Discovering Ireland’s ancient mysteries

On our first trip to Ireland, more than a decade ago, the megalithic tomb at Newgrange was our first stop—literally. We learned how to drive on the “wrong” side of the road on the 30-mile trip from the Dublin airport. It was an amazing introduction to what has become a real love affair.

We’ve continued to seek out other passage tombs, dolmens, and stone circles around the country on subsequent trips, including our most recent to Ireland’s northwest, where we learned that there are more of these ancient sites in that area than in all of Europe. This information comes courtesy our guide, Martin, a friend of a friend who graciously showed us around, sharing his knowledge on, well, everything! We ask a question and Martin has the answer, whether the topic is Irish food, music, culture, or history.

Standing Stones

Standing Stones

On a bright September morning, we walked through a farmer’s field on our way to one of the largest collections of tombs and stone circles, the Carrowmore Megalithic site, hearing about the huge standing stones erected by ancient Celts, with sidebars on the current state of farming in Ireland, and a recommendation for a farm-to-market restaurant that just opened nearby.

I make note of the restaurant for later, but I’m focused on the ground beneath my feet. With my toe, I nudge a small stone in the path. How long has it been there? A year? A thousand years? Who last touched it? I imagine that it might have been dropped by whoever set the standing stones in place. I don’t mention this to Martin, certain that he will have a much more realistic explanation, and I’d rather assume a connection between the ancient ones and myself.

It’s easy to feel those connections in Ireland; the verdant, rolling countryside, craggy coasts, and mist-covered mountains invite contemplation. From the tombs and stone circles at Carrowmore, we gaze up at a massive stone cairn on top of Knocknarea, a flat-topped mountain that dominates the landscape. According to Irish lore, the burial mound is the final resting place of the legendary warrior, Queen Maeve.

Knocknarea

Knocknarea

We begin the climb up Knocknarea, but recent heavy rains have turned the path into slippery mud, and we have to turn back. Instead of Maeve’s grave, we visit more tombs of unknown ancients, peering into chambers, wondering about the people who set the huge stones in place, and thankful that the Irish left these places untouched. (Although, as Martin points out, it’s likely that farmers felt that it was too much work to move the stones.)

River, Fiddler's Creek

River, Fiddler’s Creek

Later, back in Sligo, we sit at Fiddler’s Creek pub, watching the waters of the Garavogue River and thinking of the thousands of years of history that flow past us (including 1759, the year Arthur Guinness opened his brewery, bless him!). We know that we will return and climb to the top of Knocknarea one day. Unlike many of the passage tombs and burial chambers, this one has not been excavated or explored. Martin might say that financial reasons prevent it; I’d like to think that the Irish prefer to leave the grave undisturbed to preserve the ancient mysteries of the stones.

More information
Discover Ireland – Sligo
Knocknarea Mountain

Credit for all photos: Tom and D. Fran Morley

D. Fran MorleyD. Fran Morley, a freelance writer, editor, and photographer, and her husband, Tom, a professional violinist, live in Fairhope, Alabama on the beautiful Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. She fills her days writing feature articles for numerous regional and national trade magazines and with work as Content Editor for the Association of Personal Historians. He spends his time performing, leading workshops, and teaching students of all ages how to play violin and fiddle. He is the author of the recently published book, Learn to Play Irish Trad Fiddle. They both enjoy sharing stories and photos from their travels.

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