Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Aerial image of Queen Maeve's cairn.
Queen Maeve's Cairn, the unopened and unexcavated passage-grave on the summit of Knocknarea mountain in County Sligo is one of the most impressive neolithic monuments remaining in Ireland. This image is an old postcard © National Monuments Service.

Queen Maeve's cairn

The Cairn of Miscaun, or Misgan Mave, in Sligo is said to be the tomb of the wife of King Olliol, of Connaught, who lived about a century before the time of St. Patrick. The native name of the queen—whatever it may have been—has been metamorphosed into Maud. The hill of Knocknarea on which the cairn is erected is a headland looking out over Sligo Bay. The cairn itself is composed of an enormous heap of small stones. It's shape is an oval. The circumference was 630 feet at the base and 292 feet at the top. The slope was not regular, being of an altitude of nearly 80 feet at one part and only 67 at another. The proportion of the oval was 100 feet to 85 feet, or 20 to 17.

By 1837 this monument had become considerably reduced in size by the removal of stones for various purposes. It then measured only 590 feet at base, and its longest diameter at top was 60 feet. The base of this cairn is surrounded by a circle of stones, horizontally placed as a kind of wall for preventing any slipping of the cairn. In the neighbourhood of this great cairn are many small cromlechs, amid which have been found various implements of stone.

Our Ancient Monuments and the Land Around Them
Sir John Lubbock, 1880

The superbly sited great cairn of Knocknarea is the largest and most visible neolithic monument in the west of Ireland. The huge monument, which was probably built between 3,500 and 3,200 BC, is part of the Irish passage-grave culture, which had arrived in Sligo, most likely from the shores of Brittany by around 4,200 BC. The oldest dated monument in Sligo is the extremely early causewayed enclosure at Magheraboy, between Carns Hill and the Carrowmore megalithic complex. Queen Maeve's cairn is the western-most portion of this complex, situated close to the highest part of the flat top of Knocknarea, 327 meters above sea level. The enormous cairn is about sixty meters in diameter, ten meters high, and is estimated to contain some 30,000 tons of stone, the majority of which was quarried closeby.

Queen Maeve's cairn, the massive unexcavated neolithic passage-grave on the summit of Knocknarea in County Sligo.
Queen Maeve's cairn, the massive unexcavated neolithic passage-grave on the summit of Knocknarea in County Sligo.

Queen Maeve's cairn is Ireland's most imposing neolithic monument, built in a stunning and highly visible location, and is the focus of many of the other monuments scattered across the neolithic landscape of County Sligo, and several adjoining counties. There is a wide panoramic view for sixty to seventy kilometers in all directions. The mountain of Knocknarea is visible from sites such as Shreeloga Hill to the west, near the Ceide Fields. An observer at the cairn on Shreeloga can watch the equinox sun rising directly over Knocknarea to the east, where the mountain is clearly visible, framed by the Dartry mountains to the north and the Ox mountains to the south. The same applies to Shee Lugh, the cairn on the summit of Moytura where the summer solstice sun sets behind Knocknarea. Sheemor, the large unopened passage-grave in County Leitrim, also has an alignment close to the midsummer sunset when the sun drops behind Knocknarea.

Aerial photograph of the neolithic monuments on Knocknarea.
Aerial photograph of the neolithic monuments on Knocknarea. Queen Maeve's cairn, the hut site, and the satellite passage-tomb, Knocknarea 1 are visible, as is the large hollow, which is probably the quarry used as a source for the cairn stones. Photograph © Cambridge University Collection of Air Photographs.

The monument

The Queen Maeve's cairn is probably the best preserved example of an unexvataved passage-grave 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 at the summit. Early antiquarian illustrations and more recent photographs show that the shape of the cairn has not changed in the last 300 years. Gabrial Beranger described the monument in 1779:

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.

It is worth noting that the majority of early illustrations of Ireland's most famous passage-grave, Newgrange in the Boyne Valley, show the cairn to have been shaped like a gigantic truncated cone with virtually the same apparance as Queen Maeve's cairn. The chief excavator at Newgrange, Michael J. O'Kelly was determined to have his project look spectacular and oversaw the construction of a five meter vertical wall of quartz which could never have stood without a massive supporting wall of reinforced concrete. O'Kelly's contraversial vertical wall is still a hotly debated topic in Irish archaeology half a century after its construction.

Gabriel Beranger's 1779 record of Queen Maeve's Cairn.
Gabriel Beranger's 1779 illustration of Queen Maeve's Cairn shows how little the monument has changed in more than two centuries.

The platform at the summit of Queen Maeve's cairn is slightly dished, as is the flat top of nearby Carns Hill West. While the cairn is incredibly well-preserved, the monument has suffered greatly from the excesses of modern tourism in recent years, and the monument is now covered with scars caused by visitors climbing on the cairn. If you visit Queen Maeve's cairn, please respect this wonderful ancient monument and do not climb on it.

Queen Maeve's Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea: one of the most impressive megalithic monuments remaining in Ireland. The photo is taken from the site of another largely ruined monument 200 meters north of Maeve's cairn. In the distance to the right the cairn-topped neolithic sites of Knocknashee and Muckelty hill can be seen beyond the Ox Mountains.

Other Features at Queen Maeve's cairn

The stone used to build the cairn was quarried nearby. A massive hollow remains about 300 meters north of the monument is where the many thousands of tons of limestone were extracted. The cairn may well have been covered with chunks of white quartz crystal which would have made it even more highly visible from a distance, and lit the monument at sunrise and sunset. The closest source for quartz is found in the Ox Mountains just a few kilometers to the south, around the neolithic monument at Croughan, a site with extremely early dates. In recent years visitors have been stealing quartz from the platform, and it is common to find holes poked in the bank where stones have been taken. If you should visit Queen Maeve's cairn, please do not remove quartz or other stones.

The quarry in the summit of Knocknarea, where the neolithic builders excavated the limestone used to build the massive cairn.
The quarry in the summit of Knocknarea, where the neolithic builders excavated the limestone used to build the massive cairn.

Swedish archaeologist Dr. Stefan Bergh came to Sligo as a student to work on the excavations at the Carrowmore Megalithic Complex in the 1970's. Bergh settled in Sligo, and has surveyed the neolithic monuments in Coolrea peninsula and published the research of his doctoral thesis as a book in 1995, titled Landscape of the Monuments. Bergh noted that there is a low platform or bank, six meters wide and 30 centimeters high, beneath or surrounding the cairn. There is a similar and much more obvious ring around the smaller satellite passage-grave to the north of Queen Maeve's cairn. Bergh noted other sub-cairn platforms at both monuments on Carns Hill, under the cairn at Listoghil in Carrowmore, and Knocknashee.

A gneiss kerbstone, one of a ring which surrounds the base of the massive Queen Maeve's cairn.
A gneiss kerbstone, one of a ring which surrounds the base of the massive Queen Maeve's cairn. Most of the kerbstones are buried under cairn-slip caused by modern tourists climbing on the monument.

Bergh also noted a set of 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 found outside the entrances while at Knocknarea they are spread out around the base of the cairn. Settings are a poorly understood aspect of Irish passage-graves; they may have functioned as some kind of fire-pits and sometimes contain fragments of splintered quartz like the pair outside the entrance to Cairn T at Loughcrew. The examples in the Boyne Valley were lined with flat slabs placed edgewise around the circumference of the setting.

A ring of kerbstones surrounds the base of the cairn, though these have mostly been obscured in recent years due to cairn slip caused by people climbing on the monument. The kerbstones seem to be boulders of glacial erratic gneiss, carried to the mountain by sheets of ice at the end of the last ice age. Local folklore at Carrowmore and Loughcrew describe the Cailleach named Garavogue, a powerful multi-tasking wise woman who gathers the boulders close to her home, in this case the passage-grave in the Ballygawley Mountains, and transports them in her white apron when she wants to build monuments. The Garavogue's white apron is surely a folk memory of the glaciers transporting the boulders, which do indeed originate in the Ballygawley Mountains to the southeast. The circles at Carowmore were known in former times as the Hag's Beds.

The view south from Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea.
The view south from Queen Maeve's cairn on Knocknarea. Note the kerbstone visible in the cairn to the left, and the large glacial erratic boulder known as the south marker stone to the right.

Two large stones are associated with Queen Maeve's cairn: a large glacial erratic with possible cup-marks is found on the south side of the monument - known as the south marker stone. A large flat slab which may cover a cist is found on the oppisite, northern side of the cairn and this is known as the north marker stone. A line drawn between these two stoned divides the cairn in half, and several of the smaller passage-graves are also found on this north / south line.

Aside from Queen Maeve's cairn, there are six more neolithic monuments, five on the flat summit, while a boulder circle was constructed on the edge of the lower portion or ledge of the mountain to the east. All of the smaller passage-graves 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 thirty neolithic houses and 2.5 kilometers of stone walls and banks on the south side of the summit. There are twenty-seven caves in the mountain, mostly in the cliffs on the northern side, and two neolithic bodies were discovered in one of the caves a few years ago. There is also a neolithic chert quarry on the east side of the mountain.

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.

The passage and chamber have remained hidden since prehistoric times. The cairn is currently reputed to be the resting place of the legendary Queen Maeve of Connaught; its good state of preservation through time may possibly due to respect for her fierce reputation.

Queen Maeve's Cairn, the massive neolithic monument on the summit of Knocknarea Mountain. The cairn is sixty meters in diameter and is said to be the final resting place of Queen Maeve, the mythical Iron age ruler of the territory of Connaught. The neolithic mound is at the end of a line which passes through both Tara and Loughcrew. To the extreme right of the photograph are the neolithic sites of Knocknashee and Muckelty.

The Mythology of Queen Maeve's cairn

The legendary Queen Maeve ruled Connaught from her palace at Rath Croghan near Tulsk in Roscommon, itself the nucleus of a wide complex of Bronze age monuments. Maeve is best known for her role in the Tain Bo Culainge, where she led her province to war against Ulster to take possession the Brown Bull of Cooley. The warrior hero Cuchullain, who was said to have been concieved in Newgrange, single-handedly fought off her army while the Men of Ulster were incapacitated, suffering from the pangs of childbirth. That Maeve chose to be interred in the Great Cairn of Knocknarea says a lot about the prestige of the neolithic cairn and its position as the most important and ancient sacred site in Connaught.

This depiction of Queen Medb shows her as a young girl in front of her fortress at Crúachan Ai, in present day Roscommon by Jim Fitzpatrick.
This depiction of Queen Medb shows her as a young girl in front of her fortress at Crúachan Ai, in present day Roscommon. Image © Jim Fitzpatrick.

Eoghan Bel

However, it seems that Maeve is not the original person buried in the cairn, and her story appears to have been grafted on to the legend of the historical King of Connaught, Eoghan Bel, who was killed in the Battle of Sligo which occured in 531 AD. The battle was a territorial dispute between the Men of Connaught and their ancient enemies in Ulster. A herd of cattle was used as shock troops adding to the slaughter when the Connaught Men stampeded them into the ranks of their foes. The River Garavogue was said to have run red with blood from the great number of slain warriors.

Queen Maeve's cairn on the summit of Knocknarea by Robert Welch.
Queen Maeve's cairn on the summit of Knocknarea in County Sligo gives an idea of what Newgrange might have looked like before quarrying and restoration.
Photograph by Robert Welch, © NMNI.

When Eoghan Bel was struck down and mortally wounded, he commanded his followers to carry his body up the mountain and bury him standing upright in the huge ancient cairn, wearing his suit of armour with his red spear clutched in his hand, facing towards his enemies in Ulster.

In the year 531 at the foot of Knocknarea the battle of Sligo was fought. It was between Eoghan Bel and the Northmen. The Northmen did not want Eoghan Bel to be King of Connaught. Both armies met at the foot of the mountain and a fierce battle was fought. Eoghan Bel was mortally wounded but he won. Before he died he gave instructions how he was to be buried with his sword in his hand and his face to the North. As long as he was in that position his men always won. The Northmen soon found out that secret and they came out in the dark of the night and laid him flat and broke his power. From that time, the Northmen won and the Connaughtmen lost. After the Battle of Sligo the soldiers were buried under cromlechs. We know that they were buried under them, because not so long ago a skeleton of a man and a boy with a sword by his side were found.


The story of Queen Maeve, who, according to tradition, is buried standing upright within the chamber, wearing her armour and facing her ancient enemies in Ulster, is a fascinating retelling of the legend of Eoghan Bel.

The smaller crufiform passage-grave to the north of Queen Maeve's cairn.
The smaller cruciform passage-grave, called Knocknarea 1 to the north of Queen Maeve's cairn. This monument has the remains of a circular bank or platform surrounding the cairn and chamber.

A Long Tradition

There are also stories and legends of chieftains being buried in other ancient monuments such as Knockma, Carns Hill and Heapstown. These legendary burial practices echo the Egyptian customs of interring their Pharaohs within the pyramids—in death they serve as symbolic and spiritual guardians of the landscape and territory over which they once ruled.

Burial mound at Aali on Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.
Burial mound at Aali on Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.

Apart from her role as a semi-historical figure, Maeve seems to have been the ancient goddess or personification of the provence of Connacht. Her name translates as the "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.

Sunset over Knocknarea viewed from Shee Lugh on Moytura.
Summer solstice sunset viewed from the cairn called Shee Lugh on Moytura. The sun is setting behind Knocknarea, twenty-seven kilometers distant in the northwest.

Knocknarea, Carrowmore, Sliabh Dá Eán, Sheebeg, Loughcrew, Tara and the Hill of Howth are all on a great 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.

I have called this the Garavogue line. The Garavogue is the local Cailleach, the hag or witch, originally the chief diety of the neolithic farmers; 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.

Drone footage of Carrowmore and Queen Maeve's cairn, filmed by the Heritage Service, which shows the scarring and wear on Queen Maeve's cairn from excessive visitors.

Interestingly, the round platform summit of Maeve's Cairn is at approximately the same altitude as Cairn K, the highest passage-grave at Carrowkeel; the passage of Cairn K is oriented directly to Queen Maeve's Cairn. These flat summits would have made ideal observation platforms, with their wide panoramic views of the horizon.

National Monuments Service Report

This massive circular, limestone cairn (diameter c. 60 meters; Height c. 10 meters), named ‘Miosgan Meva’ (Maeve’s Cairn) on the OS 6-inch maps, crowns the summit of Knocknarae Mountain. Its flat-topped silhouette is a miniature version of the squat bulk of the mountain itself, which rises abruptly from the fertile coastal grasslands of the Cúil Iorra peninsula, flanked by Ballysadare Bay to south and Sligo Bay to north. It is one of the most iconic archaeological monuments and landmarks in northwest Ireland, its importance, past and present, manifest in the enduring folk tradition which identifies it as the burial site of the legendary Queen Maeve of Connacht.

The pale-grey cairn, rising above the dark heather-covered plateau and light-reflecting limestone escarpments of the mountain, is visible and instantly recognisable from many widespread points in the surrounding landscape. The location of the cairn itself affords panoramic views, encompassing extensive areas of county Sligo, and stretching far into counties Mayo and Donegal.

Important distant landmarks which tie the cairn into an ancient network of routeways and a wider ritual and mythological landscape, include Benbulben, the cairn-topped peaks of the Ballygawley Mountains and the Ox Mountains, Carns Hill, Carrowkeel Megalithic cemetery and Kesh Corann.

In its more immediate vicinity, the cairn is the dominant visual focus of a remarkably dense concentration of prehistoric ritual and settlement monuments. It is flanked on the summit by a roughly north to south linear cluster of smaller satellite tombs, cairns and mounds; the descending terraces of the mountain host huts sites, and field walls, and two caves, on the west flank of the mountain, have produced evidence of Neolithic burials. At the foot of the mountain, the numerous passage tombs of Carrowmore megalithic cemetery, etc.), and associated monuments, spread eastwards across the undulating lowlands of Cúil Irra.

Flat-topped, with broadly sloping sides, the cairn presents a deceptively simple outline. Closer examination reveals more complexity (Berg 1995, 238-239). Although the body of the cairn is primarily limestone, a number of large gneiss boulders protrude from the perimeter at north-northeast, and are probably part of a kerb. Five small, low subcircular or D-shaped cairn-like concentrations of stone (diameter 8-11 meters; Height 0.5-1 meters) abut the base of the cairn at east, south and west. Two large stones, a prostrate limestone slab 2 meters to north of the cairn, and a gneiss erratic 5.5 meters to south of the cairn, appear to represent deliberately placed markers on a north to south alignment. A low, inconspicuous earthen bank (Width c. 3 meters; Height 0.3 meters) encircles the cairn at a distance of 1-6 meters; it respects the five small cairns and the marker stones, kinking outwards to include them within its circuit (Berg 1995, 238-239).

The cairn is intact; it escaped the depredations of 18th and 19th-century treasure hunters, and it has not been excavated. Its internal structures, therefore, remain a mystery. It is likely to be about 5000 year old, the same age as its eastern counterparts, the excavated Neolithic passage tombs at Newgrange (ME019-045----) and Knowth (ME019-030001-).

Maeve’s Cairn is a National Monument (No. 153) in state ownership.

Text: Jane O'Shaughnessy.

Aerial image of Queen Maeve's cairn from Bing maps.
Queen Maeve's Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea: one of the most impressive megalithic monuments remaining in Ireland. Image © Bing maps.