Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Deerpark, a huge central court cairn in County Sligo north of Lough Gill.
Deerpark, a huge central court cairn in County Sligo on the north side of Lough Gill. The view is from the large end chamber across the court to the east. The magnificent panorama from this site was recently restored when the surrounding pine forest was removed.

Deerpark court cairn

Connaught is the Grianan of Ireland;
Carbury, that of Connaught;
Calry is the Grianan of Carbury;
Calga that of Calry;
and the hill is the Grianan of Calga.

The rhyme above is an old saying of the people of Calry, collected during the Ordnance Survey in the 1830's. The megalithic monument at Deerpark or Magheraghanrush is one of the largest court cairns in Ireland. This is a fine but quite ruined monument, found on a high plateau on the north side of Lough Gill, commanding fine views across the lake and surrounding countryside.

The west chamber at Deerpark court cairn.
The west chamber at Deerpark court cairn, with a fine view to Knocknarea, Carns Hill and the Ox Mountains. For many years this monument was closely surrounded by forestry which obscured the magnificent views across the landscape.

The site is easy to locate: follow the Calry road east from Sligo town, and the monument is signposted after about five miles with a carpark and local area map. Follow the trail and it is about a 15 minute walk to the court cairn. Information on the monument and a map can be accessed here.

Deerpark Court Tomb with Martin Byrne.

The monument has a huge central court, with access through a gap on the south side. The stone cairn is long gone, presumably used to build the enormous stone wall in the area, three miles long which enclosed the deerpark. A deerpark was an enclosed private hunting ground for the gentry or landlord, in this case the Wynnes of Hazelwood. The west end of the court has a large chamber with a fallen lintel. The lintel, having stood over the entrance for thousands of years, was pushed off in 1920 by vandals.

The west chamber at Deerpark court cairn.
Plan and illustrations of the chamber entrances from O'Rorke's History of Sligo, 1890. O'Rorke, who had some pretty mad ideas, believed it was an arena for animal fights.

But what special purpose did the structure serve? Most probably as an arena for the combat of animals, such as dogs and wild boars, dogs and wolves, or dogs and badgers the so-called nave being the arena proper, and the aisles inclosures for the dogs and the animals with which they were to contend.

The details of the structure would harmonize with this destination the aisles at one end, being for the dogs, that at the other for the wild beasts, and the central space for the actual conflict of which the spectators, massed round the exterior of the build- ing, would have a good view. In this supposition, the trilithon opes, which, from their lowness, could hardly be meant for the passage of men or women, would answer perfectly for the passage of the dogs and other animals, while the narrow pass between the two little apartments of the east end, would be intended for the use of the caretaker of these animals. Some confirmation of the view now advanced may be drawn from the old Irish name of the place, which is Maghereconrosse, and which signifies the Plain of the Dog of the wood, a designation that points unmistakeably to some peculiar connection of dogs with the spot.

The twin chambers on the eastern side of the Deerpark court.
The twin chambers on the eastern side of the Deerpark court.

The Monument

As mentioned, the monument has been used as a quarry to construct demense walls, and virtually all the cairn material has been removed. The cairn which enclosed the megalithic structure measured some 50 meters east-west by 20 meters north-south. There are ninety megalithic stones remaining in the structure, large, extremely weathered hoary chunks of local limestone. The court measures fifteen by eight meters, and is constructed of thirty stones. The east side of the court has a pair of chambers placed side by side, with only the cracked lintel of the left chamber still in position. The right lintel also seems to have been pushed over around 1920. The twin chambers are both about 7 meters long and 2.5 meters wide. It is possible that the Deerpark monument was constructed in different phases, being enlarged over time.

The Deerpark  court cairn showing its position in the landscape.
The Deerpark court cairn showing its position in the landscape. The mountain to the north is Keelogeyboy, known locally as the sleeping giant. Deerpark is found in an unusually prominent location for a court cairn.

The larger west chamber is seven meters long and three meters wide, divided into two compartments by inner jamb stones. The lintel which formerly stood over the entrance is 2.1 meters in length. It now lies on the ground outside the entrance. The large slab outside the west end of the chamber is most likely to be a displaced roof-slab.

William Wakeman's watercolour of the Deerpark.
William Wakeman's watercolour of the Deerpark court cairn, July 30, 1879, with all three lintels in position and no trees around the monument.

The mounment is positioned on the summit of the hill overlooking Lough Gill on the south and overlooked by the hills known as the Doons, and Keelougyboy Mountain, the Sleeping Giant to the north. To the east there is a clear view to O'Rourke's Table, the flat table-top hill said to have been used as an inauguration site by the O'Rourke chieftains of Breifne. To the west there is a fine view to Carns Hill and the magical hill of Knocknarea. Such a wide panorama is unusual for court cairns. Clearly Deerpark was a most important temple or centre of worship in the neolithic.

The view west from the Deerpark wedge monument.
The view west to Knocknarea from the Deerpark wedge monument.

Antiquarian Excavations

The great megalithic monument seems to have escaped the notice of the Ordnance Survey, who were operation around Sligo in 1837. The first mention of the site states that it was excavated by the Right Honorable John Wynne in 1855, who found many bones of humans and animals. Edward Hardiman visited the monument in 1879, and he wrote a short paper on the monument with illustrations. The land was owned by Owen Wynne at the time.

Deerpark by Robert Welch all lintols still in position.
The Deerpark monument photographed by Robert Welch, possibly around 1896, with all lintels still in position.

William Wakeman also visited Deerpark in 1879 on his tour of Sligo, and the monument remains pretty much in the same condition, with the exception of the two large lintols, which were pushed over in an act of vandalism in 1920. Reverend James Graves and W. G. Wood-Martin both excavated within the monument around 1884, again reporting many human and animal bones. The human bones were unburned, and they reoprt an adult and child from the west chamber and possibly three individuals from the east chambers. The bones of many red deer were also found. The only artifact was a flint knife discovered by Wood-Martin, quite similar in size and appearance to the example found at Creevykeel in north Sligo.

The double chambers at Deerpark and large court area are similar in size and design to both Cloghanmore and Farranmacbride near Glencolumbkille in County Donegal, and I believe they both have the largest court areas in Ireland. Cloghanmore is an important site, the only Irish court cairn where megalithic art has been found.

Deerpark Wedge Tomb.
The fairly well preserved wedge to the south east of Deerpark. This monument may be up to 1000 years younger than the court cairn on the hill above. Beyond is Slish Wood in the Ox Mountains.

Not far to the south east of the court cairn, in the large field stands a fairly well preserved wedge monument. In the same field further to the west is the large triple cashel (photo below), positioned on the sloping hill with fine views to the west and Lough Colga. There is a well-preserved souterrain at the centre of the cashel. Further again to the west is a second large cashel, this one much closer to the lake.

Deerpark cashel
The view to the west across Lough Colga, from a large trivalliate stone cashel in the field below the court cairn, shows yet again how important the mountain of Knocknarea is in the landscape of ancient Sligo. A second, equally large fort lies in the next field below towards the lake.

These monuments, court cairn and fortified enclosure, with probably 4000 years seperating them in time show, that this was always good farm land as both monuments were built and used by cattle herding people.

Deerpark, County Sligo.
Deerpark, a huge central court cairn in County Sligo north of Lough Gill. The view is from the large end chamber across the court to the east. The magnificent panorama from this site was recently restored when the surrounding pine forest was removed.