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Heapstown Cairn
Ireland's fourth largest neolithic monument, the massive Heapstown Cairn near the northern tip of Lough Arrow in County Sligo.

Heapstown cairn

At the northern tip of Lough Arrow in Co. Sligo, between the megalithic complexes of Carrowkeel and Moytura stands one of the largest and most overlooked ancient monuments in Ireland. This is Heapstown Cairn, 'The Heap of Stone', is massive pile of stone as the name suggests.

It is said to be the fourth largest cairn in the country outside Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley, though there are several others of near the same size found in the Cong area, the site of the First Battle of Moytura. The massive kerbed cairn is quite easy to find: it is located in a field beside the road just to the north of the Heapstown cross roads by the Bo and Arrow public house.

The view to the east from Shee Reevagh.
The view to the east from Shee Reevagh. Heapstown cairn is just left of the white bungalow, partly obscured by pine trees. The river Uinshin passes between these two sites.

Heapstown is estimated to measure 63 meters in diameter making it the largest monument in the region. The Carrowkeel complex is visible on the peaks of the Bricklieve Mountains eight kilometers to the southwest. The ridge of Moytura is to the southeast, and Carrowmore, Knocknarea and Carns Hill 20 kilometers to the northwest. The cairn was built on a slight rise near the northern point of Lough Arrow and is about 500 meters east of the River Uinshin.

Heapstown Cairn as seen by Petrie, 1837.
Heapstown Cairn as drawn by Petrie in 1837. The standing stone is present and no quarrying seems to have taken place by this time.

The monument was extensively quarried in the last century. A comparison of Beranger's 1779 and Petrie's 1836 drawing shows that the cairn was originally much larger and had a standing stone  of some kind on its flat summit. The mound of stone is about 12 meters high at present.

Shee Lugh.
Shee Lugh.

Heapstown Cairn, like Maeve's Cairn on Knocknarea, has all the characteristics of a passage-grave, though no passage or chamber were discovered during the massive removal of stones in the late 1830's.

Of late years, the cairn has been greatly diminished in size, from the great drain on its materials for the purpose of building bridges, walls, sewers, houses, etc., and would have in all probability. disappeared altogether were it not that Captain M'cTernan, R.M., much to his credit, put a stop to the practice. 

"A sermon in stones." —SHAKESPEARE.

In the middle of a green field, the property of Captain McTernan, R.M., rises a colossal heap of stones that excites the wonder of all who see it 'for the first time. The stones average about twelve inches in diameter, the largest being about twenty inches and the smallest about six or seven, and are for the most part round and smooth. It is manifest that in rearing this enormous cairn, the pyramidal form was roughly aimed at. Unlike the great strand cairn in the same county, there is no record or trace as to who this stony monument was raised over. Beranger, who visited this region in 1779, in the course of compiling the work he was employed at, says it is the tomb of Olliol, King of Connaught; but this is probably a mere vague allusion founded on no tangible grounds; possibly he means Olliol Ollum, King of Munster.

It is fairly established that the great strand cairn has been reared to commemorate the fall of either Eochaidh, King of the Firbolgs, who, after being pursued by the Tuatha de Danaans from Magh Tuireadh (Moytura), was killed by the three sons of Neimhidh on this strand or Cuchulin, who, according to McPherson's "Ossian,' were killed here also-

"By the dark rolling waves of Lego, they raised the hero's tomb."

What Dr. Petrie's opinion is touching it I cannot say, as l was unable to procure a copy of his celebrated lecture on the antiquities of this locality; neither have I seen the latest lecture on the same subject delivered some time ago by Professor Hennessy, on account of the rule precluding lectures, etc. from being published inside a year from the date of their delivery. A workman who was employed excavating at the base of the cairn told me he saw great square blocks and flags arranged as if a sepulchre was formed beneath the heap. If it be that the Danes rifled the monuments and shrines of Ireland, they must have penetrated beneath the cairn and carried away the remains of the individual whom it commemorates, so that even the dust as well as the name is gone.

It is likely that the accumulation of the stones must have extended over centuries, which illustrates in a literal sense Milton's lines occurring in his "Epitaph on Shakespeare''-

'' What needs my Shakespeare or his honour'd bones?-
The labour of an age in piled stones".

It is amusing to hear the curious traditions extant among the surrounding peasantry touching the cairn, the most popular being that the stones appeared in one night, and that they fell from the sky in a downpour, as a miller lets down a quantity of corn out of a loft. Here we have Othello answered when he asks-

.. Are there no stones in heaven
But what serve for the thunder?

It is devoutly believed that there was not a single stone in the field at nightfall on the mysterious date, and that to the wonderment of the whole country they appeared in the morning. Another theory is that there was an Irish king, who, having heard of the pyramids of Egypt, left it as incumbent on his subjects to raise one that should dwarf those of Cheops or Chephren.

The cairn is circular with a kerb of very large stones which include limestone, sandstone and igneous boulders running around the base. Where quarrying was heaviest, on the west and north east sides the kerbstones are missing completely.

Heapstown Cairn surrounded by trees in midsummer.
Heapstown Cairn surrounded by trees in midsummer.

The southeast side is least disturbed and a number of kerbstones are buried under the cairn. The cairn stones are water-rolled sandstone which are glacial deposits from the Curlew mountains at the other end of the lake, and local limestone undoubtedly quarried at a nearby outcrop.

One local tradition says the stones came from the nearby river, the Uinshin, which flows north from Lough Arrow to Ballisodare. They were collected by the Formorians and used to block the Well of Slaine. Another local tradition claims that the cairn appeared over-night when the stones fell from the sky with a terrible noise. When the locals awoke, the cairn was standing there!

View and Location

From the top of Heapstown Cairn there is a fine view of the Bricklieve Mountains with several of the cairns from Carrowkeel across Treanmacmurtagh to Kesh Cairn, silhouetted against the skyline. To the west is the unopened mound on Sheereevagh, located on the hill behind Ballyrush Church.

Heapstown and Sheerevagh form a kind of gateway or entry in-to and out-of the Lough Arrow region. During the neolithic the river was the main travelling route, connecting the Lough Arrow region and monuments with the Cuil Iorra sites of Knocknarea, Carrowmore and Carns Hill.

Beranger's 1779 drawing of Heapstown.
Gabrial Beranger's 1779 drawing of Heapstown cairn.

To the south east is the cairn called Shee Lugh on the highest point of Moytura, while to the south is Sheegorey, or Carn Corr-sliabh, on the eastern peak of the Curlew Mountains, where the 'frenzied druid' Cé paused when he fled the battle. Heapstown is the only cairn in the region which has no view to Knocknarea, this being blocked by a drumlin just north of the Heapstown cairn.

A map of Lough Arrow.
Cairns and other sites in the Lough Arrow region, showing the loction of Heapstown cairn in relation to the monuments on the plateau of Moytura.