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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C

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

As part of the Hidden Ireland series, Neil Jackman looks at three off-the-beaten-track places to visit this weekend in Wicklow, Roscommon and Armagh.

THIS WEEKEND IS going to be a hot one (temperature wise, at least) so make the most of it: here’s three more great heritage sites to visit around Ireland as part of our ongoing series on off-the-beaten track places you should visit.

Seefin Passage Tomb, County Wicklow

The Neolithic passage tomb of Seefin stands on top of a 650m high mountain in North Wicklow. It appears to be part of a series of tombs, as a number of other peaks in the area like Seefingan and Seahan also have similar large cairns covering passage tombs. This would have been an incredibly difficult undertaking in the Neolithic period. The peaks of these hills are all around 650m – 750m above sea level, so why would they have constructed these elaborate and large stone tombs? When you arrive at Seefin it immediately becomes apparent.

The views are just simply spectacular and some of the finest vistas you can ever enjoy in Ireland. The whole of South County Dublin and Wicklow opens up around you: rolling hills, well ordered fields, shining lakes all stitched together like a well-ordered quilt. It is almost like those who constructed the graves 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.

But who was buried at Seefin? The tomb was excavated by R.A. Macalister in 193.  However he reported finding no artifacts and stranger still, no human remains in the tomb. Perhaps then the remains had been removed in antiquity by the decedents of the tribe; if they migrated from the area they may have wanted their ancestors with them. Perhaps in some remote period the grave had been desecrated with all traces of the those interred removed and destroyed; or perhaps no-one was buried in the tomb at Seefin in the first place, maybe the tomb was merely a symbolic marker in the landscape and never a final resting place? Or perhaps the remains were there and Macalister missed them? Whatever the case, it is certainly strange that 5,000 years ago a large community worked together to construct an elaborate tomb, that was then left empty. Perhaps in the future, a small investigation of the unexcavated tomb of Seefingan might provide the answer.

The tomb at Seefin is a large stone cairn, measuring around 25m in diameter and about 3m high. You can see a number of large kerb stones around the base of the tomb defining its outer edge. The tomb has a passageway around 10m long and opens into a chamber with five compartments. According to Macalister there are two decorated stones at the entrance, but perhaps because of the very strong light when we visited on the 13 July, we couldn’t make out any megalithic art.

(Video: AbartaAudioGuides/YouTube)

Getting there

Seefin is in Wicklow, roughly half way between the Sally Gap and Manor Kilbride on the R759. If you are travelling from Dublin go on the N7 and exit onto the N81 at Citywest. Turn left onto the R759 and continue along this road. The turn off for Seefin is on your left immediately before the large entrance to the Kippure Estate and Kippure Bridge. The turn off is only a small lane so expect to miss it and you can always turn around in the entrance for the Kippure Estate.

Drive for a few minutes up this steep track. If you come to the fences and warning signs for the Army Rifle Range you have gone too far; simply turn back and park your car in a handy lay-by. Be sure to approach Seefin from the south (as the Army range is to the north but is well marked by a fence and signs), follow the track through the fir-tree forest plantation. The track was rough and steep and haunted by swarms of ASBO-deserving horseflies but bear with it and keep climbing up. When you get to a fallen fence where the path seems to disappear, cross to the left hand side of the fence and keep following the fence up. After a total climb of around 30-45 minutes (we took it very handy as it was so hot and it took us around 40 minutes and we’re by no means athletes) you’ll find the tomb on the summit.

Our first glimpse of the tomb had a crow rather ominously perched on top of it, very atmospheric! Enjoy a well-earned rest and take in the simply wonderful views. We were obviously gluttons for punishment, as we decided to take on Seefingan, the twin peak that is also crowned with a Neolithic passage tomb identical to Seefin (see below).  Unlike Seefin however, Seefingan is still unexcavated, and appears as a simple large cairn of stones. It’s well worth the walk as you can enjoy even more spectacular views as Seefingan is around 100m higher above sea level than Seefin. It’s very easy to get to, just follow the rough path to the north-east through the bog (jumping the odd minor crevasse) for around 20 minutes or so and you’ll arrive at the tomb.

The climb was made easier for us by the exceptionally dry weather, I think given the nature of the ground, that the path could become quite dangerous in wet weather so please do wear good boots and appropriate clothing if you are attempting it on a less than perfect day. If like us, you are going up on a nice sunny day I recommend insect repellent; those horseflies were merciless thugs and I’m still scratching a number of bites now. Above all though, please do be aware of the Army Rifle Range and respect their warning signs!

For those interested in prehistoric archaeology, or those who love a bit of hillwalking, or those who just want to see some of the finest views in Ireland, Seefin is a real must-see.

Navan Fort / Emain Macha, County Armagh

One of the most important sites in prehistoric Ireland, Navan Fort (also known as Emain Macha) is an incredible place of mythology and archaeology. Like The Hill of Tara, one of the other great ‘Royal Sites’ of prehistoric Ireland, Navan Fort is part of a large and complex landscape of monuments in an area steeped in the legends of Ireland. It was said to be the capital of Ulaidh and home of the great Ulster Warriors of the Red Branch, Emain Macha was also the seat of King Conor MacNeasa and it is entwined with the story of the great Cuchulainn – Hound of Ulster, who discussed epic battles and heroic campaigns here. The importance of legends relating to Emain Macha lived on through time – the famous Brian Boru spent a night at Navan Fort in 1005 to prove his worth as High King of Ireland. In 1387, Niall O’Neill chose Navan Fort as the location for a house where he could entertain guests – hoping to impress them with his wonderfully historical location.

However, in the 1960s this important site came under threat as a local quarry that was located very close to the northern part of the site wanted to expand. The quarry was already located adjacent to Loughnashade (or Lake of the Treasures) so any expansion would have meant certain destruction of archaeological deposits. An archaeological team headed by Dudley Waterman began the enormous task of excavating the site, to try to understand more about life in one of Ireland’s most important Iron Age royal centres, and to try to assess how the physical remains could match the historical and mythological descriptions.

They discovered a large enclosure that encompasses an area of around 6 hectares. At the heart of the enclosure there are two visible monuments: a large circular mound and an earthwork known as a ring-ditch. The information that came from the excavation of these features gave a startlingly complex story of activity that stretches over millennia. However the main activity on site seemed to centre around the Iron Age, around 2100 years ago in 90 BC. A huge wooden temple was constructed at the summit of the site, using over 280 large wooden posts. Strangely there is no evidence to say that anyone lived in this massive structure. Instead shortly after its construction, the temple was filled to the roof with a cairn of limestone rubble, then once the wooden structure  was completely filled, it was burned down and the remains of the cairn were carefully covered with a mound of soil.

This unusual and unparalleled activity is one of the great mysteries of prehistoric Western Europe. Why did they go to this incredibly time consuming labour intensive trouble of building a structure of enormous dimensions, only to then fill it with stones and destroy it by burning? What gods were they hoping to placate? For what reason? Theories in archaeology abound about this strange behaviour, though no-one can say with any certainty the reason behind it. It is often the case in archaeology that by excavating a site you end up with more questions than you had before you began and  the mound at Navan Fort is certainly a great example of that!

Poignantly, the excavators also discovered the skull of a Barbary Ape in Iron Age deposits at Navan Fort. This ape came from Northern Africa or Gibraltar, and no doubt was a little bewildered to find itself in (comparatively) cold and wet Armagh. This ape would have been an object of huge curiosity and was likely to be a treasured possession of the ruler at Navan Fort, who would have shown off his ability to trade with far-flung and exotic places.

More artefacts of immense importance were discovered in the ceremonial pool called Loughnashade. Four beautifully made bronze horns/trumpets were discovered in 1798, along with a quantity of human bones. These trumpets were the largest prehistoric horns ever found in Ireland and are thought to date to around 2,000 years old. Of the four trumpets unfortunately only one survives today; the other three have disappeared. From the surviving trumpet replicas have been created, to hear what these ceremonial trumpets would have sounded like check out this YouTube video and just try and imagine yourself as a homesick Barbary Ape.

(Video: ancientmusicireland/YouTube)

We will never truly understand all the secrets of Navan Fort but it is certainly well worth a visit as it is a site that has retained its importance through the centuries. Simply by standing on the summit of the remains of that large temple looking out over the landscape, one can understand how this became known as the great home of the Knights of the Red branch and how it was immortalised in tales of heroes. We strongly recommend paying a visit to the excellent visitor centre, where you can enjoy an exhibition and audio-visual that describes what was found during the excavations. There are also wonderful living history displays where you can experience life during the Iron Age and guided tours to the site are also available. To find out admission prices and more information you can visit this site.

Roscommon Castle, County Roscommon

In the early 13th century, the Gaelic Kingdom of Connacht was already weakened by a series of civil wars among the O’Conors, who were its native provincial overkings. In 1235 an Anglo-Norman noble, Richard de Burgo, invaded Connacht with an army of 500 highly-trained and well- equipped knights and all their foot soldiers and camp followers. The war was relatively short and certainly bloody. Immediately, the conquerers began to build castles and walled towns, as they had done in the south and east of the country; however parts of the west still offered strong resistance to the Anglo-Normans and held out. It was 1262 before the site of Roscommon Castle was chosen and works began in 1269. The site was chosen as it was formerly on the shores of Lough Nen, a large shallow lake that has since disappeared due to hydrological changes over the centuries. The O’Conors had a crannóg on the lake, and by constructing the castle in the heartland of the O’Conor Kingdom, the Anglo-Normans sought to send out a message about who was now the main power in Connacht.

The castle was constructed on the orders of the powerful King Edward I of England. He was a successful military-minded King, and he used strategically constructed castles to dominate territories and had used this technique to successfully subdue the Welsh. Roscommon Castle is constructed in a very similar style to those great fortresses in Wales like Harlech, Caernarfon and Conwy.

Roscommon Castle encloses an area of about 45m by 50m and originally would have had a large gateway in the middle of the eastern wall flanked by two large D-shaped towers, similar to the entrance to Castleroache in County Louth. The large stone walls also had projecting D-shaped towers at each of the four corners, and another smaller gateway led to the west. It is through this gateway that you enter the site today, and as you pass through it you can still see defensive features like murder holes (openings in the ceiling through which the defenders would have poured boiling fat or oil, or threw down large rocks or quicklime to maim and blind the attackers). The castle would have also been surrounded by a moat and possibly by a timber palisade fence giving a strong outer defence.

Like the castle at nearby Rindoon, Roscommon Castle also found itself repeatedly under attack and siege by the O’Conors and their Gaelic allies. It appears that the O’Conors succeeded in taking the castle by around 1340 and they held it for nearly two hundred years. In 1569 the castle was captured by the Tudor Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney. The castle was granted to Sir Nicholas Malby, who spent a vast sum in modernising and remodelling parts of the castle to make it more of a fashionable Renaissance dwelling rather than a bleak medieval fortress. However Malby also made sure that the defensive features of the castle were well maintained and that was put to the test during the Nine Years War when the castle found itself under siege by Hugh O’Donnell in 1596 and 1599. The castle saw action during the Confederate Wars of the 1640s, until Oliver Cromwell’s forces seized Roscommon Castle in 1652 and destroyed the fortifications. A fire in 1690 did massive amounts of damage to the castle and it was left to fall into disrepair through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Roscommon Castle today is free to enter and is a great site to explore. Situated in the grounds of Loughnaneane Park and Playground, it’s very accessible site and fun for children. The castle is down a small lane off Castle Street in Roscommon Town. It is signposted, but the lane is pretty small so easy to miss (we drove straight past it the first time). If you have time I do recommend a visit to Rindoon Deserted Medieval Town as well, it’s an amazing site on a nice day. You’ll find it between Roscommon and Athlone off the N61 and here’s our blog article about it.

  • This is part of a regular series of articles on great sites to visit in Ireland. I’m hoping to visit as many sites across the country as possible, so if you have any suggestions for sites in your locality please let us know by leaving a comment below or send an email to
  • 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. They are available from
  • If you’d like to receive daily updates about great heritage sites then please consider following us on Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /

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

Read: 5 off-the-beaten track places in Ireland you really should visit >

Read: Ever wondered where medieval Dubliners went for a pint? >

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