Ireland is one of the richest destinations when it comes to Neolithic heritage, in particular, Neolithic era tombs. Here in Ireland, we still have thousands of them. Capping most hills and mountains is some kind of cairn, usually small and inconspicuous. Two regions are particularly concentrated: Sligo and Meath (though interestingly, Celtic Neolithic societies stretched all the way to Scotland, Wales,Bretagne, and Galicia). The biggest of the Neolithic tombs is found in Meath. UNESCO site Newgrange is one of Ireland’s wonders. Built around 3,200BC according to archeologists, the Newgrange monument is an enormous mound/ cairn that encloses a single, 19-metre-long passage tomb ending in 3 burial chambers where cremated remains were once placed. Inside, the passage is narrow but visitors are still able to walk (unlike the tombs at Carrowkeel where you have to crawl…). Walls are adorned with spirals and other basic forms of megalithic rock art, and the tomb’s roof uses corbelling, an ancient drystone technique that makes the tomb waterproof without even requiring mortar! Even with the thousands of tombs they’ve left behind, we know very little about the ancient Celtic Neolithic people of Ireland. One thing that is evident is that astronomy was very important to them. In fact, Neolithic people had a good understanding of sun, moon, and stars including solstices and equinoxes. Newgrange is aligned with the Winter Solstice, therefore for 6 days in mid December, the sun shines through the “roofbox” (that narrow slit above the door of the tomb) to the lighten the chamber with sunlight. Amazing!
Pro tip: If you want to visit for the Winter Solstice, you can enter the lottery (with about 30,000 other applicants for 100 available places!) Or head to one of the other Neolithic sites for similar alignments. For Newgrange, in general we recommend booking in advance, and going early in the day. However, Newgrange Visitor Centre will be closed for most of 2019 so while works are going on, you can’t book in advance, but to compensate, tickets are free and first-come basis during the works. Best to visit in the off season or early, around 9 am. Nearby site of Dowth is also amazing – you can’t get inside anymore, but you’ll have it all to yourself. Or head to the Hill of Tara.
Oweynagat Cave, Roscommon, Ireland – The Gateway to Hell
Below the wet, emerald fields of Co Roscommon, an overlooked county in the Irish Midlands, is the narrow fissure that jets through the earth for some 37 meters… of which local lore calls this cave the Gateway to Hell (or the Gateway to the Otherworld). Oweynagat Cave is an ancient place. Though the cave itself is of natural occurrence, the entrance to it is what they call a souterrain (literally, ‘underground’) – a neolithic monument with an underground element. Oweynagat’s entrance is man-made, using boulders as well as lintels – basically structural horizontal blocks spanning the opening – inscribed with Ogham writing (the earliest form of writing found in Ireland). While this is rare enough in Ireland, in Co Roscommon, only 6 Ogham exemplars have been found. The cave’s small opening, mysterious inscriptions, dark interior, and narrow passages earned it the Gate to Hell. Not easy to find, Oweynagat Cave is located deep in the backcountry of the forgotten Midlands – but it wasn’t always this way. In ancient times, this region held a sacred and royal function. The surrounding area of Rathcroghan, like the Hill of Tara in Ireland’s Ancient East (near Dublin), is full of ancient, man-made mounds where kings were crowned and later buried, and important festivals and rituals were celebrated. Oweynagat Cave is associated with one of these Celtic pagan festivals – that of Samhain (pronounced ‘saw-when’), celebrated the 31st of October, when the borders of our world and that of the otherworld are said to be open. In fact, it is this festival that gave rise to the modern holiday we call Halloween! Like most pagan things, when Christianity came along, it repurposed pagan rites. So what was once the gateway to the otherworld of the fairies now becomes the terrifying Gateway to Christian Hell. Would you be brave enough to crawl inside the dark and narrow passage of Oweynagat Cave… on Halloween!?
Pro tip: The cave is extremely muddy. Be sure to wear good, waterproof boots, rain trousers and waterproof jacket so that you can shed them when you come out. Bring lights and a hard hat if you have one. Nearby, be sure to visit a few of the ancient mounds. Though little is left of them, it is interesting to learn about the ancient peoples who once worshipped there.
Though it may be hard to see from here, Knocknarea is topped with a magnificent stone cairn, shaped like an overturned bowl. Dating back to the neolithic times (so, some 2,000-3,000 years old…), a cairn is a loose dry-stone (without mortar) pyramid, usually located in a desolate or altitude location, and used as a tomb. Ireland is full of these neolithic monuments of varying shapes and sizes. Though generally simple, many of these monument pre-dates the Pyramids of Giza, and have changed very little in past millennia (thanks to local Celtic peoples thinking they were either cursed or protected by the fairies). Even today, projects get diverted in order to avoid touching these ancient sites. Knocknarea is a small hill in northwestern Sligo, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Coolera Peninsula, and Sligo town. The cairn is legendary queen of Connacht Queen Maeve’s burial place – supposedly buried standing up, spear in hand, ready to face her enemies.
Pro Tip: There is more than one way up but the best way starts from the Queen Maeve car park. Bring a stone up from the bottom of the hill to add to Queen Maeve’s cairn for good luck! Back in Sligo, have dinner at the delicious Coach Lane (pub – not restaurant – it’s the same cook but cheaper food!) and go for music and drinks at traditional pubs like Shoot the Crows and Connollys or craft beer pub, the Swagmans.