Fr. O'Flanagan's History & Heritage pages: the Art, Astronomy, Music & Archaeology of Ancient Ireland
This website began in the 1990's as a modest guidebook informing of the mysterious chambered passage-graves at Carrowkeel, a little-known neolithic complex of ancient monuments in the Bricklieve Mountains in the south of County Sligo. While the guide book has yet to be completed, the website, which turns twenty-five years old in 2023, has expanded well beyond Carrowkeel to embrace various aspects of Irish history and culture.
The website covers archaeology, particuarly Irish passage-graves, their art, astronomy and mythology, along with religion, history and music — in essence the remains left by the succeeding waves of colonists arriving in Ireland — which is one long, fascinating and interwoven story spanning thousands of years. The oldest monument discovered in Ireland so far is the causewayed enclosure at
Magheraboy just outside Sligo, which has been dated to 4,150 BC.
In recent times I have become deeply interested in Irish history, especially the Revolutionary Period, through researching the life of the Rebel Sinn Féin priest and inventor, Father Michael O'Flanagan. For a number of years I have worked as a seasonal guide for the Office of Public Works at Carrowmore, followed by a season at Parke's Castle on the shores of Lough Gill in County Leitrim. I currently work at Sligo Abbey, the oldest building remaining in Sligo Town. The Abbey is open daily from 10.00 am - 6.00 pm, with last admissions at 5-15 pm. Sligo Abbey is a beautiful historical monastic building on the south shore of the River Garavogue, close to the ancient sites of Magheraboy, Abbeyquarter and Carns Hill.
The Loughcrew Cairns
I began my research into the art and astronomy of Irish passage-graves at Loughcrew the beautiful collection of thirty monuments spread across three sacred hills in the west of County Meath. I was inspired by the writings of American researcher Martin Brennan, author of The Boyne Valley Vision and The Stars and the Stones. Both books had a profound effect on me. Brennan and his co-researcher Jack Roberts discovered two important alignments at Loughcrew where neolithic engravings were illuminated both directly and indirectly by the light of the rising sun on astronomically significant mornings.
There are some wonderful monuments at Loughcrew which are sadly suffering from state neglect. The concrete roof over the passage at Cairn T, installed in the 1880's, has become unstable, leading to the closure of the monument, which has not been open to the public since 2017. Recent research at Loughcrew, following on from the research of Brennan and Roberts, suggests that the large and elaborate panel of art withing Cairn L, above, is a depiction of a solar eclipse which occured above Loughcrew around 3,340 BCE. Researcher Paul Griffin first suggested the eclipse theory in the late 1990's, and it was published to widespread interest in 2006 and again in 2017. Eclipsologist Robin Edgar has refined Griffin's original date of 3,340 to a series of three strong partial solar eclipses, that includes an annular eclipse, which occurred between 3337 BCE and 3315 BCE.
Subsequently I spent a decade living just below the monuments at Carrowkeel in South Sligo, close to the shores of Lough Arrow. This is a beautiful landscape filled with neolithic monuments, mythology, folklore and an area renowned for superb traditional Irish music.
The great megalithic sites of South Sligo are Carrowkeel, Kesh Corran, Heapstown cairn and Moytura. Carrowkeel is a spectacular megalithic complex high on the northern plateaus of the Bricklieve Mountains. Several of the chambers at Carrowkeel are illuminated on occasion by the light of the sun and moon, and I helped pioneer research into the roofbox at Cairn G, below, the only other example known apart from Newgrange. The Carrowkeel roofbox is at least 300 years older and the chamber is aligned to the extreme setting positions of the winter full moons and the lunar extremes.
The Nobel prize-winning poet William Butler Yeats, said to be buried within the grounds of the ancient Colomban manstery at Drumcliff, referred to Sligo as The Land of Hearts Desire.
The First and Second Battles of Moytura
Moytura, the low ridge on the east shore of Lough Arrow, has a wonderful collection of monuments, myths and legends. The tale of the Second Battle of Moytura, a myth that has inspired the plots of both The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, is traditionally set here. In an interesting article from 1928, Henry Morris suggests that both the First and Second Battles of Moytura took place in County Sligo, the first event being transplanted to Cong through a fifteenth century scribal error.
The epic myths of the First and Second Battles of Moytura were transplanted to the West Coast of America in the late 1920's with Ella Young, who taught Celtic mythology an Berkley; Young's stories have returned to Europe through novels and Hollywood movies in the form of Dune, Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. There are many more monuments on the summits of the surrounding Sligo hills, with neolithic cairns on Knocknashee, Muckelty Hill, Doomore, Croughan and the Ballygawly Mountains.
A Landscape Covered with Megalithic Monuments
County Sligo is one of the most beautiful areas of Ireland, with rugged mountains, beautiful lakes, and fabulous coastlines. It has also proven to be one of the earliest landfalls of neolithic settlers, with dates from more than 6,000 years ago from along the River Garavogue, a river named after the local neolithic goddess.
Carrowmore and Knocknarea viewed from the air.
The oldest causewayed enclosure currently known in either Ireland and England, which dates to 4,150 BC, was discovered at Magheraboy during roadworks two decades ago, and many dates with similar horizons have been discovered in more recent times. The slightly surreal Abbeyquarter passage-grave, by the banks of the Garavogue near Sligo town may be one of the earliest such monuments to have been built in Ireland.
The Carrowmore Megalithic Complex
Carrowmore, close to Sligo town, is the largest and oldest megalithic complex in Ireland. There were probably as many as forty stone circles with central dolmen chambers on raised platforms or tertres, but many of the monuments have been destroyed by land-clearance and quarrying. These are some of the oldest monuments in Ireland, an early form of passage-grave built by some of the very first farmers to arrive on this island.
A lecture I gave on observations and megalithic art in ancient monuments during the 2020 lockdown.
The central chamber at Carrowmore, known as Listoghil, has an alignment towards the sunrises in early November and Februrary. The chamber points towards the Ballygawley Mountains, where the sun rises over the magical bottomless lake, Lough Da Gé each Samhain and Imbolc, the effect being that the Cailleach or Earth-goddess named the Garavogue, is giving birth to the solar orb. Any attempt to understand why the first farmers built these monuments will always come back to the Religion of the Stone Age.
Creevykeel Court Cairn
One of the largest and best preserved court cairns in Ireland, Creevykeel, just north of Cliffoney Village, and also one of the easiest to access, as it is situated beside the N15. The Creevykeel monument was built in several phases over possibly as long as 500 years, having been extended several times during the neolithic.
The monument was completely excavated in 1936, in a dig directed by Hugh O'Neill Hencken leader of the team of American archaeologists known as the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland. In 2019 a local Cliffoney resident discovered that the chamber of Creevykeel is somewhat aligned to the sunrises on the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Another huge but much more ruined court-cairn can be visited at Deerpark on a plateau above the north shore of Lough Gill.
Traditional Irish Music
County Sligo is one of the best places in Ireland to hear fine Irish Traditional Music. Since moving to this area I have taken up playing first fiddle, then banjo, and I am now enjoying a fantastic three-quarter set of uilleann pipes made by master Limerick muiscian
Planxty Irwin played on the wire-sturng Irish harp, the clarseach, here in the Old Barracks in Cliffoney.
Our music group, the Squeal Like A Pig Ceilidhi Band, plays regular sessions in O'Donnell's Bar, Cliffoney, and also plays at care homes, community centers and the local Cliffoney Country Market. We also host the long-running traditional session in O'Donnell's Bar on the last Saturday of each month, held in memory of the rebel Catholic priest, Fr. Michael O'Flanagan who spent fifteen turbulent months here in 1914 and 1915.
O'Flanagan was a fascinating individual who became vice-president and later president of Sinn Féin. He worked on many volumes on Irish history including editing and publishing the Ordnance Survey Letters for most of the country in the late 1928's. O'Flanagan also invented and patented the modern swimming goggles in the late 1920's.