For ones I haven't yet visited, go to the end of this entry.
The Hurlstone, Ardee
This is an unusual standing tone - it is a flat slab standing about 1.90m high. There is a circular hole in the middle of the slab, about 20cm in diameter. It is possible that this was not originally an isolated standing stone but the portal slab of a tomb, with the hole to allow people to look into the tomb and see the corpses, to give food offerings for the dead, or even to introduce cremated remains into the tomb. There are tombs in Portugal which are intact and have a portal slab with a hole in it just like this one.
There's a similar stone in Aghade, Carlow, although it has fallen over.
This site is hard to find for two reasons:
- The stone is hard to find in GoogleMaps. Searching for "Hurlstone" returns the centre of the townland named after the stone, which is about 600m from the stone's location. You have to search for "Hurlstone Stone". The exact location on GoogleMaps is "53.828677, -6.569060".
- The road it is beside becomes impassible slightly further southwest, ending at a ford through a river. GoogleMaps doesn't know this, so if you are approaching from the south it tries to send you through the river.
Proleek Dolmen and Wedge Tomb
The dolmen is one of the biggest in Ireland so it is worth a look. I've seen it described as the "most photographed dolmen in Ireland". Proleek is to the northeast of Dundalk, on the strip of low land between the Cooley Mountains and Dundalk Bay. In the 1960s it was known by the residents of Dundalk as 'the Cromlech'.
The dolmen and wedge tomb are at the edge of a golf course in the grounds of Balymascanlon House Hotel. There's a pedestrian entrance near the monuments which has a sign saying that it's not a right of way and that they can refuse you permission to enter. They do, however, provide a gate and a path, so you are clearly welcome if you don't cause a fuss.
Leave the M1 Motorway at junction 18, and take the R173 towards Carlingford. After 1.7km you will pass the entrance to Ballymascanlon House. Continue for another 1.1km and take the left turn towards Ravensdale. After another 1.35km, there is a private road on the left. Park somewhere nearby and proceed on foot. Enter the private road, crossing the bridge, and veer left and then right. At the top of the small hill is a "cowgate" into the grounds of Ballymascanlon House, and a second one after a few yards. Immediately in front of you is the Proleek Wedge Tomb, and the Dolmen is about 100m to your right.
It's possible that you could also park in the car park of Ballymascanlon House, a hotel, and walk up through the grounds, but I don't know whether this is encouraged or not by the hotel management.
There's always been an argument as to whether these dolmens were originally covered in a mound or not. The other types of Neolithic graves all had a mound over them (passage tombs, wedge tombs and court tombs). The illustration of the dolmen on the information sign shows it forming a gateway into a tall mound. It is however generally accepted by modern archaeologists that there were never mounds on top of dolmens. They may have had a low mound coming up a few feet around the supporting stones, but even this is unlikely.
Clochafarmore Standing Stone
Cúchulainn's Stone. The Stone of the Big Man. Located about 1.4km before Knockbridge on the road from Dundalk. About 3m / 10 ft tall, this is supposed to be the stone that Cúchulainn tied himself to in his final battle. While the legend probably dates back to the Iron Age, the stone is likely much older, dating to the Bronze Age.
Access is from the R171 Dundalk to Knockbridge road. There's a small commercial premises on the north side of the road (J.P. Castle). You can park just to the west of their gate. Directly across the road from the building is a stile into the field. There's a sign describing the stone.
Tara is a hilltop with a mixture of different features dating from 3000 BC right up to about 500 AD.
The oldest is a small passage tomb known as the Mound of the Hostages, which was built in around 3000 BC, but seems to have been used as a burial place for the next three thousand years. The central chamber is no longer accessible - it is filled in with soil and rock. The passage into the chamber is short and can be viewed through a protective grill - on the left wall of the passage is a slab with nice rock art. The entrance to the hill has some old portal stones around it, but also recent stone work which looks like it dates from the 20th century. Excavations of this hill have shown that thousands of people were buried in it, more than in any other passage tomb, and the grave goods that accompanied them shows that they were much richer than the people buried in other places, so this fits with the idea of Tara being the place of kings.
Nearby is a standing stone which is generally identified as the Lia Fáil described in ancients stories and legends. It is about chest-height and is phallic in shape. This stone used to stand next to the Mound of the Hostages but was moved in the 19th century to a slightly different location. According to legend recorded in the Book of Invasions, it used to utter a cry under every king that should take Ireland1, so it was some sort of a magic stone that acknowledged the true High King. It is also considered to be one of the Four Treasures of Ireland, a sword, a spear, a stone and a cauldron, brought to Ireland by the Tuatha Dé Danaan.
Various raths (earth rings) which have traditional names:
- The Forrad - a double ring, supposedly the King's Seat. The Lia Faíl now stands in the centre of this.
- The Rath of the Synods - a triple ring
- The Rath of Cormac - a double ring supposedly belonging to one of the Kings of Ireland, this one was actually a defensive structure, with traces of habitation inside it.
- The Rath of Gráinne
- The Sloping Trenches - two raths that appear to have been built on the edge of the hill, which then collapsed, leading to them being on a steep slope.
- The Rath of Leary
- The Rath of Maeve
The Banquet Hall - a pair of long parallel earth banks forming a very long rectangle. This was interpreted in Medieval times as the remains of a very large hall, hence the name. There are even charts showing where in the hall the different 'knights' of Irish legend2 would have sat. However, the earth banks are on a steep slope so the site would have been totally unsuited for use as a banqueting hall. It was probably a cursus, a ceremonial path up the hill to the area where the king lived. The point at the base of the hill below the cursus is the supposed meeting point of the five roads of Ireland.
There are a few other things added in the 19th century - there's a small Celtic cross which looks like a gravestone, surrounded by railings. There was also at some point a statue of Saint Patrick, but this has now been moved down the hill to beside the church.
The church which is built on the side of the hill is called St Patrick's and is now converted into a visitor centre. The graveyard around the church contains a few stones where are ancient standing stones and were there long before the church. The construction of the graveyard cuts partially into the Rath of the Synods.
Four Knocks Passage Tomb
This is on a hilltop in southern Meath, almost on the Meath/Dublin border. It is about 14km southeast of Newgrange as the crow flies. There's parking on the road for one car opposite the entrance. To collect the key, you must go west to the junction, turn left, then travel for 1.5km (just under a mile) towards Kilmoon. The seventh house on the right is White's house and it says "WHITE" on the front wall. You can collect the key from here by leaving a €20 deposit.
The tomb itself is small and won't take more than about 20 minutes to see.
The tomb dates from around 3000 BC, like all the other passage tombs. The original roof was wooden and held up by a central wooden pillar. It collapsed thousands of years ago and has been replaced in modern times by a concrete dome. They've left holes in the dome in places so that a small amount of daylight comes in and illuminates some of the features inside, but in general it is very dark (which is the way it would have been in Neolithic times.
The inside of the tomb is very simple. There's a short passage only a few feet long, into a giant central chamber. This has three square box recesses, one directly opposite the entrance and one on each side, forming a rough cross shape. The recesses were used for storing the burials - both cremated and uncremated remains have been found from as many as 65 people. There are a few stones inscribed with rock art - mainly chevrons (zigzags). One of these is said to be a representation of a human face - I haven't seen this one, or if I did, I didn't recognise it as a face.
There are three other small tombs nearby which have also collapsed but have not been excavated or restored. The 'knock' in the name is clearly 'cnoc', the Irish for hill. 'Four knocks' may because there are four hills. The official derivation is from 'Fuar-cnoc' which means 'cold hill' but it is not usual to put the adjective in front of the noun in Irish - it should be 'cnoc fuar', so this doesn't seem likely.
Ballynoe Stone Circle
This is a very large circle with stones up to 2m in height. This is unusual for Ireland, but closely related to circles in Cumbria, England. Since prehistoric humankind could have rowed from Cumbria to here in a day3, it is reasonable to assume that they did.
The circle is more than likely Bronze Age. It has a long barrow in the middle, which is picked out by an irregular loop of smaller stones. It appears that the barrow was built after the circle, but it's not clear, and the barrow appears to have been built on top of an older burial cairn, which may have been Neolithic. Aubrey Burl, author of "Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany" thinks the circle was made first and the various tombs were added later.
GoogleMaps will bring you to the general area of the stone circle, but it doesn't bring you to the right spot for access. Go to: 54.289330, -5.720454. There's room to park one car at the side of the road. You then have to walk along a path for 430m.
Beaghmore Stone Circles
The GoogleMaps location is "Beaghmore Stone Circles" and is within 18m of the exact place.
What to look out for: seven stone circles, all made of very small stones. One of the circles, known as the "Dragon's Teeth" is full of hundreds of small jagged stones. Four or five lines of stones which are tangent to the circles, all parallel, and some other lines beside these and parallel to them. Ten cairns, which probably were originally burial mounds. One of these is inside a henge.
The circles are named A - G roughly in order of distance from the entrance. As you approach from the east, you pass circles A and B together on your right, then C, then D. Over to the right is now cairn C6, one of the biggest, and behind it circle E the Dragon's Teeth. To your left are circles F and G and behind them is C9, a cairn inside an earth-ring (henge).
There is a small car park. There are informative signs but no other facilities. The site is well looked after - the grass is kept short so that you can see the stones.
Clontygora Court Tomb
This one is in South Armagh, Northern Ireland, but is just 1km from the border with the Republic of Ireland. It is described on the sign as "Clontygora Cairn". It is a Court Tomb. I've seen photos of the more informative sign that used to be at the site but this sign has now been removed. The name Clontygora comes from the Irish Cluainte Gabhra, "Goat Meadows". This was the first example of a Court Tomb I saw and it is very impressive.
You can think of a fully intact court tomb as a hill with a bite taken out of it. It may be a circular hill or rectangular. The 'bite' can be semicircular or triangular. In the case of Clontygora, the hill appears to have been roughly circular and the bite was triangular, leaving a pacman-shaped hill. The area where the slice is removed is flat and forms a ceremonial 'court' where burial rituals can take place. The sides of the hill where the slice has been taken out are lined with large standing stones. At the angle, there is a ceremonial "portal" doorway, with two vertical stones and a lintel. This leads into a long, narrow (and probably low) chamber inside the hill where the remains4 of the dead are laid. The sides of this chamber are generally flat slabs and the roof consists of flat slabs placed across the two side walls.
Clontygora and most if not all other court tombs have been damaged over the years by the hill being removed, leaving only the big stones. In the case of Clontygora, this means that what is left forms the shape of a letter Y where the vertical stem of the letter is the long chamber, and the space between the arms of the letter is the court.
The site is well looked after, with the grass kept short and easy access from the road, although there is no official parking place on the road.
Ballykeel Portal Tomb
Described in GoogleMaps as Ballykeel Dolmen, this is a very clean, neat portal tomb. It is about 2 metres high. The tomb is at the end of a rectangle of boulder debris. The sign at the site says that this was a cairn (obviously a rectangular one) and that the tomb stood just in front of it.
Ballymacdermot Court Tomb
Described on signs as Ballymacdermot Court Grave. A beautiful small court tomb. The court is semicircular, the gallery has 3 roughly square chambers and the setting is just amazing with fabulous views over South Armagh and beyond.
Annaghmare Court Tomb
This is a very well preserved example of a court tomb. It is now in a forest - I don't know whether the forest would have been there in ancient times, but the surrounding countryside is very hilly so the views would never have been great.
The tomb is a classic court tomb with a horseshoe-shaped court 13 feet wide at the front and 20 feet deep. It is lined with vertical slabs, with the large gaps between the slabs filled with horizontal flat stones. The gallery has three roughly square chambers. At the back of the cairn, not connected to the gallery, are two more chambers, one accessible from each side of the cairn and separated by a slab in the middle.
The tomb faces south rather than the usual direction.
A holed stone is a stone with a hole that goes all the way through the stone. There are many stones with pits and depressions in them, which are generally called bullán stones and are a different type of thing. There are only a few holed stones in Ireland:
- The Hurlstone, Ardee, described above
The Holed Stone, Aghade, Carlow. In legend, it was a stone used by Niall of the Nine Hostages to chain king Eochaidh. The stone has fallen over, but is thought by some to originally have been upright and to be a "port-hole" stone providing a small entrance into a tomb to allow offerings or even cremated remains to be passed into the tomb. The stone is 2.3m x 1.7m x 46cm. The hole is 29cm in diameter.
The stone is on the N81 road south of Tullow. It is 4.03km from the bridge in Tullow. [52.770011, -6.747159] There is a large gateway on the east side of the road. Just to the left of this is a cowgate and a path leading up to the stone, which is about 30m from the road.
- Doagh, Antrim. The hole is much smaller - only 10cm in diameter. Situated at 'groin height', it has been used for fertility and marriage rites, although this may not be its original purpose.
- Tobernaveen, Sligo. (54° 15′ 45.5″ N, 8° 30′ 50.95″ W) - this one has a very large hole, roughly rectangular in shape, 1m wide by 75cm high. It is traditionally used to cure sick infants by passing them through the hole.
Two particularly famous holed stones in Great Britain are the Mên-an-Tol Holed Stone in Cornwall, which looks like a car tyre, and the Stone of Gronw in Wales which is associated with an old Welsh legend from the Mabinogion and features prominently in Alan Garner's The Owl Service. The hole in the Stone of Gronw is only a couple of centimetres in diameter, so it can hardly have been intended as a way of getting things into a tomb.
For Future Investigation
Bullaun Stone, Urney Graveyard
A large Bullaun in a stone just inside the gate of the graveyard. Megalithomania reports this with a photo from 2003, but the Archaeological Database says it is no longer visible (dated 2011).
The graveyard is at the end of long lane. Can park at [54.069442,-6.455215] (100m walk) or at the larger road [54.065041,-6.456170] (620m walk).
Mullagharoy Decorated Stone
A tricky one to find, it is a standing stone with what looks like neolithic art on one side, cup marks on the other. This is very unusual, because standing stones generally come from the Bronze Age and do not normally include this type of art. It's possible (my theory) that the stone was brought from a neolithic passage tomb such as Knowth, which is only 8km away.
Wellington boots absolutely essential - don't bother without them. Park car at [53.766826, -6.566300], enter field at [53.766539, -6.565047], walk south through gateway into next field. Stone is very obvious in second field at [53.763352, -6.565093].
Mullagharoy Standing Stone with "Passage Tomb Art"
Access from road at [53.766514, -6.565085]
Hawkinstown Ogham Stone
In a fied just beside the road. About 15km southwest of Drogheda.
Drumskinny Stone Circle
[54.584374, -7.690085]. Access at [54.585067, -7.690200]
Drumskinny is just 5 kilometres northeast of Lower Lough Erne. It looks from the photos like a very nice circle, but the curators have covered all the space inside the circle with gravel which looks very peculiar.