are four main types of megalithic monument to be found in Ireland. These
are chambered cairns (also known as passage tombs or passage graves) with perhaps 300 - 500 in the country.
Court cairns, (court tombs), about 400, dolmens (portal tombs or cromleacs), some 190 examples and wedges, again around 400 monuments.
A fifth type or category are unclassified monuments of which there are at least 200. There is a sixth much smaller group, called Linkardstown cists, not very common.
Chambered cairns are the main type of megalithic/neolithic monument dealt
with on this website, as they were the first to attract my interest, mainly
due to their fabulous art and astronomical alignments. These structures are found in most European
countries with large and well preserved concentrations found
in France and Ireland. I was lucky, in fact I feel privilaged, to have lived at Carrowkeel in County Sligo, one of the major Irish complexes, for 10 years. Moytura, on the east shore of Lough Arrow is one of the best places to see the four types of monument. Heapstown and Shee Lugh are passage graves; the Labby Rock is one of the larger dolmens in Ireland; there are a number of wedges and an unusual court structure, as well as many tall erratic standing stones.
There are similarities and differences between the types of monuments. Courts and dolmens are thought to be the oldest types, dating to about 4,000 BC, followed by passage graves, 3,800 BC onwards and wedges on the threshold of the bronze age. There is a huge amount of variety to the 1,600 or so megaliths remaining in Ireland. Some are huge like the Boyne Valley cairns, some are tiny like the circles in Carrowmore. Many have been destroyed where they made convienient building materials or stood on good farming land. Others are so ruined that there is little left to see of the monument, but the landscape settings are often quite dramatic. Some are in great condition and easy to visit like the Labby Rock and Creevykeel in County Sligo.
Court cairns come in all shapes and sizes, and many monuments are quite ruined. There are only 12 of the great central courts, of which Creevykeel is the best example; all found in the northwest around Donegal Bay. Courts are not found in the south of the country; all but five are found in the northern portion of the island. More information on the court cairn page.
Dolmens seem to markers for boundaries or territory. They are often found in valleys close to a stream, and the view does not always seem too important. Dolmens are well known for their large imposing capstones; Irish dolmens range from about 10 tons at Carrowmore to an estimated 100 tons at Brownshill in Co Carlow. Some of Ireland's largest dolmens are found in County Dublin, though many are collapsed. We could do with a national dolmen rebuilding programme in Ireland. More on the dolmens page.
Megalithic chambers are really artificial caves built as free standing structures from large
slabs of stone, and in fact many of the earliest megaliths in County Sligo are found near caves.
The megalithic structures are then covered by a heap of stones,
which both stabilises the freestanding structure, defines the monument
visually from a distance, and creates a viewing platform which can be
used to survey the horizon. It is thought that the capstones of large dolmens were left free of the cairn of stones. Some sites have external features such as
standing stones, stone settings, raised banks and stone boxes known as
cists. Two monuments, Cairn F at Carrowkeel and Cairn L at Loughcrew have standing stones within
Neolithic art is almost always found on passage graves. Views, were not important in the location of courts, while they were of utmost importance in the siting of passage graves. Passage graves demonstrate a great interest in astronomy: chambers are often oriented to the
sun, moon, another heavenly body, or another monument or a landscape feature.
To most archaeologists, megalithic monuments are tombs, places where the bones of the ancestors were laid to rest. However, the numbers don't really add up, the amount of burials is quite small in comparison to the amount of labour that went into erecting a monument. In some sites, for example Creevykeel in County Sligo, no bones or cremations were found at all; in others such as Newgrange, the remains of only five people were found. Newgrange is much more of a neolithic temple or cathederal than a tomb. At Carrowkeel, the remains of about 32 people came from the chambers of 12 cairns.
The fourth type of megalithic chamber are the wedges, stone boxes that are found all around the country, and often in clusters with other types of monument.