Sligo passage graves a step closer to designation as Unesco heritage site

Neolithic sites approved for inclusion on Ireland’s tenative list of world heritage sites

The passage tomb landscape of Co Sligo, which includes such landmarks as Queen Maeve's cairn and the megalithic cemeteries at Carrowkeel and Carrowmore, has been approved for inclusion on Ireland's tentative list of world heritage sites.

Experts who have campaigned for the protection of the 100 or so Neolithic sites in Sligo are hoping that this will ultimately lead to designation as a Unesco world heritage site, alongside Stonehenge, Machu Picchu in Peru and the Great Wall of China.

An expert advisory group appointed by Minister for Heritage Malcolm Noonan has recommended that the passage tombs of Co Sligo be placed on the new Tentative List of Irish World Heritage Properties.

The other sites in the running to be on the tentative list are the Cultural Landscape of the Burren, Co Clare; Iniscealtra, Co Clare; the Trans-Atlantic Cable Ensemble from Valentia, Co Kerry to Heart’s Content; Glendalough Valley, Co Wicklow; and the Royal Sites in counties Kildare, Westmeath, Tipperary, Roscommon and Meath.


There are more than 1,100 Unesco world heritage sites including just two in the Republic of Ireland – Skellig Michael and Brú na Boinne.

Dr Robert Hensey, chairman of the Sligo Neolithic Landscape Group (SNLG), said the county had one of the earliest and best-preserved Neolithic ritual landscapes in western Europe, which was like "a high resolution image" into the world of Neolithic people.

“We hope that placement on Ireland’s world heritage tentative list, and ultimately Unesco world heritage site status, will increase the recognition of these fragile sites and landscapes, ensuring their protection for the generations in the millennia ahead,” said the archaeologist.

Deteriorating condition

SNLG and Sligo County Council have expressed concern about the deteriorating condition of some sites. "Many of these world class monuments are under threat and require long-term management and conservation for the benefit of all and future generations," the council said in a statement.

Last year, the group warned that passage tombs dating back thousands of years were being vandalised “on a scale never seen before” with people climbing onto cairns causing “walking scars” and, in one case, digging a hole as if trying to excavate a cairn. Graffiti was also endangering megalithic art, which Dr Hensey said provided a rare insight into the world view and beliefs of people who lived in this country more than 5,000 years ago.

Dr Hensey said one of the most significant aspects of the Sligo passage tomb landscape was that so many of the sites had not been excavated “so there is a level of preservation which does not exist in other places”.

Ongoing research continues to provide archeologists with information about the Neolithic people who built the network of monuments in the county, many of them associated with Irish mythology such as the story of Diarmuid and Gráinne.

"We are learning so many exciting things, with DNA telling us where these people were from and what they looked like," said Dr Hensey. He said one of the standout discoveries was that people who built the monuments were connected to Anatolia, now part of Turkey, and many had brown eyes and brown or black hair.

Paul Taylor, cathaoirleach of Sligo County Council, said it looked forward to "working in partnership with landowners, local communities, key stakeholders, partners and the department in progressing Sligo's bid for world heritage status".

NUI Galway-based archaeologist Dr Stefan Bergh said the passage tombs of Co Sligo and their careful landscape settings were "an extraordinary example of Neolithic architecture and ritual, with few if any international counterparts".

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh

Marese McDonagh, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports from the northwest of Ireland