Jamie + Ireland: Queen Maeve’s Cairn and Carrowmore Tombs

Queen Maeve’s Cairn

So far my stay in Ireland has been blanketed in mist, gorgeous views obstructed (Cliffs of Moher), and my frustration was at peak by the time I reached Queen Maeve’s grave. It sits at the top of Knocknarea, a 1,000 foot high hill in the county of Sligo. The hill is believed to contain a Neolithic passage tomb built in 3,000 BC. 

Queen Maeve's Cairn, Ireland

I sprinted to the top of the hill, shouting out loud to the sheep and the cows, “Ireland, why are you hiding? Reveal yourself!” I only stopped to laugh and catch my breath. There were other visitors on the path, and I walked a few loops around the cairn at the top. 

Queen Maeve's Cairn, Ireland

A cairn is a heap of stones piled as a memorial or a landmark. Queen Maeve’s Cairn is 180 feet wide and 33 feet tall. The rest of the group made their way to the top, each of us lost in the fog and exploring our own paths until we wandered to the same place. We found a good flat rock to sit on for a moment and created an impromptu ritual together. It’s very bad luck to take a rock from a cairn, but it’s good luck to carry one up and add it to the pile!

We all walked down from the hill together, singing pagan songs. 

We all come from the goddess, and to her we shall return

Like a drop of rain, flowing to the ocean

Two of the women showed us a precious spring they had discovered. As we splashed our hands and sang, the fog started to lift! We had a clear view of the beauty that surrounded us. Like a snow globe settling down after a rough shake. Finally I could see a bit clearer!

The walk from Queen Maeve's Cairn, Ireland

Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery

Our next adventure was a tour of Carrowmore Megalithic Cemetery. We picnicked by a small food truck serving tea and coffee. The Carrowmore passage tombs were built during the Neolithic era, approximately 3,000 BC. There are thirty surviving tombs, making the site the heart of an ancient ritual landscape.

The tour of Carrowmore was through grassy fields and I kicked off my shoes for most of it. Knocknarea and Queen Maeve’s Cairn loomed in the distance to the west. It was exciting to see how far we had climbed that morning! Our guide pointed out all of the major landscapes around the area. The sky was crystal clear.

The view of Knocknarea from Carrowmore in Sligo Ireland

We were led into the chamber of Listoghil, which is lined with stones, and I was tiptoeing through in my bare feet tenderly. The chamber held a tomb or what looked similar to an altar table. There was evidence of bones found below the structure. Most of the burials at Carrowmore were cremated human remains, but it was clear that burning the dead involved a complex sequence of treatments, including excarnation and reburial. Flesh was separated from bone like the separation of the soul from the body. The bones were often laid to rest in a common ancestral grave after the process was complete and the soul had crossed over. 

Exhibit at Carrowmore in Sligo, Ireland

These types of megalithic monuments, known as passage graves, are associated with the goddess Cailleach, who is the builder of chambered cairns. The tombs remained a major focal point on the landscape long after they were originally built. They were repurposed by the people of the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

After a day of exploring, we had dinner at a gastropub in Sligo and then we visited W.B. Yeats’ grave, where Benbulben rises in the background.

William Butler Yeats and Benbulben

Considered one of the greatest poets of the 21st century, Yeats belonged to the Prostestant, Anglo-Irish minority that controlled the economic, political, and cultural life of Ireland at the end of the 17th century. He was born on June 13th, 1865. Although he lived in London in his childhood years, he staunchly identified as Irish. His poems and plays feature Irish legends and heroes. His poetry was published for the first time in the Dublin University Review in 1885, and around this time his interest in occultism began. 

For 32 years he was an active member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society devoted to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, and paranormal activities. He and his wife practiced hundreds of hours of automatic writing. From their notes, they formulated theories and identified patterns about life and history. 

Yeats was president of the Irish National Theatre Society, and also involved in the management of the abbey Theatre Company. He was also a world-renowned artist of impressive stature, having received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. He passed away on January 28th, 1939. Learn more about Yeats here.

Y.B. Yeats' grave in St. Columbia's Churchyard, Ireland

On his grave reads the lines:

Cast a cold Eye

On Life, on Death

Horsemen pass by!

This is the last stanza of his work, “Under the Benbulben,” and means not to take life too seriously! It suggests that when this was written in his later years, Yeats knew where he was going to be buried. He wasn’t worried about life and death, but about the legacy he was leaving behind in Ireland. Benbulben mountain is visible from the cemetery at St. Columbia’s Churchyard.

Benbulben, Sligo, Ireland

Also known as “Table Mountain,” Benbulben looms over the road from Sligo to Donegal like a mythological beast. It’s part of the Dartry Mountains, is made of limestone and shale, formed at a time when glaciers covered the earth. Fairies are through to be visible here!


Heritage Ireland

Fr. Michael O’Flanagan History & Heritage Centre

Sligo Walks

The Poetry Foundation

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