Last weekend, accompanied by local walking guide Pádraig Meehan, I was up early to head to Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery, one of Ireland’s most ancient burial sites located near Sligo Town.
The idea was to set up a camera in the hope that we might catch the sunrise as it moved its way across the central chamber of a large passage tomb known as the Listoghil Chamber. This impressive dolmen-type monument is accessed through a trench between two stone mounds on a hill which dominates the site. Listoghil is one of 30 stone tombs at Carrowmore, some of which date back 6,000 years. And according to Pádraig, at Hallowe’en (the ancient festival of Samhain), the sunrise aligns directly with the chamber, and for 10 minutes or so, the sun breaks across the underside of the capstone, in a lighting display similar to that which takes place later in the year at Newgrange.
Pádraig reckons that when these monuments were built around the country, there was a connection between communities, particularly at times of seasonal change like Samhain. “A few years ago I went to Tara, the heart of the Gaelic kingship in County Meath and watched – at 7:25 the sun rose over the Wicklow Mountains, shone down the chamber and lit a little light on the back stone at Tara. There was another lad here at Listoghil, watching the Ballygawley Mountains as they started to glow. And 20 minutes after Tara was lit, the light shines into the chamber here.”
Alas, for our trip to Carrowmore, nature decided to hide the Samhain sunrise. As cloud and mist rose over the Ballygawley Mountains, the solar display didn’t materialise, but it was by no means a wasted journey. To stand at dawn at this Megalithic site, surrounded by passage tombs and stone circles, and looking up towards Queen Maeve’s Cairn on Knocknarea, is a grounding experience. As the day slowly dawned, and the mist shrouded the houses that are dotted across the landscape, and with the absence of traffic noise at that early hour, you were looking at views that stretch far back into antiquity.
Thousands of years ago, people came to Carrowmore to bury their dead. According to Pádraig, samples of bones recovered here during excavations in the late 19th century were found recently by a team of archaeologists at Trinity College to have had DNA similar to that found in bodies found at nearby Carrowkeel, and, more interestingly, in others located as far away as Newgrange – roughly 200km from Carrowmore, and even as far away as Carlingford. This suggests that a hierarchical system existed in Ireland thousands of years ago, and that these select people, buried at various locations around the country, were related to each other, suggesting a royal dynasty existed over hundreds of years and that some of these people had links with Sligo.
“These people, it is argued in places like Nature magazine, and by the people in Trinity, they’re saying it was a hierarchy, equivalent to Egyptian society in which these individuals are god-kings,” he says.
Samhain represented a time of change for our Stone Age people, one where the crops were harvested, when feasting took place, and when the darker evenings were a sign of a changing season. It was also a time of superstition, as epitomised by visitors arriving from the Other World.
“The witch was the Cailleach Bhéarra, and she ruled over Winter. She was in the ascendency at that moment, she took over from Bríd, the goddess of light and promise and Spring. Now it was in the hands of the darker feminine force. When they talk about women, it’s a metaphor for nature. That view of the world as being a living thing is really what the Cailleach is, she represents the wild, uncontrolled force of nature.”
Pádraig brings our tour of Carrowmore to a close by pointing once more towards the Ballygawley Mountains. The undulating landscape where the sun rises at Samhain has the shape similar to the female form. He says that the Gaelic writers said that this shape represented the Cailleach Bhéarra, and that the legend of how Carrowmore was first formed came about when the Cailleach flew over the land and dropped boulders she had taken from the hills – and these formed the monuments that have lain in Carrowmore for thousands of years.
With stories like these, and increasing importance being attributed to hundreds of ancient monuments dotted across the Sligo landscape, it’s not surprising that Carrowmore is at the centre of Sligo’s bid to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status, a long but important step towards preserving this precious landscape.
Carrowmore is open to visitors until November 17th, and is free to the public. Visit https://heritageireland.ie/places-to-visit/carrowmore-megalithic-cemetery/ for details.