Carrowmore, County Sligo | In the Dark


Today is 1st May, so it’s the Labour Day Holiday in Barcelona. Colleagues in Ireland will have to wait until Monday 6th May for their equivalent holiday. The First of May, Beltane (Bealtaine in Irish), is a festival of pagan origin that roughly marks the mid-point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. It’s one of the so-called Cross-Quarter Days that lie halfway between the equinoxes and solstices.

In view of the ancient origins of this holiday I thought I’d share some pictures of the amazing megalithic burial grounds at Carrowmore which is about 4km outside Sligo (where I have been on a secret mission). Carrowmore is the largest of the four megalithic cemeteries in Ireland in terms of the number of tombs, although the tombs are smaller in size and less complicated than the larger structures found at Brú na Bóinne. The structures at are also significantly older; there are signs of human habitation on the site going back at least 6000 years. The English name derives from the Irish An Cheathrú Mhór, which means ‘the great quarter’. Photographs don’t do justice to the extraordinary beauty of the landscape around the site but here is a panorama which gives some impression.

A visitor can easily understand why this was felt to be an appropriate last resting place for the Great and the Good. The surrounding topography is very interesting, as you can see from the first picture (of a model in the Visitor’s Centre); it’s on a peninsula between Sligo Harbour to the North and Ballysadare Bay to the South, and is surrounded on three sides by mountains. In particular, the site is overlooked from the west by Knocknarea, on top of which lies a large cairn, Miosgán Meadhbha, reputed to be the burial-place of the legendary Queen Maeve (Méabh in modern Irish). I was surprised to learn that this has never been excavated, so nobody really knows who or what is inside though it probably contains a passage tomb of similar form to those on the Carrowmore site. The cairn at the centre of Carrowmore, called Listoghil, the entrance to which you can see in one of the pictures, is a reconstruction.

Sadly, many other tombs were destroyed in the 19th Century, with stones being robbed to make walls when the land was enclosed, and large-scale quarrying for gravel in the area. Only some of the tombs are on publicly-owned land, but others are visible in nearby fields and indeed all around the area. There is even a stone circle in Sligo itself, on a housing estate called Abbeyquarter. Who knows what else is lurking under the unexcavated ground?

This forthcoming Bank Holiday weekend there is the Queen Maeve Festival in Sligo, but I will be in Barcelona.

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