The fine court cairn at Rathlacken, one of three clustered together in the middle of a complex of neolithic field systems, in County Mayo. The famous Ceide Fields are found a few kilometers to the west.


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Irish court cairns

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.

An aerial view of Creevykeel near Cliffoney village in County Sligo, one of five monuments in the area. The modern wall has been digitally removed from this image.

Wakeman's 1880 watercolour of Creevykeel showing the lintol in its original upright position.

Some engraved markings on a kerbstone at Creevykeel.

Lough Meelagh court cairn close to Keadew in Co Roscommon.

Red Hill, Skreen, Co Sligo. Unexcavated court cairn.

Prince Conall's Grave, Kiltyclogher, Co Leitrim.

Primrosegrange chamber, Knocknarea, Co Sligo.

Mermaid's Cove, Bunduff, County Sligo. Only the chamber remains. Photo from the Megalithic survey.

Seskeen, Co Leitrim, large unexcavated double court, there is a wedge close by.

Streedagh Co Sligo.

Unusually long gallery at Moytura, Highwood, Co Sligo.

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.

largest

Court 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.

The huge central court cairn at Deerpark in County Sligo. This monument, somewhat untypically for court cairns, commands a fine view of the surrounding landscape.

Court 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.

The court cairn at Shawly near Kilcar in County Donegal. This fine monument, one of three courts in this costal valley, still retains the grandur of an impressive neolithic temple, with a triangular arrangement over the entrance.