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.
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.
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 in 1837 and again in 1844, but died without putting them into effect.