Sunday, 13 November 2011

Southern Sligo

Tomb at Carrowkeel
This blog post is about some interesting archaeological and historical sites in the south of County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland. Ireland has many well-known historical sites such as Tara and Newgrange but sometimes the lesser-known sites are more rewarding to visit.

            If one is driving north from the town of Boyle towards Sligo you will see the Bricklieve Mountains on your left. These are not particularly high or remarkable looking mountains and the unwary visitor could easily pass them by without a second thought, but on top of these mountains is the Carrowkeel megalithic tomb complex

There are thousands of prehistoric tombs and monuments in Ireland but there are only four complexes of these tombs, where the tombs are grouped together. The most famous complex is in the Boyne Valley, comprised of Newgrange, Knowth, Dowth and a host of other tombs. The Boyne Valley complex is elaborate and by far the largest complex in Ireland but it is not the most ancient as the other complexes, Carrowmore, Carrowkeel and Loughcrew are assumed to predate it. Based on radiocarbon dating these Neolithic sites are generally given dates ranging from 3500 BC to 3000 BC with Carrowmore as the most ancient and the Boyne Valley as the most recent. It should be remembered that not all the tombs are dated and that these complexes were built over time and used for hundreds of years so there is doubtless considerable overlap.

Tomb G: Note the Roof Box above the entrance.
Despite being more recent than the more ancient site of Carrowmore in the north of Sligo, Carrowkeel bears the distinction of having what appears to be the oldest “roof box” in Ireland. Many of these tombs appear to have been oriented towards particular directions based on astronomical calculations but the roof box allowed the builders to harness this alignment for effect. The roof box was a small window above the main entrance, too small for anyone to enter through. However, if you are lucky enough to be allowed into Newgrange on the morning of the winter solstice (and if the unpredictable Irish weather co-operates) you will see the rays of the rising sun enter the passage and briefly, but brilliantly, illuminate the total darkness of the tomb. Click here for images. The astronomical alignment at Carrowkeel is different; with the roof box aligned to catch the setting sun of the summer solstice but the principle is the same.

The tombs are signposted from the village of Castlebaldwin along the N4 and can be accessed on foot by paths and on a clear day the views are impressive, however the visitor should be aware that the Bricklieve Mountains have a number of cliffs and sheer drops and wanderings from the path should be done with caution. Tombs that appear deceptively close may in fact lie across a hidden valley.

There are over sixteen tombs in the complex. They generally comprise of a single room, entered by a north-facing entrance and covered with a mound of locally quarried quartz. Some have been damaged by amateurish investigation so visitors should be aware not to compound the damage done. The tombs are labelled alphabetically. Tomb G is probably the best preserved and is the tomb that contains the first roof box.

Interior of Tomb G
From this tomb one can see Sligo spread out below, with Knocknarea to the north. Click here for a site containing panoramas from the site. The tombs of Carrowmore are located to the north but I was unable to see them from Carrowkeel. It was however possible to see the prominent cairn of “Queen Maeve’s Grave” on Knocknarea to the north so it is possible that the two Sligo complexes are aligned to each other. To the west can be seen Kesh, another low mountain with tombs atop it. The other side of Kesh, invisible from Carrowkeel, is riddled with caves, which may have had some ritual significance. To the east lies Lough Arrow and the plain, which according to mythology was the site of the Battle of Moytura.

Interior of St Mary's Priory
If you are touring the area it may be worth a trip to the other side of Lough Arrow, where one can find the ruins of St. Mary’s Priory, founded in 1547 AD under the patronage of the McDonagh clan. It was closed down by Henry VIII in his Dissolution of the Monasteries, but the friars continued to live in and around the site until around 1785. The priory is relatively well preserved compared to other similar structures.

Labby Rock
Nearby is the Labby Rock, a large dolmen, the capstone of which is estimated to weigh 65 tonnes. The name “Labby” is transliterated into English from the Irish word “Leaba” meaning “bed”. According to one legend, Diarmaid and Grainne used the capstone as a bed while on their legendary flight around Ireland being pursued by Fionn mac Cumhaill (“Cumhaill” is generally pronounced “cool”). An older legend, based upon the Book of Invasions says that the tomb was of the king of the Tuatha De Danann, Nuada of the Silver Arm. 

View from Carrowkeel over Lough Arrow and Moytura

The area to the west of Lough Arrow is the site of the legendary Second Battle of Moytura. In the legend the Tuatha De Danann were oppressed by a king, Bres. They overthrew Bres and replaced him with their previous king, Nuada. Nuada had previously lost the kingship after losing an arm in single combat and the Tuatha De Danann were not permitted to be ruled by someone with a physical defect. To remedy this Nuada was given an arm of silver to replace the one lost. Bres fled to his kinsfolk across the sea, the Fomorians, who gathered to invade Ireland. The Fomorians were led by their king, Balor of the Evil Eye, whose eye was said to be so huge that it required several warriors averting their gaze and using spears to open it and which caused death to anyone who saw it. Against this awful weapon the Tuatha De Danann had the warrior Lugh of the Spear.

The battle raged for days, with Balor wrecking havoc and Nuada dying on the field until Lugh came within range of Balor and hurled his spear just as the great eye was being opened. The spear slew Balor and knocked him backwards so that the Evil Eye faced backwards into the Fomorian hosts before burning a hole straight into the earth. Decimated by their own weapon, their king dead and attacked by the triumphant Lugh, the Fomorians fled back across the sea. The story is unusual and entertaining as Irish legend usually is. As a student of mythology, Tolkien was doubtless aware of the tale and I have always wondered if the Eye of Sauron had any basis in the person of Balor of the Evil Eye.
Tomb H at Carrowkeel heavily damaged by poor excavation
 The Labby Rock is dated to around 2500 BC and so predates all the tales of Moytura but it is interesting that there are so many Stone Age remains in the Sligo area. According to archaeological consensus the first settlement of Ireland was in the south with settlers from northern Spain. While the settlement of Ireland happened long before the Neolithic era, any new technologies from Europe would be most likely to arrive in the south or east of the island, meaning that Sligo, up towards the northwest of the island is an unlikely place for the first concentration of ancient monuments. Why the Neolithic farmers chose this place to first dabble in monumental architecture is something we shall probably never know.


  1. Visited those tombs when I was a child- small enough to crawl inside so I must have been pretty young! Really inspired my interest in everything pre-Cristian...hence the choice of degree haha!!!

  2. A lot of the tombs are very difficult to get into alright. As you say though, they are pretty inspiring. I didn't get a chance to visit the ones on Keash but might head back to them at some point in the future.