The Modern Antiquarian. Stone Circles, Ancient Sites, Neolithic Monuments, Ancient Monuments, Prehistoric Sites, Megalithic MysteriesThe Modern Antiquarian

Carrowkeel-Keshcorran Complex


Oh Carrowkeel... word fails me, but I guess I should try and describe something of what it meant to visit this astonishing prehistoric ritual complex. For me Carrowkeel is quite simply the finest of the major Irish megalithic cemeteries. Sure, it lacks the connoisseur's art of the Bru na Boinne tombs and Loughcrew - and is of somewhat rougher construction, it has to be said - and Carrowmore is simply mind-boggling in extent. But for a 'mountain-head' like me, Carrowkeel really does have it all, the tombs perched upon the Bricklieve Mountains (Breac Shliabh, or 'speckled mountains') overlooking the gorgeous Loch Arrow and possessing a magnificent vista towards the one and only Knocknarea.

Leave the main N4 Sligo road at Castlebaldwin and follow the 'historical trail' (a bit of a misnomer, obviously, since this is a journey into prehistory) roughly southwards, with the cairn-topped Kesh Corran rearing up to your right. The road surface becomes progressively 'rougher', as if to reflect the surrounding landscape, with high limestone cliff faces curiously reminiscent of Northern England, until a sign proclaims that the final kilometer to the cairns is indeed passable by car. Hmm. Perhaps it's something to do with me being a somewhat cynical Anglo Saxon/Celt/and-whatever-else-hybrid, but we decide to walk nonetheless, fearing a touch o' the Blarney stone. Wisely as it transpires, too, although the Aussie kangarooing (ho! ho!) past us in his hire car would probably have disagreed whilst exclaiming 'where's the cairns, dude!'. Last seen careering downhill towards Loch Arrow...... he at least gave us a laugh and, with large cairns seemingly crowning every ridge, may well have stopped me freaking out altogether with a little light relief. No worries, dude.

The very rough approach track terminates at a turning-area-cum-car-park (ha!) from where a short climb brings us to the first monument. To state that the prosaically named 'Cairn G' is a 'good way to begin' is putting it very mildly indeed, the well preserved cairn covering a magnificent cruciform chamber, its solid roof slabs supported upon eight (I think) orthostats. There's more however, for the chambered tomb possesses a 'Newgrange-style' letter-box which apparently allows the setting summer solstice sun to penetrate the chamber on 21st June. This is obviously the reverse of the world famous arrangement at Newgrange, so elevating this tomb into the premier league of Irish passage graves in the process. Oh to be here when that happens!

The next cairn uphill (Cairn H) has sadly collapsed into the chamber, although I can attest it is still possible to crawl down the passageway. Well, a Gladman's gotta do what a Gladman's gotta do, as they say. Cairn K, however, crowns the summit of the northern Bricklieves and is a real beauty, the cruciform chamber within exceedingly well preserved and reached by a long, low entrance passage akin to the great Orcadian tombs. The three pentagonal side chambers are exquiste, the corbelled roof likewise. And if I'm not very much mistaken.... the passage is aligned upon Maeve's Cairn surmounting distant Knocknarea! It's all too much, it really is. No, seriously, because as well as a large cist to the east of the tomb, the ruined 'Cairn L' to the west, and a nearby settlement (no doubt the home of the people who used these tombs?), cairns seem to crown every horizon. As old Irish comedian Frank Carson used to say.... 'And there's more'. Much, much more at Carrowkeel.

Sadly I must leave and who knows, I may never return? But no matter. Carrowkeel will always have me in thrall.
16th March 2010ce
Edited 16th March 2010ce

Comments (4)

I wanna go right now.
You get about a bit dont you, reminding me that theres so many places still on that list.
postman Posted by postman
17th March 2010ce
Brilliant fieldnotes, heard a few people going on about this place. I've been loads of times to Ireland why didn't I go there? Aargh!!!! Great stuff Mr G. drewbhoy Posted by drewbhoy
17th March 2010ce
a good tribute to a great site. Spent 6 hrs up there last Sept. Were you so enamoured with the "light-box" in cairn G and its impressive chambered interior that you were blinded to the vertical slit in the entrance closing stone? Slightly S shaped, it too allows a beam of light to slice through the rock, the only example of its kind anywhere. I wrote about this because it has never been noticed or commented on by any of the archaeological 'experts'. Equally you will find no mention of this in any publication anywhere concerning these monumental civil engineering projects. For that is what they were. These were built up to 2,000 yrs before Newgrange, 3,000 before Stonehenge. Progress was a much slower process way back then.
You are spot on to consider this place as extra special in the evolution of these megaliths. What they attempted here was to lead eventually to a world-wide phenomena as it was improved upon. Unfortunately for Rupert Soskin, who made the 'Standing with Stones' TV documentary, he bypassed this whole complex and missed out on the opening chapters of 'the greatest story never told'.
There is evidence of intentional damage wreaked upon this site, as there is on many others. When and by whom, makes a fascinating story all of its own. Coming to a bookshop near you.

I have some photos of that slit if someone can advise me how to upload them to the site. (there are some here by RYANER but they are not centred on this)

A large P.S. please, please, stop referring to these as passage graves and tombs. These were never built with this purpose in mind although, much later, when there original use was abandoned, some where used for crypts.
Posted by dondemon
11th April 2010ce
Interesting. Assume you've got all the data, but they will be in the book, right? Good plug. Must admit I'm intrigued since these are bold assertions for the site. Needless to say I would want to know what dating evidence there is for the 'structures' to have lain 'empty' prior to later burial insertions and, assuming this is forthcoming, what were they actually designed for? Can anyone truly know the Neolithic mind without some pretty obvious clues... such as human remains?

As you no doubt guessed I noticed the slit, but in the presence of the 'light box' didn't attach any particular significance. Amateurs eh? If you've JPEG images you can add them to the Carrowkeel page via the 'Add and Image' option. I must admit I find it hard to be overly rational in these circumstances and tend to be caught up in the moment ....usually takes a second or third visit with complex sites..... Or then again perhaps that's not such a bad thing. The siting of many a megalithic site would suggest an appreciation of melodrama and a highly developed understanding of human behaviour/ the psyche. I don't think we've changed that much, despite all the scientific advances, and they tend to get me hook, line and sinker. I still 'hear' the banshee when wild camping even though I 'know' there's nothing there.

In defence of Rupert I have to say I thought he catered for his target audience - assuming this to have been the interested layman - pretty well. Attempting an overview of a subject that thankfully evokes such emotion in people will never be easy - but someone had to grasp the nettle and offer a companion work to people who might have been put off by Mr Cope's, er, idiosyncracities. I've found information on Irish sites very hard to come by, so perhaps a lack of general awareness of Carrowkeel is not overly surprising. Just so happens I'm drawn to the high places.

Look forward to your work... in the interim, however, I guess I'll continue to call structures found containing human remains - and entered via stone passage-ways - 'passage graves'. Even if there is compelling evidence this wasn't the original function, that's what many of them became, after all?
12th April 2010ce
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