Fr. O'Flanagan's History & Heritage pages: the Art, Astronomy, Music & Archaeology of Ancient Ireland
This website began in the 1990's as a modest guidebook informing of the mysterious chambered passage-graves at Carrowkeel, a little-known neolithic complex of ancient monuments in the Bricklieve Mountains in the south of County Sligo. While the guide book has yet to be completed, the website, which turns twenty-six years old in 2024, has expanded well beyond Carrowkeel to embrace various aspects and facets of Irish history and culture.
The website covers archaeology, particuarly Irish passage-graves, their art, astronomy and mythology, along with religion, history and Irish traditional music — in essence the cultural remains left by the succeeding waves of colonists arriving in Ireland — which is one long, fascinating and interwoven story spanning thousands of years. The oldest monument discovered in Ireland so far is the causewayed enclosure at
Magheraboy just outside Sligo, which has been dated to 4,200 BC. While this date is seen as extremely early, dates from Carrowmore, Croughan and several sites recently excavated close to Sligo Town all have similar early dates and examples of early neolithic pottery.
In recent times I have become deeply interested in Irish history, especially the Revolutionary Period, through researching the life of the Rebel Sinn Féin priest and inventor, Father Michael O'Flanagan. I work as a seasonal guide for the Office of Public Works at Carrowmore, the largest and oldest complex of neolithic passage-graves in Ireland, close to the ancient sites of Magheraboy, Abbeyquarter and Carns Hill.
A Landscape Covered with Megalithic Monuments
I was lucky enough to live for a decade just below the passage-graves at Carrowkeel in South Sligo, close to the shores of Lough Arrow. This is a beautiful landscape filled with neolithic monuments, mythology, folklore and an area renowned for superb traditional Irish music.
The great megalithic complexes of South Sligo are Carrowkeel, Kesh Corran, Heapstown cairn and Moytura. Carrowkeel is a spectacular megalithic complex high on the northern plateaus of the Bricklieve Mountains. Several of the chambers within the passage-graves at Carrowkeel are illuminated on important seasonal events by the light of the sun and moon. I led the pioneering research into the roofbox at Cairn G, the only other example known apart from the later and more famous version at Newgrange. The Carrowkeel roofbox is at least 300 years older than the Newgrange example, and the monument is oriented to capture the light of the extreme setting positions of the winter full moons and the lunar extremes, and the mid-summer sunsets. Many of the Carrowkeel chambers are oriented to extreme setting positions of the moon, and it has been suggested that the Carrowkeel roofbox could have been used to predict solar and lunar eclipses.
The First and Second Battles of Moytura
Moytura, the low ridge on the east shore of Lough Arrow, has a wonderful collection of monuments, myths and legends. The tale of the Second Battle of Moytura, a myth that has inspired the plots of both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, is traditionally set here. In an interesting article from 1928, Henry Morris suggests that both the First and Second Battles of Moytura took place in County Sligo, the first event being transplanted to Cong through a fifteenth century scribal error.
The epic myths of the First and Second Battles of Moytura were transplanted to the West Coast of America in the late 1920's by the mystic and poetess Ella Young, who taught Celtic mythology an Berkley; Young's stories have returned to Europe through novels and Hollywood movies in the form of Dune, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones, and Jack Vance's fantastic trilogy, Lyonesse.
A lecture I gave about astronomical observations and megalithic art at ancient monuments for the Sligo Field Club in the spring of 2023.
County Sligo is one of the most beautiful areas of Ireland, with rugged mountains, beautiful lakes, and fabulous coastlines so it is no surprise that it was colonized and settled early in the neolithic. This early landfall is demonstrated by the discovery of a number of sites during road construction which have yeilded early neolithic pottery and lots of fragments of charcoal dating to 4,200 BC, with early dates from along the River Garavogue, a river named after the local neolithic goddess. The oldest causewayed enclosure currently known in either Ireland and England, which dates to 4,200 BC, was discovered at Magheraboy during roadworks, and many dates with similar horizons have been discovered recently. The slightly surreal Abbeyquarter passage-grave, by the banks of the Garavogue near Sligo town may be one of the earliest such monuments to have been built in Ireland.
Carrowmore, close to Sligo town, is the largest and oldest megalithic complex in Ireland. There were probably as many as forty stone circles with central dolmen chambers on raised platforms or tertres, but many of the monuments have been destroyed by land-clearance and quarrying. These are some of the oldest monuments in Ireland, an early form of passage-grave built by some of the very first farmers to arrive on this island.
Carrowmore and Knocknarea viewed from the air.
The central chamber at Carrowmore, known as Listoghil, has an alignment towards the sunrises in early November and Februrary. The chamber points towards the Ballygawley Mountains, where the sun rises over the magical bottomless lake, Lough Da Gé each Samhain and Imbolc, the effect being that the Cailleach or Earth-goddess named the Garavogue, is giving birth to the solar orb. Any attempt to understand why the first farmers built these monuments will always lead back to the subject of ritual and religion of the Stone Age.
Creevykeel Court Cairn
One of the largest and best preserved court cairns in Ireland, Creevykeel, just north of Cliffoney Village, and also one of the easiest to access, as it is situated beside the N15. The Creevykeel monument was built in several phases over possibly as long as 500 years, having been extended several times during the neolithic. The monument was completely excavated in 1936, in a dig directed by Hugh O'Neill Hencken leader of the team of American archaeologists known as the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland. In 2019 a local Cliffoney resident discovered that the chamber of Creevykeel is somewhat aligned to the sunrises on the spring and autumn equinoxes.
I began my research into the art and astronomy of Irish passage-graves at Loughcrew the beautiful collection of thirty monuments spread across three sacred hills in the west of County Meath. I was inspired by the writings of American researcher Martin Brennan, author of The Boyne Valley Vision and The Stars and the Stones. Both books had a profound effect on me. Brennan and his co-researcher Jack Roberts discovered two important alignments at Loughcrew where neolithic engravings were illuminated both directly and indirectly by the light of the rising sun on astronomically significant mornings.
There are some wonderful monuments at Loughcrew which are sadly suffering from state neglect. The concrete roof over the passage at Cairn T, installed in the 1880's, has become unstable, leading to the closure of the monument which has not been open to the public since 2018. Recent research at Loughcrew, following on from the research of Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts, suggests that the large and elaborate panel of art withing Cairn L, above, is a depiction of a solar eclipse which occured above Loughcrew around 3,340 BCE. Researcher Paul Griffin first suggested the eclipse theory in the late 1990's, and it was published to widespread interest in 2006 and again in 2017. Eclipsologist Robin Edgar has refined Griffin's original date of 3,340 to a series of three strong partial solar eclipses, that includes an annular eclipse, which occurred between 3337 BCE and 3315 BCE.
County Sligo is one of the best places in Ireland to hear fine Irish Traditional Music. Since moving to this area I have taken up playing first fiddle, then banjo, and I am now enjoying a fantastic three-quarter set of uilleann pipes made by master Limerick muiscian
Planxty Irwin played on the wire-sturng Irish harp, the clarseach, here in the Old Barracks in Cliffoney.
Our music group, the Squeal Like A Pig Ceilidhi Band, plays regular sessions in O'Donnell's Bar, Cliffoney, and also plays at care homes, community centers and the local Cliffoney Country Market. We also host the long-running traditional session in O'Donnell's Bar on the last Saturday of each month, held in memory of the rebel Catholic priest, Fr. Michael O'Flanagan who spent fifteen turbulent months here in 1914 and 1915.
O'Flanagan was a fascinating individual who became vice-president and later president of Sinn Féin. He worked on many volumes on Irish history including editing and publishing the Ordnance Survey Letters for most of the country in the late 1928's. O'Flanagan also invented and patented the modern swimming goggles in the late 1920's.