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These mysterious caves in a Sligo hillside carry secrets from the Ice Age

Archaeologist Neil Jackman explores two of Ireland’s most intriguing ancient sites – the Caves of Keash and Dun Aonghasa.

IN THE LATEST edition of the Hidden Heritage series, we explore the mysterious Caves of Keash in County Sligo, and we visit one of Ireland’s most iconic sites – Dún Aonghasa on Inis Mór. As ever, I’m hoping to feature sites from all over the island of Ireland, and I’d love to hear your suggestions – if you have a favourite heritage site please do leave a comment below.

The Caves of Keash, Keshcorran Mountain, Co Sligo

Last Sunday I visited a site I had long wanted to see – The Caves of Keash in Co Sligo. These are some of Ireland’s most visually striking caves, appearing as black mouths set in the white limestone rock face high on the western shoulder of Keshcorran Mountain. There are 16 caves and you can enter the majority to enjoy a really incredible evocative experience.

Archaeological investigations in the early 20th century, discovered bones from animals that stalked Ireland towards the end of the Ice Age – with evidence of hares, brown bear, red deer, Arctic lemming and wolves all dating to more than c.12,000 years ago.

Tantalising evidence of human activity was also discovered during the investigations, with artefacts and human remains discovered from a number of periods throughout Irish history.

Perhaps most curiously a number of human teeth were recovered. They were found to date from different periods ranging from the Early Iron Age, to the Early Medieval period. These were the teeth of human adults, and due to the number of examples and nature of their deposition they are unlikely to be accidental losses. As there was no accompanying skeletal remains it is quite possible that they represent some kind of votive ritual tradition or religious practice.

Animal teeth (particularly dog and horse) were also discovered in similar deposits. Both dogs and horses were highly prized and almost revered in Iron Age Ireland so they may also represent ritual activity. It is possible that the teeth formed part of a ritual celebrating Lughnasa, as the Keash Caves are particularly associated with the Iron Age god Lugh.

Another discovery has more sinister possibilities. Part of a leg bone of an adult male was discovered within one of the caves, nearby to an iron crossbow bolt. This could represent the grisly end for someone who was hiding in the caves before they were hunted down. An entry in the Annals of the Four Masters from 1007 AD states: ‘…Muireadhach, a distinguished bishop…was suffocated in a cave, in Gaileanga of Corann’.

Being so highly visible and unusual in the landscape, the Caves of Keash and the mountain are imbued with myth, legend and folklore. The legendary High King of Ireland, Cormac Mac Airt was said to have been born by a well at the foot of Keshcorran, and was raised by a she-wolf in one of the caves, perhaps echoing the story of Romulus and Remus who were also raised by a wolf in a cave.

The caves also feature in stories of Fionn MacCumhaill, who had to enter the caves to seek out the otherworld smithy of Lon MacLíomhtha. Another story featuring the caves tells how Fionn and his Fianna were captured and bound in the caves by three hideous hags.

Dr Marion Dowd of Sligo IT is Ireland’s foremost expert in the archaeology of caves, and she has a great Facebook page that highlights the story of these fascinating places.

As well as the caves, the mountain of Keshcorran was an important place in ancient Ireland. A prehistoric cairn, likely to be a large Neolithic passage tomb, crowns the summit of the mountain.

The cairn is part of an extended upland megalithic cemetery that includes the tombs on Carrowkeel.

Keshcorran 2

These tombs are clearly visible in the landscape from the summit of Keshcorran. Indeed from the summit you are treated to absolutely breathtaking views, on a clear day you can spend a while just gazing at the beautiful landscape at places like Nephin in Mayo and the mountains of Donegal.

You can find the Caves of Keshcorran signposted off the R295 between Ballymote and Boyle (around 30km from Sligo at co-ordinates 54º03.541, -008º27.146). There is a small carpark and a steep path up to the caves but I highly recommend good walking boots as it can be very slippy underfoot. We couldn’t find any obvious path up to the cairn, it was a very tough and occasionally nervy, climb up.

As it hasn’t been excavated the cairn has no distinguishing features so unless you are particularly interested in upland megalithic tombs I would advise skipping this one and perhaps taking a trip to Carrowkeel after your visit to the caves.

Dún Aonghasa, Inis Mór, County Galway

Undoubtedly one of the most spectacular of Ireland’s heritage sites, Dún Aonghasa and the other stone forts of the Aran Islands are a truly unforgettable place to visit. Dún Aonghasa is the largest of the seven stone forts that stand proudly on the Aran Islands, and it is beautifully positioned on the edge of the steep cliffs of the south-western side of the island.

Dún Aonghasa encloses an area of over 5 hectares (nearly 14 acres). The three drystone walls divide the fort into an outer, middle and inner enclosure, as an extra form of defence, a series of upright stones form a formidable obstacle known as a chevaux de frise and would have severely hampered any attackers before they reached the inner enclosure.

The site has its origins in the Late Bronze Age, when it served as a large hillfort. A place of ceremonies and settlement between 1000–700 BC. Though the site as we see it today largely dates back to the Early Medieval period, when the Bronze Age remains were readapted and the mighty inner enclosure was constructed. It stands nearly 6 metres tall and 5 metres wide in places.

Dun Aonghasa 1

These stone walls were repaired in the 19th century and if you look closely at the stone walls you can make out each phase of building, from the original Bronze Age construction, through the early medieval redevelopment and refortification and up to the nineteenth century restorations.

Because of the spectacular nature of the site and its setting, Dún Aonghasa has long been a focus of interest for archaeologists and antiquarians. William Wilde (father of Oscar), one of Irish archaeology’s founding fathers, believed Dún Aonghasa to be the ‘last standing place of the Firbolg aborigines of Ireland’.

The site also features a great account by William F Wakeman who visited the Aran Islands as part of the Ordnance Survey in 1839 with John O’Donovan, he records their excitement:

Filled with a desire to visit the great Firbolgian Fort of Dun Aengus we made little delay at Mrs Costello’s. Armed with measuring tapes, note-books and sketching materials, we started over the rocks in the direction of the western cliffs, upon the highest of which the great Acropolis of Aran stands…A smart walk brought us in sight of our day’s pilgrimage; and I shall never forget O’Donovan’s burst of enthusiasm when the old palace fortress of the days of Queen Maeve first met our view. He literally shouted with delight, and after launching his umbrella a marvellous height into the air, threw himself on the ground, and shouted again and again.(Waddell 2005; Foundation Myths: The Beginnings of Irish Archaeology)

I love a bit of enthusiasm for heritage! Dún Aonghasa is truly a site that leaves a lasting legacy on you.

Dun Aonghasa 2

If you would like more information about the history and archaeology of Dún Aonghasa I strongly recommend picking up a copy of the excellent guidebook by The Discovery Programme. We also have an audioguide that tells the story of Dún Aonghasa and the other stone forts of Inis Mór, available from here.

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Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog, Time Travel Ireland, where I have more suggestions for great places to visit.

You can also download audioguides from my website abartaaudioguides.com, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.

Our latest free to download guide is to the lovely heritage town of Abbeyleix in Co Laois. You can download it as a free audio-visual app (iOS or Android), please see here for a preview.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Abarta Audioguides on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /abartaheritage.ie

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