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


Portal Tomb


This place begs a couple of questions, the first of which is well rehearsed: Is it always important to remember that what we see at sites like Ballyrenan are the denuded, skeletal, interior remains of an earthen and stony mound? And does what remains at Ballyrenan cast doubt on that critical assumption in the first question? Because, like at Ballyvennaght in Antrim, there are two tombs here, separate but part of the same monument. At Ballyvennaght the entrance to the still standing western tomb is to the west, outwards from the cairn/mound – the collapsed eastern tomb is said to have a possible backstone at the west of the capstone so it must have opened to the east, again outwards from the cairn/mound.

At Ballyrenan, both chamber openings face east, meaning the western chamber would face into the mound/cairn. There is the possibility that there was come sort of central court in the intervening space between the front of the western tomb and the rear of the eastern. So was this a mongrel combination of a court and portal tomb? The fact that the western tomb has two chambers could lead you down that rabbit hole. But all of these musings are for later – today the sun is shining and this fantastic monument is right beside the country lane.

The large farm buildings to the west of the tomb do detract from the vibe a bit. The farmer’s there working away and gruffly gives us the go-ahead to park in the driveway. And then it’s just dive right in. It’s not massively spectacular in terms of size but this place has something else, something mysterious and deeply affecting. The thought taken to form the construction and the skill to complete it are impressive. And yet doubts remain – was the western tomb messed about with and re-constructed sometime after the supposed denudation of the cairn/mound? Because there’s a couple or three things amiss, or unique, or odd about the western tomb, aside from it facing into the mound, if there ever was one.

One: the skewed ‘lintel’ over the portal stones, propping up the capstone but also tilting it down to the north as it rests neatly on the southern, but precariously on the northern portal. Two: the stone that rests on the north-eastern sidestone of the eastern, front chamber that juts out by at least a metre and serves to counter the tilt caused by the portal ‘lintel’. The capstone of the rear chamber also rests on this stone. Three: The rear, sealed chamber itself. But sure what am I cribbing about? The easy, quiet backwoods atmosphere allowed us to engage with and immerse in the monument for as long as we wished. I couldn’t resist attacking the ivy that is beginning to colonise the northern portal of the western tomb, the physical action bringing the engagement to another level.

The ‘lesser’ eastern tomb has its own charms too. The stone that I thought to be a recessed, half-height doorstone, but actually a septal stone, is split longitudinally by a seam of quartz, discovered after another judicious bit of ivy clearing. The backstone is there, as are the two sidestones and both portals – all that’s missing is the capstone. The excavators discovered a small, cist-like second chamber at the back of the main chamber but we didn’t notice. If that was the case and it’s also double-chambered, then I would be leaning towards two separate monuments and two separate mounds. Either way it would have been an impressive, close to medium-sized dolmen when complete.

Ballyrenan is another must-see Tyrone site. I’d been in the vicinity a couple of times in the last few years and had neglected it for some reason, probably because of the multitude of other fantastic places in the county. Don’t make the same mistake!
ryaner Posted by ryaner
16th May 2022ce

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