Ireland’s Megalithic Monuments
There are four main types of Megalithic monuments located within Ireland namely three hundred to five hundred chambered Cairns, four hundred Wedge Tombs, one hundred & ninety examples of Dolmens also four hundred Court Cairns. At least two hundred are listed as unclassified monuments. The sixth group are called Linkardsleun Cists. Courts & Dolmens are believed to be the oldest type followed by Passage graves from 3800 BC onwards with Wedges from the Bronze Age. Wedge Tombs may be located within clusters of other types of monuments. Dolmens were discovered near to streams in valleys, they may have been Boundary markers. They range in size from ten tons at Carromore to an estimated one hundred tons at Brownville in Co. Carlow. Court Tombs may be in various shapes & sizes. Greevykeel was possibly the best example of the great twelve central Courts. Megalithic chambers were artificial graves built from free standing structures of large slabs that aided the stabilization of the structure. It defined the monument from a distance plus created a viewing platform to survey the horizon. Neolithic Art was usually found on Passage graves. The graves were often oriented to the sun, moon, or another heavenly body perhaps even to a nearby landscape or monument. Several sites have external features such as Standing Stones, stone setting, round boxes, stone boxes or cists. Two monuments; Cairn F at Carrowkeel plus Cairn L at Loughcrew have Standing Stones within their chambers. Heapstown Cairn by Lough Arrow in Co. Sligo is Ireland’s fourth largest Cairn. This site has a photomontage by Goran Burinhult of the Circle 26 excavation at Carrowmore plus an image of Creevykeel monument in Co. Sligo as well as several sketches or images. [i]
The earliest dates of construction for Western European Megaliths were found in Western Ireland. A group of Archaeologists led by Swede Stephen Bergh at the Carrowmore Complex discussed their findings during late 1970’s to early 1980’s. Bergh returned to the site from 1944 to 1966 when new radiocarbon evidence supported the earlier findings; Tomb No. 4 had the oldest date. Croaghhaun in the Ox Mountains produced five thousand, six hundred charcoal samples. Samples taken from a stone socket in Primrose Green; Tomb 1 provided a date of 6400 BC much earlier than anywhere else within Europe. Five dates from three different tombs pointed to activity on the sites between 6400 BC. & 4600 BC. The Boyne Valley Complex is dated from 3500 BC. The site contains over sixty percent of all Europe’s Megalithic Monuments. The great Neolithic Temple at Knowth contains more than a quarter of Europe’s entire collection of monuments. The Lia Fail of Tara (Irelands ancient High Kings Coronation Stone) is proof of Ireland’s importance to its ancient religion. [ii]
From 4000 BC – 3300 BC or Neolithic period the majority of Megalithic Tombs were constructed. Several were erected into the Bronze Age. Standing Stones were also constructed well into the Iron Age 500 AD. Archaeologists & Researchers discovered that ritual practices occurred at various times during the year. Monuments were carefully positioned to consider the surrounding landscape with the sunrise, sunset, lunar position also the locations of rivers or springs that were deemed Sacred by Ireland’s early inhabitants. The Linkardstown Burial Mound is located on top of small, natural ridge. It is located West of St. Mary’s Hospital in the Phoenix Park, North of the Upper Glen Road in Dublin. It dated from circa 3000 BC to 2500 BC. Discovered by staff from the Commissioners of Woods & Forest, it was excavated by Joseph Raftery during 1838. It was known as ‘Knockmaridhe,’ ‘Knockmary Dolmen.’ ‘Cnoc Maraidhe’ or ‘Hill of the Mariners’ (PRIT page 187). It was marked on earlier maps as ‘Cromlech’ now on modern OSI maps as a ‘Cist.’ The water – worn capstone is believed to have been from the River Liffey. It is 1.96 metres in length, 1.05 metres in width also 0.33 metres in depth. It is supported 0.35 metres above ground level by four slabs of 0.8 metres – 0.35 metre in width. It has a modern concrete pillar for stability. The underground chamber measures 1.2 metres in length by 0.6 metres in width with a floor of compacted clay. A small section of the capstone is missing, there are several cup – marks on top. Coordinates are 532103N, 620267 W. [iii]
Throughout Ireland there are Standing Stones, Stone Circles, enormous graves & monuments in evidence. Most of these are in the Northern half of the country. Court Tombs are mainly concentrated in North Connaught & Ulster. Carrowmore in Co. Sligo is the largest Megalithic Cemetery within Ireland. The Complex has more than eight hundred monuments that include: Passage Graves, Chamber Tombs, Ring Forts or Cairns. It is overlooked by Meascan Maebha on Knocknara’s summit. One of Ireland’s finest example of Passage tombs is the Polnabrone Dolmen. The Portal Tombs or Dolmens are located in Counties Wexford, Waterford also from the Burren to Connemara in Connaught. Passage Tombs such as the Boyne Valley Complex are to be seen in the East of Ireland. Another type of grave is located further South with an example of the Linkardstown graves in Co. Carlow. They have a polygonal chamber with stone slabs, lined with inward leaning large stones. They were covered over with a capstone, that was then covered with a mound. (Padraig Mac Donnchadha 2nd March 2020) [iv]
From the ancient Seat of the Celtic High Kings to the Mountain of the Witch there are countless Irish Mystical Sacred Sites. Brú na Boinne in Counties Meath & Louth contain some of the most Historic Monuments & Sites within Ireland. These include the legendary Hill of Slane, Hill of Tara plus the massive, ancient Passage Tombs of Newgrange, Knowth & Dowth. Newgrange itself was constructed during 3200 BC to ensure the Celebration of the Winter Solstice when a narrow beam of sunlight illuminated the chambers floor for about seventeen minutes at the end of the long passageway. The second great Mound in the Boyne Valley Complex was Knowth. Built over 5000 years ago it has two passages with entrances on both the East & West sides. Recent scientific data suggests that Knowth had a lunar function with ancient rituals being enacted. It has an impressive large collection of Neolithic Rock Art that comprises about a quarter of all known Rock Art Monuments in Europe. Legend states that a Noblewoman was interred at Knowth with ‘a great hill’ built over her to create the Great Mound. Dowth or Fairy Mound of Darkness is the third Monument within the Brú na Boinne Complex. It has two small passages with on the Western side of monument. The Southernmost passage is aligned towards the setting sun of the Winter Solstice. The ancient Seat of Power in Ireland was the Hill of Tara. There are over thirty visible ancient Monuments on the site that include the Mound of the Hostages & the Stone of Destiny. The former Megalithic Passage Tomb is the oldest Monument on the site. Engravings within the Tomb are representative of the sun, moon, or stars or indeed religious symbols. Possibly one Stone was in use as a Prehistoric Calendar. The Hill of Slane was the burial place of King Sláine, the King of the Fir Bolg. At the Hill of Tara in County Meath area an oval Iron Age enclosure called Raíth na Ríogh is located. There is a Standing Stone known as Lia Fail on the Hills summit. Also, on the site is a Neolithic Passage Tomb built circa 3400 BC. Loughcrew or The Storied Hills is also known as The Mountain of the Witch, it is one of Ireland’s major Passage Tombs. Dated to circa 3200 BC the site consisted of a cluster of Cairns around several hills. The Equinox Sunrise Illumination occurs at the site when the light hits the backstone of the chamber on both the Spring & Autumnal Equinoxes. Navan Fort is the historical Royal Fortress on Killylea Road in Co. Armagh. The Fort was a stronghold of King Conchobar Mac Nessa along with his Red Branch Knights also the Kings of Ulster held their Court within its centre circa 700 BC. The Fort was surrounded by a bank with a ditch inside that suggested it may have been a Ceremonial rather than a defensive site. One-mile West of Navan Fort lies the mysterious King’s Stable created over 1000 BC as a ten – feet – deep manmade pool that was surrounded by a bank. Stone Circles are spread across the Sperrin Mountains in Counties Tyrone, Derry also Fermanagh. It is believed the site may date to 1600 B C Field Walls; Fireplaces & flint tools suggested perhaps 2900 BC. In Co. Tyrone there are sixty – one Rings. Within each area lies a consecration of sites formed with multiple Stone Circles. The site was composed of forty or more stones that were typically misshapen. These were of relatively small diameters. They occurred in pairs or multiples within one place. The most Famous monument at Breaghmore ten miles west of Cookstown, was accidently discovered by men cutting turf during the 1940’s. The excavation took four years to remove a thick layer of protective peat also one thousand sixty – nine stones at the seven – circle Complex. The site includes thirteen Cairns, several rows of Standing – Stones with seven Stone Circles. It is believed that there are more yet undiscovered. Several Archaeologists suggested that the Complex was erected to record the movements of the moon & sun for the purpose of marking Lunar or Solar events. An Grianan Ailighis that sits atop a hill was a mystical circular Stone Fort in County Donegal, it may be assessed on a road from Letterkenny to the Derry Road. It was dated to 1700 BC by the Tuatha De Danann as an interment plot. The Fort became the Seat of the Kingdom of Ailigh plus a centre of culture & politics during the rule of early Irish Chieftains. It was seven hundred & fifty feet above sea level. Carrowmore with Carrowkeel are two Megalithic Monuments in Co. Sligo. The sites were joined by the Uinshin River from Lough Arrow to Ballinsodare Bay that had been the main road during the Stone Age. The Sacred Carrowmore Complex is the most extensive Megalithic Complex in Ireland with about thirty tombs (it was believed there may have been one hundred in previous years) to be viewed at this Sacred Site. It was created circa 6000 years ago; it is three hundred & twenty – seven metres above sea level in County Sligo. The Tombs are Dolmen Circles, or a single tomb built of three or more upright stones that supported a large flat, horizontal stone surrounded by a circle of boulders. There are perhaps thirty or thirty – five stones side by side within each circle. Most Circles are forty feet in diameter with several up to one hundred & sixty – five feet. Within the Carrowmore Complex lies the giant Cairn of Knocknacarra that is one hundred & ninety – seven feet in diameter. Carrowkeel on top of Bricklieve Mountain is an ancient site but is of equal significance to Carrowmore. It is the fourth largest Irish Monument with a collection of some of the mysterious Megalithic Monuments in Ireland. The area contains fourteen Passage Tombs, one of which is a classic tomb the consists of a short passage that one may crawl through. The Passageway leads to a central chamber with three equally spaced side chambers. The roof box above the entrance is unique. The monument is aligned to the Midsummer sunset. The Rock of Cashel was the traditional Seat of the High Kings of Munster prior to the Norman Invasion. There are numerous buildings atop the hill that dated from the twelfth or thirteenth Century. [v]
This Linkardstown Tomb is located on top of a small, natural ridge West of St. Mary’s Hospital in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, it is North of Upper Glen Road. It was dated to 3000 BC. – 2500 BC. It was marked on old maps as ‘Cromlech.’ The Tomb was also known as Knocknamaride, Knockmary Dolmen, Cnoc Maraidhe or the Hill of the Mariners. (PRIA p187.) The Tomb was discovered by staff of the Commissioners of Woods & Forests during 1838 when they removed an ancient tumulus that measured fifteen feet in height plus one hundred & twenty feet in circumference. On 28th May 1838 George Petrie delivered a Report to the Royal Irish Academy that concerned the discovery. The water – worn capstone (N E – SW) is believed to have been from the River Liffey. It is 1.96 metres in length, 1.05 metres in width also 0.33 metres in depth. It is supported above present ground level by four slabs of 0.80 metres – 0.35 metres in width with a modern concrete pillar for stability. The underground chamber measured 1.2 metres in length by 0.60 metres in width with a floor of compacted clay. A small section of the capstone is missing but on the top are several cup – marks. In the outer part of the Mound four small cists were discovered with a remaining Tomb in the centre. J. W. Poe stated that the burial was more like a ‘Cist’ it is the smallest to be seen in Co. Dublin, also perhaps, more properly designated a Kistvaen. It consisted of a long table – stone, that resembled a coffin in shape, supported on several smaller stones set into the ground. A Linkardstown Megalithic Tomb is located South – East of Carlow Town (W012 – 017), it was discovered during ploughing in the 1940’s. Subsequently it was excavated during 1944 by Joseph Raftery. These Mounds were usually uniform in size; twenty – two metres or twenty-five metres in diameter. (Knockmaree was thirty – five metres.) They were generally placed in commanding positions on hill – tops or ridges. About nine or so other graves were believed to bear resemblance to the Linkardstown Tomb. They consisted of a low circular mound at the centre of which was usually a massive stone polygonal Cist that was formed from large sloping granite blocks. These were covered with a single or two over – lapping stones, built on the old ground surface that formed the floor of the grave. Recent Carbon Dating has refuted the original date of the discovery from the late to the Middle Neolithic Period. These sites were dated as follows: Ardcrony circa 2725 BC, Ashley Park circa 2815 BC (both are in Co. Tipperary) also Ballintruer More circa 2850 BC in Co. Wicklow. Coordinates are 53 21 03.3 N, 6 20 26.7 W. [vi]
Megalithic Ireland is timeless with Prehistoric Monuments of ancient origin. Dun Aengus is a Promontory Fort on the Southern face of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. It is surrounded by Walls on three sides. There is a sheer drop to the ocean from the centre of its site that formed part of the defences. The Hill of Tara Northwest of Dublin was a Royal Seat intricately connected with St. Patrick. The Hill of Tara has a Visitor Centre in a disused church. In the area are several earthworks for exploration. Navan Fort is one of the lesser -known Prehistoric sites within Ireland. It is mainly earthenworks with a modern Visitor Centre. Queen Maeve’s Grave is a well – known but unexplored Megalithic Site with very impressive stones in Co. Sligo. Tombs of various sizes & shapes were constructed within the enormous Megalithic Graveyard. Polnabrone Dolmen is a typical example of the Irish Dolmens. Some Standing Stones have a cap stone that rests atop them. There are external Monuments to explore. Knowth in Co. Meath has two opposing Passages, both aligned to a Solar event. Loughcrew Passage Tomb is situated South of Old Castle in Co. Meath, it has several Passage Tombs with Solar Alignments plus impressive Rock Art. Fourknocks near Clonalvy in Co. Meath is a Passage Tomb with a difference as the inner chamber is larger than others in relation to the Mounds size. The Rock of Cashel was the Seat of the High Kings of Munster prior to the Norman Invasion. The buildings on top of the Rock are dated to the twelfth or thirteenth Centuries. (Bernd Beige 6 /3/ 19) [vii]
The Landscapes around Tulsk plus Athleague in Co. Roscommon are abundant with ancient Monuments. There were all documented in early Irish Manuscripts. The Rathcroghan Complex has two hundred & forty Archaeological sites with sixty Protected National Monuments in the area. From Burial Mounds to Cairns also Ring Forts the evidence is of great importance. Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery in Co. Sligo is one of the Country’s largest burial sites. It comprised a series of satellite Tombs that surrounded a central Monument. Most of these were believed to be from Pre – 4300 BC – 3500 BC origin. The Listoghil Monument at the centre is marked with a Cairn or stack of stones. It is significantly larger than the surrounding Tombs. Boa Island in Co. Fermanagh is located within the Caldragh Graveyard on the shores of Lower Lough Erne. It is an unusual sculpture of a two – faced Stone Sculpture that stands seventy – three cm in height that possibly depicted a Celtic Deity. Dunbeg Stone Circle is a Protected National Monument. It was excavated during the late 1950’s with an inverted pot discovered at the Circle’s Centre. It was a Circle of Standing Stones that spanned almost ten metres in diameter: believed to have dated from 1100 BC & 800 BC. It was aligned with the Winter Solstice Sunset. The Complex included two Prehistoric huts also a fulachta fiadh. Polnabrone Dulmen in the Burren in Co. Clare is a Portal Tomb from the Neolithic period. It consisted of a seven metres capstone secured in place by two Stones. Ardgroom Stone Circle is located on plains that overlook Kenmare Bay plus the mountain ranges. It is a huddle of jagged Rocks that measured seven metres in diameter. The Circle of eleven Standing Stones included two that were lopsided while it was believed some had been removed. There were several uneven Rocks one of which is two metres in height. Located in the Isle of Dnagh in Inishowen in Co. Dublin is a Prehistoric Rock Art Monument. The site was dated to at least 3000 BC. This Rock Art contained cup with ring carvings. According to a legend the Isle of Donagh was believed to have been a Sacred Island. Queen Maeve’s Tomb on Knocknara in Co. Sligo is an impressive Neolithic Cairn dated to pre 3000 BC. It is situated three hundred & twenty – seven metres above sea level. This gigantic Mound is sixty metres in diameter. It contains twenty – seven thousand tons of stones. This site has several images of Ireland’s Monuments. (Kate Phelan 7th September 2020) [viii]
There is a Facebook page with information available to view on this link: https://www.facebook.com/Megalithic-Monuments-of-Ireland-584878025309430/?__xts__%5B0%5D=68.ARBCk_nV9jWgF0RCGaC_56rvk
A List of Megalithic Monuments in Ireland are on this site: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_megalithic_monuments_in_Ireland
This site has several interesting articles / features plus a video of Dronehenge: https://www.mythicalireland.com/MI/blog/videos-and-films/video-dronehenge-and-other-archaeology-visible-again-at-newgrange-farm/
This link refers to a Podcast of Dronehenge’s Discovery: https://www.mythicalireland.com/MI/blog/videos-and-films/three-podcast-interviews-with-anthony-murphy/
This site has interesting images of Carrowmore, Newgrange plus other important Monuments: https://www.frommers.com/slideshows/818164-best-celtic-ruins-and-ancient-sites-in-ireland
This link has an interesting Map also sketches of ancient monuments: http://www.megaliths.net/ireland.htm
Publications regarding main topic: ‘The Dolmens of Ireland’ Vol 11’ 1897 Barbase William C.
‘The Cromlechs of County Dublin’ Poe J. W.
‘A Neolithic Burial Mound at Ashlepark, Co. Tipperary’ PRIG 1985 Manning C.
‘Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy Vol 1 1836 – 1840’ pages 177 – 191 [ix]
‘The Megalithic & Mesolithic – Neolithic Transitions in Ireland’ Driscoll Killian Lithics Ireland Consultancy
‘Landscapes of Neolithic Ireland’ Cooney George 2000 Routledge Oxen
‘Neolithic Settlement, Significant Unpublished Irish Archaeological Excavations- 1930 – 1977’ An Chomhairle Oidhreachta The Heritage Council
‘A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes’ Bardon Jonathon 2008 Gill & Macmillan Dublin [x]
This link may be of interest for the Mayo area from The National Monuments & Historical Properties Service 1996: https://www.archaeology.ie/sites/default/files/media/pdf/Archaeology-RMP-Mayo-manual-(1996)-0035.pdf