October 8: Among the Neolithic

Today saw an end to my at-arm’s-length studies of the Neolithic culture. Now I’m here. I’m in the middle of it.

My guide, Martin Byrne, former student of archaeology, now student of Irish traditional music, arrived at my B&B this morning for our day of touring the Neolithic structures in this area, Like most of the Irish people I have met so far, he was very nice and thoughtful. He suggested that I follow him in his car into the garage in Sligo, so that they might be able to work on it while we toured. (I’m now thinking of this as my “wheel ordeal” or W.O.) The garage sent us to the Ford dealership to look for a wheel. There, the service area was closed but the salesman told me he was fairly sure they had that wheel in stock. If they did, work could be done on Monday. My dilemma: do I spend the extra day in Sligo and risk finding out on Monday that they don’t have the wheel. If they didn’t, it would take them two days to get one and I’d have to drive on the Slane, the destination I’d just put off for a day, and begin my search for a wheel there.

Nothing could be done then, so we left the car in a safe spot and continued on in Martin’s car. Along the way he told me about his studies, and his two sons. (Note to Graham: his one son Figg I think, is desperate to find Pokemon cheats online but can’t. Any advice?) He explained that there are huge numbers of neolithic structures in this area, some simple rings of stone, others more complex passages. Their positioning is the important thing. Most are on high points of land or in prominent valley locations. They can almost all be seen from one another, like signal fires or something. Also, many are built so that they point to or open toward the most central one in the area.

The two main sites here (and by sites I mean groups of structures) are Carrowmore and Carrowkeel. Carrowmore is lower down but contains the most structures. There are many stone circles. They’ve had to number them all to keep them straight. As we drove, Martin would point to the corner of a farmer’s field and say “There’s number 17” or whatever. They seem to have been sacred, spiritual places. No one will likely ever really know their significance and purpose. Theories abound.

The most significant cairn in that area, archaeologically, was a ring of stones that had at its centre a low, square “room.” While the other structures in Carrowmore were all on the surface, or on built up grassy mounds, this one has what might have been a sort of passage, and the stone box at its centre was slightly below ground level. It is the most like a passage structure in Carrowmore and so the heritage people are restoring it as though it was one.

One of the highest points of land in the area is Knocknarea. (Sort of rhymes with “knock your knee.”) On it sits the largest cairn in Sligo County. (Sligo is the county but also the name of the town all these are nearest to.) The cairn is known as Queen Maeve’s tomb. Though Queen Maeve entered the local folklore centuries after the cairn was built, the legend says that she, a mighty warrior, was buried there in full battle gear, standing up, so she’d be ready to continue fighting her enemies. This cairn can be seen from almost anywhere on the entire peninsula, as you’ll see in my photos.

Martin then took me to an area not Neolithic in nature but interesting. It’s known locally as the fairy glen. You’d never find it if you didn’t know it was there. Halfway up to Queen Maeve’s tomb, there is a path off on the downward side of the slope that leads into a cleft in the rock. Straight rock walls tower on either side and in the centre is beautiful green life. It forms a pathway that leads on for quite a distance. It was there that Martin picked up something off the ground and said, “I love finding these this time of year.” What he’d found was a hazelnut, freshly fallen from the bush. I learned some very important things: hazelnuts grow on bush sized plants; their leaves are round with jagged edges; the bush sprouts long conical things, like you’d find on a birch tree; the nuts are harvested in October; and I got to see what they look like before they fall off and dry out. That may not sound important, but hazelnuts were one of the staple foods of the Irish neolithic people. I definitely needed to know how to describe them.

At this point, we prepared to head further south, to Castlebaldwin where Martin lives in the shadow of the ridge that is home to Carrowkeel. Since that site is closer to my B&B, we picked up my car from Sligo and drove it to Castlebaldwin. When we retrieved it, I found a Ford business card stuck in the window. Written on the back were five words that made me very happy: “Yes, we have a wheel.”

While seeing the cairns of Carrowmore was exciting, Carrowkeel was so much more so. We drove up a long winding road that clung tenuously to the side of the ridge. There are no trees up here. Just the ground, the sky and your car, hovering somewhere in between. Oh, yeah, and about 30 wild and woolly sheep meandering on and off the road. I was very glad I’d hired a guide to drive this narrow, bumpy road.

The view from the top was incredible. We watched as a wave of rain swept toward us, then a double rainbow appeared. On one side was sun; on the other, rain. When you’re 1000 ft above the surrounding landscape, there is a beautiful view in three directions. There is also no sound but the wind. It isn’t hard to imagine a much simpler life when you’re in that setting.

First we visited cairn G, one of two passage structures up here that you can actually enter. It looked like a badger hole. (Rob, think back to the caves in Halton Hills. Almost that unexpected.) Of course, there was a mound of rock behind this opening, which should give you confidence that there’s something worth seeing inside, but still. You squeeze down past the entrance rock, then duck-walk through a passage a little more tha a metre long before you suddenly realize there’s no rock just above your head. The passage has opened up. The meter-square chamber is high enough to stand in. In front of you and to either side there is a step down (duck your head again) into separate recesses, like rooms.

Looking back out through the passageway, you realize that the doorway lets in some light, but more enters through the opening, called a roofbox, above the door. It’s sort of like a transom. For me, this opening is significant. This is the only other Neolithic structure besides Newgrange, the one that’s my objective on this trip, to have a roofbox. At Newgrange, the roofbox allows light to enter the passage (a passage m-u-c-h long than this one) at sunrise on winter solstice, the morning after the longest night of the year. Martin tells me that the sun never gets all the way to the back of this passage through this roofbox. Instead, he and his Carrowkeel friends believe that this structure is aligned to let in moonlight on a particular day of the year. The theory has never been thoroughly tested however.

It is quite different inside the passage than outside on the hilltop. It’s not hard to believe that this place was used for something spiritual or ceremonial, as it might have been. It’s quiet, serene somehow, with the sound of the wind almost eliminated.

Back outside, we walk east and look down on the plateau where the remains of a Neolithic village have been found. They estimate more than 100 huts existed there and that this is where the builders of these stone structures lived. Overlooking it, on the hilltop is another pile of stones, a cairn with no interior.

Then we walk to nearby cairn K. This opening is much more welcoming, much less protected. Again, the duck-walk for a metre or so leads to an opening, this one with a 3-metre high corbelled ceiling. (Corbelling is the method of overlapping stones, each layer sticking out slightly further over the opening, then capping off the top. It’s much like building a roof with Lego, only no notches to hold it together.) This may not be fancy architecture but I can’t imagine building it. Again, there are chambers off in three directions. You have to duck down to get into each but their individual ceilings rise again to more than standing height.

We sat inside K for awhile, soaking up the feel of all this ancient rock. After a few minutes your eyes adjust surprisingly well and you can see the surfaces even in the recesses where no light from the door reaches. The sound of the wind changed and I looked down the passage to see hail bouncing around, and down into the passageway. Within five minutes we came out into sunshine.

We then looked inside cairn H (pronounced with an “h” sound at the beginning). It is collapsed, but Martin tells me it only had one chamber at end of the passage.

Our tour of the sites over, Martin returned us to his house where he made me a cup of tea and let me look online for a wi-fi hotspot in Sligo. I’ve been out of internet contact for a few days now and wanted to catch up before moving on to Slane on Monday. I’d asked Martin earlier about the uilleann pipes (pronounced “ill-in” if you can believe it. I don’t know how to pronounce anything over here!!) and so he burned me a CD of the music while we drank our tea. This Irish precursor to the Scottish bagpipes is much subtler, softer, sounding almost like a fiddle. (Uillean means elbow, which squeezes the bag.)

It was exciting and my guide knew every alignment, every measurement I asked. He scared me a little when he told me I was the one of three authors who’ve contacted him about research for a Newgrange project. Then I discovered they are both looking at that site but in much later times — fifth century and so on. No need for panic.

And that was my day. I took many pictures but I’ve tried to limit the number I sent to Rob. Still, I wanted you to see a bit of what I saw.

I know these messages are getting longer. I realized that I need this detailed record. It may, however, be more than what some of you bargained for. With Rob keeping the website up to date, if you’d prefer visiting that periodically to having these long e-mails arrive almost daily, just let me know. I won’t be offended if you ask to be taken off the address list. Once I’m at Newgrange, writing and ambling aimlessly, I suspect I’ll have less to write e-mails about. This day in Sligo was a very full day, to be sure.

With my W.O. almost behind me, I’m looking forward to the next leg of the journey: Loughcrew, and on to Newgrange.

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