Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Circle 57 at Carrowmore photographed by Robert Welch in 1896.
Circle 57 at Carrowmore photographed by Robert Welch in 1896.

The Carrowmore Circles.

County Sligo is home to the largest and oldest collection of stone circles and dolmens known from neolithic Ireland. These are found at Carrowmore, a collection of burial monuments at the centre of the Cuil Iorra peninsula three kilometers west of Sligo town.

Carrowmore is currently closed. Entry to the Carrowmore complex was free for the 2020 season, due to Covid 19 restrictions. Please note, there is no access to toilets or the visitor centre, and dogs are not allowed on site.

The Carrowmore complex is located at the heart of the Cuil Iorra peninsula, a parcel of land bounded by water on three sides. Ballisodare Bay lies to the south, the Atlantic ocean to the west and Sligo Bay to the north. Lough Gill is to the east beyond Carns Hill, connected to the sea by the short shelly Sligo river, the Garavogue.

The stunning cairn topped mountain of Knocknarea is 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.

Beranger's 1779 map of Carrowmore.
Gabrial Beranger's 1779 map of Carrowmore.

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 65 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.

Superb aerial footage of the monuments at Carrowmore and Knocknarea.

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.

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

O. P. W.

Carrowmore is managed by the Office of Public Works, and there is a small visitor centre which is currently closed; however, the grounds are open, with no entry fee.

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

The Monuments

The type of monuments found at Carrowmore are boulder circles with central dolmens and sometimes rudimentary passages. 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. Originally each of the sites had a raised platform or tertre, which was up to a meter above the surrounding ground level, sometimes with 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.

The Carrowmore circles are 10 to 12 meters in diameter on average, though a few monuments such as 19, 22, 27 and 51 are much larger.

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.

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

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.

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.

Kissing Stone
The destroyed remains of monument number 5 at Carrowmore.
The Kissing Stone
Circle 26
Destroyed monuments
The Kissing Stone by William Wakeman
Carrowmore circles by William Wakeman
The Glen
Carrowmore 13 by Robert Welch
Bone pins
Circle 27
Circle 49
Carrowmore 51.
The large restored kerbed cairn, Carrowmore 51, with Queen Maeve's cairn on the summit of Knocknarea beyond.