An aerial view of Knocknarea from Ning Maps.
An amazing view of Knocknarea and Queen Maeve's Cairn from Bing Maps. The Glen and the Culleenamore Middens are visible south of the Mountain.

Irish Passage Graves

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

W. B. YEATS.

Passage Graves are the most interesting of the Irish megalithic monument, being by far the most complex type of monument found on this island. Passage graves, which first appear on the continent about 4,600 BC, are ritual burial monuments built of stone, containing internal chambers which are artificial caves. These chambers vary in size from the older and smaller free-standing dolmens found at Carrowmore to the massive arched vaults of Newgrange and Knowth.

Early Monuments

Early examples of passage graves begin to appear in Irish coastal areas from around 4,000 BC. Groups of neolithic farmers begin to arrive in large numbers and erect monuments at significant locations within the landscape. The first large wave of settlers come into Ireland through Sligo, constructing the large causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy around 4,150 BC. It is likely that the construction of a sacred precinct at Carrowmore began very early, with dates of 4,100 indicating activity on the platform under the focal monument, Listoghil.

Burenhult, during his two seasons of excavations at Carrowmore, extracted extremely early dates from charcoal found at several monuments, which may date from mesolithic activities in this area. It is believed that the neolithic farmers tended to occupy areas sacred to the hunter-gatherers when erecting their monuments which by their nature, enclose spaces.

Dolmen 13 at Carrowmore.
An photo of Dolmen 13, one of the larger chambers at Carrowmore, taken around 1900. Ths circle was dismantled and broken up for road materials, and the platform or tertre ploughed away, destabilising the monument.

The monuments at Carrowmore, though not very large themselves, are designed and arranged on a colossal scale. When the complex was complete, before the land-clearances of the last 300 years, Carrowmore consisted of a huge oval cluster of at least forty early passage graves arranged around the focal monument, the largest chamber and circle erected around 3,600 BC on the huge early platform at Listoghil.

The Carrowmore monuments are an early free-standing form of passage grave where the chamber is viewed from outside. The chamber is constructed on a raised platform or tertre, which is bounded by a ring of contiguous kerb stones; the chamber is connected to the circle by a two-dimensional passage, a symbolic way of connecting the world of the Living to the Land of the Dead or the Otherworld. Indeed, these structures may best be understood as physical constructs which represent a non-physical space, using the most enduring medium, stone.

Circle 26 at Carrowmore, photo montage by Goran Burenhult.
Photo-montage by Göran Burenhult from the excavation of Circle 26 at Carrowmore in County Sligo.

At Carrowmore the monuments are constructed using gneiss boulders, glacial erratics carried down from the valleys in the Ballygawley Mountains to the south east. These gneiss boulders, studded with chunks of quartz, are some of the oldest rocks in Ireland. In the local folklore the rocks were collected by the Cailleach, Garavogue, the sorceress who lives in Cailleach a Bherra's House, the passage-grave on the lowest summit of the Ballygawley hills. She gathered the rocks in her white apron, and as she flew from summit to summit she dropped her rocks and formed the circles.

Carrowmore is the first of four great clusters or 'cemeteries' of passage graves in Ireland: the others are at Carrowkeel, Loughcrew and in the Boyne Valley. A fifth cluster, though quite ruined, is found at Kilmonaster in County Donegal. There are many more unopened mounds and cairns on the island, including the sites around Cong, Knockma and on the northern summits of the Burren, and all through the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. The oldest monument on the celebrated Hill of Tara is the passage grave known as the Mound of the Hostages.

Heapstown Cairn, County Sligo.
The huge unopened neolithic monument, Heapstown Cairn at the northern end of Lough Arrow in County Sligo guards the entrance to Carrowkeel and Moytura.

Carrowkeel

Cairn B at Carrowkeel, 1911.
Cairn B at Carrowkeel freshly opened in 1911 during excavations by Praegar and Macalister.

While Carrowmore was discovered and mapped by early antiquaries, and given a full description by George Petrie for the Ordinance Survey, Carrowkeel evaded attention until almost modern times. Though the cairns and chambers at Carrowkeel, constructed of local limestone, are of quite a different character and nature to the monuments at Carrowmore, they are set in an equally stunning landscape.

The two regions, Cuil Iorra and Lough Arrow are connected by the River Uinshin, the watery highway of the neolithic. By the time Carrowkeel is founded around 3,600 BC, Listoghil, the focal monument at Carrowmore is buried within a stone cairn. A new era has begun.

Midsummer sunset at Carrowkeel.
Midsummer sunset viewed from the chamber of Cairn G at Carrowkeel.

The earliest monuments are found on the mountains on the west shore of Lough Arrow, where there are simple chambers and passages on a raised platform and surrounded by a kerb, examples being Cairn M, Cairn N, Cairn X ( below Cairn G ) and monuments at Lough na Leibe and Sheecor. However, access to better building materials at Carrowkeel resulted in some of the most amazing works of architecture to survive from the neolithic world.

The builders constructed chambers using quarried limestone slabs, which were covered by a limestone cairn. The cruciform chamber of Cairn K, with its fine corbeled vault and solid cairn, was also covered by a thick mantle of quartz. Cairn F, a double cruciform chamber oriented to due north, had a massive vaulted corbeled ceiling which collapsed in antiquity, and an unusual standing stone. The beautifully constructed chamber of Cairn G has an opening over the entrance which provides a fine view of the horizon from within the monument, and enables an observer to monitor a wide range of midsummer sunsets and midwinter moon-sets, surely an early incarnation of the Newgrange roof-box.

The monuments were rudely investigated by Macalister and Praegar in 1911 when the remains of some sixty people, both cremated and un-cremated, were found in seven chambers. These bones were rediscovered by Dr. Alison Sheridan in 2003, and have been the subject of a series of carbon dating and ADNA analysis, with fascinating results. Sadly, the Carrowkeel cairns, wonders of the neolithic world, are eroding rapidly due to the effects of mass tourism. A timely move is afoot to have both Carrowmore and Carrowkeel preserved as World Heritage Sites.

Excavations 
    underway at the Mound of the Hostages.
Excavations underway at the Mound of the Hostages at Tara in the late 1950's.

Passage graves tend to come in many shapes and forms while still managing to follow a fairly strict template or format. In Ireland it can be clearly seen that the earlier monuments have a simpler form with a burial chamber designed to be seen from outside. From Carrowkeel onwards the monuments tend to increase in size and complexity as they move eastwards.

A good example is the Mound of the Hostages, the oldest visible monument on the Hill of Tara in County Meath. The monument had an early phase where the stone chamber was free-standing upon a platform. The chamber, which is oriented to the sunrises at Samhain, was surrounded by timber structures and ditches. After a period of time the chamber was covered by a cairn and at a later time again this cairn was covered with a mantle of soil. Passage graves can go through many incarnations, amendments and additions.

Sunset, Shee Lugh, Moytura, County Sligo.
A Moytura sunset: summer solstice viewed from the passage grave known as Shee Lugh. The sun is dropping behind Knocknarea.

Loughcrew: Art and Astronomy

One of the best known aspects of the passage graves is the wonderful engraved art, a mysterious symbolic language that can seem strikingly modern. These engravings are the earliest writings in Ireland and among the oldest in Europe, dating from about 3,600 - 3,000 BC. They are documents in stone written in a language which seems to incorporate astronomical events such as eclipses and conjunctions, illuminated by the light and motion of the heavens at key sun rises and sunsets. Seeing the engraved symbols at Loughcrew illuminated by brilliant sunlight at sunrise or sunset is a most convincing argument.

A pair of spirals found in Cairn B at Carrowkeel in 2009 by archaeologist Robert Hensey.

Early examples of megalithic art have been discovered at Carrowmore, Carrowkeel and at Heapstown, but the earliest large cluster of megalithic art is found at Sliabh na Cailleach, the Loughcrew hills in County Meath. Here lie the scattered remains of at least thirty neolithic passage graves ranging from early platform monuments, such as Cairn V to complex chambers covered by cairns at Cairn T and Cairn L, both of which have many engraved stones and significant astronomical alignments.

Equinox sunrise illuminates megalithic art within the chamber of Cairn T at Loughcrew.
Equinox sunrise illuminates megalithic art within the chamber of Cairn T at Loughcrew.

That these engravings deal with astronomical themes is demonstrated when the artwork is illuminated by the light of the sun or moon at a chosen time in the cycle of the body in question. This is demonstrated within Cairns L and Cairn T when the rising sun interacts with the engraved symbols creating a powerful bi-annual display of cosmology. Both alignments at Loughcrew were noted by American archaeo-astronomer and author Martin Brennan and his co-researcher Jack Roberts. Their work helped demonstrate that there was significantly more to these monuments than burial.

Cairn L at Loughcrew.
Samhain sunrise illuminates the megalithic art carved within the recess of Cairn L at Loughcrew. The event occurs twice each year and marks the cross-quarter days.

Shortly after sunrise on the equinoxes a beam of light sweeps into the cruciform chamber of Cairn T, penetrating the innermost recess which has a finely carved and intricate set of designs. The sunlight moves across the panel focusing and highlighting different symbols as the patch of light narrows. The alignment in Cairn L, one kilometer to the west, takes place at sunrise on Samhain and Imbolc—the November and February cross-quarter days. A beam of light is projected into the chamber as the sun rises over the cairn on Sliabh Rua, and strikes the top of a mysterious limestone pillar known as the Whispering Stone. The beam of light slides off the pillar and illuminates a wonderful panel of art carved within the largest recess.

Megalithic art within the chamber of Cairn H at Loughcrew.
Cairn H at Loughcrew. There were at least 30 monuments spread across four hills in County Meath, and 120 of the structural stones are engraved with megalithic art.

Once again we find the myth of the Hag or Witch or Cailleach flying across the hills with her apron full of stones and it should come as no surprise that the monuments are built from slabs of stone extracted from sandstone erratics. We even have the name of the Cailleach, Garavogue, as she is mentioned in a poem from 1720 by Johnathan Swift.

Loughcrew, photo by Padraig Conway.
The stunning landscape at Loughcrew, Sliabh na Cailleach in County Meath. In the distance is Cairn T, the central monument within this complex and sacred landscape. Also visible, from left, are Cairn G, Cairn L, Cairn H, Cairn I and Carrick Breac. The photo is taken from Cairn F on Carnbane West. Photograph © Padraig Conway.

Mega-mounds: the Boyne Valley

The most famous stone age or neolithic monument in Ireland is Newgrange, one of three huge mounds found overlooking the River Boyne in County Meath. Though these massive late neolithic monuments are both the largest and most complex passage-graves in Europe, they still have the same basic qualities and grave goods found in Carrowmore, Carrowkeel and Loughcrew, but each reaching a pinnacle of achievement. There is simply nothing to compare with the size, complexity and quality of megalithic art found in the Boyne Valley; while at the other sites the landscape dominates the monuments, here the reverse is true and the monuments dominate their surroundings.

Earlier, smaller and less complex monuments are found here in plenty, surrounding the three huge mounds. Cairn K, in the field west of Newgrange, began as a free-standing chamber on a platform. At a later time the passage was extended, a cairn added, and a ditch dug around the monument. There are many simpler 'undifferentiated' monuments and chambers at Knowth, which mimics the layout of Carrowmore on a much smaller scale with a much larger focal monument. Knowth has the longest megalithic passages and the largest collection of artwork in the world.

Engravings 
        on the Stone of the Seven Suns.
Engravings on the Stone of the Seven Suns, the most impressive panel of art visible at Dowth today. Taken from the Survey of Dowth by M. and C. O'Kelly.

Dowth is thought to be the oldest of the three huge monuments, mainly because it seems earlier and slightly cruder than the other two monuments, which have both been excavated and reconstructed. Dowth remains unexcavated and retains an aura of great antiquity. The 'caves' within the mound were plundered by the Danes, and the mound was used as a quarry in the 1840's. There are several smaller mounds close by, and in 2018 another sizable passage-grave, some forty meters in diameter was discovered under Dowth Hall.

The great engraved basin stone within the rast chamber of Knowth.
The great engraved basin stone within the east chamber of Knowth.

Knowth, the most complex of the three huge monuments, was excavated by George Eoghan over nearly fifty years. The colossal cairn contains two of the longest passages in the corpus of all known passage-graves, while the east chamber, a marvel of engineering, was built around a huge and finely carved stone basin which seems to commemorate an eclipse or some other significant celestial event.

Most of the kerb-stones at Knowth are engraved—it has the largest collection of megalithic art in Europe—there is nothing to compare with it. Many of the carvings would seem to be glyphs and diagrams of the cycles and phases of the sun and moon. The massive central monument, known from excavations to have been built in at least two phases, is surrounded by some twenty 'satellite' monuments in a layout that harks back to Carrowmore and the first colony.

Plan and section of Newgrange, 1959.
Plan and section of Newgrange, 1959.
Newgrange 
           from the air in an old Bord Failte postcard.
Newgrange from the air in an old Bord Failte postcard.

Newgrange

Almost all Irish neolithic monuments have quartz used in them in some form, either in the orthostats and building stones, or as facing on the facade of the monument as at Newgrange. The huge monument, Ireland's most famous tourist attraction, underwent a contraversial restoration after a period of excavations overseen by Michael O'Kelly. Large quantities of quartz, which had been transported here from Wicklow, were found at the lowest layer of the collapsed mound and spill. O'Kelly interpreted this as a vertical wall, and after some experimentation, a wall was erected using a four meter slab of reinforced concrete. It is highly unlikley that such a wall could have stood for long in the neolithic, and indeed the quartz may well have been the platform or tertre under the great cairn.

Newgrange during renovations: a concrete wall is erected to hold up the quartz wall.
Many visitors to Newgrange today are unaware that the mounds facade is a modern reworking, and hardly looked as it does now when it was built in 3,200 BC. The site was excavated over a number of seasons by Michael O'Kelly, and restored using modern building materials. Knowth underwent a similar but much longer excavation and restoration.

Newgrange today is just as famous for its contraversial restoration as for its precise alignment and orientation to the rising sun over the days of the winter solstice. The ray of light passes through a specially constructed opening over the portal, which O'Kelly dubbed a 'roof-box'. The sunbeam penetrates the chamber through a passage twenty meters in length.

Quartz

Many monuments had names such as Fin Cairn and Cairn Ban, both of which mean 'White Cairn'. Quartz is regarded as a sacred stone by many cultures around the world and is a key component of our modern computer driven technological society today. Quartz was known as Grian Cloch, meaning Sun Stone to the ancient Irish. The traditions which still survive in Ireland today of covering graves with quartz chippings go back a long, long way. At Loughcrew, the quartz mantle was taken during the Penal times and broken up to spread on graves.

Site K at Kilmonaster in County Donegal.
Site K, the cruciform chambered cairn at Kilmonaster in County Donegal The chamber sits on a platform about 22 meters in diameter and is oriented to the summer solstice sunset. The kerbstones of this monument are large chunks of white quartz.

Grave Goods

Items recovered in with the burials in passage-graves tend to follow the same fairly strict pattern and range. Commonly found are chalk and stone spheres, stone pendants and bone or antler pins, broken pottery, pieces of flint and pieces of quartz. There are examples of the spheres from several sites on display in the National Museum, including two mysterious artifacts found under the basin in Cairn L, Loughcrew. A crude type of pottery known as 'Carrowkeel Ware' since it was first classified there in 1911, is often found with the burials.

Pendants are considered to have been hung around the neck, and Michael Herity's Irish Passage Graves has a photograph of a model wearing a selection of pendants from the Mound of the Hostages at Tara. A fine quartz pendant was found in Circle 3 at Carrowmore. In a few cases larger pendants which look more like ritual axe heads have been found, and they may indeed be worn out axe heads ground down to a wearable size.

Stone spheres from Cairn L
The two stone spheres from the right hand recess of Cairn L, now in the National Museum, image approximately life size.

The outstanding example of a small carved stone is the Knowth Mace-head which was found buried beside the basin in the right recess of the East chamber. This beautiful artifact is made from extremely hard flint, thought to come from Orkney, and is engraved with swirls and spirals which rival the Newgrange Entrance Stone in their excellence.

Carved pins made from bone or the antler of red deer, often with mushroom-shaped heads are one of the most common finds in Irish passage-graves. They are found in virtually every monument ever opened seem to have been included on the cremation pyres as they are usually found cracked and scorched. They are sometimes engraved with a particularly fine engraved example coming from Fourknocks. The antler pins from two chambers in Carrowmore were used to date the complex in a research project, Unpicking the Chronology of Carrowmore in 2013. The range of dates spanned 3,750 BC to 3,000 BC and are the oldest remains of red deer currently known in Ireland. Red deer were extinct in mesolithic Ireland, and were imported by the first farmers.

Circle 7 at Carrowmore in County Sligo, looking west to Knocknarea with Queen Maeve's cairn on the summit.