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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.