Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
The landscape to the west of Carrowkeel.
The landscape to the west of Carrowkeel.

The Carrowkeel megalithic complex

Carrowkeel is one of the most beautiful and mysterious of the Irish megalithic complexes. The remarkable series neolithic monuments are spread out across the highest summits and ledges of the northern ends of the Bricklieve Mountains in County Sligo.

A slideshow of images and photographs of the Carrowkeel megalithic complex.

Carrowkeel is situated on the west side of Lough Arrow, overlooking the modern village of Castlebaldwin. It is easy to find, well signposted from the main Dublin/Sligo (N4) road below. There are 14 neolithic cairns, dating from around 3,500 BC to be found in the townland of Carrowkeel, and several more on the hill-tops to the west.

If you are visiting Carrowkeel please do not climb on the monuments, as the chambers are fragile and many have cracked lintols. This whole area was one of the most important neolithic centres of ancient Ireland. Carrowmore and Carrowkeel are joined by the Uinshin river which flows from Lough Arrow to Ballisodare Bay.

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The main group of cairns at Carrowkeel. Cairn G with it's roofbox is to the foreground with Cairns H and K beyond.

The name Bricklieve translates as Speckled Mountain; Speckled can mean many things in old Irish including a magical portal, and there are two other powerful Speckled sites in Sligo: Tobernaveen near Carrowmore and the Cursing Stones on Inishmurray.

The Bricklieve Mountains are a series of parallel limestone ridges running from north-west to south-east. This amazing landscape was sculpted by the retreating galciers of the last ice age as they receeded to the north-west towards Knocknarea and the sea.

Seen in aerial photographs and on maps, the shape of the mountains is not unlike a gigantic right hand, palm down, with four plateaus for fingers and cliff-edged valleys in between. Tully Mountain over to the west forms a thumb, then Treanscrabbagh, Carn Mor, Carrowkeel and Doonaveeragh ridges make up the fingers.

Macalister's 1911 map of Carrowkeel.
Macalister's 1911 map of Carrowkeel.

The Carrowkeel cairns are built in commanding positions at altitudes between 240 and 360 meters on north-facing bog-covered terraces. Carrowkeel was excavated in a very unsympathetic manner by R. Macalister in 1911, and the published reports from his notes are reproduced here.

Twenty one neolithic cairns stretch from Doonaveragh Mountain alongside Lough Arrow in the east, to the cairn known as The Pinnacle atop Kesh Corann in the west. The cairns are built with locally quarried limestone are visible from many miles around as small bumps on the ridges of the Bricklieves, particularly from the other mounds and monuments around the county.

The summit of Carrowkeel, Co Sligo.
The summit of Carrowkeel, Co Sligo. The view is towards Knocknarea in the northwest, 20 km away with the massive Queen Maeve's Cairn, on it's summit.

Neolithic landscape

Over to the west, the landscape is equally spectacular with grass covered cairn-topped hills, steep valleys and Kesh Corann looming like a great crouched beast in the distance. A local myth tells that Kesh was formed from the body of a gaint sow, and that the smaller hills, Treanmor, Sheecor, Treanmacmurtagh on the east side are her piglets. The Bricklieve mountains have many kinds of monuments and settlements scattered about. There are several caves around Carrowkeel and many more in the sides of Kesh Corran.

Millions of years ago all of this land was ocean floor and tiny fossil creatures and corals can be seen in the rocks. Over most of the Bricklieve Mountains a thick layer of bog, up to 3 meters deep in places, has crept up to cover the limestone and gives the mountains a wild and rugged appearance. The peat began to form many years after the cairns were built, when the climate became cooler and became damper. At the time Carrowkeel was in use, the naked limestone, now so similar to the Burren in Co. Clare, was covered with grass and stood out from the forests. It is hard for us today to imagine how different the landscape was 6,000 years ago.

Carrowkeel, the Bricklieve Mountains and Lough Arrow, seen in drone footage.

Carrowkeel were used throughout the Bronze age, when pottery was placed in some of the chambers - to the late medieval period, when Red Hugh O'Donnell used Doonaveeragh plateau as a camp for his army during the Nine Years War (1592 - 1601). There are many old empty cottages around Carrowkeel, some of which were inhabited until the 1960's. There is a fine example of a mountain cottage below Carrowkeel and across from Doonaveeragh, where good examples of potato 'lazy beds' can still be seen.

The view from Carrowkeel to the west.
The view from Carrowkeel to the west. Croagh Patrick is visible 75 kilometers away on the horizon. At the Halloween and Imbolc quarter days the sun drops behind the Reek when viewed from the summit of Carrowkeel. A stone within the chamber of Cairn K marks the alignment.