Queen Maeve's cairn
The great cairn of Knocknarea is a huge neolithic monument, probably built around 3,200 BC. It is situated on the highest part of the flat top of Knocknarea, 327 m above the sea and is about 60 meters in diameter and is estimated to weigh about 27,000 tons. Queen Maeve is Ireland's most imposing neolithic monument built in a stunning and highly visible location, the focus of the regions neolithic landscape. There is a wide panoramic view for 40 km in all directions: the mountain and cairn are foresights when viewed from sites such as Shreeloga Hill to the west, near the Ceide Fields. An observer on the cairn on Shreeloga could watch the equinox sun rising over Knocknarea to the east. The same applies to Shee Lugh, the cairn on the summit of Moytura where the summer solstice sun sets behind Knocknarea.
The Queen Maeve's cairn is probably one of the best preserved monuments of its kind remaining in Ireland, and gives a fair idea of the original shape and form of this type of monument - a truncated cone with a flat platform. The top is slightly dished, as is the flat top of nearby Carns Hill West. The stone used to build the cairn was quarried nearby: a massive hollow remains about 300 meters from the monument. The cairn would have been covered with chunks of white quartz crystal; plenty have shown up near the cairn over the years. The source for quartz is found in the Ox Mountains just a few km to the south, around Croughan cairn.
Swedish archaeologist Dr Stefan Bergh has surveyed all the monuments in Coolrea peninsula and published his research in the 1995 book, Landscape of the Monuments. Stefan found that there is a low platform, 6 meters wide and 30 cm high, running right around the cairn. There is a similar and much more obvious ring around the satellite to the north of Queen Maeve's cairn. Stefan found other ring platforms at Cairns Hill, Listoghil and Knocknashee. He also noted six circular settings around the base of the cairn, which are similar to settings found at Newgrange, Knowth and Cairn T. However, the settings at Loughcrew and the Boyne Valley are outside the entrances while at Knocknarea they area spread out around the cairn.
Aside from Queen Maeve's cairn, there are six more neolithic monuments, five on the summit, while an overgrown boulder circle is on the edge of the large lower ledge to the east. All are quite ruined, and several were explored by Rodger Walker, the landlord from Rathcarrick House, in the 1830s. There are also the foundations of some 28 neolithic houses and 4 km of stone walls and banks on the south side of the summit.
The passage and chamber have remained hidden since prehistoric times. The cairn is known to be the resting place of the legendary Queen Maeve of Connaught; its good state of preservation is probably due to her fierce reputation. Maeve ruled Connaught from her palace at Rath Croghan near Tulsk in Roscommon, and she is best known for her role in the Tain Bo Culainge, where she led her province to war against Ulster to take the Brown Bull of Cooley, when Cuchullain single-handedly held off her army. That she chose to be interred in the Great Cairn of Knocknarea says something about its prestige as the most important and ancient sacred site in Connaught.
Legend tells us that Maeve was buried standing upright within the chamber, with her armour on and facing her ancient enemies in Ulster. There are also stories of chieftains being buried in Knockma, Carns Hill and Heapstown. These legendary burial practices echo the Egyptian customs of burying the kings within the pyramids - in death, they act as symbolic and spiritual guardians of the landscape they once ruled.
Apart from her role as a semi-historical figure, Maeve seems to have been the ancient goddess of the provence of Connacht. Her name translates as 'intoxicating one'. Kings and chieftains would marry her during their inauguration rituals, which usually took place upon ancient mounds, such as Listoghil at Carrowmore and at Heapstown cairn. The goddess Maeve was eventually imported to Tara by the Ui Neill, where a huge neolithic henge is dedicated to her.
Knocknarea, Carrowmore,Sliabh Dá Eán, Sheebeg, Loughcrew, Tara and the Hill of Howth are all on a great straight ley line crossing the country from west to east. This line was first noted by megalithic researcher Martin Brennan, and was expanded by Michael Poynder in his book Pi in the Sky. For convenience I have called this the Garavogue line. Garavogue is the local Cailleach, the hag or witch, originally the main diety of the stone age people; the Shelly river in Sligo is named after her. Garavogue was also the name of the wise woman who built the cairns at Loughcrew in County Meath.
Interestingly, the round platform summit of Maeve's Cairn is at the same altitude as Cairn K at Carrowkeel; and the passage of Cairn Kis oriented directly to Queen Maeve's Cairn. These flat platforms make ideal observation platforms, with their wide panoramic views of the horizon. I recently watched a film, When the Goddess Ruled the Earth by John McClusky, where he suggested that there may have been a wooden house on the summit of the mound.