Banner: Knocknarea sunset
View across the north part of
Lough Arrow.
View across the north part of Lough Arrow from Cairn O on Doonaveeragh mountain at Carrowkeel.

The Lough Arrow Landscape

The magical Lough Arrow region in south Sligo is one of the largest and best preserved neolithic landscapes remaining in Ireland today. Lough Arrow is surrounded by mountains on three sides - the limestone Bricklieve (Speckled) Mountains to the west, the sandstone Curlews to the south and the limestone Braulieves, or Arigna Mountains to the east. The north end of the arrow-shaped lake opens to the north-west - the chain of the Ox Mountains, with Knocknarea, Carrowmore, Sliabh Da Ean, and Benbulben beyond. The river Uinshin, the ancient routeway through the region, connects Lough Arrow with the sea at Ballisodare and the Cuil Irra peninsula.

Lough Arrow from Google Earth.
Lough Arrow from Google Earth.

Situated on a knoll at the northern point of Lough Arrow is the massive neolithic monument of Heapstown Cairn, which is one of the largest stone age cairns in Ireland. Heapstown is some 60 meters in diameter, 12 meters high and is composed of some 30,000 tons of stone, both glacial boulders and limestone chunks. The cairn is said to have been built over the mythological site, the Well of Slaine, where the warriors killed or injured in the Second Battle of Moytura, were cured by the healers of the Tuatha De Danann.

The Bricklieve Mountains from the air.
The Bricklieve Mountains from the air. The River Uinshin, which connects Lough Arrow to the sea, winds through the landscape. Image © Leo Regan.

Lough Arrow is a limestone lake with three islands and a long peninsula. A narrow isthmus seperates Lough Arrow from Lough Key, which lies immediately to the south. There are several smaller lakes nearby - all said to be named after daughters of Mannanan Mac Lir: Lough na Leibe, Lough Bo, Lough na Suil, Lough Meelagh and Lough Skean, so it is an attractive area for the keen fisherman. The real treasures of the area is its musical, mythological, historical and archaeological heritage.

The midsummer sunset viewed from Shee Lugh, Moytura, County Sligo.
The midsummer sunset viewed from the neolithic passage-grave called Shee Lugh on the summit of Moytura in County Sligo, 2018. The sun drops over the Hill of Knocknarea, with the huge unopened neolithic passage grave known as Queen Maeve's cairn.


Carrowkeel is becoming well known as the best preserved of the four major megalithic sites in the country. There are twenty one chambered cairns in the Bricklieve Mountains, and a series of dramatic caves in the cliffs on the west side of Kesh Corran. Heapstown Cairn, which is probably a prototype for the famous Newgrange, overlooks the River Uinshin which flows from Lough Arrow to the sea at Ballisodare Bay below Knocknarea. The east side of the lake is the site of the ancient epic myth, the Second Battle of Moytura, and the highest point is capped by the cairn of Shee Lugh.

Morrigan washes at the ford in the River Uinshin
Morrigan washes at the ford in the River Uinshin near Heapstown, while the Dagda watches. A painting from the Battle of Moytura © Jim Fitzpatrick.

The Second Battle of Moytura is the centre piece of Irish mythology and tells of the great struggle for the possession of the island between the tribes of the Túatha Dé Danann and the Formorians. The Túatha Dé Danann were led by the young hero, Lugh of the Long Arm while the Formorians were directed by the great wizard king, Balor of the Evil Eye, who has served as a model for Darth Vader and Sauron, as well as several other architypical 'villans'.

The Coming of Lugh illustrated by Maude Gonne.
The Coming of Lugh by Ella Young, 1909. Illustrated by Maude Gonne.

The region is steeped in mythological traditions from most of the Celtic cycles.The Dagda, the Morrigan, Lugh of the Long Arm, Balor, Nuada of the Silver Arm, Ogma, Breas, Cormac Mac Art, Diarmuid and Grainne, Fionn Mac Cumhal, Corran the Harper, Manannan Mac Lir, Sweeney, the Cailleach and Queen Maeve are all associated with places or monuments in the area. A page titled A Mythic Concordance by Mike Nichols, lists all the characters involved in the Second Battle of Moytura.

The view across Lough Arrow
The view across Lough Arrow from Shee Lugh, the neolithic cairn on the highest part of Moytura, across the lake are the magical Bricklieve mountains, where the major sites of Carrowkeel and Kesh Corran are found.

Medieval Lough Arrow

Ballindoon Abbey.
Ballindoon Abbey, watercolour by William Wakeman, around 1878. Image © Sligo County Library.

The most famous family in the Lough Arrow area were the MacDonaghs, who ruled over the area in the early middle ages. The MacDonagh center was at Ballindoon, the Town of the Forts, on the east shore of the lake under Moytura. There are many ringforts and crannogs and other remains from this interesting period. The MacDonaghs built a towerhouse at Ballindoon in 1406, and comissioned Ballindoon Abbey around 1508. The towerhouse was demolished during the Nine Years War; Red Hugh O'Donnell, the fiery chieftain from Donegal had many of the castles in County Sligo torn down during the war. The only castle remaining in any great condition is the Norman castle at Ballymote. The MacDonaghs used the ancient mound of Heapstown as their inauguration mound: where the tribal chieftains were ritually married to the territory they were to rule over. A large standing stone which formerly stood on the summit of the mound is said to have had an ogham inscription.

Ballindoon Abbey in 2011.
Ballindoon Abbey in 2011. The many burials within the Abbey have undermined the walls.

Turlough O'Carolan (1670 - 1730), the famous bardic composer also frequented the area - he was from Nobber in County Meath but was raised in nearby Ballyfarnon. Carolan, who was blind as a result of smallpox, was trained as a harper and composed many tunes during his lifetime. Many of his better known tunes are still played in traditional sessions today. Other famous inhabitants of the area were Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland who lived in Kilmactranny as a child, and Ambrosio and Bernardo O'Higgins, the liberators of Peru and Chile.

Local musicians Tommy Flynn and Josie McDermott.

For those interested in hill-walking, a new trail was opened in 2000 which circles both Lough Arrow and Lough Key. The northern portion of the walk is called the Historical Trail as it passes across so many notable sites; the southern portion is known as the Miners Way, as it crosses the sites of the Arigna coalmines.

Map of Lough Arrow
A map of the Lough Arrow area showing the principal neolithic monuments. Moytura, the Plain of the Pillarstones, is the territory on the east side of the lake, where there were at least 14 monuments.