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A large circular neolithic enclosure at the Ceide Fields.
A large circular neolithic enclosure at the Ceide Fields in County Mayo. This structure is thought to have been used as a pen for cows with young calves. Views from here are breathtaking: out across sea cliffs onto the Atlantic ocean.

The Céide Fields

Situated on the north coast of County Mayo, the Ceide Fields is a fascinating glimpse of the life of early neolithc farmers in Ireland. The site consists of a massive set of early field systems, hut sites and court cairns which are thought to date from about the time people switched from hunting to farming in Ireland. Judging from the remains here, cattle were very important to these early farmers.

Though the main concentration of fields are found at Céide, as well as a scattering of other neolithic monuments, they may stretch for several miles east and west. More walls and monuments have been found on the hill of Rathlackan some 12 kilometers east of Céide, while monuments, fields and dwelling sites have been found at Belderg a few miles west of Céide.

Downpatrick Head.
Downpatrick Head, the place where, according to legend St Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland. The sea stack, Dun Briste (the Broken Fort) has an ancient habitation site on its summit. The foundations of a house and two barrows can be seen at the top of the picture. Photo from a display board in the visitor centre.

The picture today is that people farmed the land there, possibly planting crops such as corn, and kept and kept cattle and possibly sheep as their livestock. Archeologically this indicates a settled, established community. The main type of monument found in the area are court cairns. Several are scattered across the Céide Fields, in a rather similar fashion to more recent churches. For several years, these were considered to be the oldest type of megalithic monument, but more recent research in Sligo has shown that the courts may be contempory with the passage cairns. This makes an interesting picture when compared to the mythology of the region, which deals with two tribes, the established Formorians and the invading Túatha Dé Danann.

The court cairn at Behy.
The court cairn at Behy, beside the Ceide Fields. The monument, which was excavated in the 1960's, has been reclaimed by the bog and can be hard to locate. This site has fantastic views out across the Atlantic. The Stags of Broadhaven, two pyramidal rocks jutting out of the ocean are visible on the horizon.

The walls that brought the Céide Fields to light were preserved by the growth of bog across the prehistoric landscape. As the climate changed, about 3,500 years ago the land became wetter and harder to farm, until the bog took hold and began to grow. Over the intervening span of time, plant and moss fibers decomposing built up the layers of peat, smothering the stone walls. The fields were rediscovered by modern farmers cutting turf, the traditional fuel in the west of Ireland. For years they had been coming across tumbled stone walls and sometimes quernstones. Archeologists in the area developed a technique of probing the bogs with sharp sticks, which enabeled them to map the wall systems without excavating them.

A large visitor centre was built at Ceide in 1994, which provides a good base from which to visit the windswept landscape. It is perched on the cliffs, located outside the north edge of a field. The centre is built in the form of a pyramid, with bog growing up the sides, and a glass viewing top, so is easy enough to find.

The chamber of Behy court cairn.
The chamber of Behy court cairn. This fine monument was excavated in the 1960's, but has since largely been reclaimed by the bog.

There are many, many monuments in the area, mostly court cairns. In Behy, just 300 meters up the bog behind the visitor centre, is a partally covered court cairn, the chamber of which you can enter. Watch out for the viscious Céide midges, though! This is a transceptal (cross-shaped) chamber, one of only 8 found so far in Irish court cairns.

Another famous monument - at least to archaeologists - is the Ballyglass court cairn. When this monument was excavated, the site of a rectangular house was discovered under the monument. A reconstruction of this dwelling can be viewed in the visitor centre.

The pyramid-shaped visitor centre at the Ceide Fields.
The pyramid-shaped visitor centre at the Ceide Fields, with one of the tumbled field walls to the right.