Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Sunrise on October 31st, view from Listoghil, the central monument at Carrowmore. Photo © Jean Ryan.
Sunrise on October 29th, 2019, viewed from Listoghil, the central monument at Carrowmore.

Sunrise Alignment at Listoghil

The largest monument at Carrowmore, known as Listoghil, is a site with a fascinating astronomical potential. The original monument at Listoghil is the massive level platform or tertre which is about fifty meters in diameter and may date to as early as 4,100 BC, which is contemporary with the nearby causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy. This structure has a fantastic view of the local horizon, and it seems that the platform had a long period of use as a place to make astronomical observations.

It is interesting to note that the tertre is on a ridge 59 meters above sea level, and located about 200 meters east of the highest point at Carrowmore. It is also worth pointing out that the centre of Listoghil is virtually equidistant from Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea and the west cairn on Carns Hill. It is 4,100 meters from Listoghil to Queen Maeve's cairn, and 3,800 meters from Listoghil to Carns Hill west. This means that if Listoghil had been constructed 150 meters east of its current position, it would be exactly equidistant between the two large cairns.

The chamber at Listoghil.
The large neolithic chamber at Listoghil, which is dated to around 5,550 BC. This was the only monument at Carrowmore where the bodies were not cremated. Instead, they were dismantled and de-fleshed in ritual preperation for a journey to the Underworld.

It seems that this massive platform had an outer ring of stones placed around the circumference. Today only one stone remains, but geophysical surveys indicate that there were more, and early researchers such as George Petrie noted at least six stones remaining from the probable original circle. A contiguous circle of boulders with a diameter of thirty-four meters was constructed on the platform. Within this are three more circles, and at the centre is the largest chamber of the Carrowmore series.

The chamber and circle at Listoghil were probably constructed some five hundred years after the platform and outer circle, and seem to date to around 3,550 - 3,600 BC. The date was obtained from the skull of a fifty-four year old man who was buried with his family within the chamber. The human remains at Listoghil were found scattered outside the entrance to the chamber during the archaeological dig in the late 1990's. It is believed that the bones were thrown out of the chamber when it was cleared out by the local treasure hunter, Roger Walker, in the 1840's.

The view from the chamber of Listoghil.
The massive capstone is tilted to six degrees above horizontal and oriented to the south-east towards the lake high up in the Ballygawley Mountains.

For half a millennium some form of ritual activities, which seem to have involved lots of burning, took place here before the present monument was built. The circle and chamber are believed to have been free-standing for a period, possibly 200-300 years, with the above mentioned three inner rings surrounding the chamber. After this free-standing phase some form of cairn was added to the monument.

Because the cairn was used for a quarry for many years we have no idea what shape it originally took; the cairn was plundered in the 1830's and 1840's and the stones were taken to build field-walls. The modern reconstruction is largely conjectural as there is no way of knowing how high the cairn stood originally. The cairn may never have been higher than the roof of the chamber.

The OPW reconstructing the cairn at Listoghil in Carrowmore.
The Office of Public Works reconstructing the cairn at Listoghil in Carrowmore, photo taken around 2001.

The Reconstruction of the Cairn

During the excavations which took place between 1996 and 1998, a decision was taken to recreate the cairn around the chamber of Listoghil. To accomplish this, the 1830's field-walls were dismantled and removed and placed within the circle at Listoghil. It seems that no-one had a clear plan of how this was to be accomplished and the restoration project took a number of years. Eventually a passage thirteen meters in length and two meters wide was created using gabions—stone filled wire baskets—creating a modern entrance which follows the axis of the chamber. A large open space was left around the chamber, which was stabilized with a concrete base, leaving the monument free-standing.

The excavation trench at Listoghil that became the passage leading into the monument.
The excavation trench at Listoghil that became the passage leading into the monument. Queen Maeve's Cairn and Knocknarea are visible beyond the excavation.

The reconstruction remains controversial. Because no sockets of orthostats or passage stones were discovered, there is no information about the original construction around the entrance to the monument. Three large boulders which were discovered outside the entrance to the chamber may be the remains of an original entry feature or possibly an earlier monument. I would suggest that Listoghil had a V or funnel-shaped entrance like that found at Cairn L in Loughcrew and Kercado in Brittany.

Sunrise at Listoghil, 29 October 2019.
A photograph of the sunrise at Listoghil, taken on Tuesday, 29 October 2019.

The Listoghil Sunrise Event

Astronomical alignments have been discovered at a number of megalithic sites. The world famous winter solstice alignment at Newgrange was well known in the Boyne Valley area long before Michael O'Kelly became the first modern person to witness the event. Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts discovered two fascinating alignments at Loughcrew, an Exuinox alignment within Cairn T and a Samhain alignment within Cairn L, along with a winter solstice sunset alignment at Dowth.

I myself drew attention to the midsummer alignments at Cairn G and Cairn H in Carrowkeel. Cairn G has a roofbox structre over the entrance which allows the light of both sun and moon to enter the chamber. The Carrowkeel example is at least 300 years older than the example at Newgrange and demonstrates the long history of neolithic astronomy in Ireland.

The sunrise illumination at Listoghil.
The sunrise illumination at Listoghil.

Around 2006 Mark Keane, a guide at Carrowmore, was the first to notice that the orientation of the central axis at Listoghil is directed to a low point in the Ballygawley mountains, just east of Lough da Gé, the Lake of the Two Geese. Following a series of observations it was discovered that when the sun rises in this location on two days in the year, October 31st and February 10th, about a week before and after the astronomical cross-quarter days of Samhain and Imbolc the light is captured within the chamber.

Sunrise at Samhain illuminates the chamber of Listoghil.
Sunrise on Tuesday, 29th October 2019 viewed from within the chamber of Listoghil.

It is important to note that the modern alignment being promoted at Carrowmore is based on the reconstructed cairn, and is highly unlikely to be the event which interested the neolithic monument builders. An ex-guide at Carrowmore, and currently the chair of the Sligo UNESCO gang, wrote an almost unreadable book on the alignment, which has created much confusion, promoting an alignment based on the reconstructed passage. The book is a master class in cherry-picking, inflating a connection between Listoghil and Tara, while ignoring the several examples of similar alignments at Loughcrew.

At this stage, it is important to remember that the chamber at Listoghil was a free-standing construction, with no surrounding cairn, for at least 300 years, and had an uninterrupted 360° view of the horizon. My own series of observations, while working in Carrowmore, noted that the sun appears to rise from the lake called Lough Da Ge, high up in the Ballygawley mountains. This event happens on the astronomical cross-quarter day, but is impossible to see from the chamber today because of the modern passage and cairn.

The Modern Alignment

The modern passage which is about ten meters long leads into an open area formed of gabions. This restoration was an attempt to display the chamber as both free-standing and surrounded by a cairn. The underneath of the huge capstone is tilted at 6° above horizontal. This angle is achieved by sandstone packing stones which were used to prop up the capstone. The light of the rising sun on the mornings at the end of October is captured under the capstone, which turns an intense golden colour. The triangular blocking stone in the doorway of the chamber casts a thin spear of shadow more than a meter long, which bisects this panel of sunlight. As the sun rises in the sky, the shadow shortens into a triangle until finally it merges into the back-stone. The effect lasts until the sun rises above the angle of the tilted roof-slab, and is soon cut off by the modern cairn.

Sunbeam and shadow-spear within the chamber of Listoghil, Monday 28th October, 2019.
Sunbeam and shadow-spear within the chamber of Listoghil, Tuesday 29th October, 2019.

Due to the modern passage, the event occurs on a few mornings on each side of Halloween, depending, of course on a clear sunrise. However, there is more to the Listoghil chamber and it's modern alignment. Again, it is important to remember that the chamber had a free-standing phase when it was constructed, when it enjoyed a total view of the horizon. After October 31st, succeeding sunrises move south along the horizon.

The modern cairn and entrance at Listoghil.
The modern cairn and entrance at Listoghil.

On the actual cross-quarter day at Samhain, the sun can be seen rising from the magical lake at Lough da Gé, the watery womb of the goddess. Over the following weeks the sun crosses the peaks of Anaghmore, Sileve Da Eán, Sliabh Dargan, each with an unopened neolithic cairn on its summit. By December 21st, the winter solstice, the sun has reached the neolithic passage grave known as the Cailleach's House. The sun remains rising at this position for some ten days before reversing its journey and travelling north along the horizon, once again crossing the cairns on the Ballygawley mountains. By February 10th the sun has arrived again at the Saddle and sunlight floods into the chamber and the process is repeated.

The sunrise at Listoghil, Monday 28th October 2019.
The sunrise at Listoghil, Monday 28th October 2019.