Slieve Gullion : a passage tomb on top of the world

Title picture : looking out from the entrance of Slieve Gullion Tomb

Sitting majestically on the summit of Slieve Gullion, this is the highest surviving passage tomb in Ireland. At 573m Slieve Gullion is is the highest hill in Co. Armagh and from the tomb there are extensive views across Ulster and Leinster.

Ascent to the tomb

The tomb is reached via a steep footpath which starts from the road through Slieve Gullion Forest Park. The single track road climbs high up the side of the hill and the views are spectacular. Right from the start of the walk you are looking down onto the green fields far below and the small knobbly hills of the volcanic ring-dyke surrounding Slieve Gullion.  Just before you reach the summit, the large circular cairn comes into view.


A short passage with a lintelled roof leads into the octagonal chamber, which originally had a corbelled roof. Rather than using large orthostats to line the chamber, the walls were constructed from smaller stones, as in dry-stone walling.

When the tomb was excavated in the 1960’s, two basin stones were found in the chamber and another one (which is now in Armagh County Museum) was discovered in the passage. The tomb had been disturbed in previous centuries and as a result, there were very few finds, only some cremated bone, small flint flakes and arrowhead.

Basin Stone


On the winter solstice, the setting sun shines along the passage and lights up the back wall of the chamber.

The Ring of Gullion from the passage tomb
Trig point on top of the cairn


From the tomb, looking across the summit to the Cailleach Beara’s Lough

The tomb is also known locally as the Cailleach Beara’s House (the Cailleach Beara being the old witch of Beara, Co. Cork) and in a shelter half-way up the hill is an information board which relates the folk tale. There’s a small lake on the summit and the story is that the Cailleach Beara enticed Finn McCool to swim in it and when he emerged he had turned into a weak old man.
The earliest record of the tomb is from when it was opened up in 1789 by locals looking for the Cailleach Beara!

Bru na Boinne ~ Knowth

A massive tomb and a profusion of megalithic art

Knowth is one of the three massive passage tombs that dominate the landscape at The Bend in the Boyne.
Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange were all built around the same time, within a few hundred years around 3,000 BC and are all a similar size of between 80 and 90m  in diameter.

The large tomb at Knowth, with 2 of the smaller tombs in front of it.

The large, central tomb is closely surrounded by 19 smaller tombs. These were already in existence when the large tomb was built and most of them have their entrances facing the summit of the hill. It’s very likely that the top of the hill was a large open space being used for rituals before the large tomb was built.

Some of the small tombs

Knowth contains two passages,  one with its entrance on the west and the other with its entrance directly opposite on the east side.

The western entrance. The tall standing stone is alligned with the entrance and the passage inside
Decorated kerbstone at the east entrance. Note the white quartz and the dark rounded pebbles outside each entrance

The two passages are aligned with the equinox sunrise and equinox sunset and ceremonies probably took place at the eastern entrance in the morning and at the western entrance in the evening.

The mound is surrounded by 127 large kerbstones, almost all of which are richly decorated, particularly the ones in front of the entrances.

Some of the decorated kerbstones

Bru na Boinne ~ Newgrange

The tombs at Bru na Boinne (meaning mansion or palace of the Boyne) are among the oldest and finest examples of megalithic tombs in Europe. Situated at a bend in the River Boyne, the neolithic cemetery consists of 37 passage tombs, including the three monumental mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth and clusters of many smaller tombs.


Newgrange is the best known of the tombs. Built around 3200BC it is older than the pyramids and 1000 years older than Stonehenge. Sitting at the highest point of the ridge that the tombs are built across, it can be seen for miles around. The impressive white quartz facade, positioned to face the rising sun, is a reconstruction of what the tomb was thought to have originally looked like.

Newgrange, seen through the trees

The entrance to the tomb (below) showing the heavy stone door which would have to have been pushed to the side to gain access, and the highly decorated kerbstone placed directly in front of the entrance, probably blocking the tomb, both physically and symbolically.


Above the door is one of the most ingenious features of the tomb – the roofbox. The window-like opening was made so that the rising sun on the winter’s solstice could shine through it and the beam of light would shine along the passage and illuminate the stones in the chamber. The roofbox was necessary because the 19m long passage goes uphill, making the chamber slightly higher than the doorway.

On the guided tours of Newgrange (which are the only way of visiting the site) you will be taken inside the tomb and the lights will be switched off so you can experience what it would be like to be there at the winter solstice.. In the pitch darkness, a tiny pencil-like beam of light appears, shining down the passage and illuminating the floor of the chamber. As it widens and swings across the floor, the reflected light illuminates the rest of the chamber, revealing the decorated stones and the three recesses in the chamber.

The chamber is a cruciform shape, with three recesses and a corbelled roof which rises upwards to 6m above the chamber. As you enter the chamber there is a recess on each side and one at the rear. Stone basins were usually placed in the recesses of passage tombs, perhaps to hold bones of the dead during rituals. Four stone basins were found in the Newgrange chamber and excavations found the bones of at least 5 people (some unburnt and some cremated). More remains and artifacts were no doubt found by antiquarians and treasure hunters since the tomb was discovered in the 17th century, but few records remain.

Not Ireland’s Wailing Wall, but a tour group sheltering from a sudden downpour!


Photography is not allowed inside the Newgrange tomb. Instead, some photos of the River Boyne and the footbridge across the river from the visitor centre.

The River Boyne, showing the footbridge from the visitor centre, to where the mini buses take you along the country lanes to Newgrange (visible on skyline).

Carrowmore Neolithic Cemetery, Co. Sligo

One of the small cairns, with Benbulben to the north

Carrowmore is one of the four great megalithic cemeteries in Ireland and is situated in the centre of the Cuil Iorra peninsula in Co. Sligo. It covers an area of 3.8 sq km (1.5 sq miles) and with its large central cairn and 30 surviving small burial cairns, it is the largest, and probably the oldest, of the Neolithic cemeteries.

Carrowmore (a)
The massive cairn of Listoghil viewed from one of the small tombs

Listoghil is the large tomb at the centre and highest point of the Carrowmore tomb complex. It was reconstructed in 2004 and shows what it would have originally looked like (at least, from the outside) with it’s large cairn of stones surrounded by kerb stones at the base.

There are about 30 smaller and simpler cairns surrounding Listoghil and these are typically a dolmen construction surrounded by a small stone circle, or in some cases, two circles. There were originally many more, perhaps about 80, and they would probably have been built by small groups of people at an earlier date than the building of the big, impressive passage tombs. It is quite likely that these tombs were never covered by cairns.

Looking over the Carrowmore tomb complex is the striking limestone hill, Knocknarea, with Miosgan Meadhbha (Queen Maeve’s Cairn) clearly visible on the summit. The legend is that this was the burial chamber of Queen Maeve of Connacht . The massive cairn has never been excavated but it is believed to be a Neolithic passage tomb. Also on the summit, are the remains of smaller tombs, probably small passage graves.

Knocknarea from Carrowmore

The size of the cairn on the summit of Knocknarea can’t be appreciated from this photo, but it is a massive 55m wide and 10m high, making it the largest cairn in Ireland after those at Brú na Bóinne.