remains it is apparent that the dead underwent a complex sequence of treatments, including excarnation and reburial. Grave goods include antler pins with mushroom-shaped heads and stone or clay balls, although other tombs outside Carrowmore held entirely different assemblages of items. The setting of the graveyard suggests a careful selection, in which the dead were seen to be sleeping in shadow of the goddess, who herself was set within an intricate sacred landscape. It shows how the people in western Island, so many years ago, already seem to have been able to rely on even older observations of the stellar phenomena, and how they interplayed with their environment. But almost seven millennia later, the archaeology of these sites is unfortunately still in its infancy…