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    Neolithic Ireland Part 2: Sligo & Carrowkeel

    By Dawn Rainbolt, Marketing Executive
    More by Dawn

    What is the Neolithic era?

    Ireland’s Neolithic peoples built awesome monuments that have stood the test of time and culture. 

    The Neolithic period of prehistory, meaning the “New Stone Age”, signalled a move from hunting to farming. By learning how to work the land and breed livestock, the ancient people were able to settle from their nomadic life and build new communities. And build they did.

    Long before the aqueducts of Rome, the temples of Jerusalem or the pyramids of Egypt, Neolithic people all over Europe were building tombs and cairns; as well as crannogs, standing stones and stone circles. 

    Irish Folklore

    Sligo: The Carrowkeel Tombs

    Carrowkeel lit up at sunset of the Summer Solstice, an important event for the monument’s Neolithic builders.

    Like many visitors over the centuries, walk the winding path over a bracken-covered hill to the top where you’ll meet the monuments built by ancient peoples. Crawl inside the well-preserved low passage to sit in a structure older than the Pyramids of Giza. Feel the cold stone under your hands as you peer into its dark chambers. 

    Lovers of astronomy, Neolithic builders designed these chambers to align with sunrise or sunset at certain times the year. Each year, visitors take to Carrowkeel at the Summer Solstice, when the golden sun’s rays fall over the hills and fill the stony chamber with a comforting warmth; in the same way it has annually since the Neolithic peoples built the cairn 5,000 years ago.

    Visit on or around the Summer Solstice (June 21) in the evening, watching the sunset from inside the tomb, when the passage and chamber is briefly illuminated by the sun. 

    Ducking back out of the chamber, let the fresh Atlantic wind and rich countryside embrace you. Observe the weave of fields and lakes as they fan out below. A landscape dotted with mountains, humble farmhouses and other monuments; it is a view that will take your breath away.

    Visiting Carrowkeel

    There are over a dozen tombs at Carrowkeel. Though not all are easy to find or access, the most popular to visit are Cairns G, H and K; you can follow the narrow path from the car park straight their doors.

    Two of the three are open, and with a little bit of effort you can actually climb inside these ancient tombs; taking care not to disturb their well preserved condition. As always, you should leave no trace of your visit so that they can be enjoyed and studied for years to come. 

    Cairns G, K and H

    Cairn G is the first cairn you’ll come upon, and it is probably the most famous. It is in wonderful condition and has been open since the McAllister excavations in the early 1900s. Duck behind the front megalith to access the short passage to the chamber beyond, where 5-6 could comfortably fit.

    Next is Cairn H, which has a dimple in the roof as a result of the tunnels partial collapse during a botched excavation involving dynamite, making it inaccessible.

    Cairn K is the highest of the three and can be accessed, though the tunnel is slightly longer and lower. Inside the chamber, you’ll see an example of a beautiful corbelled roof.

    Cairns E & F

    Next you’ll meet Cairn E and Cairn F, which are said to have once been at the centre of the complex. Cairn E is now closed, again due to botched excavations. However, parts of the cairn are exposed, so it is still an interesting one to check out. Cairn F is open and as the largest and highest cairn on this ridge it is surely worth a visit. In fact, Cairn F is so large that it once contained a standing standing stone inside. 

    Cairns C & D

    A little trail veering off the main path will lead you to two little cairns – C and D. These are smaller and in a very exposed condition, giving you an idea of what a passage tomb looked like before a roof was added.

    Cairn C is the only structure to still have a nickname, known locally as the “Leprechauns House”.

    Cairns O & P and Hut Sites

    Evidence of a settlement can be seen on the next ridge with the hut circles clearly visible in the evening sunlight.  There are also two more cairns – O and P – on this ridge also, but are much more difficult to reach. 

    Take a look at the photo, you can just make out the small bump that is Cairn O. This would have overlooked the hut-sites underneath the hill at one time. Cairn P is further down the ridge on an outcrop as is in poor condition.

    Cairn B

    From the small car park at Carrowkeel, there is a cairn perched on a clifftop above your head to the left. As it’s hard to reach and lesser visited, faint traces of ancient carvings remain visible on the single chamber inside. 

    To access follow the ridge from the main road, turning left after leaving Carrowkeel. Follow the stone wall up the hill until you reach the rough path leading to the cairn. Here, you will enjoy a pretty exceptional view of the Carrowkeel complex.

     

    Keash Mountain

    Labby Rock

    Heapstown Cairn

    Nearby, you will find the massive Heapstown Cairn – one of the largest in Ireland – and the nearby Labby Rock dolmen, as well as Keash Mountain, which is home to the highest cairn in Sligo and a row of caves embedded in its rock face. 

    Creevykeel

    This is one of the best examples of a court tomb in all of Ireland. A court tomb consists of an antechamber before the entrance and this one should definitely be on your list of things to see in the area.

    Its location just off the N15 Sligo to Donegal road makes it easily accessible, and a perfect stop for anyone heading northwards to the Sliabh Liag cliffs and beyond. 

    Keash Mountain

    Feeling adventurous? Visit the highest cairn in Sligo and explore its deep caves all while taking in stunning views of Carrowkeel and Knocknarea. This walk will require good boots and some map reading skillsas there’s no defined path like Knocknarea.

    Bones dated to Neolithic and medieval times as well as a Viking comb, Christain objects and more have been found at this site. 

    Deerpark

    Found on top of a small clearing on a hill in Deerpark Forest, just north of Lough Gill, is a tomb. This walk is ideal for anyone travelling with children who might like the chance to visit an ancient site without a strenuous climb. 

    The Hag of Beara’s House 

    Along a beautiful stretch of the 80km Sligo Way, are the ruins of a Neolithic Cairn, known locally as the Hag of Beara’s House. In Irish Mythology the Hag of Beara is known as the Goddess of Winter.

    The Sligo Way meanders through the Ox Mountains of Sligo where you will have to go off the trail to reach the cairn. Although hard to reach, the views are certainly worth it. 

    Love history?

    Check out our History and Culture pages to get up-to-date on everything Irish. 

    Irish History | Irish Culture

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    Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

    “American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture and sweeping landscapes of Ireland. Armed with a Masters Degree in Tourism Marketing and a love of writing and photography, she is Wilderness Ireland's Marketing Executive since 2017.”

    View profileMore by Dawn

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