Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Circle 13 at Carrowmore photographed at sunset, April 2022.
Circle 13 at Carrowmore photographed close to sunset, late April 2022. The sun is dropping over the north edge of Knocknarea mountain where the great neolithic cairn of Eoghan Bel or Queen Maeve is clearly visible on the summit. Modern powerlines have been digitally removed from this image to restore some sense of dignity to the neolithic landscape.

The Carrowmore Megalithic Complex

Carrowmore is more easily accessible than Carnac; the inns of Sligo are better than those of Auray; the remains are within three miles of the town; and the scenery near Sligo is far more beautiful than that of the Morbihan; yet hundreds of our countrymen rush annually to the French megaliths, and bring home sketch-books full of views and measurements; but no one thinks of the Irish monuments.

The Rude Stone Monuments in all Countries - their Age and Uses by James Fergusson, 1872.

County Sligo is home to the largest and oldest collection of neolithic stone circles and dolmens found in Ireland. The monuments, an early form of passage grave, are located at Carrowmore, a townland within an extensive landscape of prehistoric burial and ceremonial monuments at the heart of the Cuil Iorra peninsula, four kilometers southwest of Sligo town.

Beranger's 1779 map of Carrowmore.
The oldest surviving map of Carrowmore was drawn during Gabrial Beranger's 1779 visit to illustrate and record the monuments of the area. The cairn at Listoghil is largely intact and is marked 'cave' indicating that the chamber was open at the time.

The Carrowmore complex is arranged around the edges of a subtle plateau at the centre of the peninsula, a parcel of undulating land with fixed boundaries, surrounded by water on all sides. Ballisodare Bay, location of the First Battle of Moytura lies to the south, the wide Atlantic ocean lies to the west; and the enclosed body of water called Sligo Bay is to the north. Lough Gill, the Lake of Brightness lies to the east beyond Carns Hill, connected to the sea by the short shelly Sligo river, the Garavogue.

Excavations at Listoghil in the late 1990's.
Excavations at Listoghil in the late 1990's.

This almost every peak and summit in this area is capped with a neolithic monument, a later form of the passage graves found at Carrowmore. According to folklore, the monuments were believed to have been built by a cailleach named Garavogue who lives in her house in the Ballygawley mountains. The stunning cairn-topped mountain of Knocknarea rises abruptly four kilometers to the west of Carrowmore, while the smaller, but equally important Carns Hill is four kilometers to the east. There are more neolithic monuments on the summits of the Ox Mountains to the south.

Thirty monuments remain at Carrowmore today, in varying states of preservation and completion, the most perfect being the Kissing Stone. The antiquarian George Petrie noted sixty-five monuments during his visit for the Ordinance Survey in 1837, but today the number is thought to be considerably lower at a probable maximum of forty circles. The sites were badly damaged in the early years of the nineteenth century by land clearance and gravel quarrying.

Circles 56 and 57 illustrated by William Wakeman, 1879.
Circles 56 and 57 and a number of Carrowmore circles were illustrated by William Wakeman in 1879. Image © Sligo County Library.

This website provides a virtual tour of the monuments at Carrowmore, with a page for each monument and its history of research. New information from ancient DNA suggests that the monuments were built and used by people who came by sea from Brittany in north-western France slightly over 6,000 years ago.

These voyagers brought the first cattle and sheep to Ireland, and existed by herding their flocks through the forested landscape. They also re-introduced the red deer to Ireland, the native species of Irish elk having become extinct after the last ice age. The oldest remains of red deer currently known on this island are the carved antler pins, one of the most common items found within the Carrowmore chambers.

Excavations at the Kissing Stone in the 1970's.
Excavations at the Kissing Stone in the 1970's. Photo © Göran Burenhult.

Because so many of the monuments have been destroyed and disturned, the remaining records of some circles are the comments by George Petrie from 1837, an essay by Charles Elcock written in 1883, the excavations by Wood-Martin and the illustrations of William Wakeman from the 1880's are extremely valuable. A series of amazing photographs of the Carrowmore monuments were taken by Robert Welch in 1896 and William A. Green in 1910.

Superb aerial footage of the monuments at Carrowmore and Knocknarea.

O. P. W.

Carrowmore is managed by the Office of Public Works, a government body responsible for the care of national monuments. A small visitor centre, which is subject to an entry fee, carpark and public toilets give access to about fourteen of the remaining monuments. Guided tours are provided and the site is open seasonally. The site opened on March 15th and will remain open until November 3rd for the 2024 season, and it is possible to book a tour by contacting the Visitor Centre at this link.

The Ballygawley mountains.
The Ballygawley mountains viewed from Listoghil at Carrowmore.

The Monuments

The type of monuments found at Carrowmore are an early form of passage-grave: boulder circles which contain a platform or tertre which supports a central dolmen or burial chamber. These chambers, which were designed to house communal cremations, are connected to the stone circle by a symbolic passage. They are among the earliest megalithic of chambers built in Ireland; information from carbon dated red deer antlers show that the chambers were used between 5,800 and 5,000 years ago. The original raised platform or tertre was an open air monument with a free-standing chamber. Many Carrowmore monuments have one or more inner circles of smaller stones.

Site 13 at Carrowmore
An old photo of the dolmen at Site 13, Carrowmore.

The stones used to construct the monuments are a very hard form of glacial rock called gneiss, which comes from the nearby Ox Mountains. There are an average of 30 to 35 stones in each circle, set side by side and placed standing upright like teeth. These stones form the physical barrier between the Land of the Living and the World of the Dead.

The Carrowmore circles measure ten to twelve meters in diameter on average, though a number monuments such as Circles 19, 22, 27 and 51 are much larger. The platform or tertre beneath Listoghil is a large oval construction fifty meters in diameter, while the stone circle it supports, the largest of the Carrowmore series, is thirty-five meters in diameter.

An Eircom callcard featuring the Kissing Stone at Carrowmore.
An Eircom callcard featuring the Kissing Stone at Carrowmore.

The Kissing Stone, or Leaba na Fian is the most intact example remaining today. It consists of a circle of boulders about eleven meters in diameter, and has a beautifully graceful dolmen, or stone table at the centre. The Kissing Stone is built on a slope and has an amazing view west to Knocknarea Mountain.

The sockets of missing stones were found during the excavations, which show that there was once a short passage leading into the chamber. About fourteen of the monuments have remains of passages at Carrowmore.

Photomontage copyright Göran Burenhult.
Circle 27 during excavations by the Swedish team. Photomontage © Göran Burenhult.

It seems that in some cases the larger boulders may have been split in half, a feature that can be clearly seen in the crucifoem chamber of Site 27. The gneiss boulders are rich with veins of quartz, and was carried to the site by retreating glaciers during the ice age.

Several fields of gneiss boulders lying as they were dropped by the galciers can be seen to the south of Carrowmore and on the south slopes of Knocknarea, which give an impression of what Carrowmore could have looked like before the circles were built.

The Coolrea peninsula 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 few compared to the more plentiful gneiss boulders.

An early photo of the Phantom Stones at Carrowmore  taken by Robert Welch in 1896..
An early photo of the Phantom Stones at Carrowmore, taken by Robert Welch in 1896.

A good example is the massive capstone on the chamber at Site 51, which may have been quarried at the Glen in the south slope of Knocknarea.

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 Croghan. One small piece of rock crystal, discovered in Monument Number 3, has a hole drilled through the end and was probably used as a pendant or pendulum.

There is no evidence that stone cairns ever covered the dolmens at Carrowmore; instead they appear to have been an early free-standing form of passage-grave, with the chamber supported by a platform or tertre. The exception is the central focal monument, Listoghil, which was free-standing when built, than buried in a great cairn of stones, possibly around 3,400 BC.

Carrowmore 51.
The large restored kerbed cairn, Carrowmore 51, with Queen Maeve's cairn on the summit of Knocknarea beyond.