Equinox Sun setting over Knocknarea Mountain in County Sligo.
Circle 7, Carrowmore, County Sligo.
Circle 7, Carrowmore, County Sligo.

Carrowmore

The megalithic circles of Carrowmore are located in the heart of the Coolrea peninsula 2.5km southwest of Sligo town. These monuments are placed in one of the greatest megalithic landscapes of ancient Europe. In this beautiful coastal region you can visit the one of the great heartlands of neolithic megalithic remains in Western Europe.

The Carrowmore megaliths are situated on a low plateau at the heart of the peninsula, the central point of a well-preserved megalithic landscape with fantastic views of the wider complex. The area is bounded by water on three sides: Ballisodare Bay to the south, the Atlantic ocean to the west and Sligo Bay to the north. To the east, beyond Cairns Hill is Lough Gill.

The stunning cairn topped mountain of Knocknarea is 4 km to the west, while the smaller but equally important Cairns Hill is the same distance to the east. There are more mountain-top cairns on the peaks of the Ox Mountains to the south including the Cailleach's House, a neolithic monument with an open chamber.

It was thought by earlier researchers that there may have been up to 100 circles at Carrowmore, and the remains of at least 65 structures were recorded in 1837. However, several of them were not from the megalithic era, and today twenty-seven monuments, in varying states of preservation, remain of a probable forty or so. The sites were extensively damaged during the years before the Great Famine, due to land clearance and gravel quarrying.

Circle 26 during excavations; photo copyright Goran Burenhult.
Circle 26 during excavations; photo © Goran Burenhult.

Visiting Carrowmore

The Carrowmore complex is managed by the Office of Public Works, and there is a small visitor centre and information display which is open from Easter to the end of October, with a cover charge.

Guided tours are provided for groups on request, but pre- booking is advised. Carrowmore is well signposted from Sligo Town and is easy to find. Details of opening hours and fees can be found here.

This website provides a virtual tour of the sites at Carrowmore, with a page for each circle containing any information as I have found about them. Because so many of the monuments have been destroyed, the sole records of some circles are the comments and drawings by Petrie and Wood-Martin in the 1830's and the watercolors painted by William Wakeman in 1879.

Listoghil, Carrowmore, County Sligo.
Listoghil, Carrowmore, County Sligo.

The Stone Circles

The principal type of monument found at Carrowmore is a circular platform of clay and stone with a dolmen, usually with five stones forming the chamber. The monument is encircled by a boulder circle, with a passageway connecting the chamber to the circle. They may be the ancestor of several monument types.

The stones used to construct the monuments are gneiss and come from the nearby Ox Mountains. There are an average of 30 - 35 stones in each circle, originally set side by side, standing upright. Some of the stones are placed on a stone foundation, which seems to have kept the tops of the stones level. The average circle diameter is 10 - 12 meters, though a few, such as 19, 22, 27 and 51 are larger.

Circle 7 is the most intact example remaining today. It consists of a ring of boulders 11 meters in diameter, with a beautifully balanced capstone on the graceful dolmen at the centre. The sockets of missing stones were found during the excavations, which show that there was once a short passage leading into the chamber. About 14 of the circles at Carrowmore today have a passage.

Irish Traditional Muisc at Carrowmore during Heritage Week 2016.
Irish Traditional Muisc at Carrowmore during Heritage Week 2016.

Many of the larger boulders were split in half to provide better building materials; a good example can be seen at the chamber of Site 27.

The gneiss boulders, studded with chunks of quartz, were transported to the plateau by retreating glaciers during the ice age. Several fields of gneiss boulders lying as they were dropped by the glaciers remain to the south-west of Carrowmore, and give an impression of what the landscpae would have looked like before the circles were constructed.

Circle 52, Carrowmore and Knocknarea.
Circle 57 at Carrowmore with the amazing mountain called Knocknarea beyond.

The Coolrea peninsula has a limestone bed covered with a mantle of glacial gravel. The complex is located on a plateau at the centre of the peninsula, with gneiss circles built around the edge.

Few limestone slabs were used in the monuments. A good example is the massive capstone on the chamber at Site 51, which may have been quarried in the Glen 4km away at the south foot of Knocknarea. Some loose limestone slabs may have been used as roofing for the passages (a good example remains at Site 27).

Fragments of quartz were found in some of the circles, and these would have come from the Ox Mountains to the south, specifically from the area around Croughan. One small piece of rock crystal had a hole drilled through the end and was used as a pendant or pendelum.

There is no evidence of cairns or mounds covering the chambers of the Carrowmore monuments, which were free-standing, as they remain today. The only cairn discovered at Carrowmore is that of Listoghil.

The Coolrea Peninsula from Bing Maps.
The Coolrea Peninsula from Bing Maps.
The Sacred Island, Cliffoney, County Sligo, Ireland.