Following Celtic Ways

Ramblings and reviews by John Willmott as he travels the Celtic Ways and Waterways visiting hidden ancient Celtic temples, sacred wells, and provoking legends .... plus music and theatre along the way

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Exploring Sacred Sites Around BriƩfne

by John Willmott of Celtic Ways

At last, first the first time since living in Co. Sligo I've had a touring day visiting ancient and sacred sites around counties Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon. There are still many sites in these counties that I have never visited that may be worth taking people to.

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Carns, outside Sligo
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My first stop was the Carns cairns on the Sligo town perimeter. The dense woodlands gives no indication of being on the edge of town. A local guide book gives the impression that both cairns are easy to visit. This is true of the lower cairn, though it could easily be missed as it is overgrown with trees and shrubs. This the first time I have seen a large stone cairn with trees growing on it. Access to the higher cairn became quite a mystery. I attempted it from a couple of directions but each time I was overcome with thick vegetation and brambles. As I left the area I did see another possible trail and I will try that next visit.

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Deerpark - a unique court tomb
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My eagerness was to get to the Deerpark court tomb, that I have heard much about. This did mean driving through Sligo so I thought I would take the opportunity to look out for a tomb and stone circle that has become a roundabout in a Sligo housing estate, but I did not find it on this visit, so it was straight off to Deerpark.

Deerpark is just past a village called Calry, a few miles east of Sligo. It's well signposted and there is a car park, but I was the only one present on this glorious warm sunny clear day. Its quite a walk to get to the court tomb, and do watch out for the worn out signpost that says "stone circle", otherwise you will miss it.

Deerpark court tomb, from around 3500 BC, is a place where I will bring visitors. Its massive! Not quite the structure of the more popular Creevykeel yet it gives more of an impression of being a temple. First, the centre court is unique. Court tombs have their name because they have a sacred court area in front of the tombs for worship, ceremony etc. At Deerpark, this court is in the centre of the tombs. A Duchas sign beside the site provides excellent information and artist impressions. It is unfortunate that most of the site is surrounded by a tree plantation but there are still glorious views of Lough Gill and Keelogyboy mountains. The walk to it was full of rhododendrons in bloom, so that was a treat.

A local guide book tells of a nearby more recent wedge tomb and henges. I will seek them out and investigate them on my next visit.

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The Ruined Tombs Of Tullyskeherny, Co. Leitrim
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My next stop was into the heart of Co. Leitrim, something I have wanted to do for a long time. The site was Tullyskeherny south of the quaint small town of Manorhamilton. Guide books indicate this as being one of Ireland's best archeological sites of court and wedge tombs, but the reality is different. First, there are not signs to it. Instead, follow the signs of the O'Donnell's Rock Walk. This eventually leaves the road onto a farm track, but there is right of way on this track for public cars. I did not see any farms nearby as this is quite a wilderness with stunning views of several surrounding mountain ranges and barely any sign of humanity.

The area of the tombs is quite a surprise because it is just like The Burren with its moonrock-like surface yet this surface is only about half mile in diameter. Perched on this rocky surface are remains of several tombs. Guide books have described these as court tombs, but I cannot see how. They appear to be remains of bronze age cists rather than a collection of chambers that were once connected. If these are cists it would indicate that this area might have once had a nearby stone circle. It was also quite a well populated area at some time as there are several derelict buildings in the area, but now it is quite a mysterious barren world with many hidden ancient stories.

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Lissinagroagh
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My next stop was east of Manorhamilton past a small village called Lissinagroagh but the tomb there was ruins. The cairn stones were largely in place but the chamber raided. A local asked me why I was taking photos of a pile of stones dumped there as long as she remembers, and was shocked when I explained what they are. Usually its the locals telling me lots of stories surrounding their treasured sites.

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Another Tullyskeherny Tomb?
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South of Manorhamilton, on a parallel road to the busy R280 was another cairn like the Tullyskeherny cairns, but much more interesting. It is due west of Tullyskeherny too. I took beautiful photos of it from the road but could not find access to it. A local, out walking, told me it was the "Giant's Grave" and in the centre was the largest "Fairy Thorn". As I drove back down the R280 I saw a track that may lead to the field of this tomb so I will ask the farmer next time. That tomb is worth a much closer visit.

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Killargue Holy Well
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Next stop was a surprise as it is not on the OS map or any guide book I have read, Killargue Holy Well. On the track to the well is a font that is dry, and visitors may mistake it as being the well, but the well is a few minutes walk down a track. When I arrived there were several travelers congregated and in prayer. It then struck me that Holy Wells must be the "churches" of the travelers. Their prayers were passionate and devoted and said in English, Gaelic and Latin. They also filled several large water containers which they prayed over. Seeing that I did not carry a bottle, their "preacher" handed me a small container. It was the best, cleanest holy water I had ever tasted.

What interested me at this well was an ancient stature that first looks like a worn out cross, but if you walk up the hill to view it from the other side you'll see that it is a figure with a head made of granite and body of limestone or even quartz. I could not get close to touch it as it is surrounded by a fence. I had the impression that this was a worn sheela-na-gig with mysterious carvings. The base almost looks like a stag's head.

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St. Hugh's Well
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Next was a drive around the gigantic Lough Allen to some, hard to find, narrow lanes which end at a quaint picnic area that was obviously privately funded, but by whom? From here, paths go to various antiquities. I just went to St. Hugh's Well, which I had heard supplied wonderful water. Alas, the water did not look very palatable. The well design was like a smaller version of the Columcille well at Durrow. I did not walk on to the sweat house, which deserves an article of its own as well as an extra visit from me in the future.

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Ancient Sites around Keadue, Co. Roscommon
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My next intended visit was to Keadue, Roscommon. I was not sure what I would see there as time was well into the evening now, but it was still very sunny, clear and warm. I did divert to the edge of the Kilronan mountains which seemed incredibly remote with the narrowest of roads, and lots of women out on "angry walks" as they call fitness walks here. On the edge of one mountain in the middle of a forestry plantation was a clearly signposted tomb, which turned out to be a few stones but almost too neat and too empty of debris to be true.

Keadue village seems to be proud of its heritage as it really shows. There are signs explaining things and leading to sites all around the village. It seems like a village in the English Cotswolds rather than an Irish village with its quaint shops, thatched buildings, village green and large pond. This place is worth a whole day relaxing visit. I followed its well maintained trail through the woods around the beautiful Lough Meelagh to the Knockranny Court Tomb. As the evening was moving along fast I did not spend as long as I would have liked there. The site was surprisingly overgrown and I could not identify much without spending time there. Its not an obvious remains like Deerpark.

Back at the car park of Lough Meelagh, I took some lovely photos of the crannog just off of its shore, including two swans and their signets.

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Pilgrimage To O'Carolan
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Just a mile or so out of Keadue I stopped at St. Laisair's Holy Well, where a landscape gardener was volunteering his time to tidy up the area and complaining how few people tended to care for the well. The rebuild was also very messy and seemed rushed. There was a modern plaque of Mary donated at the time of John Paul 2nd's visit to Ireland. I was disappointed with this visit but the landscaper pointed out that the famous blind harper and composer Carolan was buried opposite, so I visited his grave. His grave is nicely honoured and has some interesting nearby engravings that I would love someone to interpret for me. They seem quite cartoonish.

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Moytura
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Keadue is not far from where I live, just cross the legendary Moytura, around the north of Lough Arrow and finally around Kesh Corran mountain. I had to stop at the court tomb of Moytura East, a place I had been a couple of times before. What amazes me here is a long line of very tall eery looking standing stones. They may well be naturally fallen stones, but where from? There is no nearby rough mountain or even rough pasture. It looks very Avebury like because if they are erected standing stones they are the largest in Ireland, and would create the largest circle, but there is no henge. It also reminds me of Stanton Drew near Bristol in England, similar stones.

Finally, as I cruised around the tip of Lough Arrow at 9:30 pm I captured a beautiful photo of a silhouetted Maeve's cairn in a crimson sunset.

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