Alone With The Ancient Past In Sligo

In northwest Ireland, a treasure trove of ancient monuments where you may find yourself the only living visitor

By Richard Cahill

Thousands of years ago, the northwest coast was the point of arrival for Ireland’s very first inhabitants. In an area around Sligo city, the remains of their societies are so plentiful you can feel almost overwhelmed by the ancient past. If you want to get away from the crowds that overrun the Ireland’s southwest, you can explore these tombs, stone circles and fortress remains in a landscape as lonely and untouched as any in the country. Lonely, but still quite inviting. With a coastline warmed by the Gulf Stream, Sligo’s more temperate than one might expect this far north – a definite plus when you’re visiting ancient ruins on foot.

One of the reasons there’s such a great wealth of archaeological evidence here is that the Irish are so superstitious, and even today consider it bad luck to interfere with burial grounds. Ring forts in the area have remained untouched partly due to a belief that faeries hide within them. Even in these unspiritual times, there’s a healthy respect for such spirits.

Warrior Queen’s Cairn

Just a few miles west of Sligo City, you can start your tour in a place where history and mythology meet on a mountain called Knocknarea. The considerable effort it takes to make the 45- minute climb up Knocknarea is rewarded with a spectacular panoramic vista of the Atlantic Ocean. In clear weather, you can see as far as Fermanagh, Cavan, Mayo and south over Roscommon from this perch. At the top of Knocknarea lies Maeve’s Cairn , a clearly manmade hill about 35 feet high and 160 feet across that’s believed to cover a tomb built by neolithic people around 3000 BC. Maeve was a mythical queen of Connacht (the western counties of Ireland), and is reputed to be buried here standing up in a warrior’s stance. But since the cairn has never been excavated, we must take the story with a pinch of salt. Local legend says it’s good luck to bring a stone up to place on the cairn, bad luck to take one off of it.

Not far from it is an area of oval and circular enclosures, where hundreds of arrowheads and tools were found when it was excavated in the 1980’s. Also here are the ‘middens,” a poetic name for gigantic ancient food waste dumps that draw tremendous interest from archaeologists. They certainly convey a sense of the size of the community that once lived here. From atop Knocknarea, you’ll see a 120 yard-long midden down on the beach that survived for thousands of years under the sand before being exposed by wave erosion. Higher up the mountainside, another, smaller midden suggests that there may have been an area for special feasts on the spot. Knocknarea is open from 9:30 am – 6:30 pm from May – September (last admission 45 minutes before closing).

Carrowmore, lying about a mile to the east of Knocknarea, is a megalithic stone cemetery, the largest in Ireland, which covers an area about a one and a half square miles. The approximately 65 monuments here are oval-shaped clusters, with a cairn (pile of stones) in the center. They’re known as “Portal Tombs” or “Dolmens,” and are generally made of two upright stones that create a small chamber roofed by a flat flagstone.

The tombs are spread out over a large area that cuts across numerous local farms, creating a unique collision of the present and the distant past. It’s location on a flat plain is a bit unusual, given that most pre-historic tombs were set on hilltops. Included here is a tomb that archaeologists have dated at 4600 BC, which, if correct, would make it the oldest portal tomb in Ireland.

A small cottage at Carrowmore serves as a visitors’ center, offering exhibits and tours. Carrowmore is open from May – September, from 10 am to last admission at 5:15 pm. Admission is 2 euro for adults (credit cards, by the way, are not accepted).

The Ancient Capital

From Carrowmore, you can see the mountaintop Carrowkeel complex rising in the distance to the east. This neolithic necropolis is believed by some to be the stone age location of the capital of the Sligo region. It will take about an hour to drive there – ask for directions before you leave Carrowmore. Visitors to Carrowkeel’s mountaintop will often find themselves completely alone with the past. About 15 cairns sit on limestone shelves. Archaeologists have found neolithic artifacts here from 2500 BC, and date some of the tombs from the Bronze age around 1500 BC. On the limestone face below Carrowkeel’s summit are the impressions of some 80 huts built as long as five thousand years ago.

Looking from this summit across Lough Arrow, you can see the “Labey Rock,” a portal Dolmen named for the Irish for bed, “leaba.” Tradition says that women who are childless can improve their fertility by lying on this rock. All around, hills known as drumlins (formed by retreating glaciers) dominate the scenery of south Sligo. A good way to complete the tour of the area is to stop at the castle ruin of nearby Ballymote. It was here that the Book of Ballymote was written in 1391, which enables scholars to interpret Ireland’s ancient Ogham script.

It’s possible for a hearty traveler to walk from Sligo to Carrowmore and on to Knocknarea and back into town in one day.

Maeve: A Frisky Queen

Queen Maeve may be more legendary than historical, but she’s a pretty racy legend. The many different versions of her life story, including a famous poem called “The Old Age of Queen Maeve” by W.B. Yeats, portray her as a woman who combined the skills of a warrior with a distinct, one might even say insatiable, taste for carnal pleasure. At a time when Celtic women were not expected to be monogamous, even with the confines of a marriage, she allegedly had affairs with officers in her army, partly in order to secure their loyalty to her. Warriors who put in the best performance on the battle fields were also, allegedly, offered “personal” favors by the queen.

She also was imbued, in many stories, with magic powers, including the ability to outrun horses, and to make an army invincible by virtue of her mere presence on the battlefield (soldiers for the opposition were said to fall to the ground in fits of desire at just the sight of her

Whether she was a real person who’s story got mixed up with that of an Irish mythological figure, or a pure invention isn’t clear. One way or the other, though, she clearly has fans in the modern world (many of whom sing her praises on various websites) who see her as an icon of female empowerment.