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.
There is a hill in this locality called Keash Hill. Caves at the back of this hill are still pointed out as places where giants lived. Nearby there is a hollow with a flag flooring which is called the "Giants' Table" and likely it is here they cooked and eat their food.
Running parallel to this hill and at the back of it is a place called "Dun Ui Bhéara" where the Cailleach Bhéara is supposed to have lived.
Old people tell stories of a fight between the Cailleach Bhéara and one of the giants. He stood on the summit of the hill and fired stones down at her. She lifted stones and earth and fired them up at him. The stones that reached the top of the hill form a "cairn" which is still to be seen. The place from which they were taken formed a small lake which remains to the present day.
Some time ago if children were bold their mothers threatened to tell Cailleach Bhéara and immediately they got quiet. She was able to walk across Lough Arrow and the waters at their deepest part just reached her arm pit.