At the heart of the Coolrea peninsula in County Sligo lies one of the greatest megalithic complexes of ancient Ireland, An Cheathrú Mhór or Carrowmore as we call it today: the Irish name means ‘The Great Quarter’. Spread over a plateau of some 150 acres and centred on the high point of Listoghil are thirty recognisable tomb sites but it is suggested that there were once at least a hundred monuments here.
The Carrowmore monuments that we know today cover over 150 acres: it’s likely that there is much more to this site which has been lost, or which remains to be recovered
The changing landscape has taken its toll: from the 18th century onwards land clearance and quarrying have damaged and obliterated many of the remains and even as recently as 1983 Sligo County Council sought to place a municipal landfill dump adjacent to the known sites. Fortunately a few alert local residents objected and took the case to the High Court in Dublin. Initially their objections were overruled but in 1989 an appeal to the Supreme Court was successful and the very important landscape context of Carrowmore has been saved, hopefully for all time. In that same year the state commenced purchase of a part of the site and has developed a sensitively planned visitor facility now run by the Office of Public Works. Since then more of the surrounding site has been purchased and is in public ownership.
Carrowmore landscape: this view to the great central cairn on Listoghil shows the nature of the terrain and the context of the monuments which it is so important to preserve
It’s the integrity of the complex that is so special here. The monuments found at Carrowmore are called boulder circles, though several have central dolmens or rudimentary passages. Generally around 12 to 15 metres in diameter, the circles contain 30 to 40 boulders, usually of gneiss, the material of choice for the tombs. Sometimes an inner boulder circle is also present.They are considered to be an early type of chambered cairn, or passage grave, though in fact, they may be the ancestor of a few monument types. This is the view of local man Martin Byrne, historian, artist, musician and our tour guide for the day. He pointed out to us how the passage of each of the boulder groupings is oriented, not towards a solar or calendrical event but to Listoghil, where an enormous cairn encloses a box-like stone chamber with a large capstone.
One of the boulder circles at Carrowmore with its central chambered tomb. This view is looking away from Listoghil and towards another significant landscape feature, Knocknarea, which is topped by the cairn known as Queen Maeve’s Tomb, 6 km to the west. There are 6 more mountain-top cairns on the peaks of the Ox Mountains to the south. The central focus of the Carrowmore complex is the cairn on Listoghil, although this is not as dramatically visible as many of the surrounding cairns
The chamber on Listoghil has been given a modern context, with the original cairn covering having been cut away to allow access. This chamber displays the only examples of rock art to be found so far within the Carrowmore complex. This is hard to see in normal lighting conditions, but successive observations have enabled these images to be made:
The formerly covered central chamber of the Listoghil cairn: top left is a photograph taken during excavations by Göran Burenhult in 1996-98 – this shows three boulders in front of the tomb which are said to have been an earlier Neolithic monument displaced by the tomb construction. Top right is the OPW interpretation board for the chamber and above are drawings of the rock art on the edge of the roof slab compiled by Guillaume Robin
It’s startling to discover that the Carrowmore complex could be over 6,000 years old: carbon dating from some of the finds has suggested this. If so, then it’s the earliest of the passage grave cemeteries in use in Ireland. Many cremated remains have been found over this site (spread over a long period of time), although unburnt human bones were also recovered in the Listoghil chamber. It could be speculated that the focal point of Listoghil must have been the resting place of a very important person – or dynasty; we will never know for sure.
‘Accidental’ rock art and rock scribing noticed on monuments at Carrowmore: these boulders have natural markings on them but it is possible that the monument builders were attracted by these marks, which may themselves have inspired carvings
The Carrowmore complex has been visible enough historically to attract the attention of antiquarians – which is useful for later archaeologists, as some parts which are now lost have been historically recorded, albeit using methodology which would nowadays be considered inadequate. Gabriel Beranger, who was born in Rotterdam in 1725, settled in Dublin in 1760 and was a notable illustrator of antiquities in Ireland during a long lifetime; he visited and recorded Carrowmore. A local landlord, Roger Walker, carried out some excavations of the tombs in the 19th century but made no significant records; it is suggested that he was a treasure hunter. George Petrie surveyed the site and numbered the tombs in 1837 but it was another 50 years before archaeologist William Gregory Wood-Martin made the first methodically recorded excavations. William Wakeman produced some exquisite watercolour sketches in 1879. More recently Swedish archaeologist Göran Burenhult undertook detailed studies between 1977-1982 and 1994-1998 and this work included the excavation and subsequent reconstruction of the Listoghil cairn.
Upper Left: the work of Gabriel Beranger who visited the area in the 1700s – this shows Queen Maeve’s Tomb on Knocknarea. Upper right: William Wakeman’s watercolour of Tomb 4 in 1879 (Sligo County Library). Above: Listoghil chamber tomb today
Our guide Martin has studied the complexes at both Carrowmore and Carrowkeel (a future destination for us) for many years and is imbued with the archaeology and the landscape. He gently pointed us to the fact that relationships can perhaps be seen between the profiles of some of the boulders – particularly the capstones of the tombs – and the more distant landscape. I find this fascinating: I have always felt, as an architect, that there should be a conscious designed relationship between any building that is erected by human endeavour and the setting of that building within nature. Could these parallels that we might be seeing at Carrowmore be conscious?
Rocks reflecting nature? Were the capstones chosen to specifically echo the landscape context? A debatable – and very subjective – notion…
My day was made when I discovered that Martin was a musician – as is Margaret, and I joined them in their colourful house for a little session!