Mystery and magic in megalithic Ireland
There’s something deeply rewarding about visiting one of our remote megalithic sites, writes SHEILA RYAN
NEWGRANGE IS one of the jewels of Irish tourism. Built some 500 years before the pyramids of Giza and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge, and with its remarkable illumination around the winter solstice, it is truly a place of wonder.
However, while a tour of Newgrange is indispensable to anyone with an interest in ancient Ireland, its success as a tourism site has diluted some of the magic. Visitors are bussed to the site from the visitor centre and shepherded around. During the summer months tours may be booked out by mid afternoon. This year more than 31,000 people applied for the 100 tickets to visit during the winter solstice illuminations later this month.
The good news is that Newgrange is not the only megalithic site in Ireland. Stone circles, alignments of standing stones and portal tombs, also known as dolmens, are to be found across the country along with more than 200 passage graves. Coming across a 5,000-year-old building in a wild part of the countryside and having it to yourself to explore is a wonderful counterpoint to other more formal experiences.
Passage graves were often built on high ground where they must have been a commanding presence, so a hike and a panoramic view are often part of the visit. It might take a bit of searching to find them, but for those seeking a sense of mystery and connection with the past their efforts will be rewarded.
Meath, Loughcrew Cairns
The Loughcrew Cairns are billed as Ireland’s best-kept archaeological secret. The cairns are in two clusters, Carnbane West, which is on private land, and Carnbane East, close to Loughcrew Gardens.
There is no need to queue for guided tours here. During the summer months there is a guide at Cairn T at Carnbane East. In winter you can drop into the Loughcrew Gardens coffee shop to pick up information leaflets and borrow the key for Cairn T in exchange for a deposit.
While access to Newgrange on mornings around the winter solstice has to be allocated by lottery, Loughcrew’s equinox illuminations are far less famous. On mornings around the equinoxes in March and September people gather to watch the rising sun illuminate the passage and backstone of the chamber.
Loughcrew has some of the most memorable passage tomb art, and its carved images of the sun are bathed in a blaze of golden light.
Like many such tombs, the Loughcrew Cairns were built on high ground, dominating the landscape for miles around and giving visitors a panoramic view over the surrounding counties in exchange for the effort of the climb.
Armagh, Slieve Gullion
“Slieve Gullion in Armagh is a lovely place, a single passage tomb on its summit and an elevation of 575 metres,” says Dr Frank Prendergast of the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT).
In the course of his research, Prendergast has visited all of Ireland’s passage graves and Slieve Gullion is one of his favourites. It is also the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland and, although it is little known, the tomb is aligned on the setting sun at the winter solstice.
“This is a fabulous walk, not too challenging,” says Prendergast. “At the setting sun around the days of the solstice you should have a nice alignment.”
Down, Ballynoe Stone Circle
One of the great stone circles of western Europe lies on farmland just south of Downpatrick. There is no tourist bus; you just park where you can and walk down an old sunken track.
More than 50 stones, some almost two metres tall, make up this elliptical ring.
At 33 metres wide, the ring is impressive, and two large portal stones mark the entrance. Your visit is more likely to be shared with grazing cows than crowds of tourists.
Also in Co Down is the most photographed neolithic monument in Northern Ireland, the Legananny portal tomb, or dolmen. It stands by the side of a lane, but with a three-metre long, coffin-shaped cap stone on three slender stone legs it makes a striking silhouette against the superb views of the Mourne Mountains.
There are hundreds of stone circles in Co Cork, the most famous and finest example being Drombeg, near Skibbereen.
Excavations in the 1950s found cremated bones buried near the centre of this circle of 17 stone pillars. A recumbent stone to the southwest probably gave the site its local name, the Druid’s Altar.
Also at the site is a cooking pit in which water was boiled by dropping in hot stones.
Near Fermoy is one of the largest wedge tombs in the country, and you do not have to be processed through a visitor centre to wonder at the rituals that took place here some 3,500 years ago.
Excavations in the 1930s discovered bones of a man and child along with a headless female skeleton and shards of pottery. The tomb, which comprises two chambers covered by massive cap stones, is also known as the Hag’s Bed.
While University College Cork’s “Stone Corridor” houses a collection of ogham stones, Kerry is a good place to spot them in the open. If you are touring the Dingle Peninsula you can ponder the enigma of the ogham stone inscriptions at Ballinrannig, Lugnagappul and Kilmalkedar.
Close to Dingle is a cluster of seven ogham stones with easy access, ranged along the avenue that leads to Coláiste Íde. The stones here were removed from sites around Kerry.
Clare, The Burren
This area has around 70 megalithic tombs, the best known of which is the Poulnabrone portal tomb, the dolmen familiar from so many photographs. Tour buses often stop here for a photo opportunity, but they do not tend to stay for long.
Excavations on the site uncovered the remains of numerous adults, some children and a newborn baby. Poulnabrone, meaning “hole of the sorrows”, stands dramatically on one of The Burren’s karst limestone pavements, but it is only 100 metres from the road and well signposted.
The most common type of megalithic monument in The Burren is the wedge-shaped tomb. At Parknabinnia there are numerous tombs close together and they are also close to the road and easily accessible.
While Carrowmore in Co Sligo is the largest group of megalithic tombs in Ireland, nearby Carrowkeel is also well worth visiting.
“Averaging elevations of around 300 metres in a wild rocky landscape, the concentration of tombs there is truly spectacular, and isolated so you get that feeling of wilderness,” says Prendergast.
Although little-known, the Carrowkeel complex is easy to find, and is well-signposted from the N4 close to Boyle.
One of the cairns at Carrowkeel has a roofbox over its entrance, the only one in Ireland apart from Newgrange.
Unlike Newgrange, it is aligned with the setting sun at the summer solstice, and the chamber is illuminated at sunset for several weeks around midsummer.
The National Monuments Service gives online access to its database via archaeology.ie. Here, you can search for particular types of monument by county, town and townland.
Websites maintained by enthusiasts are great sources of information on some of the little-known sites. These include