Equinox Sun setting over Knocknarea Mountain in County Sligo.
A graphic reconstruction of Creevykeel by Aideen Connolly.
A graphic reconstruction of Creevykeel by Aideen Connolly.

Creevykeel court cairn

Creevykeel, a large and well-preserved megalithic monument in County Sligo, is considered one of the largest and best examples of a court cairn in Ireland. It is certainly one of the easiest sites to visit, as it is located by the Sligo - Bundoran road, two kilometers north of the village of Cliffoney and close to Gorevan's crossroads.

An aerial view of the Creevykeel area.
An aerial view of the Creevykeel area showing crossroads and carpark.

There is a large parking space signposted. A few steps from the carpark, through a clump of rag-strewn pine trees, and there you find the huge cairn. Creevykeel is so massive it fills its own small field, contained by a wall built after the excavations in 1935.

An aerial image of Creevykeel; Image © National Monuments Service.
An aerial image of Creevykeel; Image © National Monuments Service.

Creevykeel is a massive wedge shaped pile of stones arranged on a roughly east to west axis. The chamber and court open towards the east, and the chamber is oriented on the cliffs in Arroo Mountain. The ground is falling away gently towards the sea, so the monument is facing up a gradual slope.

The cairn measures 55 by 25 meters, with the widest edge towards the east and tapers away to a tail on the west end. A narrow passage, which may have been roofed with lintels originally, leads into the massive enclosed internal court. This court, which could easily hold a hundred people, measures 15 by 9 meters and seems to have been extended at least three times during the neolithic. Overall, the court gives the impression of having a function as a sacred cattle pen.

A guided tour of Creevykeel, 2020.

Creevykeel is the largest in a chain of five megalithic buildings clustered together in the Cliffoney area on what was surely a neolithic routeway. Two other large but largely destroyed court cairns are found at Creevymore and Cartronplank. No one seems to know who adds the rags to the bushes on the way into Creevykeel; it is an old custom that sometimes migrates from site to site, and has appeared here in recent years.

The old name for Creevykeel is Caiseal an Bhaoisgin, the Fort of Bhaoisgin, Bhaoisgin being the well near the cairn. The well and cairn may be named after the distcintive peak of Benwisken Mountain. Bhaoisgin has become Wisken in todays Anglecised version of Gaelic.

An aerial image of Creevykeel.
Creevykeel from the air with the surrounding walls removed. The mound of soil on the right is probably spoil from the 1935-36 excavation and reconstruction.

Creevykeel was not mentioned by the 1837 Ordinance Survey, and came to attention in W. G. Wood-Martin's Rude Stone Monuments. The monument is shown planted with trees and seems to have been surrounded by an orchard when William Wakeman visited the site in 1880, and was still surrounded by woods on the 1911 map.

Eamon Murphy from Cliffoney has photographed the equinox sun rising over Arroo Mountain and shining into the chamber of Creevykeel, not in a precice alignment as tends to be found at passage-graves, but a sweeping illimination of the court stones and chamber.

Hencken's plan of Creevykeel from 1936
Hencken's plan of the great cairn at Creevykeel from the excavation report in 1935.

The Court at Creevykeel

The standing stones arranged around the court are massive chunks of local sandstone studded with pieces of quartz, and average one meter in height high. Many of the court stones are dished in a concave manner that suggests they were carefully selected, and seems to hint at accoustic properties.

The court of Creevykeel during excavations in 1935.
The court of Creevykeel during excavations in 1935.

During the 1935 excavations it was discovered that the court stones were sitting on the old ground level, and not set into sockets. The largest and oldest of the court stones are eight large pillars which flank the entrance to the chamber, four to each side.

Creevykeel viewed from approximately the same position as William Wakeman for his 1880 watercolour.

The court stones get larger in height and stature approaching the chamber, creating a monumental facade around the entrance. The portal of the monument is the liminal threshold which gives access to the inner chamber, now roofless but which was originaly covered with large corbels, making it a substantial artificial cave.

An 1880 watercolor of Creevykeel by William Wakeman.
This watercolour of Creeveykeel from August 1880 by William Wakeman gives an idea of the original form of the monument. Wakeman reports that the top of the lintol was 9 feet above the chamber floor. Image © Sligo County Library.

Wakeman's 1880 illustration of Creevykeel shows the entrance lintel standing upright over the doorway, pictured from within the chamber. The effect of the court stones rising to a point over the suggests a much more imposing facade, which supported the undoubtedly massive capstone of the chamber.

The chamber of Creevykeel.
View from the inner chamber. The stone wall between the pillars was added in 1936, to keep the left stone from falling over. Two possible cup marks are visible on the lower portion of the left pillar.

There is an example of such a chamber with a monsterous roofstone still in position at Shawly in Co Donegal.

Creevykeel, Cliffoney, County Sligo.
Creevykeel with the surrounding wall digitally removed.

The Fallen Lintel

Wakeman's fine watercolour of Creevykeel from 1880 was reproduced, as were many of Wakeman's illustrations, in the leading antiquarian books of the time. It was the practice to take illustrations of monuments and have them engraved to a plate for books, and Wakeman was a pioneer in his recording of monuments, and so his illustrations were engraved many times.

Creevykeel from Borlase.
Wakeman's watercolour of Creeveykeel was confused with Cartronplank, a nearby neolithic court tomb. Illustration from Borlase, Dolmens of Ireland.

Wakeman's fine watercolour of Creevykeel from 1880 was reproduced, as were many of Wakeman's illustrations, in the leading antiquarian books of the time. It was the practice to take illustrations of monuments and have them engraved to a plate for books, and Wakeman was a pioneer in his recording of monuments, and so his illustrations were engraved many times.

Creevykeel crossroads, 1911 OSI map; Creevykeel is the lower of the two monuments marked Giants Grave. The second megalith was destroyed around 1900 when a forge was built from the stones.

However, the lintol stone of Creevykeel somehow became confused with the backstone of Cartronplank, a ruined monument nearby that was as big as Creevykeel judging by the massive backstone.

Cartronplank court tomb by Wakeman.
Giant's Grave called Toomnaformoire (the grave of the Great Man) one mile from Cliffoney towards the Mountains. The chamber is divided into two compartments. Highest stone 7 feet.
Drawn for Colonol Cooper by W. F. Wakeman Aug. 1880. Image © Sligo County Library.

Borlase seems to have mixed up the two illustrations in his 1895 opus, Dolmens of Ireland. The monument at Cartronplank known as Toomnaformoire in Wakeman's day, is still there today though the old name is long forgotton; looking somewhat incongruous it stands in a modern farm yard, with apple trees planted in the ruined court.

The Early Christian metal working kiln.
The Early Christian metal working kiln, pretty much as it was found in 1935. Notice the large court stone pushed over to allow the 'pipe' out.

Excavations in 1935

By the time Hugh O'Neill Hencken arrived to excavate the Creevykeel in 1935, the lintel stone was lying in the chamber, having been pushed over some forty years earlier, around 1895 by three bored brothers who lived locally. Many of the locals remembered the lintel in its standing position; but when Hencken replaced the stone, he put it back in a horizontal position. This could never have worked in the neolithic, as there is a lip on the inside of the flat lintol that cracks many people on the head as they enter.

Sunset at Creevykeel
Sunset at Creevykeel; the monument has an astronomical function, being aligned to the sunrise on the Spring and Autumn equinoxes. Notice the 'lip' on the inner end of the lintol: watch your head as you enter!

A corbel stone on the left as you enter the chamber appears to have been worked: a hemispherical boss protudes from the stone. There may have been another facing it on the other side of the doorway. The chamber, which is some 9 x 4 meters in area, is divided into two sections by a pair of uprights, leaving an outer and an inner sanctum (C1 and C2 in Hencken's report). At the back of the inner chamber is a large flat diamond-shaped slab, is similar in form to the engraved key-slab within Cairn T at Loughcrew, and other megalithic backstones.

Carved stone in Creevykeel.
A possible carved corbel within the chamber of Creeveykeel.

There are three smaller chambers at the western end of the monument; having smaller outlying chambers is a fairly common feature of large court cairns. Two are found the north side, as you enter the Creevykeel enclosure. Both would appear to be missing their entrance jambs.

Side-recess ay Creevykeel.
The most complete of the three sub-chambers at Creeveykeel, Hencken's Chamber A.

The third chamber is found on the south side and is much more complete. These small rooms or cells are quite different to the main chamber, Hencken's Chamber A in particular, he considered to be a small passage grave, principally on account of the articles found within them.

Creevykeel court cairn, Cliffoney, Co Sligo.
Creevykeel court cairn, Cliffoney, Co Sligo; the smelting pit is in the foreground.