Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Rathlackan court cairn near Killalla in County Mayo.
The fine court cairn at Rathlacken, one of three clustered together in County Mayo.

Irish court cairns

In Ireland this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart.'


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.

Creeykeel, County Sligo.
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.

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.

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

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.

Some engraved markings on a kerbstone at Creevykeel.
Some engraved markings on a kerbstone at Creevykeel.

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.

Court cairn near Keadew in County Roscommon.
Lough Meelagh court cairn, lost in the woods close to Keadew in Co Roscommon.
Red Hill Court Cairn, County Sligo.
Red Hill, Skreen, County Sligo.

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.

Duniel Mountain, west Sligo.
The remains of a court cairn at Duniel Mountain, west Sligo.
Duniel Mountain, west Sligo.
Another image of the court cairn at Duniel Mountain, west Sligo.
Prince Conall's Grave, Kiltyclogher, Co Leitrim.
Prince Conall's Grave, Kiltyclogher, Co Leitrim.
Primrosegrange chamber, Knocknarea, Co Sligo.
Primrosegrange chamber, on the south side of Knocknarea, Co Sligo.
Mermaid's Cove, Bunduff, County Sligo.
Mermaid's Cove, Bunduff, County Sligo. Photo from the Megalithic survey.
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.
Seskeen, Co Leitrim.
Seskeen, Co Leitrim.

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.
Streedagh court cairn, County Sligo.

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.

Highwood, Co Sligo.
The Moytura court, Highwood, Co Sligo.
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, Glencolumbkille, 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 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.

Ardara, County Donegal
A magnificent court cairn close to the dolmen at Kilclooney near Ardara, County Donegal
Croaghbeg, Shawly, County Donegal.
Croaghbeg, close to Shawly where there is a cluster of three court cairns close to Killybegs, County Donegal.
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.

Deerpark, County Sligo.
Deerpark, County Sligo.
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.

Cloghanmore, County Donegal, is one of the best preserved of all the Irish court cairns.
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.

Shawly court cairn, County Donegal.
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.