Court cairns or court tombs are a class of neolithic monument found in ireland. Their form suggests that they were constructed for some kind of ritual or social events involving large gatherings of people.
There are just over 400 court tombs in Ireland, almost all found north of a line between
Galway Bay and Dublin, in the northern half of the Island. Archaeology
attemps to classify monuments by size, style and type, but court cairns manage
to defy easy catorigasition. In general there are three types: single,
double and central.
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 the door jambs, a well matched pair of orthostats used to create a portal.
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 a neolithic routeway. Another interesting feature of these monuments is that they often 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.
Having said that, in September 2019 a local resident in Cliffoney, who went to Creevykeel for the Equinox sunrise, discovered that the monument is aligned precicely on the morning of the equinox. The rising sun clears Benbulben around 8.00 am, then floods into the chamber and lights up the backstone in a very similar fashion to a passage-grave.
Court cairns are generally labelled as 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.
From genetics we now know that the people who build these monuments have the same ancestry as the passage-grave people. All originate in the near east some nine or ten thousand years ago at around the time of the inventions of agriculture and cattle domestication. While the passage-grave people migrate through the Mediterranean Sea, the court-tomb builders migrate through northern Europe, roughly following the route of the Danube River.
Creevykeel is one of the largest, best preserved and also one of the 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, right on the N15 at Creevykeel Cross.
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 continued to be used in later ages: A furnace was built 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 ancient stones.
Other Monuments in County Sligo
Some of the finest examples of court cairns are found around Donegal Bay. There are many examples along the southern and northern slopes of the ox Mountains, areas which whould have been fine farmland in the neolithic, now covered by bog.
At Farranharpy on the side of Red Hill near Skreen to the west of Co Sligo, a large unexcavated court cairn lies on a terrace close to the summit of the hill. The cairn measures 33 meters by 14 meters and commands wide views to the north across Donegal Bay. In Irish mythology Red Hill was famous as a major entrance to the Otherworld. There are many more monuments in this area.
This fine monument is located
some ten kilometers west of Red Hill. The monument has a well preserved open court and gallery, and the covering cairn survives to a height of one meter. The monument consists of a chamber or gallery 10 meters long and subdivided into three compartments, and oriented to the north, away from the Ox Mountains.
The cairn surrounding the monument is at least 25 meters long and is ten meters wide at the northern end where the court is located. More information on the Heritage Maps webpage.
The huge central court cairn at Deerpark in County Sligo is one of the finest examples in the country. This monument, somewhat untypically for court cairns, commands a fine view of the surrounding
landscape. It is constructed on top of a plateau on the northern side of Lough Gill. This monument was known as Sligo's Stonehenge in the past, because of the lintols which covered the entrances to the galleries. The lintols were vandalised and pushed over around 1921.
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 kilometers northeast of the cluster of monuments at Cliffoney.
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 court-tomb at Moytura, close to Highwood village in County Sligo has an unusually long gallery. An uncommon feature found at this monument is that the gallery entrance is divided in two by a stone slab. The gallery was segmented in to at least four compartments. Looking at this monument, it is easy to see how people imagined that they were graves for giants.
There is lots more information on this monument on the Heritage Maps website.
Moytura is one of the few places in Ireland to feature fine examples of each of the major kinds of megalithic monuments to be found in Ireland. There are also many amazing glacial erratics to be found nearby.
in the North-west
There are many more fine court cairns in the north-west of Ireland.
The photograph above shows the large unexcavated double court cairn at Seskeen, Co Leitrim; there is also a wedge tomb close by. These monuments are located in a very dramatic landscape under the cliffs of Tievebawn Mountain on a shelf overlooking the Glenade Valley, close to Eagles Rock. Looking to the south, the eye is drawn to the impressive land-stack called Tunpaunmore or the Hag's Leap in Glenade.
There are many fine examples to be found along the coasts of County Donegal.
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 1895, and reerected on its flat in 1935 during the Harvard Archaeological mission. Wakeman's 1880 watercolour, shows how much more imposing the original facade was.
Court cairns are considered to be the second oldest type of monument found in Ireland.
They date from about 3,600 BC onwards, and have affinities to portal and
passage monuments. Good examples of courts are found at Creeveykeel and Deerpark in County Sligo, Rathlackan and the Ceide Fields in County Mayo, and Farranmacbride and Cloghanmore in County Donegal.
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.