Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Queen Maeve's Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea: one of the most impressive megalithic monuments remaining in Ireland. Image © Bing maps.

Queen Maeve's cairn

The great cairn of Knocknarea is the largest and most visible neolithic monument in the west of Ireland. The huge monument, which was probably built between 3,500 and 3,200 BC, is part of the Irish passage-grave culture, which had arrived in Sligo from the shores of Brittany by around 4,150 BC. The oldest dated monument in Sligo is the very early causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy, between Carns Hill and the Carrowmore megalithic complex.

Queen Maeve's cairn is the westernmost portion of this complex, situated close to the highest part of the flat top of Knocknarea, 327 meters above sea level. The enormous mound is about sixty meters in diameter, ten meters high, and is estimated to contain some 30,000 tons of stone, which was quarried closeby.

Drone footage of Carrowmore and Queen Maeve's cairn, filmed by the Heritage Service, which shows the scarring and wear on Queen Maeve's cairn from excessive visitors.

Queen Maeve's cairn is Ireland's most imposing neolithic monument built in a stunning and highly visible location, the focus of many of the other monuments scattered across the neolithic landscape of County Sligo and several adjoining .

There is a wide panoramic view for forty to sixty kilometers in all directions. The mountain of Knocknarea is visible from sites such as Shreeloga Hill to the west, near the Ceide Fields. An observer at the cairn on Shreeloga can watch the equinox sun rising over Knocknarea to the east, where the mountain appears clearly, framed by the Dartry mountains to the north and the Ox mountains to the south. The same applies to Shee Lugh, the cairn on the summit of Moytura where the summer solstice sun sets behind Knocknarea. Sheemor, the large unopened passage-grave in County Leitrim, is also on a midsummer sunset alignment to Knocknarea.

Aerial photograph of the neolithic monuments on Knocknarea.
Aerial photograph of the neolithic monuments on Knocknarea. Queen Maeve's cairn, the hut site, and the satellite passage-tomb, Knocknarea 1 are visible, as is the large hollow, which is probably the quarry used as a source for the cairn stones. Photograph © Cambridge University Collection of Air Photographs.

The monument

The Queen Maeve's cairn is probably one of the best preserved monuments of its kind remaining in Ireland, and gives a fair idea of the original shape and form of this type of monument - a truncated cone with a flat platform. The top is slightly dished, as is the flat top of nearby Carns Hill West. While the cairn is incredibly well-preserved, the monument has suffered greatly from the excesses of modern tourism, and the monument is covered with scars caused by all the people climbing on the cairn. If you visit Queen Maeve's cairn, please respect the monument and do not climb on it.

The stone used to build the cairn was quarried nearby: a massive hollow remains about 300 meters from the monument. The cairn may have been covered with chunks of white quartz crystal. The source for quartz is found in the Ox Mountains just a few kilometers to the south, around Croughan cairn.

The quarry in the summit of Knocknarea, where the neolithic builders excavated the limestone used to build the massive cairn.

Swedish archaeologist Dr. Stefan Bergh has surveyed the monuments in Coolrea peninsula and published his research in the 1995 book, Landscape of the Monuments. Stefan noted that there is a low platform, six meters wide and 30 centimeters high, beneath the cairn. There is a similar and much more obvious ring around the satellite to the north of Queen Maeve's cairn. Stefan discovered other sub-cairn platforms at Carns Hill, Listoghil and Knocknashee.

He also noted a set circular settings around the base of the cairn, which are similar to settings found at Newgrange, Knowth and Cairn T. However, the settings at Loughcrew and the Boyne Valley are outside the entrances while at Knocknarea they area spread out around the cairn.

Summer solstice sunset: viewed from the cairn called Shee Lugh on Moytura. The sun is setting over Knocknarea.

Aside from Queen Maeve's cairn, there are six more neolithic monuments, five on the summit, while an overgrown boulder circle is on the edge of the lower ledge to the east. All are quite ruined, and several were explored by Rodger Walker, the landlord from Rathcarrick House, in the 1830s. There are also the foundations of some 30 neolithic houses and 2.5 kilometers of stone walls and banks on the south side of the summit.

Queen Maeve's Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea: one of the most impressive megalithic monuments remaining in Ireland. The photo is taken from the site of another largely ruined monument 200 meters north of Maeve's cairn. In the distance to the right the cairn-topped neolithic sites of Knocknashee and Muckelty hill can be seen beyond the Ox Mountains.

The Mythology of Knocknarea

Some say Knocknarea means "the hill of the moon,” others, "the smooth-topped hill," but the received opinion is that it means “the hill of the king,” i.e, of Eoghan Bel, King of Connaught, who received his death-wound in the great battle of Sligo between Connaught and Ulster, A.D. 543. He told his followers to bury him upright in Rath O'Fiachrach with his red javelin in his hand and his face towards the north, on the side of the hill where Ulster would pass when flying before Connaught. The legend adds that thereafter the Connaught men won every battle against the Ulstermen, till at length the latter, hearing of the talisman Knocknarea contained, came in great numbers, raised the body of Eoghan, carried it over the river to Calry and buried it there, face downwards, thus breaking the spell. They say the truth of this legend would be made manifest if the huge cairn called Queen Maedb’s Grave were explored to its centre.

S. M. Scholastica, 1912.

The passage and chamber have remained hidden since prehistoric times. The cairn is currently reputed to be the resting place of the legendary Queen Maeve of Connaught; its good state of preservation through time may possibly due to respect for her fierce reputation.

The legendary Queen Maeve ruled Connaught from her palace at Rath Croghan near Tulsk in Roscommon, itself the neucleus of a wide complex of Bronze age monuments. Maeve is best known for her role in the Tain Bo Culainge, where she led her province to war against Ulster to take the Brown Bull of Cooley, when Cuchullain single-handedly held off her army.

That she chose to be interred in the Great Cairn of Knocknarea says a lotabout its prestige as the most important and ancient sacred site in Connaught.

This depiction of Queen Medb shows her as a young girl in front of her fortress at Crúachan Ai, in present day Roscommon by Jim Fitzpatrick.
This depiction of Queen Medb shows her as a young girl in front of her fortress at Crúachan Ai, in present day Roscommon. Image © Jim Fitzpatrick.

Eoghan Bel

However, Maeve is not the original person buried in the cairn, and her story seems to have been grafted on to the legend of the historical King of Connaught, Eoghan Bel.

Eoghan Bel was killed in the Battle of Sligo which occured in 531 AD. The battle was between the Men of Connaught and their ancient enemies in Ulster. A herd of cattle was used as shock troops when the Connaught Men stampeded them into the ranks of their foes. The River Garavogue ran red with blood from the great slaughter.

Queen Maeve's cairn on the summit of Knocknarea by Robert Welch.
Queen Maeve's cairn on the summit of Knocknarea in County Sligo gives an idea of what Newgrange might have looked like before quarrying and restoration.
Photograph by Robert Welch, © NMNI.

When Eoghan Bel was struck down he commanded his followers to carry his body up the mountain and bury him standing upright in the huge ancient cairn, wearing his armor with his red spear in his hand.

"In the year 531 at the foot of Knocknarea the battle of Sligo was fought. It was between Eoghan Bel and the Northmen. The Northmen did not want Eoghan Bel to be King of Connaught.

Both armies met at the foot of the mountain and a fierce battle was fought. Eoghan Bel was mortally wounded but he won. Before he died he gave instructions how he was to be buried with his sword in his hand and his face to the North. As long as he was in that position his men always won.

The Northmen soon found out that secret and they came out in the dark of the night and laid him flat and broke his power. From that time, the Northmen won and the Connaughtmen lost. After the Battle of Sligo the soldiers were buried under cromlechs. We know that they were buried under them, because not so long ago a skeleton of a man and a boy with a sword by his side were found."


      Beranger's 1779 record of Queen Maeve's Cairn.
Gabrial Beranger's 1779 illustration of Queen Maeve's Cairn.

The story of Queen Maeve, who, according to tradition, is buried standing upright within the chamber, wearing her armour and facing her ancient enemies in Ulster, is a fascinating retelling of the legend of Eoghan Bel.

The smaller crufiform passage-grave to the north of Queen Maeve's cairn.
The smaller crufiform passage-grave, called Knocknarea 1 to the north of Queen Maeve's cairn.

A Long Tradition

There are also stories of chieftains being buried in Knockma, Carns Hill and Heapstown. These legendary burial practices echo the Egyptian customs of burying the kings within the pyramids—in death, they serve as symbolic and spiritual guardians of the landscape and territory they once ruled.

Burial mound at Aali on Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.
Burial mound at Aali on Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

Apart from her role as a semi-historical figure, Maeve seems to have been the ancient goddess or personification of the provence of Connacht. Her name translates as the "intoxicating one". Kings and chieftains would marry her during their inauguration rituals, which usually took place upon ancient mounds, such as Listoghil at Carrowmore and at Heapstown cairn. The goddess Maeve was eventually imported to Tara by the Ui Neill, where a huge neolithic henge is dedicated to her.

Michael Poynder's diagram of the energy lines crossing the country from Howth to Knocknarea.

Knocknarea, Carrowmore, Sliabh Dá Eán, Sheebeg, Loughcrew, Tara and the Hill of Howth are all on a great line crossing the country from west to east. This line was first noted by megalithic researcher Martin Brennan, and was expanded by Michael Poynder in his book Pi in the Sky.

I have called this the Garavogue line. The Garavogue is the local Cailleach, the hag or witch, originally the chief diety of the neolithic farmers; the Shelly river in Sligo is named after her. Garavogue was also the name of the wise woman who built the cairns at Loughcrew in County Meath.

When the Goddess Ruled the Earth by John McClusky.

Interestingly, the round platform summit of Maeve's Cairn is at the same altitude as Cairn K at Carrowkeel; and the passage of Cairn K is oriented directly to Queen Maeve's Cairn. These flat summits would have made ideal observation platforms, with their wide panoramic views of the horizon.

National Monuments Service

This massive circular, limestone cairn (diameter c. 60 meters; Height c. 10 meters), named ‘Miosgan Meva’ (Maeve’s Cairn) on the OS 6-inch maps, crowns the summit of Knocknarae Mountain. Its flat-topped silhouette is a miniature version of the squat bulk of the mountain itself, which rises abruptly from the fertile coastal grasslands of the Cúil Iorra peninsula, flanked by Ballysadare Bay to south and Sligo Bay to north. It is one of the most iconic archaeological monuments and landmarks in northwest Ireland, its importance, past and present, manifest in the enduring folk tradition which identifies it as the burial site of the legendary Queen Maeve of Connacht.

The pale-grey cairn, rising above the dark heather-covered plateau and light-reflecting limestone escarpments of the mountain, is visible and instantly recognisable from many widespread points in the surrounding landscape. The location of the cairn itself affords panoramic views, encompassing extensive areas of county Sligo, and stretching far into counties Mayo and Donegal.

Important distant landmarks which tie the cairn into an ancient network of routeways and a wider ritual and mythological landscape, include Benbulben, the cairn-topped peaks of the Ballygawley Mountains (SL020-128----; SL020-129----; SL021-007----) and the Ox Mountains (SL019-174001; SL019-174002-; SL019-177----), Carns Hill (SL014-231001-; SL014-232----), Carrowkeel Megalithic cemetery (MA040-086---- to MA040-105----) and Kesh Corann (SL040-008----).

In its more immediate vicinity, the cairn is the dominant visual focus of a remarkably dense concentration of prehistoric ritual and settlement monuments. It is flanked on the summit by a roughly north to south linear cluster of smaller satellite tombs, cairns and mounds (SL014-076001- to SL014-076009-; SL014-076019-); the descending terraces of the mountain host huts sites (SL014-076047- to SL014-076050-), and field walls (SL014-076011-), and two caves (SL014-288----; SL014-290----), on the west flank of the mountain, have produced evidence of Neolithic burials. At the foot of the mountain, the numerous passage tombs of Carrowmore megalithic cemetery (SL014-209001- , etc.), and associated monuments, spread eastwards across the undulating lowlands of Cúil Irra.

Flat-topped, with broadly sloping sides, the cairn presents a deceptively simple outline. Closer examination reveals more complexity (Berg 1995, 238-239). Although the body of the cairn is primarily limestone, a number of large gneiss boulders protrude from the perimeter at north-northeast, and are probably part of a kerb. Five small, low subcircular or D-shaped cairn-like concentrations of stone (diameter 8-11 meters; Height 0.5-1 meter) abut the base of the cairn at east, south and west. Two large stones, a prostrate limestone slab 2 meters to north of the cairn, and a gneiss erratic 5.5 meters to south of the cairn, appear to represent deliberately placed markers on a north to south alignment. A low, inconspicuous earthen bank (Width c. 3 meters; Height 0.3 meters) encircles the cairn at a distance of 1-6 meters; it respects the five small cairns and the marker stones, kinking outwards to include them within its circuit (Berg 1995, 238-239).

The cairn is intact; it escaped the depredations of 18th and 19th-century treasure hunters, and it has not been excavated. Its internal structures, therefore, remain a mystery. It is likely to be about 5000 year old, the same age as its eastern counterparts, the excavated Neolithic passage tombs at Newgrange (ME019-045----) and Knowth (ME019-030001-).

Maeve’s Cairn is a National Monument (No. 153) in state ownership.

Text: Jane O'Shaughnessy.

Queen Maeve's Cairn, the massive neolithic monument on the summit of Knocknarea Mountain. The cairn is sixty meters in diameter and is said to be the final resting place of Queen Maeve, the mythical Iron age ruler of the territory of Connaught. The neolithic mound is at the end of a line which passes through both Tara and Loughcrew. To the extreme right of the photograph are the neolithic sites of Knocknashee and Muckelty.