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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 2 September, 2014

Hidden Ireland: The passage tomb that predates Newgrange by 700 years

As part of the Hidden Ireland series, Neil Jackman looks at three fascinating places to visit this weekend in Sligo, Kildare and Fermanagh.

LOOKING FOR SOMETHING to do this weekend? Here’s three suggestions for some spectacular heritages sites in Kildare, Sligo and Fermanagh

Carrowkeel in Sligo

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I lit three candles and stood awhile, to let my eyes accustom themselves to the dim light. There was everything, just as the last Bronze Age man (sic) had left it, three to four thousand years before. A light brownish dust covered all… There beads of stone, bone implements made from Red Deer antlers, and many fragments of much decayed pottery. On little raised recesses in the wall were flat stones, on which reposed the calcinated bones of young children.

These are the words of RS Macalister, who in 1911, was the first person in thousands of years to enter the Neolithic tombs of Carrowkeel in Sligo.  Unfortunately Macalister and his team did great damage to these wonderful monuments, using dynamite and sledgehammers to enter the tombs rather than a careful excavation.

Despite this violation, Carrowkeel still remains one of the most spectacular and breathtaking archaeological landscapes in Ireland, and is simply a must-see for anyone with any interest in our prehistoric past. They are situated at the northern end of the Bricklieve Mountains in County Sligo, and cover a number of the peaks that tower over the surrounding landscape.

As well as a large number of tombs the Bricklieve Mountains have more evidence of prehistoric life; at Mullagh Farna, archaeologist Dr Stefan Bergh with Anthony Corns and Robert Shaw of the Irish archaeological research unit The Discovery Programme carried out a high resolution survey of the area using digital photogrammetry and identified 153 hut sites and enclosures that probably indicate the homes of the people who constructed the tombs, a Neolithic village in the shadow of the mountains.

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We visited three of the passage tombs earlier this month and it was a fantastic experience! The tombs first appear as stone cairns, and are constructed from the abundant local carboniferous limestone. They are passage tombs, and were built around 5,000 years ago in the Neolithic period. This was the time of the first farmers in Ireland, the people who began to cut back the dense forests that covered the country to create fields for tillage and pasture.

When the tombs were ‘investigated’ by Macalister and his team, each of the tombs were assigned a letter. We visited the easiest to access tombs, Cairns G, H and K. Each of the tombs was accessible, though please do take every precaution not to disturb or damage the tombs if you wish to enter.

Cairn G in particular was notable as it has a lightbox above the entrance, similar to that of Newgrange, however Cairn G is aligned with the sunset of the summer solstice rather than the dawn of the winter solstice like Newgrange. Cairn G is believed to predate Newgrange by more than 700 years, and is more simple with a much smaller passageway leading to the burial chamber. Inside Cairn G, Macalister reported finding deposits of cremated human bone, beads from a necklace and shards of pottery. I didn’t access the next tomb, Cairn H, as it looked far too tight a squeeze. It appeared to be a narrow undifferentiated passage (meaning it did not open into a burial chamber at the end).

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The third tomb we visited, Cairn K, was a little easier to enter. A narrow cruciform shaped passageway led to a burial chamber. Inside this, Macalister found deposits of cremated human remains under the flagged floor of the recesses in the chamber, and stone beads and pottery. They also discovered a Bronze Age urn, showing that these sites still held power and significance thousands of years after their first construction.

Carrowkeel has much in common with Seefin in County Wicklow. Both are large stone cairn-type passage tombs that are positioned high above the surrounding landscape with incredible views. Perhaps those who constructed the graves so high above the landscape wanted to claim ownership of all they could see. That by placing their ancestors far above the low lying lands of the living, the shades of their forebears could watch over them from their tombs.

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You’ll find Carrowkeel around 30km or so from Sligo Town. Aim for Castlebaldwin on the N4 road between Sligo and Boyle, and the tombs are well signposted from there. The road winds considerably upwards. Take the well-formed tarmac road down to the site. At the end of this road you’ll find a closed gate; simply open the gate (being sure to close and tie it again behind you) and drive up the hill. You’ll come to a small area you can leave your car where you will see there is a sign indicating you shouldn’t drive any further. Follow the advice of the sign and park up, walking along the track for around 1 – 2km. You’ll see Cairn G above you to the right, so leave the stony path and follow the rough track upwards through the bog towards it. Do mind your footing as the ground can be treacherous on a bad day. The weather day we visited was mixed but largely dry, even so the wind was really strong when we reached the top, so do take care and wear appropriate footwear.

Maynooth Castle

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For over fifty years in the late 15th to the mid-16th century, Ireland was not ruled from Dublin: it was ruled from Kildare, by the powerful Fitzgerald dynasty based in their castle in Maynooth.

After the Norman invasions of Ireland, the land around Maynooth in Kildare that had formerly belonged to the O’Byrne family, was granted by Richard de Clare, the leader of the Norman forces, to Gerald FitzMaurice FitzGerald in 1176. FitzGerald chose Maynooth to be the capital (known at the time as the caput). Originally it was thought that like many other Norman castles in Ireland, the first defensive structures on site would have been made of earth and timber. However in a recent article for Archaeology Ireland, Professor Tadhg O’Keefe of UCD convincingly argues the case for the first construction to be of stone. He notes in particular many similarities with the great donjon (or keep) of Trim Castle, situated relatively close by in County Meath and suggests that there was sharing of knowledge, architects and builders between the two powerful medieval magnates of de Lacey and FitzGerald.

By the end of the 13th century, the Fitzgeralds became one of the leading Anglo-Norman families in Ireland. Their profile was boosted considerably in 1316 when King Edward II raised John FitzThomas FitzGerald to the Earldom of Kildare for his services during Edward the Bruce’s invasion of Ireland. However it was in the late 15th century when the FitzGeralds reached their apogee. Gerald FitzGerald was trusted by King Henry VII to rule Ireland in his name. This brought huge wealth to FitzGerald and it was noted that Maynooth Castle was richly decorated. His son, [also called Gerald but known as Gearóid Óg] was Lord Deputy of Ireland for King Henry VIII three times (1513–34, 1524–28 and 1532–34).

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He had unprecedented power in Ireland and jealously guarded his families interests. FitzGerald was summoned to London in 1534 by King Henry VIII, and he left his son Thomas as deputy governor in his absence. Thomas was a flamboyant young hothead, known as Silken Thomas for the silk his men wove into their helmets. A rumour spread that the Earl had been executed by the King and Silken Thomas was enraged at the thoughts of his father being put to death in the Tower of London. He flew into a rage, and charged into St. Mary’s Abbey where the Kings Council in Ireland were meeting. He threw down the sword of state in an act of defiance, and immediately began a campaign against the King’s forces in Ireland. He had his men cut off the water supply to Dublin and laid siege to the city.

The campaign was going well, until the Crown forces realised that Silken Thomas had neglected to defend his own stronghold of Maynooth. The English army under William Skeffington managed to negotiate their way into Maynooth Castle, but once inside they slaughtered many of the inhabitants. Silken Thomas heard of the bloodshed and immediately marched to try and save his family home, but he was ambushed and captured on the way. He was brought in chains to London, where he heard that his father had actually died of natural causes and had not been executed after all. Thomas and his five uncles were brought to the place of execution in London, Tyburn, and brutally executed by being hung drawn and quartered. The castle was thought to have been betrayed by Thomas’s foster brother Christopher Paris. The morning after Skeffington took the castle he offered his thanks to Christopher Paris and paid him for his services, but then ordered Paris to be beheaded, probably because he had shown himself to be a duplicitous character and not to be trusted.

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The execution of Silken Thomas and his uncles marked the effective end of the FitzGerald ascendancy, and by the early seventeenth century Maynooth Castle had started to fall into disrepair. Richard Boyle, father of the famous scientist Robert Boyle, became the guardian of the young George FitzGerald and became his father-in-law when George married Boyle’s daughter Joan. He spent large sums renovating Maynooth Castle and constructed a fashionable Manor House. As part of his works many of the original medieval domestic buildings were demolished. The castle suffered a number of sieges and attacks during the Catholic Confederacy Wars of the 1640s and was largely ruined. Squatters took over the castle and made their money extorting money from travellers by tolling the dirt track that runs through the castle which was once the main Dublin to Galway Road. The FitzGeralds left their ancient family seat and eventually made Carton House their home.

Today the castle is an OPW heritage site and you can you can still enjoy the lovely grounds and a trip around the imposing medieval keep. The lower levels have a number of panels that interpret the story of the castle and guided tours of the keep are available on request. The site is free to enter, for opening hours and further information please visit here. The castle is only open until 25 September and then it’s closed until next May, so get in while you can!

Boa Island, Fermanagh

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Two of the most enigmatic pieces of Irish sculpture can be found in a small cemetery on Boa Island in County Fermanagh. The larger sculpture is a two-sided ‘Janus’ figure, with depictions of a bearded figure on both sides. Both of the depictions show an oval-faced man with large almond shaped bulging eyes, and a straight nose. One side has the tongue partially sticking out, the other seems just to be an open mouth. The head just merges into the body without a clear neck, and the arms are crossed over what appears to be a belt. The base of the larger sculpture was found at a later time, and is now propped up against the figure. At the top of the heads there is a groove where people today leave coins as an offering. The smaller figure is called the ‘Lustymore Man’, and was found on the neighbouring Lustymore Island. It appears to be more weathered and more plainly carved. This figure is only one sided, but has a lot of similarities with the larger figure. It seems to also depict a man with a straight nose and open mouth and its arms are crossed.

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So who made these sculptures? Who do they depict and when where they carved? Unfortunately there really isn’t very much information at all about the Boa Island figures. They are both generally thought to date to some time in the Iron Age, as they have some similarities with other Iron Age sculpture from Ulster, though this is uncertain.

The small cemetery where they reside is a very atmospheric place, apart from a few old gravestones that largely date to the eighteenth and nineteenth century, there is nothing else here, no church or visible monument. You walk along a small grassy path and enter this leafy glade to be confronted by these two idols. It almost feels like something from a Mayan site from the jungles of Central America, rather than a small, narrow island in County Fermanagh. Definitely worth a trip if you’re in the area!

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Boa Island is on Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, roughly around 25km north-west of Enniskillen on the A47. The island is long and narrow with bridges that lead on and off it, so it is fully accessible by car, no ferries are required. The figures are in Caldragh Graveyard in the south-west of the island, the graveyard is well signposted and there is a small area to park.

I hope you enjoy this article, it is part of a regular fortnightly series for The Journal, the articles are based on my blog. Take a look to see if we have covered any sites in your area.

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Hidden Ireland: The mystery of the 5,000-year-old empty tomb on top of a Wicklow mountain >

Hidden Ireland: How a shipwreck turned into an abbey >

Hidden Ireland: A deserted medieval town, Ireland’s Alcatraz, and a round tower >

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