Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles.


High above the western shore of Lough Arrow are the Bricklieve hills.  From the plain of Moytura, these hills rise clear, and the grey limestone domes that top them are highly visible.  These domes are a part of the megalithic complex of passage tombs known as Carrowkeel.  The complex comprises of  14 cairns, with a further 6 cairns west towards Keshcorran, a high hill of caves and legends and capped itself  with a large cairn. There are also other prehistoric remains, but the cairns dominate the hills.

The Carrowkeel and Keshcorran cairns date back to about 3,800 – 2,400 BCE. They were excavated and re-opened by R.A.S. Macalister in 1911.

Cairns on Carrowkeel, looking towards Benbulben

I would be re-inventing the wheel if I gave a detailed description of the complex in this brief article. If you would like more detail, do go to Martin Byrne’s comprehensive site at

Martin knows the site very well and has provided images and descriptions of each cairn. He also includes the original report and description of the site by Macalister, which makes for interesting reading.

I can, however, give my own impressions.

Carrowkeel is an intensely atmospheric place.  Leaving the busy (by Irish standards) N4, you turn onto a small side road at the village of Castle Baldwin. The road winds gently upwards on ever narrowing roads, until the last of the cottages is left below, The hills are shiny green-brown velvet moss-covered peat, torn by grey-white limestone of often startling shape. Sheep ignore you, grazing, whether you pass on foot or in a car.

Ahead, you turn into a gated valley, and it feels as though you have left the world behind, entering into a secret and silent place. You can see the road winding up, snaking higher in hairpin bends. It looks too small for wheeled transport, and yet you may see a car or two precariously picking its way, like a lame goat, up or down this ancient way. For the cliffs, green and limestone grey, rise on each side of you now and are peaked in many places by sudden domes, like bald-headed giants rising above the hill tops. It is eerie and very impressive.

Yes, you can take a car, but it is much more fun to walk up. Half way, you are rewarded, if such things please you, with some dynamic echoes. My daughter, when she was a child, used to set the grazing ewes to anxious trouble by sending the bleat of a new-born lamb reverberating across the valley.

cairn on CarrowkeelThe view from the top is breath-taking, especially if you hit on a clear day. Lough Arrow lies below, and, if it is fine, you can look out to the whole of Sligo bay and the cairn-topped hill of Knocknarea. The Bricklieves have many moods. The mist may descend, leaving you in a world of green and grey, moss and grey cairn and nothing more. It can be unsettling. I recall a night of November storms, (yes, I was in a car that time), when even getting out of the vehicle was an adventure, and I crawled down from the closest cairn on all fours. It was something that I will never forget, but I do not recommend the experience.

There are 14 cairns on these hills but there are three that are easily reached. It is a privilege to be able to enter a structure such as one of these cairns. The entrance is low and requires stooping or crawling, but to stand inside, is like no other experience. The stones themselves reflect silence. These cairns have no carvings, the sites in the west of Ireland do not, as far as I know, but the interiors of the cairns feel solid and beautifully constructed,inside one of the carrowkeel cairn

I have stood inside pyramids and explored a thief’s entrance into an underground Mastaba, but these hilltop cairns have a unique ambience. (and they are not as suffocatingly hot and airless as the inside of the Bent pyramid at Dahshur.  Never again I think!)

Allow Martin to take you on a virtual tour of the complex. It is a marvellous journey.

Chris Thompson


Don’t forget to visit our Reading List page for lots of online and print resources!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By :