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HIST & MYTH: Exploring Ireland's Ancient Tombs

Post 186. Written by Ben Kesp 

Newgrange on the Boyne Valley 
A new period of Ireland’s ancient past has recently been discovered pushing human inhabitation back some 12,500 thousand years ago. Up until recently the earliest known inhabitation since the last ice age was on a site at Mount Sandel in Co. Derry dating to 8,000 B.C. (Mesolithic Period). New radio carbon dating of a brown bear bone originally discovered in Co. Clare now pushes the inhabitation of Ireland by humans back 2,500 thousand years into the Palaeolithic Period of 10,500 B.C. Archaeologists have been searching for years to discover Ireland’s Palaeolithic period and now they have discovered the first clue to its existence. This is an exciting discovery and archaeologists will continue searching to uncover more of Ireland’s ancient secrets. 

The landscape of the country contains many secrets of the past and also reveals thousands of ancient sites and monuments, with many left intact as they once were millennia earlier. Ireland’s ancient past is rich with wonderful tombs constructed with little knowledge of the people, their culture or the elite who finally found their resting places in such tombs. Archaeologists and historians continue investigations to learn more. 

There were different types of ancient tomb construction in Ireland, ranging from small to very large like Newgrange and Knowth on the Boyne Valley, which could also be considered as temples and places of rituals and worship. 

Court (Cairn) Tombs

About 300 of these exist today. These monuments are often associated with places of rituals and social gatherings and usually consisted of 3 types of design: Single, Double or Central. They were constructed with an open courtyard, surrounded with orthostats or dry stone walls. This open entrance usually east facing, lead to up to four rectangular chambers. The chambers were corbelled roofed. The majority of this type of building occurred from around 4,000 to 3,500 B.C. Queen Maeve’s Cairn on Knocknarea built 3,200 B.C is a fine example of a Neolithic cairn and offers imposing views of the landscape situated 327 metres above sea level with an estimated weight of 27,000 tonnes. 

Queen Maeve's Cairn on Knocknarea

Portal Tombs

There are about 190 portal tombs surviving. These are also referred to as dolmens. The design has a straight sided chamber which often narrowed towards the rear. Tall portal stones marked the entrance and were capped with a single large cap stone. They consisted of a single chamber. The building of these tombs date from over 4,000 to 3,000 B.C. and the oldest known dolmens are located in Western Europe. Poulnabrone Dolmen in the Burren Region in Co. Clare is one of the best known dolmens in Ireland. The largest dolmen in Ireland is in Co. Carlow called Brownshill Dolmen with a 150 ton capstone and as far as I can tell it is also the largest in Europe. 

Poulnabrone Dolmen, Burren, Co. Clare 

Passage Tombs

Today Ireland has an abundance of these types of constructions. The tombs usually consist of a large mound of earth or stone cover over a passage leading to a central chamber (s). Huge megaliths were used in the construction and they usually date from the Neolithic period, 3,500 to 2,500 B.C. The design of the tombs are cruciform in shape (cross shaped) and are decorated with elaborate Neolithic art work. The central chamber(s) are corbelled roofed. The passage ways are aligned with either the sun or moon recalling the major seasonal points along the calendar year. The largest of these tomb constructions in Europe are found on the Boyne Valley, notably, Newgrange and Knowth

Wedge Tombs

There are about 550 surviving today. The design of the tomb is a sloping roof and narrow walls giving them a wedge shape. Majority were built around 2,500 B.C to 600 B.C. and can mostly be found along the west and northwest of Ireland. Balleydmonduff Wedge Tomb in Dún Laoghaire (1,700 B.C.) consists of a U shaped design with double walls and a rectangular chamber divided into 3 parts. 

The following is a sample list of Ireland’s Ancient Tomb Monuments, however does not include Ireland’s Stone Circles, Prehistoric sites or Ancient Royal sites, for example: Lough Gur, Emain Macha, Tara, Céide Fields, Drombeg Circle, etc. Please also note the years relate to estimated age of the monuments/complexes which were often built in stages and excludes earlier inhabitation and uses on the site. 

Poulnabrone Dolmen
Portal Tomb
Co. Clare
5,500 - 6,200 Years
Brownshill Dolmen
Portal Tomb
Co. Carlow
5,500 – 6,000 Years
(Carrowmore Complex)
Passage Tomb
Co. Sligo
5,516 – 6,000 Years
Various Types
Co. Roscommon
4,500 – 6,000 Years
Meehambee Dolmen
Portal Tomb
Co. Roscommon
5,500 Years
Mound of the Hostages
Passage Tomb
Co. Meath
5,400 Years
Loughcrew Cairns
Co. Meath
5,300 – 5,500 Years
Carrowkeel Tombs
Passage Tombs
Co. Sligo
5,100 – 5,400 Years
Co. Sligo
5,200 Years
Passage Tomb/Temple
Co. Meath
5,200 Years
Knowth & Dowth
Passage Tomb/Temple
Co. Meath
4,000 – 4,516 Years
Portal Tomb
Co. Cork
3,500 Years

Many of Ireland’s great megalithic tomb complexes like those of The Boyne Valley, Loughcrew, Lough Arrow, Carrowmore, Knocknarea and Cuil Irra (Coolrea) are wonderful places to visit. 

The Boyne Valley complex is world famous and takes the light from other complexes like the Lough Arrow Complex located in south of Sligo. This is a large and well preserved Neolithic landscape. It is surrounded by mountains on all sides and can be suggested is connected to Cuil Irra Complex by the River Unshin, the ancient route way of the west. In Irish mythology, the River Unshin is where the Great Dadga (Father of the Gods) first encounters the Goddess Morrígan standing with a leg on either side of the river washing the clothes of the soldiers who are about to fall in battle. The Morrígan assists the Dagda by telling him where to bring his armies to meet with the Fomorians in Battle. 

Heapstown Cairn is the largest megalithic monument at the Lough Arrow complex, weighing at 30,000 tonnes. Irish myth also records that this cairn was built by the Fomorians to conceal the healing well used by Dian Cécht (God of Healing, Power & Health) which also included every type of healing herb to be found in Ireland. Dean Cécht bathed the Danann warriors who fell in battle, restoring them to full health. The Carrowmore Complex in Sligo is additionally becoming one of Ireland’s best preserved megalithic sites. 
Heapstown Cairn, Co. Sligo 
We should admire the great construction achievements being carried out thousands of years ago long before the pyramid building in Egypt by a race we know very little about. Archaeologists strive to discover more on the culture of these forgotten people however what they have left for us to enjoy and experience are remarkable, sacred and well engineered monuments. Myth helps us to create stories in understanding what these places once represented and in the belief systems of our ancestors. 

The following is a map showing the major ancient sites in Ireland

For more information on Ireland’s Palaeolithic Period, check out the following link from Sligo Institute of Technology: 

Read further posts on:

Image of Ireland: Sacred Island 
Heapstown Cairn: Mythical Ireland 

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Ben Kesp is an author, artist and writer and you can discover more by checking out the Ben Kesp Site.

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