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.
On Ireland’s East Coast the Boyne Valley is a hotbed of Neolithic design. It is home to Newgrange, Ireland’s largest Neolithic tomb, which also featured in Part 1 of this series on Neolithic Ireland.
In the Northwest, the largest horde of Neolithic monuments can be found in Sligo. With just 70,000 inhabitants, County Sligo is not a big place so this is impressive.
Sligo is a beautiful county tucked between mountain and sea. It claims 140 km of the Wild Atlantic Way and is home to a number of lakes, rivers, and the proud peaks of the Ox and Dartry Mountains. Within these hills you’ll find dozens, even hundreds, of Neolithic tombs.
Here in Ireland, we are blessed with access to some of the oldest ancient sites that are of great importance culturally and archaeologically. Although it it encouraged to visit and explore, always remember to leave no trace of your visit.
We recommended that you don’t take anything from sites or add anything to them and always take care when visiting stones structures with unstable walls. It may be tempting to light a fire in or around a tomb but this can affect archaeological study.
In general, please adhere to the Leave No Trace principles and enjoy your visit to these wonderful places!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
An enduring feature in the Sligo landscape and clearly visible from Carrowkeel is the famous Knocknarea Hill. While just 359m, Knocknarea’s iconic shape and perfect location make it stand out no matter where you are in Sligo.
Located on the Coolera Peninsula between Sligo town and the surfing village of Strandhill, Knocknarea has many paths leading to its summit, where you’ll find Queen Maeves Cairn. This massive cairn is visible from a great distance. In Irish Mythology this is said to be the burial site of the legendary warrior queen of Connacht, Queen Maeve. She is said to be buried standing up and facing her enemies. In truth, this cairn predates Queen Maeve’s time by a few millennia – likely dating to 3,000 BCE.
For out and back walks, the best place to start your hike from is Queen Maeve’s car park, but you can also hike to the summit from the other side of the mountain across from the rugby club in Strandhill. Afterwards, reward yourself with an ice cream or hot chocolate from Mammie Johnson’s in the village.
Two things to note are – it’s not considered good luck to bring a stone up and “offer” it to the tomb. Secondly, please do not climb the cairn!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Learn more here – everything from the Hag of Beara to the giant Finn MacCool and the legend of the shape-shifting selkies.