From standing stones to wedge tombs, the Irish countryside bristles with stone monuments created thousands of years ago, many older than the pyramids. Unfortunately, there has been a disturbing trend among those who should be protecting them, to instead “restore” them. The result is not history as it was, but as they imagined it was.
One of the most striking examples of this is Newgrange, the passage tomb in the Boyne Valley that was built as much as 6,000 years ago. After centuries of decay and pillaging in search of treasures, in the last 20 years it was reconstructed to become one of the country’s major tourist attractions. Visitors may now buy a ticket to enter the ancient passage tomb and admire the stone carvings and construction. Electric lights illuminate the graveled path. The outside has been reconstructed based on what they thought it probably looked like, using what remained of the fallen stones as a guide. The original creators left no written record, and certainly no building plans.
On the east coast, near Sligo, are two striking megalithic burial cairns, one restored and one undisturbed. Both are gigantic mounds of stones, but while the cairn at Carrowmore megalithic cemetery has been sliced and diced, Maeve’s Tomb has never been excavated. The latter is far more mysterious.
Maeve’s Tomb is said to be the final resting place of the mythical Goddess/Queen Maeve, who was legendary for her appetite for war and sex (usually a man’s domain in mythology). The legend says she is buried in full battle gear with all her weaponry, in an upright position facing her enemies in Ulster to the north. It measures 150 feet wide by 50 feet high. Archeologists think the cairn might hold a cruciform chamber similar to the one at Newgrange and other sites in the east of Ireland. It is estimated to have been constructed circa 2,500 BC.
The cairn tops Knocknarea and dominates the surrounding countryside. Sitting at 1,000 feet you can see it for miles, with its sloping sides, unique flat top and broad path slashing across the green flanks of the mountain. Many of the hills in this area are topped with cairns,but Maeve’s is, fittingly, the largest. Their origin and use is unknown, except that they date to the neolithic period, about 6,000 to 3,000 years ago.
Tradition says that visitors to Maeve’s grave are supposed to bring a stone to add to her cairn. Perhaps that’s why it’s so large, as thousands of people make the trek every year. It’s obvious this area once held great ritualistic significance to the early Celts, as the flat top of Knocknarea once held many satellite stone monuments. All but Maeve’s tomb have been pillaged and “explored” over the centuries. It’s been the fate of many ancient structures in Ireland to end up as part of a farmer’s stone wall.
While the curiosity to see what’s inside this massive monument to a queen is strong, the desire to preserve the monument—and the myth—for now is winning the battle.
For more information on Carrowmore and Maeve’s tomb visit the Megalithic Ireland site.