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

Carrowmore

The megaliths of Carrowmore, which are located southwest of Sligo town, at the heart of the Coolrea peninsula and are one of the greatest megalithic complexes of ancient Ireland. In this beautiful coastal region you can visit the one of the great heartlands of marine megalithic culture in Western Europe.

The Carrowmore complex is situated on a low plateau at the heart of the peninsula, which is at the center of a well-preserved megalithic landscape with fabulous views. The peninsula is bounded by water on three sides - Ballisodare Bay to the south, the Atlantic ocean to the west and Sligo Bay to the north. The stunning cairn topped mountain of Knocknarea is 6 km to the west, while the smaller, but equally important Cairns Hill is the same distance to the east. There are six more mountain-top cairns on the peaks of the Ox Mountains to the south.

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 are recorded, but only twenty-seven monuments, in varying states of preservation, remain today. The sites were extensively damaged over the years by land clearance and 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. 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. As many of the monuments have been destroyed, the only records of some circles are the comments and drawings by Petrie and Wood-Martin in the 1830's and the watercolors by William Wakeman in 1879.

The stone chamber at the center of the great complex of stone circles at Carrowmore.
The stone chamber at the center of the great complex of stone circles at Carrowmore.
Listoghil, Carrowmore, County Sligo.
Listoghil, Carrowmore, County Sligo.

The Stone Circles

The type of monuments found at Carrowmore are called boulder circles; several have central dolmens or rudimentary passages. They are classed as an early type of passage grave, though in fact, they may be the ancestor of several monument types.

The stones used to construct the monuments are a local stone called gneiss which comes from the nearby Ox Mountains. There are an average of 30 - 35 stones in each circle, set side by side. Some of the stones are placed on a stone foundation, which 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.

Stone circle no. 18 at Carrowmore.
Stone circle no. 18 at Carrowmore.

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 have passages at Carrowmore.

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

Some of the larger boulders were split in half, a feature that can be seen in the chamber of site 27. The rock is rich with veins of quartz, and was brought to the site not by hand, but by retreating glaciers during the ice age. Several fields of gneiss boulders lying as they were dropped by the galciers remain on the south side of Knocknarea, which give an impression of what Carrowmore would have looked like before the circles were constructed.

Circle 52, Carrowmore and Knocknarea.
Circle 52, Carrowmore and Knocknarea.

The Coolrea peninsula where Carrowmore is located is limestone covered with a mantle of glacial gravel. The complex is located on a plateau at the centre of the peninsula, with the circles built around the edge. Some limestone slabs were used in the monuments, but not many compared to the gneiss boulders. A good example if the massive capstone on the chamber at site 51, which is thought to have been quarried at the Glen on the south slope of Knocknarea. Some loose limestone slabs may have been used as roofing for the passages (again there is a good example 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 appear to have been freestanding, as some are today. Several of the sites, however have a raised platform which can be up to a meter above ground level.

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