Banner: sunset over Knocknarea.
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.

Macalister photographed by Green in 1911.
Macalister sitting on Cairn B, photographed by W. A. Green during the 1911 explorations at Carrowkeel.

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.

The Cailleach's House, Ballygawley Mountains, County Sligo.
The Cailleach's House, Ballygawley Mountains, County Sligo.

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 cham