For our own Easter Monday celebration – while staying in Dublin – we took a trip out to Fourknocks. This is a decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex, but very much a ‘little brother’ to the better known attractions of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
Only in Ireland would you be instructed to travel a mile down the road to pick up the key to a 5,000 year old monument (leaving a 20 Euro deposit for its safe return) and let yourself in by unlocking a heavy steel door that guards the way into the passage… But don’t be put off: it’s so well worth the effort. With luck you will be the only visitors and you will have the place to yourself – apart from the sheep families who share the field with Fourknocks. The name probably means ‘The Cold Hills’ – that’s the translation of the Irish Fuair Cnoc.
Fourknocks was unknown to archaeologists until a chance conversation in 1949, when a woman making a visit to Newgrange mentioned, “there are mounds like this on my uncle’s farm…” The site was then explored and excavated by Archaeologist P J (Paddy) Hartnett in the early 1950s. You can read the full excavation report* online, by signing on to JSTOR. Like all the Boyne Valley Neolithic monuments, the mound had collapsed inwards and the dig involved removing layers of earth and fallen stone, analysing the spoil material and working out how the original structure had been put together. It’s methodical, scientific – and pretty dry reading! However, I couldn’t help being completely entranced as I imagined spectacular carved stones gradually being revealed, unexpected artefacts being turned up, and the unusual dimensions of the central chamber being realised.
P J Hartnett’s excavation diagram – from his report published in 1957
This ‘pear shaped’ central chamber measures 41.92 sq metres in area, considerably bigger than those at Newgrange (16.50), Knowth (20.21) and Dowth (15.21). However, the mound itself is relatively small – a ‘pimple’ on the hillside with a diameter of only 19 metres (Newgrange has a diameter of 85 metres). Yet, when you stand on top of Fourknocks, you understand its significance – there are panoramic views in every direction over countryside, ocean and mountains. You might expect to see the other Boyne Valley monuments but in fact they are hidden by a ridge, so this one enjoys splendid isolation in every respect.
Cardinal Points: panoramic views in all directions from the mound of Fourknocks
Something else that’s unusual about Fourknocks is the way it has been reconstructed. Restoration of Archaeological structures has often been controversial. In Ireland the most notable example is Newgrange itself: Professor Michael J O’Kelly, who was in charge of the works there from 1962 to 1975, imagined that large numbers of white quartz stones which were found in and around the collapsed mound could have been used to face the entrance wall and duly designed the reconstructed passage tomb around this premise. He was (and still is) criticised for this ‘leap of faith’ – but, for me, the result is entirely justified: whether or not the original structure did look like this is perhaps irrelevant, as it has bequeathed to us such a visually iconic and powerful symbol of Neolithic Ireland…
Above and left: the great passage grave of Newgrange before excavation, Right: the iconic face of the restored monument today (image courtesy of Our Irish Heritage)
At Fourknocks the excavations did not prove that the chamber was ever roofed over. Certainly there was stone corbelling to suggest that this might have been attempted, but it is unlikely that the large span of the central court could have been enclosed in this way with the available technology, and the weight of the number of stones. However, complete enclosure is likely to have been a necessity, and a central post hole – which would have accommodated a large timber pillar – was found: Hartnett suggests that the roof covering was completed using light timber rafters and thatch. Rather than simulate this, a solution has been employed which is entirely modern – but, in fact, as imaginative as O’Kelly’s ideas at Newgrange: a reinforced concrete shell roof has been cast completley around and above the excavated structure. So what we see today as the ‘mound’ is a concrete dome which has been turfed over.
Open Door: the entrance to Fourknocks chamber outside and inside
But this 1950s innovation is far cleverer than it might seem. Cast into the new shell are holes and slits which project limited shafts of daylight into the otherwise unlit chamber. Each shaft has been carefully orientated to cast natural light on to one of the spectacular examples of megalithic art which are the showstoppers of this monument.
To properly experience the unique adventure of Fourknocks, go inside and – be brave – shut the heavy door behind you. Immediately you are in darkness, and disoriented. But wait: as your eyes adjust, the chamber comes alive.
The subtle shafts of daylight filtering through the roof perforations focus on their targets and, gradually, you realise that you have entered a gallery of startling images – images made by our ancestors thousands of years ago…
As Rock Art enthusiasts, our particular interests lie in the cupmarks, concentric circles and other carvings found on outcrops and boulders dispersed over the Irish (and British) landscape: it’s fascinating and intriguing – but should we call it Art? Perhaps those marks have been made as signposts, to define territory, or to provide information to passing visitors – we just don’t know. But, with the carvings at the Boyne Valley monuments there can be no doubt: their purpose is to startle, impress and delight – Art, with a capital A! Fourknocks is such a good example of megalithic or passage grave art, not because of its quantity or complexity (you’ll find far more elsewhere) – but because of the context: the fact that you can stand there on your own and be startled, impressed and delighted – without the intervention of artificial lights, interpretation centres or display boards. It’s just you and the Neolithic mind in there.
Fourknocks, the Newgrange complex, Loughcrew, Carrowkeel: there is even a passage tomb in our view from Nead an Iolair – over on Cape Clear Island and it produced a fine example of megalithic art, now in the Cork Public Museum. What were they for? In spite of being sometimes called passage graves or passage tombs we can’t assume necessarily that interment was their primary purpose, although significant human remains were found at Fourknocks, including cremations, skulls and bone fragments. Many of these are dated much later than the main structure – Bronze Age rather than Neolithic – suggesting a continuing use of and respect for the monuments over long periods of time. I hope we always retain that respect: the risk of the unsupervised access that we can enjoy at Fourknocks is a vulnerability of the site. Sadly, there is graffiti apparent on some of the stones, although this may be historic.
I could find no trace of folklore, legends or stories relating to Fourknocks. This is unusual for an ancient site in Ireland. Perhaps it’s because the place was lost to all but very local human memory for so long. Apart from the restored mound there appears to be either two or three other disturbed earthworks close by but not accessible – could this be the origin of ‘four’ cnocs (hills)?
For more excellent photographs of this monument have a look at Ken William’s work in Shadows and Stones. If you are passing this way – as we were – perhaps on your journey to see the marvels of Brú na Bóinne, don’t hesitate to look out this wonder of the megalithic world- it’s a little giant!
Below: P J Hartnett, a photograph taken at around the time of the excavation of Fourknocks, 1950s. Many thanks to his grand-daughter, Dee McMahon, for providing this and further historical information
* Excavation of a Passage Grave at Fourknocks, Co Meath: P J Hartnett – Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature Vol 58 (1956/1957), pp 197-277