An old photo of Ireland's largest dolmen at Brownshill in County Carlow.
An old photo of Ireland's largest dolmen at Brownshill in County Carlow.

Irish portal dolmens

'In Ireland this world and the world we go to after death are not far apart.'


There are about 190 dolmens in Ireland, and they are our most clearly recognisable type of megalithic monument. Dolmens are known by many different names: Cromleachs, Giants Graves, Leabas, Diarmuid and Grainne's Beds, and stone tables, and we have many fine examples here in Ireland. Dolmens generally have an entrance feature, the 'portal', though this is often closed by a blocking stone. A most chararteristic feature is a massive roof stone or slab, usually weighing many tons and inclined at an angle with the highest part over the entrance.

Clough portal dolmen, the Trillick of Ballintrillick in County Sligo was destroyed around 1950.

Portal dolmens are often known as Diarmuid agus Grainne's bedsin Irish mythological stories and folklore. The original Diarmuid agus Grainne's bed is shown in the illustration above from 1837, showing the cave in Gleniff, Benwisken and the old Trillick or dolmen that gives the village of Ballintrillick its name. Many dolmens are also associated with graves of famous giants or warriors, such as Nuada of the Silver Arm in Sligo's Labby rock. Other sites were used by the Fianna and Fionn Mac Cumhail as cooking places or Griddle Stones, especially in west Sligo.

Poulnabrone, County Clare.

Poulnabrone portal dolmen in County Clare is one of the most familiar and iconic neolithic monuments in Ireland. The chamber may have originally been covered with a cairn of stone, with probably just the massive roofslab visible at the top.

Most dolmens were covered with mounds of stone, but little remains of these cairns at most sites. The impressive structures we see today are like the skeletons of the monuments. There are many fine dolmens found all over Ireland. The most famous is probably Poulnabrone (above) at the heart of the Burren in County Clare. The largest is the Brownshill dolmen in County Carlow with a massive 100 ton capstone. There are 11 dolmens in County Sligo, including the Labby Rock on Moytura, with a 70 ton capstone, the very beautiful Giants Griddle in west Sligo, and the massive Cloghcor in north Sligo.

The Kissing Stone, Carrowmore, County Sligo.
Site Number 7, the largest dolmen at Carrowmore.

Though they are classed as Passage Graves, the early monuments at Carrowmore in County Sligo could be classed as a mixture of several monument types. Many of the stone circles have a dolmen at the centre, Number 7 being the best surviving example. Many of the dolmens at Carrowmore are too small for a person to enter, the exceptions being Dolmen 7, illustrated above, nearby dolmen 13 and the cruciform chamber of Circle 27.

Dolmen 13 at Carrowmore, County Sligo.
Site Number 13 at Carrowmore, County Sligo in 1911.

Dolmens 7 and 13 are the targest remaining chambers at Carrowmore, and it has been suggested that these two monuments, which are about 100 meters apart, form a portal or entryway into Carrowmore from the north and northeast, where other neolithic monuments are found at Barnasrahy and Lisnalurg.

The Labby Rock in County Sligo.
The Labby Rock.

The Labby Rock, a massive portal dolmen on the ridge of Moytura in County Sligo, is said to be the grave of Nuada of the Silver Arm.

Some dolmens may be boundry markers, placed on important ancient territorial land zones. For example, the Labby Rock, above and collapsed dolmen at Highwood nearby, illustrated below, may have been marking off the space overlooked by the cairn at Shee Lugh on the summit of Moytura. The Labby Rock has some powerful mythology associated with it. It was here that Balor of the Evil Eye killed Nuada of the Tuatha De Danann. The massive rock was raised over his grave.

Clogh na Tri Posta, County Sligo.
Clogh na Tri Posta, a destroyed dolmen on Moytura by Lough Arrow in County Sligo. The illustration is by Petrie who saw the monument shortly before it collapsed.

Another large dolmen on Moytura collapsed sometime between the visits of Petrie who illustrated it, above, and Wakeman who found nothing worth illustrating. The site of this collapsed monument has recently been identified. Again, it may be a boundry marker, and a compliment to the Labby on the other side of the ridge.

The Stirring Rock, County Sligo.
The Stirring Rock, a disturbed rocking stone, and a dolmen type megalithic structure. Skien Hill, Carrowkeel, Co Sligo.

The Stirring Rock is a very interesting site 1 km south of Cairn F at Carrowkeel. The monuments inclide a rocking stone, a megalithic structure: surely some kind of dolmen, several caves and a large erratic boulder known locally as the Dagda's Stone. Local people used to dance around the Stirring Rock on the second last Sunday of July - Bliberry Sunday. The ancient dolmen structure is very interesting.

The Tinnacarra or Drumanone dolmen near Boyle in County Roscommon.
The Tinnacarra or Drumanone dolmen near Boyle in Co Roscommon has a monsterous capstone of a similar size and shape to those at Kilclooney and Malin More in County Donegal. The dolmen is composed of great hoary hunks of sandstone with portals about 3 meters high. The capstone has slid down somewhat off the portals. This is an easy monument to locate and access, it is about 3 km west of Boyle and beside the railway track.

The Cloghcor dolmen, County Sligo.
Cloghcor in Co Sligo is located on the summit of a drumlin and commands wide views across the surrounding landscape. The huge sandstone capstone has slid back off the impressive 3.5 meter portal stones.

The Feenagh Dolmen, County Leitrim.
The Fenagh dolmen in County Leitrim has a large limestone slab for a capstone and the remains of a long cairn of stone. The dolmen is one of a number of different types of megalithic structure found close together. The others are two or three round chambered cairns, a court cairn, and several standing stones nearby. The long cairn or tail can still be seen at Feenagh.

Aghacliff, County Longford.
The Aghacliff dolmen in County Longford with its very strange capstone.

The Malin More dolmen, County Donegal.
Malin More County Donegal, the west dolmen of a line of six, once connected by a cairn. The capstone has fallen off this huge structure.

Surely one of the strangest remaining megalithic structures is the set of six dolmens at Malin More in County Donegal. This site has six megalithic chambers in an east/west line; the sites were once joined by a long cairn. The two structures at the ends were truely massive. The capstone of the west dolmen, pictured above, has fallen off and stands upright, left, above. The capstone of the east dolmen is just as large.

The Giant's Griddle stone, County Sligo.
Wakeman's tasteful illustration of the Giant's Griddle in Tawnatruffan in west County Sligo around 1880.

The Giant's Griddle in Tawnatruffan, view looking west to Nephin Mountain in County Mayo.
Another Giant's Griddle with a massive capstone near Tawnatruffan in west County Sligo.

The Giant's Griddle, a fine dolmen in the Easkey river valley to the west of County Sligo.


Several of the photos below are from a recent trip to Kilkenny and the surrounding area. I am delighted to have seen both the largest and the tallest dolmens in Ireland as well as several surprises including a few collapsed monuments, and all were located close to streams and rivers, possibly marking ancient fording places.

More recent theorys suggest that these monuments may be some kind of organic fertiliser banks for sprouting seeds which would have been cultivated in the areas around the monuments.

Partly collapsed dolmen with a fine rippled pattern on the top of the huge granite capstone. By the banks of the river Slaney in east Co Carlow.

The beautiful Haroldstown dolmen in Co Carlow, located, close to an ancient ford no doubt, on the banks of the river Slaney.

The Haroldstown dolmen in Co Carlow.

Large dolmen at Owning near Piltown in Co Kilkenny, has fine views west to Sliabhnaman. This dolmen is close to the rising of the river.

Leac an Scail, Ireland's tallest dolmen at 5 meters or 15 feet from the ground to the tip of the capstone. At the headwaters of the stream in Co Kilkenny, the view below is from the other side.

The Harristown dolmen in Co Carlow.

A collapsed dolmen with a massive capstone in south Kilkenny.

The Brownshill dolmen in County Carlow, said to weigh somewhere between 100 and 150 tons.

Aideen's Grave, a massive collapsed dolmen on the Hill of Howth, mythical Benn Eder in County Dublin. From here a line crosses the country passing through Tara and Loughcrew and several other sites until it meets the west coast at Queen Maeve's cairn in Co Sligo. Watercolour from Fergusson's Rude Stone Monuments.

Aideen's Grave, Howth Head, County Dublin in an old postcard.

The Brownshill dolmen in County Carlow is said to be the largest in Ireland.

The Proleek dolmen, also known as the Giant's Load.
Pentrie Ifan in Wales.
The Legannany dolmen in Co Antrim, photo from about 1890.
Pentrie Ifan in Wales.
Pentrie Ifan in Wales.
The dolmen of the Four Maols, Ballina, Co. Mayo.
Kilclooney dolmen in County Donegal, with its fantastically enormous capstone. The second smaller dolmen on the left is another chamber; in the neolithic they would have been joined by a cairn.