Looking south to Benbulben's tabletop from the megalithic court cairn at Gortnaleck near Grange. There are many megalithic structures, mainly court cairns and wedges, scattered around the base of the Dartry Mountains. A ruinous court cairn is located about 2.5 km north of here back towards Benwisken. The bare patch in the left side of the mountain is known locally as the Fairy Door.

 
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Benbulben

The Ben Bulbin country in County Sligo is one of those rare places in Ireland where fairies are thought to be visible, and our first witness from there claims to be able to see the fairies or 'gentry' and to talk with them. This mortal so favoured lives in the same townland where his fathers have lived during four hundred years, directly beneath the shadows of Ben Bulbin, on whose sides Dermot is said to have been killed while hunting the wild-boar. And this famous old mountain, honeycombed with curious grottoes ages ago when the sea beat against its perpendicular flanks, is the very place where the 'gentry' have their chief abode. Even on its broad level summit, for it is a high square table-land like a mighty cube of rock set down upon the earth by some antediluvian god, there are treacherous holes, wherein more than one hunter may have been lost for ever, penetrating to unknown depths; and by listening one can bear the tides from the ocean three or four miles away surging in and out through ancient subterranean channels, connected with these holes. In the neighbouring mountains there are long caverns which no man has dared to penetrate to the end, and even dogs, it is said, have been put in them never to emerge, or else to come out miles away.

Evans-Wentz, Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911

 

Benbulben is Knocknarea's only rival for the most dramatic mountain in County Sligo. It's steep buttressed western extreme and flat top looms over the road from Sligo to Donegal like a huge barrier or mythological beast. The hulking outline of Benbulben is visible from all around Sligo and it dominates the landscape to the north of the county.

Benbulben is but one section of a range called the Dartry Mountains, named after an iron age tribe who inhabited the area. The other heads and peaks of Dartry are Kings Mountain, with it's fantastic Pinnacle Gully, Truskmore, which is the highest part of the range, now crowned by a series of tele-communications masts, Benwisken, a beautiful ridge shaped like a frozen wave. The highest cave in Ireland, Diarmuid and Grainne's cave is located at the top of the cliffs at the rear of the beautiful Horseshoe valley behind Benwisken. Tievebawn has another cave, Cormac Reagh's Hole, high up on it's slopes.


Ed Reavy, a fiddle player who was born in Cavan and lived in the States composed many fine tunes. This reel was named by his son after Benbulben, the highest hill in Sligo.

Benbulben is named after a Gaelic chieftain and means Gulban's Head. It is the western point of the Dartry Mountains, a large and bulky collection of heads and valleys and forms the main physical barrier between Donegal and Sligo. The mountain is formed from Dartry limestone, a hard limestone filled with the fossels of sea creatures which lived some 300 million years ago. The dramatic and unusual shapes of Benbulben, Benwisken and Eagle's Rock were sculpted by glaciers during the last ice age.

Looking east at Benbulben's Head from Barnaribbon townland near the Sligo - Donegal road. The flat top is 500 meters above sea level.

There are many megalithic monuments scattered around the skirts of Dartry mountain, and a few more on it's peat-covered top. They are mostly court and wedge monuments, built by Ireland's first farmers. Many are in pretty ruinous condition, condition, having been used as quarrys for building-stones and walls. The village of Ballintrillick is named after a collapsed dolmen near the National school, called the Trillick; another dolmen, since destroyed, was removed from the mouth of the Horseshoe valley in 1950 during quarrying operations. The monument below, a dual court cairn, is south west of Ballintrillick village and is located right under the magnificent backdrop of Benwisken's dramatic frozen wave.

The impressive double court cairn in the townland of Moneylahan just south of Benwisken.

As well as being an impressive physical reminder of Sligo's ancient past, Benbulben is a dominant mythical landmark; the mountain is well known in Sligo's folklore tradition. There is a patch on the east side of the north face known to the people of the area as the Fairy Door. This is a black patch on a bare hollow on the side of the monntain. When the door opens the weather is bound to be good for the next few days. There were many local traditions about the mountain which regarded it as a major Sidhe of the Túatha dé Danann, and the young Evan Wentz collected stories around the mountain in 1911, accompanied by Yeats and AE. Fionn MacCumhail and the Fianna loved to hunt in Sligo, and Kesh Corran and Benbulben were two of their favourite hunting grounds.

There is a tale where Fionn falls in love with a bewitched woman, Siadbh, who had been changed into a deer by a powerful and malovolent druid. Fionn rescues her and they live together for seven years before she is recaptured by the enchanter. Fionn searched for Siadbh for many years, but to no avail. While hunting on the top of Benbulben on day several years later Fionn discovered a young boy who turned out to be his son Oisin, who became one of the most famous of the Fianna.

The view up to Diarmuid and Grainne's cave in the back of the Ballintrillick or Gleniff Horseshoe. This is the highest cave in Ireland and is one of the Leabas of the fleein lovers in the Finian mythical cycle.

Benbulben is also the setting for the final tragic scene in the saga of Diarmuid and Grainne. Fionn had spent sixteen years in persuit of the lovers - Grainne had run away with Diarmuid instead of marrying Fionn. Eventually, having supposedly gotten over it, Fionn allowed them to live in peace and they dwelt at Grainnemor near Kesh Corran. However, Fionn grew jealous again and set Diarmuid up by enticing him to a hunt on Benbulben, knowing well that it was likely to be the death of Diarmuid. There was a geas or spell on Diarmuid that he could not hunt boar, and he was fatally gored by the green-eared boar of Benbulben, who tossed him up on it's back and galloped up to the river Drowse and back. Diarmuid lay dying and Fionn could have saved him by giving him a drink of water from his hands, but his heart couldn't forgive and he let him die. Grainne died by her own hand soon after.

The tale of Diarmuid and Grainne has given rise to many sites being named Labbys or Leaba Diarmuid agus Grainne, as they had to sleep in a different place each night for fear of Fionn. The picture above shows Diarmuid and Grainne's cave at the back of the Horseshoe valley behind Benwisken.

Looking east to Benwisken, the mountain that looks like a frozen wave. Diarmuid and Grainne's cave can be seen in the Cliffs of Annacuna, top left.