Although rising to a relatively modest 1,078ft, the incredible mini-mountain of Knocknarea (Cnoc na Riabh) appears much higher to the passing traveller, the result of its isolated coastal position emphasising its full elevation literally from sea level. Indeed, water would appear to be key to its significance within the landscape, the deep incursions of Sligo Harbour (to the north) and Ballysadare Bay (to the south) combining with the Garvoge River, draining Lough Gill (to the east), to form the peninsular upon which the mountain stands, to the west of the great Carrowmore megalithic cemetery. That Knocknarea and the latter are linked, I guess, must go without saying?
Knocknarea is visible - nay, dominates the skyline - for many miles around the locality, making it a suitable spot to erect surely one of the most enigmatic pile of stones in all Ireland... Miosgan Meadhbha, or Maeve's Cairn. Unexcavated, like nearby Heapstown Cairn, the monument is on a par with the great passage graves of Bru na Boinne in terms of size, but, for me, eclipses them in terms of visual impact and siting. Although generally thought to contain a burial chamber (or two) - oh come on, it must, surely? - I suppose we could even have an Irish variant upon the Silbury theme if this was found not be the case after all? Hmm. Unlikely, I think.
The monument is bordered by a substantial bank and several smaller cairns, further emphasising its stature, as well as a small prehistoric settlement to the north east. And of course there's the sweeping sea views across Sligo Bay and beyond Sligo itself to the elegant escarpment of Yeat's Benbulben, the evocative scene enhanced by cloud swirling around the cairn and across the summit plateau. Suffice to say if there isn't a great queen buried within... there bloody well should be!
Knocknarea truly has it all, so you won't be surprised to know that there's a price to pay for an audience with Queen Maeve... that of a steep climb. I'd suggest the easiest approach is the obvious one, via a pretty rough track starting from the Grange North car park to the south east.. not easy, but within the capabilities of the average mortal, I'd have thought. We took approx 45 minutes, although this included a diversion to eulogise with a typically rosy cheeked farmer over the beauty of his two magnificent horses whilst his cattle curiously looked on. Bear in mind the aforementioned cloud, however. Although a mini-mountain, normal rules apply, so take care.
Knocknarea dominates the landscape of its peninsula gloriously. We were camping at Strandhill and by the time we had been there for 3 days I was itching to climb it.
I had read about the old tradition of taking stones from Maeve's Tomb at the top, and how the local council were trying to encourage a new tradition of ADDING stones to the tomb instead, and I was mightily tempted to carry a large stone all the way up the hill form the beach at Strandhill.
In the event my father joined me in the climb and time constraints led to our driving half the distance and then walking from the car park at the base of the steep climb up its south east side.
The path is treacherously rough, a REAL path I prefer to call it, and you really felt you had earned reaching the top. From there it is a short easy walk to Maeve's Tomb, which looks close up distressingly like…well a pile of stones. But then again I'm from a neck of the woods where we don't have that much stone to pile up, so that was probably just me.
The real interest is on top of Maeve's Tomb, where there is another small cairn. In my photo of this all the ground around it is the top of the Tomb, which is a lot grassier than one expects. From the top you can also see words spelt out in the heathland all around the Tomb with rocks from it, presumably for good luck or in remembrance of those passed. Okay, so this does involve taking stones from the Tomb, but it was very touching to see nevertheless.
We added our stones from Strandhill beach to the cairn and it felt a great honour to add to the building of an ancient site. I did my druid thing and honoured the site with a libation of water, then we enjoyed the view, which is incredible.
From Maeve's Tomb we walked northwest to the edge of Knocknarea, to look down on Strandhill where we were staying. Wonderful views.
Returning to the Tomb I went to sit on the cairn at the top again. This time I was attacked by wasps, which I took to be a message to leave!
This page from a travel site is of interest because it shows a picture of the cairn on top of Maeve's Tomb in 1999 (About 2/3 of the way down the page) as well as an account of a visit to Carrowmore Cemetary.