Knocknarea is the most prominent and beautiful mountain in County Sligo, it's only possible rival being the majestic plateau of Benbulben.
The Hill of Knocknarea is a limestone hum rising to 320 meters above sea level at the west end of the Coolrea Peninsula. The mountain is surrounded by water on three sides, and looks out across the Atlantic Ocean in the west. Knocknarea has a very powerful presence, somewhat like Uluru on the other side of the planet. The mountain dominates the landscape of Sligo and is visible from most of the neolithic sites in the territory.
It is highly likely that the mountain was regarded as sacred by the mesolithic hunter gatherers who were attracted here by the abundant wildlife and shellfish. The fourteen caves in the north side of the summit would have been a major attraction, as would the magical valley, the Glen of Knocknarea on the south side of the hill. Large neolithic shell middens are found at Culleenamore, close to the Glen, on the shore under the west cliffs of Knocknarea.
The flattish summit of the mountain is capped by the massive Queen Maeve's Cairn, which is certainly the best known neolithic monument in Ireland apart from Poulnabrone and Newgrange. The stunning location of the great cairn irresistably draws the eye to the summit.
The ancient stone cairn looms over Sligo town like a flying saucer frozen in motion. By placing the cairn where they did the ancients transformed the whole mountain into a monument. On days when the clouds dip down to touch the summit, the cairn disappears and the mountain looks much less spectacular.
Knocknarea is surrounded by geological faultlines through the limestone bedrock. In fact, the mountain has three major faults around it which form a rough equilateral triangle. The south fault or base of the triangle is formed by the beautiful Glen of Knocknarea, a spectacular tree-filled crack in the side of the mountain. An ancient track leads up from the Glen and around the west cliffs of the mountain, over Culleenamore, and up to Queen Maeve's cairn.
The cairn has never been excavated and was lucky to escape in the last century, when several of its satellite monuments and many of the sites at Carrowmore were investigated by Roger Walker, a local landlord and antiquarian. Walker had plans to tackle the great cairn, but died before he could put them into effect.
There are five other megaliths and the foundations of a hut on the summit of Knocknarea; three are small ruined cairns south of the great cairn, and one cruciform chamber about 200 meters to the north another small ruined chamber is found about 400 meters to the south at the edge of the summit. A seventh ruined boulder circle is found about 1 km to the east on the lower tier of the mountain. The neolithic people were probably attracted to Knocknarea by the 14 or so caves on the north side of the summit. Most megalithic monuments are really man-made caves.
Over the summer of 1999 Stefan Bergh discovered around 27 hut sites on the summit and south shoulder of Knocknarea, as well as some 4 kilometers of neolithic stonewalls. The walls run along the south and east edges of the summit, and mark a boundry on the sides of the mountain that are accessible from below. Both the huts and walls had thousands of pieces of worked chert of various sizes within them. These pieces of chert were probably used as chisels for the construction of wooden implements, wattle, baskets and, down by the shore, boats.
Knocknarea is the western portion of a larger complex of monuments which includes Carrowmore and Carns Hill to the east. Carrowmore, which is Ireland's largest collection of megaliths is at the centre of this triple complex. Each of the four great passage cairn complexes follows an east/west triple layout, as does the fifth smaller, lesser known and largely destroyed site at Kilmonaster in Co Donegal.