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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Hidden Ireland

Heritage Ireland: A born fighter, bloody battles and the castle at the heart of it

Archaeologist Neil Jackman criss-crosses the country to bring you a massive cairn in Sligo, a castle in Antrim with a bloody past, and a dolmen with an interesting supersition…

IN THIS EDITION of our Heritage Ireland series, archaeologist Neil Jackman guides us to the summit of Knocknarea to visit the famous Miosgán Meadhbha, to a mighty fortress at Carrickfergus, and to an ancient burial place in County Louth.

Knocknarea, Co Sligo 

Knocknarea and its massive cairn is the most iconic and dominant landmark in Co Sligo. Legend has it that it is the final resting place of the famous warrior Queen Maeve, who is said to have been buried standing upright in her armour, still facing her ancient Ulster enemies. Although the cairn has never been excavated it is likely that instead of an angry Maeve, the cairn covers a large Neolithic passage tomb.

This enormous cairn measures almost 60 metres in diameter and stands around 10 metres high. It is within a linear arrangement of five small tombs that surround the massive cairn known as Miosgán Meadhbha.

The mountain and its cairn appear to be the focal point of a number of prehistoric tomb sites in the Cúil Irra Peninsula, along with other sites at Carrowmore and Carns Hill, forming one of Ireland’s most important and striking prehistoric landscapes. The remains of a number of small hut sites were also discovered on Knocknarea.

The walk up Knocknarea offers some of the most spectacular views in Ireland, as beautiful Co Sligo and its Atlantic coastline opens out around you. The walk up to the cairn takes roughly 30 to 45 minutes, it’s relatively steep to begin with and good footwear is advised, but the summit is broad and flat allowing you a leisurely stroll while you take in the stunning scenery. Please do not be tempted to climb or interfere with the cairn as despite its size it is a vulnerable archaeological site of great antiquity and importance.

Visiting Knocknarea is a truly wonderful experience for anyone who enjoys their history, archaeology or just a good walk with spectacular views. The site is well signposted from Sligo and has a large carpark. If you like Knocknarea you might also enjoy Carrowkeel and Carrowmore where you can discover more evidence of Sligo’s incredible prehistoric past.

Now you can hear the story of Sligo with a free downloadable audioguide and app please see here for more details.

Carrickfergus Castle, Co Antrim

The mighty fortress of Carrickfergus was first constructed by the Norman warlord John de Courcy soon after his 1177 invasion of Ulster. He had been granted the lands of Ulster by King Henry if he could conquer it by force. Ulster was a powerful and feared land, but the headstrong de Courcy marched north with only a few hundred men.

De Courcy had a reputation for outstanding courage, he was described by the contemporary chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis as being ‘fair and tall, with bony and sinewy limbs. His frame was lanky and he had a very strong physique, immense bodily strength and an extraordinarily bold temperament.

From his youth he was a man of courage and a born fighter, always in the frontline, always taking upon himself the greater share of danger’.

After a bloody campaign with notable victories in Down, he made Carrickfergus his base, and began work on the castle with the earliest phase being the large keep and the polygonal inner ward.

Unfortunately for de Courcy he fell foul of King John and forfeited his hard won lordship of Ulster. Carrickfergus was absorbed into royal control and the castle was extended throughout the thirteenth century. The castle was in a key strategic location, as it commanded Belfast Lough, ensuring vital and lucrative maritime trade routes.

It was besieged by Edward Bruce, brother of the Scottish King Robert the Bruce, in 1315, though the Scots failed to take the castle they did take control of the town. In its later history the castle suffered under siege again, when it was taken by Schomberg who commanded the forces of William of Orange in 1689.

The castle kept its role as a military building into the First World War, when it was used as a garrison and ordnance store, and later it became an air-raid shelter during World War 2. Today the castle is open to the public, and it is a fascinating place to visit. For opening times and entry fees please visit here. Please note that there is free entry to anyone with a valid OPW Heritage Card.

Proleek Dolmen, Co Louth

Within the golf course of Ballymacscanlan House Hotel are two iconic reminders of Co Louth’s ancient past. The large portal tomb (also known as a dolmen), is one of Ireland’s best examples of this type of tomb. It has two large portal stones, each measuring over 2 metres tall, and a back stone supporting a massive capstone that is estimated to weigh over 40 tonnes.

Local folkloric tradition suggests that you will enjoy good luck if you can throw a small pebble behind you and over your head if it lands on top of the capstone.

This monument dates to the earlier part of the Neolithic period, and is around 5,000 years old. Just a short distance away is a great example of a wedge tomb. This is a later monument than the portal tomb, and was probably constructed towards the end of the Neolithic period some time around 2,500 BC.

The best way to access the site is to park in the carpark of the Ballymacscanlan Hotel (just off the R173) and follow the signs along the path to the site, the walk takes around 10 minutes or so but do look out for low flying golfballs!

  • In the next edition I’ll be suggesting three more great places to visit from around the island of Ireland. I’d love to hear your suggestions; if you have a favourite heritage site please leave a comment below.

You can discover more great heritage sites and places on Neil’s blog, Time Travel Ireland.

Neil has also produced an acclaimed series of audioguides to Ireland’s heritage sites, they are packed with original music and sound effects and a really fun and immersive way of exploring Ireland’s past.

You can find guides to places like Glendalough, the Hill of Tara, Viking and medieval Dublin, and you can discover the history of towns like Portlaoise, Cloughjordan, Kildare, Portarlington and Kells. They are available from

If you’d like to receive daily updates about great heritage sites then please consider following us on FacebookTwitter and Google+.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /

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