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The Glen of Knocknarea photographed by Robert French a century ago.
The Glen of Knocknarea photographed by Robert French a century ago. Source: National Library of Ireland.

The Glen of Knocknarea

She took a Druid rod then, and struck a blow on the side of the hill, and on the moment a great door opened, and they heard sweet music coming from within. "Come in now," said the Red Woman, "till you see the wonderful beast."

The Red Woman - Gods and Fighting Men, Lady Gregory, 1901.

Knocknarea mountain is a limestone hum at the western end of the Cuil Iorra peninsula. The Glen of Knocknarea is a very beautiful place, somewhat like a huge open-air cathedral. This large natural sheltered crack in the south side of Knocknarea was probably created by a fault-line in the mountain while the glaciers were sculpting the landscape during the last ice age. County Sligo has some fascinating geological features and several kinds of rock, but the Glen is surely the most fantastic natural site in the region.

The Glen of Knocknarea
Another photograph of the Glen from a century ago, taken by Robert French. Source: National Library of Ireland.

A pair of stone pillars, which are easy to miss, mark the entrance to this sylvian wonderland. A rough, narrow track leads down through a wilderness of ferns and hazel thickets, with mossy chunks of limestone to the left and a steep sloping drop to the right. After several hundred meters the path opens into a clearing marked by a line of mature beech trees. This is the entrance to the Glen proper.

"Soon after coming to the slope of the hill you meet one of the queerest, wildest, and most beautiful of glens. It is a wondrously romantic freak of nature planted there in a cleft in the rock and walled off from the world, as if the Great Mother meant to lock it up and hide it away for her own use. It is thickly wooded, narrow and deep. The trees meet over the path in places, and the ferns touch you as you pass. The spirits of Knocknarea must love it. One can fancy how they made it their own centuries ago. A mystic poet might dream his life away in it, holding communication with the hero-dead of Connacht."

William Bulfin in 1903.

Trees in the Glen
Trees in the Glen of Knocknarea in 2019.

Ancient people were surely fascinated by the Glen and may have used it as a ceremonial entryway in to the sacred landscape at the centre of the peninsula wherethe Carrowmore megalithic complex is located. The large limestone flag which was used as a capstone for the chamber at the centre of Listoghil, the focal monument at Carrowmore, was probably quarried near the eastern end of the Glen. The slab, which measures 3 x 3 meters by 0.3 meters thickness would have been transported on a sled using logs and ropes, around 5,600 years ago.

Aerial photo of the Glen.
A picture of the Glen from the air, taken as part of the Swedish survey and excavation at Carrowmore. Photo © Göran Burenhult.

There are some monuments close to the Glen: the megalithic chamber at Primrose Grange is close to the east end of the ravine, and there are a number of medieval ringforts above the cliffs about halfway down the Glen. There is a large medieval midden of oyster and mussel shells which were tipped over the cliffs from the ringforts. Larger middens are found along the shore at Culleenamore nearby.

Capstone of Listoghil at Carrowmore.
The large limestone flag that covers the megalithic chamber at Listoghil was quarried in the Glen.

While cutting hazel for a heritage week project, what seems to be a megalithic chamber was discovered in the lower part of the Glen, south of the entry-way. This structure appears to be a similar structure to the early passage graves at Carrowmore a few kilometers to the east. The monument, pictured below, is formed from a collection of limestone slabs situated in the middle of a platform or tertre of stone. There are several similar monuments on the summit of Knocknarea.

Mythology

Fans of Game of Thrones may be surprised to find that the story of Melisandre, the Red Woman, is based on an old Irish myth called Fionn and the Red Woman or the Shining Beast. The red Woman is one of the lesser known stories of Fionn Mac Cumhail and the Fianna, and a version was published in Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Gregory in 1901. In this version, Fionn and his warriors are hunting in Gleann na Smol close to Dublin when they spot a fantastic creature, part boar, part deer. As they decide to hunt the beast, they encounter the Red Woman, a mysterious and magical being who is hunting the creature.

A possible megalithic chamber in the Glen, discovered in 2018.
A possible megalithic chamber in the Glen, discovered in 2018.

Forbidding them to hunt the beast, she races the Fianna across Ireland to arrive at the foot of Knocknarea before them. Striking the rock at the foot of the mountain, surely within the Glen, she brings them within the mountain to meet the King of the Sidhe. You can read Lady Gregory's full version here.

Another version of the story, called The Shining Beast was published by Ella Young in 1929. In Young's version, the Red Woman leads the Fianna into the mountain through a magical portal in the Great Cairn on the summit of the mountain. Both versions describe the most magical and fantastic sidhe that Fionn has ever beheld. Young went on to teach Celtic mythology in various universities on the West Coast of the United States, and she was Lecturer in Irish Myth and Lore at the University of California, Berkeley for ten years.

It would seem that her stories and teachings seeped into the consciousness of Pacific Coast writers such as Jack Vance, and from thence into the works of George R. R. Martin. So the Red Woman, a version of the cailleach Garavogue and Queen Maeve, both local sovereignty goddesses, have reappeared in modern fantasy literature.

An old photo of the Glen.
The medieval shell midden, bottom left of image.

Access to the Glen can be difficult. It is an extremely overgrown place and sometimes trees and branches fall across the pathway; during the wet weather often experienced in Sligo, there are often large, deep pools of mud to be crossed. Unless the weather has been dry for weeks, wellingtons or stout boots are essential for a visit to this wonderful and magical place.

An old photo of the Glen by Robert French.
An old photo of the Glen by Robert French. Source: National Library of Ireland. In the story Finn and the Red Woman, the scene where they enter Knocknarea surely takes place in the cliffs here.