The huge central court cairn at Creevykeel near Cliffoney in County Sligo. This massive monument was built some 6000 years ago by local farmers who probably herded cattle.

Creevykeel court cairn

Creevykeel is a well preserved megalithic monument, said to be one of the largest court cairns in Ireland. It is certainly one of the easiest sites to visit, as it is right by the N16 Sligo - Bundoran road, 1.5 km north of the village of Cliffoney and close to Gorevan's crossroads. There is a parking space signposted, but it is easy to miss on this fast and dangerous road.

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.

The carpark is big enough to accomodate the tour buses who often make a short stop here. At the north end of the carpark is the well Tober Bhaoisgin. As can be seen from the map, the monument was planted with trees in 1911, and seems to have been within an orchard when Wakeman visited in 1880. A few steps from the carpark,through a clump of rag-strewn trees, and there is the huge cairn, so massive it fills its own small field.

 Creevykeel Court Cairn, Aerial footage from dronevideo.ie

The old name for Creevykeel is Caiseal an Bhaoisgin, the Fort of Bhaoisgin, Bhaoisgin being the well near the cairn. Bhaoisgin has become Wisken, in todays pigeon Gaelic. Creevykeel is the largest in a chain of five megalithic buildings clustered together on an ancient routeway. 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 appeared here in recent years.

Creevykeel from the air with the surrounding walls removed. The mound of soil on the right is probably from the 1935 -36 excavation/reconstruction.

Creevykeel is a massive wedge shaped pile of stones arranged on an east/west axis. The chamber and court open to the east; the ground is falling away gently towards the sea, so the monument is facing up a gradual slope. The cairn measures 55 x 25 meters, with the wide edge to the east and tapers away to a tail on the west end. A narrow passage, which may have been roofed originally leads into the massive inner court, which can easily hold 100 people. The court measures 15 x 9 meters.

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

The standing stones arranged around the court are massive chunks of local sandstone studded with pieces of quartz, and average 1 meter high. Many are dished in a manner that suggests they were carefully selected; the 1935 excavations discovered that the stones were sitting on the old ground level, rather than set in sockets. The court stones get larger approaching the rear, 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.

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. Copyright Sligo County Library.

Wakeman's 1880 illustration of Creevykeel, above, shows the entrance lintol 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. There is an example of such a chamber with a monsterous roofstone still in position at Shawly in Co Donegal.

Wakeman's watercolour of Creeveykeel was confused with Cartronplank, a nearby monument.
Illustration from Borlase, Dolmens of Ireland.

A strange thingto note about the fine watercolour of Creevykeel from 1880 is that it 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. 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.

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.

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.

By the time Hencken arrived to excavate the Creevykeel in 1935, the lintol stone was lying in the chamber, having been pushed over some thirty years before by three bored local brothers. As he says in his comments about the folklore of Creevykeel (below), many of the locals remembered the lintol in its standing position; but when he 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 (you can see it in the picture below).

Sunset at Creevykeel; the monument has no apparent astronomical function. Notice the 'lip' on the inner end of the lintol: watch your head!!

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 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.

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.

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Voices from the Dawn

Hugh O'Neill Hencken

Hugh O'Neill Hencken was born in New York City on January 8, 1902, the son of Albert Charles and Mary Creighton O'Neill Hencken. He spent his youth in Pennsylvania, and went to Princeton University in 1920. He graduated from Princeton with an A.B. in 1924 and went on to Cambridge University to receive a B.A. (1926), an M.A. (1929), and his PhD in archaeology in 1930.

Hencken received numerous honorary degrees from institutions that included Cambridge University and the National University of Ireland. He was appointed Associate in European Archaeology at Harvard University in 1930 and was made Assistant Curator of European Archaeology at the Peabody Museum the following year. He was Curator of the same department from 1933-1960, and also taught at London, Oxford, and Edinburgh universities during this period. Hencken married Mary Thalassa Alfred Cruso October 12, 1935. They had three daughters: Ala, Sophia, and Thalassa. His wife, who had a diploma in archaeology from London University, died June 11th, 1997. From 1955-1960 Hencken served as the Director of Prehistoric Studies at the American School of Prehistoric Research. He was a Lecturer in Anthropology at Harvard University in 1943-44, 1948 and 1956.

Hencken conducted excavations and museum research on Iron Age peoples and objects in England, Ireland, Morocco, Algeria, Italy, Greece and elsewhere in Europe and North Africa. A member of professional and academic societies too numerous to mention, Hencken was also a prolific writer, publishing excavation reports, articles, and books on his work in Europe. He died in 1981
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A mysterious path at Creevykeel in the spring of 2015, running from the cairn into the surrounding wall; perhaps it belongs to the white hare mentioned below by Edward Connolly?

Cattle Farming at Creevykeel.

So, what was going on at Creevykeel, why were so many huge stones moved and positioned, with the giant flag balanced over the doorway? The latest studies and ideas in this area, as well as the practical knowlage of farming, would seem to indicate that these great court cairns are what might best be described as neolithic cattle temples.

Of the 400 or so court cairns found in the northern half of Ireland, most are located in what was good farming land during the neolithic era. Today when we visit sites such as the Ceide Fields in Co Mayo or the Shawly valley in Co Donegal, the marginal boggy land was once fine cattle country. A study by Steve Clarke has shown that the twelve largest court cairns in Ireland are found around Donegal Bay, and that they have many aspects in common, not least being located on a major routeway.

An aerial image of Creevykeel with the surrounding wall digitally removed.

Where did neolithic farmers go to buy, sell, exchange, trade, any of the above, with their cattle? Perhaps it also involved fertility; there is nothing to say that court cairns are not special pens for neolithic cattle fairs.

 

The huge central court cairn at Creevykeel near Cliffoney in County Sligo.
In this photo the surronding wall has been removed.

The Folklore of Creevykeel.
Hugh O'Neill Hencken

According to Mr. Henry Morris, the Irish name of the site is Caiseal an Bhaoisgin. In 1935 the only Irish speaker that could be found in the district, Mr. Patrick Healy of Mullaghmore, called it Caislean Bhaoisgin, and so did Mr. Edward Connelly of Creevykeel, who, though he had forgotten his Irish, remembered the name of the cairn. Mr. Healy also called the neighbouring well Tobar Baoisgin and the mountain behind it Beann Bhaoisgin. I am indebted to Dr. Joseph Raftery of the National Museum of Ireland for collecting the information on the Irish names.

Corbel in the inner chamber of Creevykeel, and the large 'diamond' shaped backstone.

The writer also heard the following stories from Mr. Edward Connelly, who was then a man of about 80, and who lived near the cairn. He said that the replaced lintel had originally stood erect on one edge upon its supporting uprights instead of lying flat, and that under it on the northern side there was another smaller stone between it and the jamb stone of the entrance. This was perhaps the broken stone that was moved during the excavation (p. 60). Though the story that this stone over the entrance from the court into Chamber CI once stood erect like a pediment sounds very improbable, it is generally believed in the district, and it was also told by Mr. John Hannon of Creevykeel. Mr. Connelly said that 'the prophecy of the stone,' which he had heard since he was a boy long before it fell, was that it would be thrown down 'by three brothers of the one name.' About thirty years ago three brothers upset the stone. It is incidentally worth mentioning that, had the stone ever stood erect, it could have been pushed over by three men, but certainly not if it lay flat as we replaced it.

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

About a century ago, according to Mr. Connelly, there were still-houses for making poteen concealed among the ruins of the cairn. One day fifty mounted men set out from Sligo to capture the poteen-makers and their still. But while they were on their way, a white hare appeared on a stone wall beside the cairn, and the owners of the still decided to follow it. It led them to within sight of the mounted men, and the poteen-makers, realizing their danger, rushed back to the cairn to save their still. Thereafter the white hare always appeared to them whenever the authorities attempted a capture, and due to these warnings the still was never seized. This hare, though sometimes chased by dogs, was never caught.

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.

Mr. Connelly also said that when he was about seventeen he cut a cane from a bush near the cairn and carried it one morning when he was driving some sheep to a fair. At the point where the road passes within a few yards of the cairn, his bootlace became untied, and he stooped down to tie it, laying the cane in the road as he did so. When he looked up again the cane was gone, and, though he searched for it for half an hour, he finally had to go to the fair without it. The next morning about eleven o'clock he passed by the same way and saw his cane lying in the middle of the road exactly where he had left it. In spite of all the horses and carts that had gone to and from the fair by that road, there was not a single mark on the cane. After that he decided to cut no more bushes near the cairn.

About thirty years ago Mr. Connelly saw a hen pheasant on the cairn and went toward it to try to catch it but did not attempt very seriously to do so. When it was almost within his grasp, it flew away a short distance and then alighted. Again he nearly caught the bird, and again it eluded him. This happened several times until the pheasant disappeared into what Mr. Connelly called the 'pipe,' which appeared to be the passage connected with the Early Christian structure in the court. This ‘pipe’ Mr. Connelly assumed to be several hundred yards long. These events, always with the same hen pheasant, repeated themselves for about ten years. Mr. Connelly said that he thought that he came to no harm because he had not really meant to harm the bird, but that it might have been otherwise had he seriously tried to catch it. He asked what was going to be done with the stones which had been removed from the cairn, and he highly approved of their being replaced. He added that anyone who touched them meaning no harm would not be harmed, but if anyone touched them meaning harm, they might take some form of vengeance.

A corbel in the chamber of Creevykeel has what seems to be a carved boss or breast, about 6 cm across.

It was interesting to notice that all through Mr. Connelly's conversation about the site, he regarded it not as a grave but as a dwelling inhabited at the present time. In this regard it takes its place with forts, raths and ruins of all ages, which are the regular abode of ’the other people.

 

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.