Banner: Knocknarea at Sunset.
Queen Maeve's Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea: one of the most impressive megalithic monuments remaining in Ireland; image from Bing maps.

Queen Maeve's cairn

The great cairn of Knocknarea is a huge neolithic monument probably built some time before 3,200 BC. It is situated close to the highest part of the flat top of Knocknarea, 327 meters above the surrounding sea. The enormous mound is about 60 meters in diameter and is estimated to contain some 27,000 tons of stone.

Queen Maeve's cairn is Ireland's most imposing neolithic monument built in a stunning and highly visible location, the focus of the other monuments scattered across the Sligo neolithic landscape.

Drone footage of Queen Maeve's cairn shows scarring from excessive visitors.

There is a wide panoramic view for 40-60 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.

Summer solstice sunset: viewed from the cairn called Shee Lugh on Moytura. The sun is setting over 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 may have been covered with chunks of white quartz crystal. The source for quartz is found in the Ox Mountains just a few km to the south, around Croughan cairn.

The quarry in the summit of Knocknarea, where the neolithic builders excavated the chunks of limestone used to build the massive 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 noted that there is a low platform, 6 meters wide and 30 cm high, beneath the cairn. There is a similar and much more obvious ring around the satellite to the north of Queen Maeve's cairn. Stefan discovered other sub-cairn platforms at Carns Hill, Listoghil and Knocknashee.

He also noted a set 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.

Aerial photograph of the neolithic monuments on Knocknarea.
Aerial photograph of the neolithic monuments on Knocknarea.

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 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 30 neolithic houses and 1.2 km of stone walls and banks on the south side of the summit.

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.

Mythology

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.

The legendary Queen Maeve ruled Connaught from her palace at Rath Croghan near Tulsk in Roscommon, itself the neucleus 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 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 a lotabout its prestige 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, Maeve is not the original person buried in the cairn, and her story seems to have been grafted on to the legend of the historical King of Connaught, Eoghan Bel.

Eoghan Bel was killed in the Battle of Sligo which occured in 531 AD. The battle was between the Men of Connaught and their ancient enemies in Ulster. A herd of cattle was used as shock troops when the Connaught Men stampeded them into the ranks of their foes. The River Garavogue ran red with blood from the great slaughter.

Knocknarea photographed by Belfast photographer Robert Welch who was in the area in 1896.
Knocknarea photographed by Belfast photographer Robert Welch who was in the area in 1896.

When Eoghan Bel was struck down he commanded his followers to carry his body up the mountain and bury him standing upright in the huge ancient cairn, wearing his armor with his red spear in his hand.

"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."

Source: https://www.duchas.ie

Gabrial 
      Beranger's 1779 record of Queen Maeve's Cairn.
Gabrial Beranger's 1779 record of Queen Maeve's Cairn.

The legend of Eoghan Bel was grafted onto the story of Queen Maeve, who, according to tradition, is buried standing upright within the chamber, with her armour on and facing her ancient enemies in Ulster.

The smaller crufiform passage-grave to the north of Queen Maeve's cairn.
The smaller crufiform passage-grave to the north of Queen Maeve's cairn.

A Long Tradition

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.

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 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.

Michael Poynder's diagram of the energy lines crossing the country from Howth to Knocknarea.

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.

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.

When the Goddess Ruled the Earth by John McClusky.

Interestingly, the round platform summit of Maeve's Cairn is at the same altitude as Cairn K at Carrowkeel; and 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.

Queen Maeve's Cairn, the massive neolithic monument on the summit of Knocknarea Mountain. The cairn is 60 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.