Knocknarea Cairn and Tombs, Co. Sligo, Ireland

“And passing the Firbolgs’ burial-mounds,
Came to the cairn-heaped grassy hill,
Where passionate Maeve is stony-still”
– The Wanderings Of Oisin – WB Yeats.

Yeats was suitably enamoured by this beautiful Cairn 327 metres above sea level on Knocknarea Hill. Knocknarea Hill is the home of a beautiful 3,000 year old structure said to be the tomb of Queen Medb. The cairn is impressive in size, 10metres in height and 55 metres in width at the base. The hill also houses six other Neolithic monuments, five on the peak of the hill and one overgrown boulder circle to the east. Sadly most of these sites, including two passage graves have been all but destroyed by ‘excavations’ during the 1830s led by Rodger Walker, a landlord from Rathcarrick House. The views from the top of Knocknarea are spectacular, with a fantastic view for distances of up to 40km east and out in the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The cairn can be easily spotted to anyone passing nearby and the trek up the hill takes about half an hour, the day we went it was incredibly windy at the peak and on the cairn. Indeed we did climb the cairn which they generally say you shouldn’t do, but not a rock was displaced by yours truly and the tomb was treated with the reverence such a peaceful place deserves. The cairn is built with local stone, quartz from the Ox mountains nearby has been found dotted around the peak and archaeologists are unsure whether the cairn may have been coated in quartz or the ground at the plateau was just dotted with quartz, either way one can only begin to imagine the spectacle this place provided when in full ritual mode. Another feature of the hill was noted by a Swedish archaeologist named Dr Stefan Bergh as late as 1995, this being a ring platform, 6 metres wide and 30cm high running the entire way around the hill. During the 1980s 150 metres North East of the Cairn the remains of several Neolithic huts were found with flint tools and other artefacts, these sites date from 4300 years ago. Legend has it that Queen Medb was buried standing up within the cairn, full armoured facing Ulster and her old enemy Cú Chulainn whom she lost to in the battle for the Brown Bull Of Cooley. The cairn has never been excavated so who knows what secrets it contains. The name Knocknarea is an Anglicisation of the local name whose meaning is disputed, it has been cited as being called ’Cnoc na Riabh’ (hill of the stripes), ‘Cnoc na Riogha’ (hill of the kings) and perhaps most intriguing of all ’Cnoc na Riaghadh’ (hill of the executions).

GPS: 54.2586, -8.57328

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