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


Jamie + Ireland: Rathcroghan, Queen Maeve, and the Cattle Raid of Cooley

Located in county Roscommon, Rathcroghan is part of a complex of 240 archaeological sites from the Neolithic period (4,000BC) through to the late Medieval period (1600AD). It is remembered as one of the great ceremonial gathering places in Ireland. These ceremonies took place at key points during the year, the changing of the seasons. It was time for judgements to be passed, for kings to be inaugurated, for feasts and festivities.

Rothcroghan aerial view Ireland

History of Rathcroghan in Ireland

The landscape lies on an elevated limestone plateau, resulting in clear and fertile land. Early farming communities settled here. They held close links with their ancestors and built these monuments to develop a stronger relationship with the land. At a time when societies were moving away from nomadic life, and towards farming and ritual monument construction, Rathcrogan was a place of great importance. 

In the late Medieval period, it is recorded as one of the main burial places in Ireland. There are 28 identifiable burial sites still visible on the land today. The mounds are built to be visible from a far distance. Ruling classes treated their dead with great care. They placed the remains of their ancestors in these locations as a sign of power and authority over the region.

historic rathcroghen in ireland

On the tour, we climbed to the top of Rathcrogen Mound, believed to be a site where royal kings were inaugurated. It was where they would have bled cattle or performed rituals for a good harvest.

It was a powerful place, and after listening to our knowledgeable and enthusiastic tour guide, Mike share some amazing facts, we all took a moment to lie in the grass and absorb the energy. I was very emotional. A sense of sadness and beauty lay deep under the surface. My paternal ancestors immigrated from the county of Roscommon, and while I have no proof (yet) that they were connected to this place, but it felt significant.

Jamie in the meadow

Queen Maeve and the Cattle Raid of Cooley

In early tales, Rathcroghan was the home of the Connacht, the ruling dynasty in the territory from the fifth century, and included the palace of the infamous Iron Age Warrior Queen, Maeve (Medb). It is a main site in the Ulster Cycle of Tales, particularly the national epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley. 

tain trail, ireland

Maeve embodies all aspects from royal and sacred to mythological and divine. Her name stems from the same origins as the word “mead,” an alcoholic honey drink. Her name can be translated into “she who intoxicates.” Her father was the high king of Ireland, and she was one of his six daughters.

Queen Maeve mural at Rathcroghan

She was known for having many husbands and partners. Her first husband was Conchobar mac Nessa, and she left him against his will. After the failure of that marriage, her father bestowed her the title of Queen, and the authority to bestow kingship.

Her next three husbands were all kings of Connacht. One of these was Alill, and one night after making love, they got into a heated argument over who was wealthier. The next day they laid out all of their riches and found that they were completely even, except for one thing. Alill had a great white horned bull that was very unique.

Finnbennach, the Connacht bull

Not to be outdone, Maeve sends her messenger to find an equal or greater bull in Ireland, and he locates a great brown bull that is enormous in size. It belongs to Daire mac Fiachna in the province of Ulster, the territory of Cuailnge. She sends her messengers to offer Daire some land, a grand chariot, and a night with her, in exchange for his great brown bull. He is so excited by the offer, he throws her messengers a feast. 

But then they start boasting about how the offer was just a formality. Their queen is so powerful, she would have just taken the bull by force. Word gets back to Daire, and he refuses the offer and sends them packing. So naturally Queen Maeve raids Ulster, and a heated battle ensues.

They come to a deadlock at the ford, and in an effort to bring things to an end, Maeve and the man agree to send one warrior each to fight. Daire and the county of Ulster send their greatest champion, Cú Chulainn, who posses a magic spear and is not affected by the curse that disables the other warriors of Ulster. Maeve sends Ferdiad, who is Cú Chulainn’s best friend, and he needs a bit of convincing to fight.

During the battle, Maeve breaks the terms of her deal and attempts to attack from behind. Cú Chulainn defeats Ferdiad, and the tides start to turn against Maeve. She has her secret agents smuggle the bull out and deliver it to her home in Connacht. 

The bull is put in the pasture with Alill’s great white bull, and they fight for a day and a night, ultimately killing one another. There are many more layers to this story! I hope this inspires you to learn more about Rathcroghan and Queen Maeve, one of the most legendary figures in Irish mythology. 

I grabbed a copy of Rathcroghan The Guidebook, co authored by my tour guide; all of the proceeds support the visitors center (you can order one online here). If you ever plan to visit Rathcroghan, have some lunch at the Tain Cafe and check out the gift shop. I also highly recommend walking on the mounds barefoot and laying in the grass (no ticks in Ireland). Be sure to take the tour! Ask to go inside of Owenganat Cave, which will be the subject of the next blog!

Source: Curley, Daniel, and Mike McCarthy. Rathcroghan: The Guidebook. Tulsk Action Group CLG, 2018.