Banner: Knocknarea sunset
Map of the Coolrea Peninsula.
A map of the principal neolithic sites on the Coolrea peninsula. Modern Sligo town is at the mouth of the Garavogue river. The river is named after the hag or witch called Garavogue who's home is 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 Carns 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 among the oldest mountain ranges 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, some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe.

Abbeyquarter, County Sligo.
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 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.

Circle 7 at Carrowmore.
Circle 7 at Carrowmore, The Kissing Stone, looking west to Knocknarea.

The remains of a fine ancient monument sit not far from the shore of the Garavogue River at Abbeyquarter in Sligo - it is 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.

Queen Maeve's Cairn from the air.
An aerial view of Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea; photo © Sam Moore.

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 as many as 60 monuments at Carrowmore, today there are 30 to be seen. The Carrowmore circles are some of the oldest megalithic monuments known. They date from the early neolithic, when colonists from Brittany arrived and introduced the practice of burying 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 dates for Carrowmore range from 3,800 to to about 3,000 BC, 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 Strandhill megalith.
Little remains of the chamber of a court cairn. It is by the road near Strandhill airport. The north side of Knocknarea, which has 27 caves in the summit, can be seen behind the trees.

Carrowmore is said to be located in the heart of some fine farming land. In the 1830's and 40's many of the monuments were cleared and destroyed in land improvement and quarrying schemes. Today the sites of some 40 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 residents took the case to the high court, and finally succeeded in having this insane plan stopped.

View of the Peninsula.
Knocknarea 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 dates to the last years of the stone age; the other is the recently discovered causwayed enclosure at Magheraboy close to Summerhill in Sligo. This monument was found during roadworks and has been dated to 4,100 BC using a piece of an oak plank.

There are three court cairns: at Cummeen, Strandhill and a third at Primrosegrange to the south of Knocknarea. The court cairns were 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.

Cummeen Court Cairn.
The court cairn at Cumeen overlooking Sligo Bay has fine views to Benbulben to the north.

County Sligo has one of the heaviest concentrations of ringforts found anywhere in Ireland, and there are many of them on the peninsula, including some fine examples near Carrowmore. Ringforts generally date to the early Christian period, and were houses of farmers. In Irish folklore they are called fairy forts and there are many stories told about them: lights were seen in them, music (and tunes) was heard by people passing by at night.

Sunset from Carns Hill
A dramatic sunset over Knocknarea viewed from the summit of the west cairn 8 days after the autumn equinox, 2012.