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Dowth: Passage-tombs and souterrain
O 023 738
Sheet 43

Of the three principal tombs of the Bend-of-the-Boyne passage-tomb necropolis or prehistoric palace of culture and science, this is the earliest and the only one (so far) not to be ransacked, vandalised and travestied by modern archæologists. It was partly excavated in 1847 though it had been pillaged (by Vikings and earlier looters) long before that. The cairn or tumulus (signposed Dubhadh) is about 90 metres in diameter and 15 metres high. Three stone-lined passages lead into the mound from the W : one to a cruciform passage-tomb chamber, one to a circular passage-tomb chamber, and the third to a much later souterrain or refuge. Hitherto, the cruciform tomb was reached by climbing down a ladder in an iron cage, and crawling about over loose stones. Now, access is somewhat restricted, and all the features are guarded by metal grilles.

The long passage is crossed by 3 sill-stones. This tomb is - in all senses - less developed than the neighbouring and preceding tourist-attractions of Newgrange and Knowth, partly because the chamber is much lower, and partly because the decoration is much poorer. The chamber is lintelled rather than corbelled, and on the floor stands a single stone basin - somewhat the worse for wear after 5,000 years. The right-hand arm of the chamber leads into another long rectangular chamber with 2 subsidiaries: an L-shaped extension entered over a low sill. This may be the earliest part of the tomb, later brought within the design of the cruciform tomb. It is floored with a 2.4 metre long flagstone containing an oval bullaun (artificial depression). Several of the orthostats of passage and chamber are decorated with spirals, chevrons, lozenges and rayed circles. Rayed circles or suns can also just be seen

on one of the decorated kerbstones of the tumulus. A kerbstone with cup-marks, a spiral and a flower-like design marks the entrance to the second, smaller tomb - with modern concrete roof. Quartz was found fallen outside the kerbing, showing that the entrance to this tomb was surrounding by glittering white, as at Newgrange. This tomb has a few decorated stones, and a single, massive right-hand recess. At the entrance to the passage of the cruciform tomb is an early mediæval souterrain.

~ Nearby is a fine henge - here photographed for - and probably best seen from the air.

Fourknocks: Passage-tomb
O110 621
Sheet 43

3.2 km WNW of the village of (The) Naul, along a short track leading from a by-road, a notice is displayed stating where the key can be obtained for a deposit. A fine cruciform tomb, excavated, and now preserved under a concrete shell dome grassed over, is imaginatively lit by slits above the decorated lintels of the three recesses. It is quite in contrast to the Disneyfication that has occurred at Newgrange. The original tomb was probably roofed with timber and sods. There are 12 fine decorated stones: one upright one has a stylised human face.
Be careful not to bang your head (as I have done) on a treacherous iron bar above the iron-doored entrance ! From the top of the tomb, the cairn at Howth is visible through a small notch in the landscape to the south-south-east. This tomb and others in the area are under threat from quarrying.

There are actually three tombs at Fourknocks, the other two offering little above ground to the visitor, as can be seen in this aerial photo.

~ Just over 1 km NNW is a fine tree-ringed tumulus which is much like the Fourknocks tomb before it was excavated, and 1.6 km NNW is a henge-monument, also intact. A short distance to the E and close to the N side of the road is another fine tumulus, somewhat overgrown, but with many of its kerbstones surviving.

~ 2.3 km N by E are the remnants of a stone circle or cairn-kerb in Greenanstown (O 102 643): three large boulders sitting on a sward at a road-junction, in front of a bungalow. Behind the bungalow is another large boulder (of conglomerate) which could well come from the same circle or kerb.

~ 7 km W in Hawkinstown, close to a road-junction (O 040 630) is an ogam-stone which has been moved from somewhere nearby. As well as the remains of an ogam-inscription near the base are other horizontal and diagonal grooves allegedly made by the uncle of the present (2003) landowner - who referred to the stone as "worthless"! It is not unusual for such stones to be used for knife-sharpening, whether out of a misplaced sense of ritual or out of the same malice which destroyed many thousands of megaliths, especially in the 20th century.

~ 6.5 km NE are the remains of Knocknagin Passage-tomb (O 179 665) - a low mound over 20 metres in diameter with several surrounding kerb-stones protruding from the soil. It is quite separate from a nearby group of tombs on the other (S) side of the Delvin River - see under Bremore in county Dublin.
400 metres ENE in the same townland, a rough circle of rocks lies on the beach below the high tide line - the only group of large stones on the entire 5 km stretch of strand. They are the remains of one of four tombs which stood on the sand-cliffs that have been eroded from beneath. A correspondent, Kathrin Marsh, to whom I am indebted for this information, tells me that she has seen two metres of cliff disappear in a single winter. Of the other three tombs almost nothing remains. They fell victim to the construction of the Great Northern Railway from Dublin to Belfast. One of them, writes Kathrin Marsh, contained a very fine stone basin that was broken up for railway ballast and was actually in the line of the track. The second was in the field between the railway line and the sea. Three kerb stones survive of this tomb as part of the sand cliff face. Last time the field was ploughed fragments of neolithic pottery and a single stone marble were found in the field along with Victorian field drains, clay pipes and other débris presumably from the railway construction.

~ 5 km ESE are the mounds at Knockbrack - see under Bremore in county Dublin.

~ 10 km NNE of Fournocks, between the R 150 and the river Nanny, less than 1 km WSW of Laytown, is a fine tumulus over 6 metres high and 25 metres in diameter. A late Iron Age burial mound, it illustrates the longevity of tumuli in Ireland.

~ 16.5 km NNE of Fourknocks, at Baltray (O 144 782) across the Boyne in county Louth, W of a track leading N out of the hamlet of Baltray close to a strange concrete structure, are two standing-stones, over 2 metres high, which, it has recently been revealed, align significantly with the Fourknocks tomb. Formerly there were three, but the absent monolith has not prevented the discovery that the larger of the two stones aligns with the offshore island of Rockabill towards sunrise at the Winter Solstice. There are also alignments to sunset at Summer Solstice and moonrise at Winter Solstice.

Killary: Standing-stone
N 880 830
Sheet 35

If this little standing-stone were anywhere else, it would not be worth mentioning. But because it is half on a path in a pleasant graveyard where there is also the shaft of an Irish Romanesque sculpted cross (with scenes of Adam & Eve, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Noah's Ark and Daniel with the Lions), it is worth remarking on - even though it is only one metre high. Standing-stones occur in scores of ancient graveyards, including Killadeas and Dreenan in Fermanagh. Sometimes they have been Christianised, as at several sites in the Dingle Peninsula of Kerry.

Knowth: Passage-tomb - see under Newgrange, below.

Loughcrew: Passage-tomb complex
N 569 773 to N 600 780 (approx.)
Sheet 42

Occupying the two Loughcrew Hills of Carnbane East and Carnbane West in Slieve na Calliagh (Sliabh na Caillighe), with car-parks at the saddle between the hills, are several passage-tombs, some of which are usually locked: see notices for where keys may be obtained. There were originally between 50 and 100 cairns or tumuli in this prominently-sited necropolis, but the usual Western European destruction and neglect of prehistoric monuments (from earliest times) has greatly reduced the number. Those which are locked have fine decoration, as well as one or two small, unroofed tombs. Carnbane East is the hill also known as Sliabh na Callighe, or the Hag's Mountain: the tumuli were said to have dropped from the Earth Mother's apron.
Cairn T here is very well preserved with fine decoration on many stones - much of which has been disfigured by nincompoops chalking it for photographic or didactic purposes: chalk, unlike charcoal, is extremely difficult to remove from rock. It has a fine kerb of 47 exceptionally large stones, one of which ('The Hag's Chair') is over 3 metres long and 2 metres wide. Cairn T (richly decorated)

is also surrounded by 6 satellites with a variety of decoration in them, including solar designs.
Cairn S has an early/mid-May alignment with the setting sun, whose beams stream down the left hand side of the passage (looking out) and form a rectangle of light on right side of the backstone (looking in). It slowly decreases in size as the sun reaches the horizon. It may have even entered the now-destroyed right hand chamber before dipping below the horizon.

On Carnbane West, there are two large cairns, one apparently empty, but the other (cairn L) containing a fine decorated tomb with five side-chambers and a limestone monolith of 'ritual significance',

surrounded by 7 smaller roofless tombs, some with decoration, and some with their short passages (mostly facing E) still partly roofed.

A sunny early-morning summer visit is recommended to see the engravings well.

These tombs represent an intermediate stage in the development of elaborate tombs between the skyline cairns of Carrowkeel in Sligo, and the lowland complexes in the E of county Meath.

~ About 700 metres to the E of Carnbane East, on Patrickstown Hill, are the less-accessible remains of 4 more tombs, out of a former 25 or so.

~ On King's Mountain, 3.2 km to the E, a surviving lintel now stands upright on the site of a destroyed tomb. Half of one face is covered with well-executed spirals (the largest being over 40 cms in diameter) and arcs.

~ 800 metres E of Carnbane East, 300 metres W of a by-road and up a muddy farm-track in Ballinvally (N 581 786) are the remains of a stone circle, some 25 metres in diameter, in which four large stones up to 2 are very obvious. It is visible from the cairns on Carnbane E and W - and vice versa. A ruined wall cuts across its eastern side, separating one of the seven or so surviving uprights from the others, one of which is massive, and another of which has beautiful natural fissures in it. Five or six stones extend in a row N of the circle for a distance of 800 metres, and there are several small isolated standing-stones scattered about the surrounding area. For a more detailed description of this very disturbed site, click here.
Amongst the ruins of the wall is a decorated stone (GPS: N 58107 78599). On the upper surface there are three finely carved cup and ring designs. The delicacy and style belong to the passage-tomb art of this area (cf the stone at King's Mountain 5.3 km E), rather than to the open-air rock-art that is engraved and pecked on panels, boulders and rock-surfaces in coastal areas of Ireland.
Another stone with fine petroglyphs from the same townland is in Dublin's National Museum of Ireland.

~ About 4 km SE of Slieve na Calliagh, in the graveyard of Bobsville (N 616 744) is a large upright stone bearing many cupmarks, and a large wedge-shaped depression. The graves of the burial-ground are all set into a rather large mound, 3-4 metres high and about 40 metres in diameter: possibly a passage-tomb that the cupmarked stone came from or was set up on. Set into the wall by the gate there are some 'Clonmacnoise-style' decorated cross-slabs of the ?11th century, and a Tau or T-cross.

Newgrange: Passage-tomb and Stone circle
O 007 727
Sheet 43

Open daily, with guided tours in summer, this remarkable tomb has been degraded by "restoration" and by its status as one of Ireland's top three tourist attractions and the only prehistoric tomb that most visitors to - and natives of - Ireland can be bothered to see. Under the pressure of coachloads, the casually curious, and the faintly-inquisitive, not to mention the fatuously over-restored façade, it has lost all its atmosphere. Thus it is, perhaps, in a worse situation than Stonehenge. Books and photographs "explaining" it can be bought on site - which might more fittingly be a tomb or shrine to Padre Pio than to archæology.

It is hard to appreciate the fine circle surrounding the mound of Newgrange, because of the razmatazz of the pseudo-authentic entrance to the tomb, the visitor centre, the guides, the buses, the ticket-booth and all those things that cheapen the place for the brief bemusement of gawpers who mostly know little about Ireland and less about prehistoric Europe - and go away knowing very little more. The circle was erected after the tomb was built, apparently by late-Neolithic "Beaker-people" from Northern Britain, who also built a smaller circle at Ballynoe in county Down. Twelve out of an original 35 large stones survive.

The reason for the building of the circle was perhaps to incorporate it into a new form of sanctity, just as old churches in Ireland were taken over from the Celtic rite first by the Roman orthodoxy, then later by the Anglicans. Or possibly to restore it to an ancient form of sanctity as a reaction against the development of the Boyne Valley monuments into cathedrals of science.

There are also satellite-tombs, many of which have also been excavated.

~ Slightly over 1 km NW of Newgrange is the even more complex, marvellous and even more pillaged tomb of Knowth, with several decorated stones outside and inside the tombs,

and also with satellite tombs. It is has been sold to mass-tourism in the same way as Newgrange, and included in the same "Customer Package" - and if there are disquieting reports of the manufacturing and/or altering and/or suppressing of archæological evidence to bolster comfortable hypotheses, there is a strong tradition of such practices in Irish archæology.

By the time the passage-tomb-building societies had extended their activities and influence from Sligo, via the skyline-necropolises of Carrowkeel and Loughcrew, as far as the Bend of the Boyne - where (apart from the absence of dominating heights) the land and landscape resembled the Sacred Plateau of Carrowmore and environs - they had become obsessed, like the Babylonians whose systems we still use, with astronomy and astrology, and obviously were a plutocratic, totalitarian hierocracy.

Rathkenny: Portal-tomb, see under Hurlstone, county Louth

Tara: Passage-tomb and phallic pillar
N 920 595
Sheet 42

Before the commercialisation of Newgrange to a kind of pseudo-Neolithic Mall, this was the most celebrated (and disappointing) of Irish sites. The earthworks are of Iron Age date but are not the remains of banqueting halls etc. that Romantic songs might lead us to expect. One of the two megalithic monuments on the Hill of Tara is the remarkable Stone of Destiny (Lía Fáil - thus dubbed in 1837) which is a very phallic granite pillar some 1.5 metres high, formerly known as Fergus' Cock, moved to the centre of an earthwork to commemorate the dead killed in a skirmish during the ill-fated 1798 Rebellion. Fortunately it is no longer upstaged by the huge and hideous concrete statue of St Patrick that was removed in 1992 - but a very similar one has been erected much nearer the church. Whether or not Lía Fáil is the same as that mentioned in the Book of Leinster (as one of the Three Oracle-stones of Ireland - all in the Northern half of the island - the others being Crom Cruaich at Killycluggin (Cavan) and Cloch Óir from which the town of Clogher in Tyrone gets its name) is impossible to say. There are also three smaller mounds around it that are now incorporated into the fosse and banks of the earthwork.
Recent geophysical research has revealed that a huge oval temple, measuring about 170 metres at its widest point, and once surrounded by about 300 huge posts made from an entire oak forest, lies directly beneath the Lía Fáil. It is thought to be from 4300 to 4500 years old.

The Lía Fáil was moved from its position as significant standing-stone near the second megalithic monument on the Hill: "The Mound of the Hostages", which is in fact a small passage-less passage-tomb, whose entrance is covered with a grille.

Its walls are composed of just 7 massive orthostats, one of which is decorated, and only half of the chamber is roofed: with 2 massive capstones. One of the great celebrations traditionally associated with Tara was the week-long festival of Samhain (1st November, the 'Gap of the Year', when the veil between the natural and the supernatural can easily be rent) - and when the rising sun illuminates - through the grille - the back of the 'Mound of the Hostages'.

A recent theory suggests that the decorated stone in the 'Mound of the Hostages' is in fact a plan of the Hill of Tara.    See:

The man in charge of the team which found the oval temple said that there were no plans for excavation. According to The Irish Examiner (November 2002), Mr Newman remarked that "There was a time when excavation was the first step in archæological research. That's not the case now because it really is the systematic destruction of a monument. When you are dealing with something as important as the Hill of Tara, you don't do something like that lightly." [My emphasis.] More recently, however, the Hill of Tara has been threatened by motorway construction.