A clickable map of the principal neolithic sites on the Coolrea peninsula. Modern Sligo town is at the mouth of the Garavogue river. Sligo Bay is just north of Coolrea, so it is almost like an island, surrounded by sea and lake on three sides. The river is named after the hag or cailleach called Garavogue who has a home in the megalithic chamber, Cailleach a Birra's House.
Coolrea or Cuil Irra: the Remote Angle
The Cuil Irra peninsula is a strip of land on the coast of County Sligo, surrounded by mountains and sea, which was settled by ancient man in very early times. The peninsula is dominated by the beautiful mountain of Knocknarea which rises to a height of 321 meters at the western end.
The east of Cuil Irra has a low double hill called Cairns Hill beyond which is Lough Gill, the Lake of Brightness. To the south is the chain of the Ox Mountains, a gniess, granite and quartz range said to be the oldest mountain range in Europe. To the north is the unique sculpted plateau of Benbulben and Kings Mountain, while away beyond Sligo Bay rise the sheer cliffs of Sliabh League, the highest sea cliffs in Europe.
Queen Maeve's Cairn, Knocknarea and Abbeyquarter with a hint of Newgrange in the sky. Queen Maeve's Cairn is on a line which crosses the country, passing through, Carrowmore, Cailleach a Bherra's House, Sheemor, Loughcrew, Tara and Benn Eidir or Howth.
The short Sligo river, the Garavogue (small and rough) empties from Lough Gill into Sligo Harbour, and would have been important for travel to the ancient people. It was also an important source of food - Sligo gets its name from Sligeach, the Shelly Place, and huge quantities of shellfish were found all along the banks of the river. There are still large piles of middens out along the shore at Culleenamore at the west end of the penninsula.
Local woodcarving mythologist Michael Quirke explains the mythology of the local godesses.
The Garavogue is the elder of a trinity of godesses in County Sligo. She is a witch, hag, or wise old woman who, in local folklore, is said to have built the cairns both here and in Loughcrew. In local mythology Garavogue lived in the cairn on Sliabh Da Ean, and there are a set of stories about her and Mad King Sweeney, the Donegal chieftain who was cursed by a Christain cleric. If you ever happen to be passing through Sligo town, pay a visit to local woodcarver and mythologist Michael Quirke, who tells great versions of the local myths in his shop in Wine Street.
The remains of a fine ancient monument sit not far from the shore of the Garavogue River at Abbeyquarter in Sligo - it is probably the oldest building in the town. Another, long since destroyed, is said to have stood on the site of St John's Cathederal in Sligo. Both may mark ancient fording points on the river.
There are many other ancient sites on the Cuil Irra peninsula - it was a hive of activity in ancient times. At the centre of the peninsula is the great site of Carrowmore, one of the largest collection of stone age monuments in Western Europe. It is said that there were once 100 - 120 sites at Carrowmore. The Carrowmore circles are some of the oldest megalithic monuments known. They date from the mesolithic dreamtime, when the hunter gatherers began to bury their dead in stone chambers. Many of the oldest chambers are too small for a living person to enter, and contained cremated human ashes. The early dates for Carrowmore range from 5,400 BC to to about 4,300, many from charcoal remains from ancient bonfires. One of the earliest dates in Ireland comes from nearby Croghaun cairn: a fire was lit up on the summit around 5,800 BC.
The scant remains of the chamber of a court cairn. It is by the road near Strandhill airport. The north side of Knocknarea, which has 14 caves in the summit, can be seen behind the trees.
Over the past two hundred years many of the monuments were cleared or destroyed in land improvement and quarrying schemes. Today the sites of some 60 dolmens and circles are known, with 27 remaining in reasonable condition. The monuments survived another bizarre attack some 20 years ago, when Sligo County Council planned to use the quarried gravel pits in Carrowmore for the local landfill dump. Some local people took the case to the high court, and succeeded in having this crazy plan stopped. Like the Boyne Valley in Meath, Carrowmore is said to be located in the heart of some of the best farming land in County Sligo.
Location of main sites on the Coolrea peninsula viewed from Sliabh Da Ean in the Ox Mountains.
There are many other monuments on the peninsula. There are two huge neolithic enclosures near Cuil Irra: Liosnalurg henge is just north of the peninsula, and the newly discovered causwayed enclosure There are three court cairns: at Cummeen, Strandhill and a third at Primrosegrange to the south of Knocknarea. The court cairns are thought to be the oldest type of megalithic monument, temples of our first cattle-herding farmers. The example at Cumeen is particuarly interesting, as it is contained within a large oval platfrom enclosure; some archaeologists are suspicious and think that this monument is a Victorian folley. Also in and around Carrowmore, and scattered across the peninsula, are many bronze age barrows, which may have been burial mounds.
County Sligo has one of the heaviest concentrations of ringforts found anywhere in Ireland and there are many of them on the peninsula, including a fine example near Carrowmore. Ringforts generally date to the early Christian period, and were houses of farmers. In our folklore they are called 'fairy forts' and there are many, many stories told about them: lights were seen in them, music (and tunes) was heard by people passing by at night, many great stories.
The court cairn at Cumeen overlooking Sligo Bay has fine views to Benbulben to the north.
These pages are laid out in the form of a short tour around the Knocknarea Peninsula, beginning at Abbeyquarter Stone Circle in Sligo Town. Clicking on Next Page will bring you to the next site going clockwise.
The Coolrea peninsula, Ballisodare Bay and Sligo Bay, from Google Earth.