Banner: Knocknarea sunset
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

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 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 were attracted here by the abundant wildlife and shellfish. Early dates from charcoal found close to the monuments at Carrowmore would seem to indicate mesolithic activity.

"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 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 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.

The view to Knocknarea from the chamber of Cairn E at Carrowkeel.
The view to Knocknarea from the rear of the chamber of Cairn E at Carrowkeel. The passage of Cairn K is also aligned to Knocknarea.

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.

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

There are six other megaliths and the foundations of a hut on 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 one km to the east on the lower shelf of the mountain. The neolithic people were probably attracted to Knocknarea by the twenty-seven or so caves on the north side of the summit. During the middle neolithic large quantities of chert were quarried on the east side of Knocknarea in Rathcarrick.

Knocknarea cave
The view from one of the twenty-seven caves on the north side of the summit of Knocknarea.

Over the summer of 1999 Stefan Bergh discovered some thirty hut sites on the summit and south shoulder of Knocknarea, as well as some 2.5 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 possibly used as chisels for the construction of wooden implements, wattle, baskets and, down by the shore, boats.

Circle 18 at Carrowmore
Knocknarea and Queen Maeve's cairn viewed from Circle 18, now in a farmyard, at Carrowmore.

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.

Moonrise over Maeve's cairn
Full moon rise viewed from Queen Maeve's cairn in early January 2010. The moon is rising over Copes Mountain, and has no particular astronomical signifigance.
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.