In Ireland this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart.'
W. B. YEATS.
Court cairns are a group of monuments constructed for some kind of ritual or social gatherings. There are just over 400 of them in Ireland, and they are almost all found north of a line between
Galway Bay and Dublin, ie in the northern half of the country. Archaeology
attemps to classify monuments by size, style and type, but courts manage
to defy easy catorigasition. In general there are three types: single,
double and central.
Creevykeel is one of the largest, best preserved and easiest court cairns to access. It is located between the coast and the mountains close to the village of Cliffoney to the north of County Sligo.
A massive lintol stone once stood over the entrance to Creevykeel, making this a most imposing doorway. The stone was pushed over around 1895 by three brothers who lived near by; it was re-erected incorrectly in 1935 after the site was excavated by the Fourth Harvard Mission.
Creevykeel was re-used in later ages and metal was smelted in the court during the Early Christian period. Some pick-marks on a few selected rocks seem to indicate someone was trying out their new chisel.
On the side of Red Hill near Skreen to the west of Co Sligo, a large unexcavated court cairn lies close to the north summit of the hill. In Irish mythology Red Hill was famous as a major entrance to the Otherworld.
Mermaid's Cove, Bunduff, County Sligo. Not much remains but some stones from the chamber. This monument is quite close to the sea, and is about 2 km northeast of the cluster of monuments at Cliffoney.
A large unexcavated double court cairn at Seskeen, Co Leitrim; there is a wedge close by. These monuments are located in a very dramatic landscape under the cliffs of Tievebawn Mountain on a shelf overlooking the Glenade Valley.
Streedagh Co Sligo. There is a fine wedge cairn close by in the sand dunes. Streedagh is an eerie strip of coastline where over a thousand sailors would loose their lives during the wreck of the Spanish Armada in 1588.
The unusually long gallery at Moytura, Highwood, Co Sligo. Moytura is one of the few places in Ireland to feature all of the major kinds of megalithic monuments to be found in Ireland. There are also many amazing glacial erratics to be found nearby.
As the name suggests, court cairns have a courtyard
or open area, generally bounded by orthostats or drystone walling. Opening
from the court is a chamber or artificial cave, usually roofed with corbels
or overlapping stones, though very few roofed examples survive. The chambers
are divided into two, three or four compartments. The main factor in classifying
courts are jambs, well matched orthostats used to create a portal.
Farranmacbride in Glencolumbkille has a huge central court, the largest known in Ireland. The largest concentrations of these monuments are found in Counties Mayo, Sligo and Donegal, and the largest and finest examples, the full central courts
are all found in this region. Also, the three court cairns that have double chambers, Deerpark, Moygara and Cloghanmore are are also found in this part of Ireland. Another variation found in the northwest is a large triangular stone placed over the entrance. This feature is found at Shawley, Farranmacbride, Cloghanmore, Kiclooney, all in County Donegal, and Creevykeel in County Sligo; at Creevykeel the upright lintol was knocked by 'three brothers' in 1905, and reerected on its flat in 1935 during the Harvard Archaeological mission. Wakeman's 1880 watercolour, below, shows how much more imposing the original facade was.
cairns are considered to be the oldest type of monument found in Ireland.
They date from about 4,000 BC onwards, and have affinities to portal and
passage monuments. Good examples of courts are found at Creeveykeel and Deerpark in Co Sligo, Rathlackan and the Ceide Fields in Co Mayo, and Farranmacbride and Cloghanmore in Co Donegal.
huge central court cairn at Deerpark in County Sligo. This monument, somewhat untypically for court cairns, commands a fine view of the surrounding
cairns are sometimes found in clusters or groups, a good example being my own local area at Cliffoney, where a line of five monuments are found over a two kilometer stretch, along what was surely an ancient routeway. Another interesting feature is often the lack of a view of the surrounding landscape: a total contrast to the chambered monuments such as the cairns at Carrowkeel and Knocknarea which command wide panoramas. Courts are often built in hollows or places with restricted views and might be called inward looking monuments.
The great full court cairn at Cloghanmore near Glencolumbkille in County Donegal. This fine monument was restored by the Bord of Works
and is easy to visit, though it is very wet inside. The bog arose about
1,500 years after the monument was built. Court cairns are the
temples of cattle herding communities of farmers and date from about
4,000 BC onwards.
Court cairns are generally labelled tombs, but there is often little evidence of burial having taken place within the chambers. For example, Creevykeel, though one of the largest examples in Ireland, had only a few token deposits of cremated human bone in the chamber. They may well have been used for village meetings, like a modern town hall, or as temples: all kinds of rituals such as weddings and initiations may have taken place, and the courts are obviously designed to hold a large number of people.