On Saturday August 1st, we visited Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, on the Knocknarea peninsula in County Sligo, Republic of Ireland. One of the biggest Neolithic cemeteries in Europe, it’s believed to have contained over two hundred tombs at one stage. There are only forty-five, now, the stones of the others dragged away, destroyed to build the roads and houses and walls of a later people, but still, a lot more than you might anticipate seeing in one place.
It’s famous, and convenient. Weirdly convenient, actually. We’re not used to everything being quite so accessible. The tombs spread across a number of fields, but most are clustered on either side of the road that snakes between the many little farms out here in this very rural area.
Beyond the visitor centre, a converted cottage, a number of no-doubt-ancient field walls have been removed to make access easier. A wide green space, rising ground, a ridge ahead of us. Oh, there’s nothing greener than Irish grass. At first this landscape seems unusual, because generally you get monuments in dished spaces, often natural amphitheatres surrounded by mountains, somewhere where all horizons are active and visual, where the surroundings are imposing and important. Here it seems the horizon is cut off by the rising ground ahead of you. It feels as though you’re enclosed, no view, at least not in this direction.
Ahead of us, a pair of little dolmens, a circle of rocks. We follow the path suggested, although it doesn’t take us past the tombs in numerical order. They were numbered in the nineteenth century, so the numbers aren’t consecutive, as some are missing. One to five, and seven, are behind us, across the road. On this side, thirteen to fifty-nine.
The weather is mixed – we arrived in bright sunlight, staggered by the green grass, the grey rocks. As we climb the gentle hill, though, the black clouds threaten and burst, the wind gets up, the rain falls. Hoods up, camera clasped inside my coat, shouting to be heard, we hurry onwards.
As we reach the top of the ridge, the scenery drops suddenly away, and then, despite the mist and cloud, the mountains leap around us. There, massively imposing to the west, Knocknarea, a limestone protruberance that climaxes in an immense cairn, Queen Meabh’s tomb, visible from miles around. It’s startlingly big, even from this distance. Its presence dominates the entire area. Apparently – incredibly – the cairn has never been excavated. It’s believed to contain a passage tomb, and would be the largest in Ireland outside the Boyne Valley in County Meath, home of Newgrange. Meabh’s Nipple, one of the local names for it, and it is quite - breasty.
Much closer but equally dominant is the flat-topped reconstructed cairn of Tomb 51, the only named tomb at Carrowmore; Listoghil.
It crouches in the corner of your eye as you traverse the site, moving from one tomb to another, examining the boulders that have been corralled together to form these circles, double circles, dolmens. Glacial erratics, generally, and mostly gneiss, the swirled and tortured metamorphic rock, usually formed from limestone in these parts. These rocks are beautiful, sparkling, twisted, like the rocks of Callanais far to the north, across the sea on the Isle of Lewis.
Approaching Listoghil we read from the notes lent out at the visitor centre. (A deposit of €2.)
The reconstructed cairn is made from stones reclaimed from the field walls. In the nineteenth century it was still some fifty feet high, but when the excavations took place in the 1990s the chamber itself was long exposed, its capstone clear to see. There was no evidence for a passage, but in order to access the chamber through the reconstructed cairn, the archaeologists built one.
It faces, rather usefully, towards a gap in the hills on the horizon known as ‘the Saddle’, where the sun drifts and stops at the cross quarter days – Imbolc and Samhain, as the ewes come into milk and as the first frosts beckon. At sunrise and sunset for a week or so the sunlight falls through a gap at the front of the chamber and onto the stone at the back. It’s uncertain whether the cairn was built immediately on completion of the chamber or if the tomb stood naked for a while, allowing this astronomical alignment to occur more than once, or if it was intended symbolically, for the dead, or if it was, perhaps, not intended at all. Such is the knowledge we have of the ancestors.
The Saddle - on the left of this picture, the tracks in the grass head towards it
It’s raining as we pass between the gabions full of rocks that form the modern passage entrance. Listoghil is an impressive dolmen, not tall, maybe only chest height, but the capstone is a wide flat slab, like the lid of a grand piano, unlike the boulders that form the capstones of the other dolmens here. It rests on two of the uprights, packing stones on the others securing it. The front of the capstone is carved, although in this grey light it’s impossible to see the curved shapes. And the chamber isn’t really accessible, although Tilly, being smallest, manages to crawl inside.
At first the space around it is full of people, but soon they scurry off in the rain and leave us to it. It’s odd to think that if we’d come here when we first visited Ireland almost twenty years ago, we’d have been able to see across the site, unhindered by the cairn that now towers above us. Listoghil, it says in the guide book, is the only tomb from which (almost) all the other tombs are visible, plus the Saddle and Knocknarea, and the sea on each side of the peninsula, Sligo Harbour to the north, Ballysadare Bay to the south west. I think you’d have to climb the cairn to see this, though, and you’re not allowed to.
Across the road the tombs spread eastwards, ring cairns and dolmens. Five and Seven are the most photographed, cute classic dolmens, round-bouldered and chunky. Number seven is surrounded by an almost complete circle of thirty-one fat and rounded rocks, very pleasing to the eye and with great views across the farmland to Knocknarea and also to Sligo Harbour.
There’s no evidence, it says, that Tomb Seven was ever covered by a cairn. This is interesting; I always assume the cairn’s been removed, and that we don’t see what the tomb builders saw or planned. But it seems that in this case, we do. A flint arrow head found within the circle dates from the Neolithic Beaker period, c.2500 BC, potentially some two thousand years more recent than the original tomb construction. They’ve dated some of the site to six thousand years ago. The centuries fall away dizzyingly.
How old? asks Tilly. Older than the Pyramids. Older than Rome, or Jesus. Older than God.
And yet here it is, and here we are, the rocks rough beneath our hands, the lichen, the moss, the crystals crushed as the rocks were tortured hundreds of millions of years ago. The rocks on the beaches to the west are Carboniferous, three hundred and fifty million years old. Older than the dinosaurs.
We blink in the sunshine.
And the sky! The sun came out forty minutes ago as we ate our lunch, and has been shining brightly ever since. Black clouds back up behind us, though – and is there sunshine brighter than the sunshine that contrasts with black cloud? Everything crystalline in the golden light. White clouds, too, and all shades of grey dapple across the blue. It’s dramatic and beautiful. Nothing goes better with blue sky than sunshine and green, green grass. A warm wind, rocks and hills.
We’re up here, at Tomb Seven, by ourselves, admiring the view across the site to Listoghil and the other tombs, the jumbled mass of fences, field walls, sheds, barns and houses between, horses, sheep, tractors, a wall pushing Tomb Thirteen almost into the road as it slips between the houses. Bales of silage, rusty rolls of barbed wire, the detritus of a busy farming community. People have been farming here for five thousand years. At the Céide Neolithic Fields, the guide told us that the pattern of field and house was the same then as it is now in much of rural Ireland, dispersed dwellings, cattle.
Later, at home, reading the guide book, I find a photograph of a tomb at Carrowkeel. ‘Where the passages allow access to the cruciform chambers. Don’t forget to bring a torch!’ it says.
'Look at this,' I say. 'There are tombs we could get inside. And they’re near here. And –' I’m on Wikipedia, now '– I don’t think they’re reconstructed. Sounds cool.'
'We should go.'
He’s got the maps out now. 'Yes, look, here they are.'
'There are four or something,' I say, 'look. You can’t get in all of them.'
'It says there’s a Rocking Stone, as well.'
'Huh. Well, I hope it’s better than all the other so-called rocking so-called stones we’ve seen before.'
(Oh no, it rolled away. Oh no, it used to rock but it doesn’t any more. Oh no, there are old men dowsing so you can’t get at it. Etc.)
It seems to be the wettest day of the holiday. This is unfortunate. Usually, you can drive a bit and find some sunshine, or at least somewhere which is merely gloomy rather than sodden. Water falls from the sky in a way best described as ‘incessant’. The others have gone to Westport to do child-friendly things.
'It’s quite rainy,' I say, observantly.
Too wet to stop anywhere on the way to search in damp fields for anything marked ‘megalithic tomb’ on the OSI Discovery Series map. Scale 1:50,000.
The trouble with (and joy of) the sites on the map is that you have no idea – literally none whatsoever – of whether what’s marked will be worth visiting or even visible. There are piles of rocks everywhere. Some are court tombs. Some are passage tombs or chambered cairns. Some are simply field clearance or, indeed, erratics dropped by glaciers ten thousand years ago. Sometimes the field walls and hedges mean the site, whatever it is, is invisible from the road. Sometimes you’re not sure which exact field is meant. Usually we’re pretty good at spotting stuff – you get your eye in – it’s a knack – but the wetter it is the less inclined I am to get out of the car.
Carrowkeel is famous, so it’s actually on the signs. We’ve been staying in Mayo, which is not very touristy, and where not many things are on the signs, so this is exciting. You can never assume the signs will take you all the way, though, so I have the map open on my knee, following the roads with my finger, counting cross roads, eyes peeled for that discreet turning. It’s wet, and grey, and rainy.
We drive past abandoned farms and less abandoned farms. In rural Ireland, people aren’t interested in old buildings, really. Lots of farms have a modern bungalow built in front of a ruined traditional cottage that would have been ‘done up’ in Devon or the Lake District. Here they padlock the door and leave the net curtains to rot and move into something warmer and more convenient. Or go away entirely, leaving it to the elements as they head for a town, or maybe to Canada, or Australia.
Some of the piled rocks in fields are cottages abandoned after the Famine. There’s an edge of melancholy here, often, and I wonder about the lives of the people who live in the houses that remain, in the middle of nowhere, often, or in a village that is barely even that, a thin straggle of houses, a post office.
Up here it’s more mountainous, sheep country, not cattle. None of this is arable land, too wet, too boggy, too many rocks. The road curves and twists, standing water in vast puddles, the rain ever heavier. A sad horse looks at us over a gate. There are mountains all round us but we can’t see them. We turn off onto a lane, and then another, a 'hairy road' as I call them, a strip of grass down the middle. Signs warn against trespassing. NO SHOOTING, some say, which is calming.
A gate across the road. The passenger’s job to get out and open it, so I wobble across the cattle grid and wrestle with damp rope, then swing back to close it, lifting the wet galvanised tubes, clanging it against the concrete post. I run to the car and we drive on up the valley. Stunted trees, moss, rocks, rocks everywhere, surprised-looking sheep with horns and untidy fleeces. No view to speak of, because the mist hangs low around us, lifting slightly here and there as the wind catches at the clouds.
We reach the end of the lane. There are two cars parked already – who are these crazy people? Straight on, there’s a waymarked track, the Miners’ Way and Historical Trail, a long distance walk. To the left, the path begins to climb.
There’s a sign with a map – nice. It’s a kilometre to the cemetery. The track winds off into the mist. One sign says we could drive up there, another says it’s unsuitable for cars. Best not risk it, our car is small and not really off-road appropriate. The rain hammers against the roof of the car and we peer out at the weather. Should we wait? We could have some lunch. We eat cheese and cucumber sandwiches in the car and I struggle into my wellies.
'No point waiting,' I say. 'It’s not going to stop.'
And we’re off. Bloody hell it’s raining a lot. I’m wearing leggings and a skirt – which is immediately soaked, absolutely sopping wet, I can wring water out of it and we’ve only been walking for five minutes. This makes me laugh. Glad I wore leggings. I have my SLR tucked into my coat and my point and shoot in my pocket.
'It’s like when we went to the Gap of Dunloe,' I say, another famously wet afternoon in Ireland.
'Not quite that bad,' he says.
The path curves upwards, then down and round, and up again. It’s not muddy – all the mud’s been washed away, he says. We laugh. Wet sheep watch us. It’s probably beautiful but we can’t see anything. Although up there on the spur of hill above the carpark we spot a cairn.
'Up there later, yeah?'
We trek on, splashing through puddles, watching the water running excitedly down the hillside.
'Look, there are people up there,' I say, looking up towards the top of the hill above us, where one of the cairns is visible, briefly. A tiny figure silhouetted against the skyline.
Onwards and upwards. It’s amazing how grey the sky is. It’s inconceivable that it ever does anything but rain. There’s heather and sedge and moss. The occasional wind-tortured tree. Rocks, some large. Eventually, after about half an hour, we reach another car park or turning place.
'Could have driven up here,' he says.
'Oh well. Nice signs,' I add. There are four uprights, rusty, pointing upwards, where once, presumably, there were signs. None now. Across the track, a still-extant sign says ‘Pedestrians Only’. Someone has added an arrow in blue marker pen and written in unsteady capitals: TAKE HILL ON RIGHT TO ACCESS TOMB. As the track carries straight on, it’s probably a good thing. It’s not the day to walk endlessly in the wrong direction.
We turn off the track and begin to climb steeply. It’s peaty and boggy in places, dark earth squeezing water. Gravel, sheep tracks. I’m glad of my wellies, squelching as I climb. It’s raining more heavily again. The rain falls on my hood, the wind blows. I’m hot from the climb, sweaty, ignoring my dripping skirt, heart thumping, my breath filling the space around me. I’m not very fit – I only do stuff like this on holiday.
I wouldn't want you to think I'm not enjoying myself though. I'm really enjoying myself. I love this. It would be nicer if it wasn't raining, but the fact that it is raining - and not just raining - hammering down - the fact that I am more or less drenched - somehow makes it more hilarious, and more of an achievement.
I pause to catch my breath and look around. He climbs onward, fitter and more agile. I take the camera from my pocket and take some pictures, not really of anything, more to demonstrate the greyness, the mist, the clouds, the rain.
My hands are wet. When we went to the Gap of Dunloe his pockets filled with water and drowned the camera. When the film was developed it was strangely coloured and weird, fairy photographs in pink and red.
I turn back and look up. The cairn is grey against the grey. Not too far now. The heather’s in flower, purple bells. The heather roots hold the peat together. Once there was no peat. Then the weather changed. You get peat when it’s too wet for things to rot. Yes. At the Céide Fields in Mayo, the peat covers the Neolithic field walls to a depth of four metres in some places. At Callanais, I remember, in the nineteenth century the stones appeared only a foot or so high. When they were excavated, most are two metres or more. What else lies beneath the peat?
Above the sound of the rain on my hood I can now hear the tinkling slither as he climbs on the cairn. I reach the top and look about. I imagine the view is absolutely stunning when the weather’s good, must look at some pictures when we get home. Today, though, not a lot is visible. This first cairn, Cairn G, is the one with the light box. This is an unusual feature, rare, only Newgrange has one, in Ireland. The entrance is inky black, the pile of rocks rearing above us.
Most of the stones in the cairn are, I don’t know, the size of your head? Easy enough to carry, but still, quite a task. I guess they found them all nearby, though, everywhere you look the rock pokes through the peat.
The entrance looks like two stone tables, one on the other. There’s a stone in front, as well, half blocking the entrance.
'OK,' he says, shrugging off the rucksack. 'I’m going in.'
He squeezes past the blocking stone. I guess all the water makes it easier to slip through. I wonder if I’ll fit. He’s crawling, now, navy blue waterproof shiny with rain.
I lean inwards, water dripping.
'Can you turn round? I don’t want to go in if you can’t turn round.'
'Yeah, no, it’s fine,' he says, vanishing for a moment. 'You can stand up.' He appears again, stretching towards me. 'Give us the camera.'
I pass it to him, swinging on its strap.
'Cool. Hey, it’s really tall. Coming in?'
'OK. Mind your head,' he says. 'And you’ll have to go on hands and knees.'
I wriggle past the blocking stone. Ugh. It’s awkward, everything's streaming with water, and the gravel is sharp on my knees.
'Yeah, I – hang on.'
Thank God I’m soaked already, no need to worry about getting wet. In fact afterwards I decide it makes it easier. Somehow it's a lot simpler to put your hand in a puddle if you're already as wet as you can be.
I crawl up the passage towards him. There’s a step, in the floor. I reach it, duck my head, and then I’m in the central chamber.
'Oh my God, that was fun. My knees hurt.'
'You need to toughen up,' he says, as ever.
'Yeah, thanks. I think my toughening up days are gone.'
I stand up and look about. It’s very dark, of course, but you can see the largest orthostats in the light from the entrance and light box. The three chambers off the central one are pitchy, though. Above us, the corbelled ceiling is high, eight or nine feet perhaps. By the entrance it’s lower, maybe six feet, a huge slab of dimpled rock like an egg carton, or those purple polystyrene sheets you get apples in at the market. I look upwards, and then crouch to see through the light box. The grey-washed hills are framed by rock.
'Look at that,' I say.
'Yeah.' He’s in the left hand chamber with the torch, peering about.
'This is great.' I pause, listening. There’s dripping from the entrance, and the chinking sound of stone on stone as our feet knock the gravel on the floor. It’s not exactly gravel, a lot of the pieces are larger than that, flattish. Each chamber has a lintel, shelf-like, ideal for putting down your camera, or hat.
I remember that my point and shoot can make films, and fish it out of my pocket, recording the view through the light box, the curious slit-like hole in the blocking stone, the puddles, the darkness of millennia. Water drips through the cairn, feeling its way between the stones, trickling, endless. Actually it’s amazingly watertight, the chambers aren’t wet at all.
The left and right chambers are easily accessible but the one at the back less so, the orthostats too close together. He attempts it, but it worried he might get stuck. Don’t want that. I peer at some carvings on one of the tall stones. I don’t think they're Neolithic, any more than the candlewax here at my elbow.
'OK,' he says, 'I’m going to the next one.'
I watch him clamber out and swing my camera at him. Then I crawl back across the wet rocks and out, struggling to get upright and pass the blocking stone. For a brief moment I think I might not manage it, but then I’m out, birthed into heavy grey light. The rain has stopped for a moment, which is pretty exciting.
Outside I scan what passes for the horizon.
'Can’t see anything, really.'
'No. Is that the Rocking Stone?'
'Alleged Rocking Stone?'
'Looks like it.'
We tramp downwards for a short distance and back up to the second cairn, Cairn H. It has no light box, but the dark rectangle of the entrance is otherwise identical, low in the heaping pile of rock.
He stoops to look in.
'This one’s blocked,' he says. 'Just the passage, can’t reach the chamber.'
'Here, take the torch, I’m going to see if I can –'
The idea of crawling into a passage where you can’t turn round doesn’t appeal much to me. I watch as he wriggles forward on the wet gravel.
'No,' he says, 'can’t get very far at all.' He backs out and I look closer, taking photos, the flash lighting up the passage half filled with stone from the cairn above, no sign of a chamber.
It’s raining again, I put my hood back up and blink wet eyelashes, pushing my hair out of my face.
OK. We look over towards the ‘Rocking Stone’. It’s not far, but everything seems further in this weather. We climb downwards across the heather. I pass a puddle that’s clearly not usually there, clear water over grass, silvered bubbles caught, beautiful.
He’s pushing at the Rocking Stone.
'Hm,' I say, 'I see no evidence of rocking.'
He moves round the rock, giving it a chance. Either his technique is wrong, it needs more than one person, or else it can be filed with the others under ‘Rocking Stones – so-called – disappointing’. We stand for a moment in the lee of the rock, which is large and curiously shaped. It’s slightly sheltered. I lick raindrops from my lips.
'The next one.' He points. Higher up than the two we’ve seen, on the next ridge. I’m briefly wearied by the thought of more climbing in such awkward conditions, but as we walk back I see the distance was deceptive.
'It’s not that far at all,' I say.
It’s steeper, though, and I have to pull myself up a couple of times. But here we are on the second ridge, looking back down over the two previous cairns, and forward across the valley, no doubt stunning in the correct conditions. To our left, Cairn K, and ahead of than, the slumped mass of Cairn L, which is clearly badly damaged. Cairn K, though, looks much like H, the low dark space of the entrance crouched below us.
Again the rucksack is removed, but this time, he says, we’ll bring it with us, and drink coffee once we’re in.
Tomb coffee, nice.
He goes first, through a large puddle, splendid, and then takes first the rucksack and then my camera from me. Then I follow. Despite a lack of blocking stone, which should make this easier, somehow it’s worse. The puddle is deeper and wetter, the ground seems sharper, I bang my head, thinking I’m in when I’m not. My knees hurt a lot, bruised and uncomfortable.
But inside the ceiling rises higher than in Cairn K, twelve feet above us, perhaps. Again, three chambers. A useful step to sit on, damp, but really, I’m pretty much soaking wet already. I subside onto the step and he opens the flask. The passage here is more leaky, and I watch the water drip endlessly, spiralling ripples. The sound is quite soothing.
'I read something that said there’s still human bone in some of them,' I say.
'Huh. Tiny bits, maybe.'
I agree, it’s certainly not apparent. Not that I thought it would be.
We explore further. The back stone of the right hand chamber is pointed, triangular.
'This must be the one that’s shaped like Croagh Patrick,' I say, 'it faces towards it. I expect we’d see it…'
'If it wasn’t raining.'
We grin at each other. This is pretty cool, really, mad though we may be, I can't think of much I'd rather be doing.
We sit silent for a while, drinking coffee, listening to the dripping water. It’s very quiet, apart from that, no sound of the wind, just our breathing. Restful.
Tombs are never scary, and I’ve been in quite a few. Long barrows, passage graves, chambered tombs. Heavy darkness, quiet (except at Stoney Littleton, where men fixing the drystone wall of the long cairn filled the chamber with echoing hammer thumps).
Once, when I was a child, at Hetty Pegler’s Tump, we watched the smoke of a candle, extinguished before we’d arrived, hanging still in the air. At West Kennet, flowers scattered where once the long bones rested. Here, there’s dust, visible in the torchlight, ancient, disturbed by our presence. In one of my photographs the flash catches it just right and it looks like water, falling. Nothing to fear, though, in the tombs of the dead.
Or perhaps I’m just lacking in the right kind of sympathy. Prosaic, perhaps. These places affect me, of course – the unimaginable weight of years, the thoughts and beliefs of the people who built them, who chose to alter the landscape with these rocky statements. I wonder about them, and their lives, but their tombs are not spooky, or even disconcerting. I’d sleep here, quite happily, as long as there was a comfortable mattress and it wasn’t too cold. The dead are not to be feared.
And anyway, they’re not here, now, their bones are gathered up and carried away for examination. This does not concern me either. They may or may not have expected their tombs to last forever, their concept of time quite different to our own, but I’m sure they expected their essence to be somewhere else, above or below, gathered in, a sunlit world of huge cattle and endless feasts and laughter, perhaps.
Like this world but better, without pain or death.
Or, I squint at the bright rectangle of light that marks the entrance, rain.