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Heapstown Cairn is located near Castlebaldwin in County Sligo, and is a passage tomb 60 metres in diameter and 6 metres high.

It is the largest monument of its kind outside of the Boyne Valley. It is believed to have once been much bigger, but much of it was removed through the ages, and used to build walls and roads.

Most of the limestone kerbstones are still visible around its base.

A drawing by George Petrie in 1837 shows a standing stone on its summit, but this has long since disappeared. (To see this drawing click here.)  Read More

Dindsenchas | Ireland’s Lore of Places

Dublin - Baile atha Cliath

Dublin – Baile atha Cliath

Following on from Monday’s post, there is an ancient Irish text called the Dindsendchas, meaning ‘lore of places’, which contains over 176 poems, some of them dating back as far as C11th, concerning how various locations in Ireland got their names.

Some of these tales are quite fanciful, and clearly not true, but many of them derive from much earlier texts, which in turn describe long mnemonic poems and prose obviously devised to be recited from memory, as in the ancient bardic oral tradition.

In ancient times, there were very few large towns or settlements, so places were often named after distinctive features in the landscape, such as hills, lakes, islands, valleys, rivers, rocks, and so on.  Read More

Situated over three hilltops, Carnbane West, Carnbane East, and Patrickstown, Loughcrew (Loch Craobh in Irish) is a cluster of 25 passage tombs dating to approx 4000BC.  Thought to have been built by a community of Neolithic farmers, these structures have been found to align with the rising sun of the Spring and Autumn equinoxes.

They certainly picked a spectacular site; I know it’s a cliché, and as a writer I should have a better grasp of language, but the scenery is simply stunning! You can’t help but stand and feel a sense of awe at their achievement and drive, and a sense of serenity as you gaze out across the landscape. Read More

We were driving through the Cavan countryside last weekend, and whizzed past this little gem! We almost crashed whilst we did a double take, then turned around  and drove back to have a closer look.

St Fethlimidh’s Cathedral is only located a few kilometres outside of Cavan town on a beautiful wooded hillside close to Lough Oughter, but if felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, it was closed and locked up, so we weren’t able to go inside. Read More

Click the video below to listen to the hauntingly magical strains of fairy harp music by blind Irish harper, Turlough O’Carolan (1670 – 1738) as you read about the site the music was named for.

On Friday, I visited the ancient sites of Shee Beag and Shee Mor in Co. Leitrim. What I found just blew me away!

Shee Beag and Shee More, (in Irish, an Sí Bheag an Sí Mhor, meaning little and big fairy mounds, respectively), were immortalised by the blind Irish harper, Turlough O’Carolan (1670 – 1738) in his composition of the same name.

O’Carolan was an interesting character, one of the last wandering harpers of old, making a living by travelling the land with his horse and his harp, composing songs (in Irish…he didn’t speak English) and music in honour of his patrons.

When I arrived at the locations featured in this particular song, I understood why he had felt so moved to compose word and music about them. We (my husband Conor and I) went first to Shee Beag, and I’m glad we did it this way around. Read More

My family standing beside an unidentified ancient monument on the Plain of Moytura

My family standing beside an unidentified ancient monument on the Plain of Moytura


Moytura is where the Tuatha de Danann began their invasion by taking on the Fir Bolg in a battle for the possession of Ireland. It’s name in Irish is Cath Maighe Tuireadh, meaning ‘Battle of the Plain of Pillars’. The Danann were victorious.

Some thirty years later, a second battle of Moytura was fought, this time against the Fomori, whom some call a race of demons. Again, the Danann were the victors.

The question is, where did these battles take place? Read More

Mullagh Hill; Scenery, Serenity, and Sonnets

Mullagh Lake

Mullagh Lake

Knowing how creative the Irish are, it still surprised me when I walked up Mullagh Hill for the first time, and found… Poetry!

You can often see and hear birds of prey flying around the top of the ridge as you walk up

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Mullagh is a small village in Co Cavan some fifteen minutes drive from my house. The Hill itself rises 684 feet above the  lake at its base. Interestingly, its name in Irish is An Mullach Laoighill, meaning ‘the mound of Laoighill’, but whether this refers to the hill, or something man-made which might once have topped the summit, I don’t know. There are some rather large chunks of rock up there, though, but my untrained eye cannot distinguish between that which has been shaped by nature, and that which has been carved by the tools of ancient man. However, it seems that Ordnance Survey engineers in 1913 claimed to have located a mound with a grave somewhere on the hill. Soon after this announcement, the tomb was found opened and raided, but by whom, and what they discovered, remains a secret never to be revealed.

Indi taking a rest at the top

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Mullagh is most famous for its associations with St Killian, who was born there in 640AD. He was later martyred in Bavaria in 689 AD. Killian’s story is an interesting one; born of noble descent, he went on to complete his education in Cork and Kerry, where he became patron saint of Touist. From there he travelled to Rome to meet the Pope, before finally settling in the German town of Wurzberg, where the Duke Gozbert and his people were still pagan. Failing to convert the Duke’s wife, Geilana, Killian informed the Duke that he had acted against scripture by marrying his own brother’s widow. Enraged by his badmouthing her marriage, Geilana sent soldiers after Killian, and had him beheaded on the spot as he preached in the town square, along with two of his colleagues. Wurzberg Cathedral was later built on the very spot where they were said to have met their deaths, and their remains dug up and placed in a crypt. Bizzarely, their skulls were inlaid with precious jewels and currently reside in a glass case which is still paraded around the streets of Wurzberg on Killian’s feast day, July 8th.

Statue of St Killian in Wurzberg

Statue of St Killian in Wurzberg

The jewel encrusted skulls of St Killian and his friends in their glass case

It is said that the Rev. Dr. Jonathon Swift wrote part of his tale, Gulliver’s Travels, whilst staying at Quilca House, the home of his friend Thomas Sheridan, on the outskirts of the site of the old Mullagh Village, which is situated about one km NW of the present village.

The way back down.

The way back down.

But what I like most about Mullagh Hill is the solitude, the serenity, and the scenery. It’s a short but steep walk. There is an uninterrupted 360* view from the top, which on a clear day, takes in the vast Neolithic mound complex of Loughcrew, and the tower at Kells, which incidentally, is also the site of an ancient hill fort. Birds of prey call to each other as they fly overhead, and the lake below glistens in the sunlight. Resting at the top, absorbing all this while the heady scent of yellow gorse washes over you, gives you the chance to reflect on the words you have read on the way up. Going back down gives you the chance to read them all again. It’s a truly unique experience.

A selection of the poems found along the route up Mullagh Hill. There are more, but I couldn’t include them all here.

 (1)

  Fond memories dwell beside 

  fair Mullagh mountain’s mist crowned dome

  And sadly turned from scenes of pride

  To you my lovely island home.

  (From My Native Hills – Bernard Nulty 1895)

 

 

(3)

Old Mullagh hill of the craggy braes

Is clothed with fern and fir

And looks as young as in olden days

But it never seems to stir.

It is all the same in a thousand years

The lake looks calm and mild

Whilst steering up the old mill-stream

By the church yard drear and wild.

(From Mullagh Hill – Robert O’Reilly)

(4)

I am a stream as old as time

From Mullagh’s wave I take my rise

I gurgle on with busy chime

And sparkle like a lover’s eyes.

(From The Old Mill Stream – Robert O’Reilly)

(10)

Home again in Noble Breffni

Filled with yearning of the past

Stood I on the Mullagh Mountain

As the sun’s last line was cast

And I thought upon the evenings

Far away in Germany

When my ears drank in the story

That the wood man told to me.

(From A Lay of Early Missionary Days – John Keegan (Leo) Casey 1866)

 

Fionn's FingersA short drive from where I live, in the parish of Castletara (Cushintirra) in Co Cavan lies the ancient archaeological site known as Fionn’s Fingers, also called the Fingerstones. It consists of a row of five standing stones somewhat resembling a giant hand. The middle finger is over  six feet tall and weighs an estimated four tons. The rest of the stones are all proportionate.

The stone row is in alignment with NW – SE, and is located on the North side of of a high ridge known as Shantemon Hill. There is also a sixth stone, now recumbent, and local tradition indicates that this is Fionn’s thumb…although that would give him a total of six digits on one hand, not a story I have ever heard before about the great man himself!

The path on the way up is very overgrown

The path on the way up is very overgrown

The summit of of Shantemon, (in Irish known as Seantuimin/ Seantóman) is only 218 m high, yet commands fine views over the hills and lakes of Cavan. Here, a trig point marks the highest spot, and one can see the remains of an old stone fort. In fact, although there is very little information to go on, it seems that this hill and fort may have been the site of ancient inauguration ceremonies for the chieftains of East Bréifne from 1100AD until 1700AD, and most likely even earlier.

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We made it…even with Carys in her buggy

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Taking a breather

The stones were mottled with lichen.

The stones were mottled with lichen.

 

My son Malachy sitting on one of Fionn's Fingers

My son Malachy sitting on one of Fionn’s Fingers

Certainly there are stories of various members of the Ó’Raghallaigh (O’Reilly) family being crowned there. East Breifne was an ancient historic kingdom known as Muintir Maelmordha, which later on became what is Cavan today. The inauguration stone itself (something like the Lia Fail at Tara) was called Cois an tSiorragh, which means ‘the foal’s foot’, due to a curious indentation said to look like the imprint of a foal’s foot…strangely.

Unfortunately, there is no longer any trace of this stone, but there is an interesting tale about it; the details are very sketchy, so it is hard to be completely accurate, but I believe there arose a dispute between two members of the  Ó’Raghallaigh clan over the kingship; in 1534, Maol Mordha Ó Raghallaigh outwitted his nephew by crowning himself there, ‘so that he (the nephew) would never be allowed to set his foot upon the stone of Cois an tSiorragh‘.

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View of Cavan from the top. There was quite a drop down to the lake

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Another view of Cavan from the top. The Chieftains must have felt very powerful, surveying their land from their perch on the inauguration stone as they received their crown.

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It was a damp, hazy day, but the view was still breath taking

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Heading back down from the top towards the stone row

These two places of interest lie on a path called, rather grandly, the Castletara Millennium Trail, which also takes in Castletara Church and an ancient graveyard. Fionn’s Fingers is surrounded by a conifer plantation, and the path is very overgrown, indicating few visitors. It’s isolation, however, all adds to its atmosphere and mystique. If you can find it, you will be well rewarded for your efforts, you will have the place to yourself, and it’s completely FREE!

New Year's day 2014. Visiting with my lovely friend Jenni and our two hounds. The veil between this world and the magical realm was thin that day

New Year’s day 2014. Visiting with my lovely friend Jenni and our two hounds. The veil between this world and the magical realm was thin that day

On Monday, after much waiting, I finally got to visit the Hill of Allen (Cnoc Alúine in modern Irish) in Co Kildare. This iconic hill, jutting out of the flatlands of the Curragh, is said to be the site of Almu, the home of Irish legendary hero and leader of the Fianna, Fionn mac Cumhall, and as my second book, Conor Kelly and the Fenian King is based upon his story, and ready to be formatted, I was anxious to pay a visit as soon as possible.

I visit all the sites I feature in my books; I think it’s important. I want you to really get a feel for these fantastic ancient places, and I can’t give you that if I don’t go and soak them up myself first.

But it’s not always that easy in Ireland; many sites are on private property, and visitors are not always welcome. Finding the landowner to request permission can be an arduous task. Read More

Since writing my first novel, Conor Kelly and the Four Treasures of Eirean, I have become far more closely connected with this land I am lucky enough to live in. When I moved here to satisfy my Irish husband’s longing for home, I never thought I would fall in love with a country so completely.

So here is a Top 5 of some of the sites I love. If you live here but haven’t yet been, I urge you to do so. If you live elsewhere, but think you might like to come to Ireland to see for yourself, you can be sure of a great Irish welcome!

1. NEWGRANGE (Bru na Boinne)

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The top tourist destination in Ireland, Newgrange has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and attracts 200,000 visitors per year. This Passage Tomb was built about 3200 BC. The mound covers an area of over one acre and is surrounded by 97 kerbstones, most of them richly decorated with megalithic art.

The inner passage is 19 m long, and leads to a cruciform chamber with a corbelled roof. At the winter solstice sunrise, a shaft of sunlight enters through the  roof box above the entrance, shines along the passage way, and lights up the chamber. It’s an experience not to be missed.

Why I love it.

The tour takes you right inside the mound, where you are surrounded by all the megalithic artwork. You can touch them, trace the carvings which were created thousands of years ago by ancient craftsmen. Then they turn all the lights out, and recreate the winter solstice lighting up experience. It’s electrifying!

This is what those people laboured to create, we don’t know why for sure, but it’s a privilege to be able to share it now, all these years later. I don’t know many places which allow you such up close and personal interactive experiences of such an ancient and valuable treasure. In addition, the visitor centre is an amazing in itself, with great facilities, informative displays and friendly, helpful staff.

2. KNOWTH

 


Knowth (sounds like mouth) is a sister site of Newgrange, and you can join a tour from the same visitor centre. The central mound was built over 5000 years ago, and is similar in size to Newgrange. It is surrounded by 18 smaller satellite mounds. The central mound has two passages with entrances on opposite sides. The western passage is 34 metres long and the eastern passage is 40 metre long, ending with a cruciform chamber.

Why I love it.

Knowth has a great sense of  serenity. Unfortunately, the entrances are sealed, so unlike at Newgrange, you can’t go inside this mound, but here you will find great megalithic rock art; nearly half of all of Ireland’s engraved megalithic stones can be found in just this one site. That amounts to 30% of Western Europe’s ancient rock art. There is a path which leads you to the top of the mound, from where you can admire the view of the surrounding countryside, with many other sites of megalithic significance within sight line.

3. UISNEACH

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The Hill of Uisneach stands 183 metres tall, and is located between the villages of Ballymore and Loughanavally in County Westmeath. In ancient times, it was regarded as the centre point of Ireland, symbolised by the presence of a great stone called the Ail na Mirean, or Stone of Divisions.

This stone was said to be where the borders of Ireland’s five provinces, Leinster, Munster, Connacht, Ulster and Mide met. Nowadays, there are only four provinces, Mide becoming the Counties Meath and Westmeath.

Uisneach was a site of great significance. It was considered the sister site of Tara, in fact, remains of an ancient road have been discovered which actually connect the two locations. Whilst Tara was associated with Kingship rituals, Uisneach is believed to have been a place of Druid worship and ceremony. Evidence of huge fires have been uncovered here, believed to have been lit in celebration of the festival of Beltaine.

Recently, the spirit of Beltaine has been rekindled in the Festival of the Fires.

Why I love it.

When you arrive at the Hill of Uisneach, access is sealed off by a large fence and gate, with a sign giving the land owner’s mobile number. This is his private property, but he will come and let you in, free of charge. Only in Ireland…

There is no showy visitor centre, no tour guides, and you share the site with a herd of cows. The monuments are surrounded by electric fences to keep the cattle off them, so you must be careful. There is a surreal blend of old and new here; the evidence of ancient civilisation and ritual in the archaeological remains, juxtaposed with the more modern monuments created for the recently revived Beltaine Festival of the Fires. I love the sense of space and freedom, and kids will love it, too.

NB. Since this post was originally written, the festival of fires has stopped, and a small visitor centre has been opened.

4. TARA


Another very popular tourist attraction, it is also known as Teamhair na Ri in Irish. It is located on the River Boyne near Navan in County Meath, and believed to be a sacred site associated with ancient kingship rituals.

The most prominent earthworks on the site are two linked enclosures known as Cormac’s House, and the Forradh, or Royal Seat. The famous standing stone, the Lia Fail, is located in the centre of the Forradh (the left hand enclosure). Tara also features a small Neolithic passage tomb called Dumha na nGial, or the Mound of Hostages, which was constructed around 3,400 BC.

Originally, the Lia Fail would have stood before the Mound of Hostages, however, it was moved to its current site in 1798 to commemorate the 400 rebels who died in the Battle of Tara during the Irish revolution.

In mythology, the Lia Fail was said to roar out in joy at recognition of the touch of the rightful High King, or Ard Ri, of Ireland. In order for this to happen, the King was required to stand upon it. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that the stone would have laid upon its side in order to facilitate this.

The Lia Fail was destroyed by Cuchullain when it failed to proclaim his protegé, Lugaid Riab nDerg, as High King. In a fit of anger he struck it with his sword and so broke it in two.

The Lia Fail is reputed to have left Ireland in AD500, when the then High King of Ireland, Murtagh Mac Erc, loaned it to his brother Fergus for his coronation as ruler of Dalriada in Scotland. In 1296, it was taken by Edward 1st of England to Westminster Abbey, and fitted into the wooden chair upon which all subsequent English monarchs have been crowned. Some say, however, that the monks of Scone Palace hid the real stone in the River Tay, or beneath Dunsinane Hill, and that it lies there still.

Why I love it.

Tara is so wonderful simply because it is so undeveloped. You can join a tour of the site if you wish, but you can get just as much pleasure from wandering freely, and finding a pleasant spot to picnic with the kids. Even when busy, the site feels tranquil. Children will love the freedom they have to run up and down the embankments and ditches, and the surreal experience of the Fairy Tree. There is a tiny visitor centre located in a nearby church, and also some gift shops and a teashop.

5. LOUGHCREW

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Although Loughcrew does not as yet feature in any of my books, it is only 20 minutes drive from my house, and I go there often. Loughcrew is one of four main passage tomb sites in Ireland, and is thought to date from about 3300 BC. It is spread over three locations; the twin hilltops of Carnbane East and Carnbane West, and a cairn at Patrickstown.

The Irish name for the site is Sliabh na Caillí, which means ‘mountain of the hag/witch/nun’. Legend claims the monuments were created when a giant hag, striding across the land, dropped her cargo of large stones from her apron. There are about 25 mounds in the Loughcrew complex, but most are in a state of disrepair.

Why I love it.

Like most of Ireland’s monuments, Loughcrew is located on private land, so keep your dog on a lead, as the hill is dotted with sheep. Outside of the tourist season, you can collect the key for the mound from the teashop at the nearby Loughcrew Gardens, itself well worth a visit…yes, I know, only in Ireland! During the summer months, there is often a guide waiting at the top, who will give you a free guided tour.

I was amazed on my first visit inside the mound; the artwork is so clear and sharp, seemingly untouched by the passage of time, as vivid and sharp as the day they were cut. If there are not too many people about (and usually there aren’t), the guide will lend you her torch, and let you stay inside the mound as long as you like, studying the rock art. My boys were fascinated! The cairns of Carnabane West, however, are not accessible to the general public, although they can be viewed from the road. (image from Knowth.com).

So, there you have it…my top five. If you ever visit any of them, give me a shout…I might just join you!


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