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.
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.
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. The monuments were said to have been built by the cailleach Garavogue who lives in her house in the Ballygawley mountains. The stunning cairn topped mountain of Knocknarea rises suddenly 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.
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.
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, 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 W. 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 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.
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.
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 14 of the monuments have remains of passages at Carrowmore.
It seems that in some cases
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 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.
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.