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Knocknarea from Bing maps
An amazing view of Knocknarea and Queen Maeve's Cairn from Bing Maps. The Glen and the Culleenamore Middens are visible south of the Mountain.

Knocknarea mountain

When the Fianna were washed and dressed, the Red Woman brought them into a great hall, where there was the brightness of the sun and of the moon on every side. From that she brought them into another great room; and although Finn and his men had seen many grand things up to that time, they had never seen any sight so grand as what they saw in this place. There was a king sitting in a golden chair, having clothes of gold and of green, and his chief people were sitting around him, and his musicians were playing. And no one could know what colour were the dresses of the musicians, for every colour of the rainbow was in them. And there was a great table in the middle of the room, having every sort of thing on it, one better than another.

The king rose up and gave a welcome to Finn and to his men, and he bade them to sit down at the table; and they ate and drank their fill, and that was wanting to them after the hunt they had made. And then the Red Woman rose up, and she said: "King of the Hill, if it is your will, Finn and his men have a mind to see the wonderful beast, for they spent a long time following after it, and that is what brought them here."

The Red Woman, Lady Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men, 1904.

The Hill of Knocknarea is the most prominent and beautiful mountain in County Sligo, it's only possible rival being the majestic plateau of Benbulben. Knocknarea is a limestone hum rising to 320 meters above sea level at the west end of the Cuil Iorra 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 region.

Illustration of Knocknarea from 1766.
Knocknarea with the great cairn depicted on a map of 1766.

It is highly likely that the mountain was regarded as sacred by the mesolithic hunter gatherers who would have been attracted here by the abundant wildlife and shellfish. The early dates from charcoal found close to the monuments at Carrowmore would seem to indicate pre-farming mesolithic activity, rather than the extremely early neolithic dates claimed by Göran Burenhult. The oldest neolithic monument currently dated in the area is the causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy dating to 4,150 BC, which was discovered in 2003.

Went on, ascended with much fatigue some part on horseback, and some part on foot, that high mountain; arrived on the the tomb of Queen Maud, wife of Olioll, King of Connaught in the fourth century. This monument is a huge cairn of small stones sixty feet high; drew and plan, and measured. On the top the Atlantic Ocean, and all the neighbouring country. Knocknarea carne; on the top full of little houses like the children make of slates. Mr. Irwin told me that every one that came there erects such a one, and according to custom we took stones like slates, of which the hill is composed, and made one apiece."

Gabrial Beranger, 1779.

The twenty-seven 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 shell middens are found at Culleenamore, close to the Glen, on the shore under the west cliffs of Knocknarea. These shell mounds are thought to date from the Bronze age to the Medieval period.

View to Knocknarea from Red Hill in Skreen.
Knocknarea Mountain and Queen Maeve's Cairn viewed from Red Hill near Skreen in west Sligo.

The flattish summit of the mountain is capped by the massive Queen Maeve's Cairn, which is one of the best known neolithic monument in Ireland along with the Poulnabrone dolmen in County Clare and Newgrange in County Meath. The stunning location of the huge cairn irresistably draws the eye to the summit of the mountain.

The ancient stone cairn looms over Sligo town like a flying-saucer frozen in motion. By placing the cairn where they did the neolithic farmers 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 fault-lines running through the limestone bedrock. In fact, the mountain has three major faults around it which form a rough equilateral triangle. The southern fault or base of the triangle is formed by the beautiful Glen of Knocknarea, a spectacular tree-filled fissure 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.

Another fascinating monument, the court-cairn at Primrose Grange close to the Glen, was excavated by Burenhult. Recent genetic research indicates a relationship between people buried in Primrose Grange and a man buried in Listoghil, the focal monument at Carrowmore.

A fossil at Queen Maeve's cairn.
A beautiful honeycomb coral and quartz fossil on Queen Maeve's cairn.

The massive neolithic passage-grave known as Queen Maeve's cairn has never been excavated and was lucky to escape violation, when several of its satellite monuments and many of the sites at Carrowmore were investigated by Roger Walker, a local landlord who was a keen antiquarian and collector of artifacts. Walker had plans to open the great cairn in 1837 and again in 1844, but died without putting them into effect.

View from Carns Hill to Knocknarea.
The view west from Carns Hill to Knocknarea.

Caves and cairns

Some say Knocknarea means ‘‘the hill of the moon,” others, ‘‘ the smooth-topped hill,’ but the received opinion is that it means “the hill of the king,” i.e, of Eoghan Bel, King of Connaught, who received his death-wound in the great battle of Sligo between Connaught and Ulster, A.D. 543. He told his followers to bury him upright in Rath O'Fiachrach with his red javelin in his hand and his face towards the north, on the side of the hill where Ulster would pass when flying before Connaught. The legend adds that thereafter the Connaught men won every battle against the Ulstermen, till at length the latter, hearing of the talisman Knocknarea contained, came in great numbers, raised the body of Eoghan, carried it over the river to Calry and buried it there, face downwards, thus breaking the spell. They say the truth of this legend would be made manifest if the huge cairn called Queen Maedb’s Grave were explored to its centre.

S. M. Scholastica, 1912.

There are six more ruined passage-graves and the foundations of a hut or house of some kind close to Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea; three are small ruined monuments 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, close to the edge of the summit. A seventh ruined boulder circle is found about one kilometer to the east on the lower shelf of the mountain.

A cave in the north side of Knocknarea.
A cave in the north side of Knocknarea.

The neolithic people were surely attracted to Knocknarea by the twenty-seven or so caves on the north side of the summit. Some of these caves were used for burial or excarnation, and two neolithic bodies were found there. During the middle neolithic large quantities of chert were quarried on the east side of Knocknarea in Rathcarrick.

The view to Knocknarea from the ruins of Eochy's cairn on the strand at Tanrego.
The view to Knocknarea from the ruins of Eochy's cairn on the strand at Tanrego.

Archaeologist Stefan Bergh surveyed some thirty hut sites on the summit and south shoulder of Knocknarea, as well as some 2.5 kilometers of neolithic stone walls. 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 possibly used as chisels for the construction of wooden implements, wattle, baskets and, down by the shore, boats.

View from Circle 7.
The Kissing Stone, looking west to Knocknarea and Queen Maeve's cairn.

Knocknarea is the western portion of a larger complex of monuments which includes Carrowmore and Carns Hill to the east. Carrowmore, which has Ireland's largest collection of megaliths is at the centre of this huge 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.

The Kissing Stone
Knocknarea Mountain and Queen Maeve's Cairn viewed from Circle 7 at Carrowmore. The magical mountain seems to be the model for this megalithic circle.