Ireland: Honouring the Dead

Honouring the Dead has been a custom in Ireland since early prehistoric times, resulting in a wide range of funerary artefacts and commemorative structures dotted across the country, from simple unmarked burial grounds to megalithic tombs to medieval effigies to elaborate C19th and C20th memorials.

Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo, a neolithic hilltop cemetery (Photo – The Blessed Isle, an interesting blog). Radiocarbon evidence indicates that some of the megalithic structures in the County Sligo area date from between c.6400 and 4600 BC, far earlier than anywhere else in Europe. These very early dates seem to indicate that the practice of constructing megalithic monuments in Ireland started on the west coast.

In Ireland there are four main types of megalithic tombs:

Court cairns

A typical Court cairn / tomb (sometimes called a lobster-claw or half-moon cairn due to its typical  shape)  has an east-facing entrance leading into a number of rectangular chambers (up to four) roofed on the inside by corbelling. Each of these chambers may contain inhumations and cremated remains. Surrounding these chambers is a low dry stone wall with orthostats at the extremities. The pronounced “courtyard” in front of the entrance was supposedly used for rituals, either during burials or at festive occasions. They are generally considered to be the earliest chambered cairn tombs in Scotland, and their construction technique was probably brought from Scotland to Ireland. First appearing around 4000 – 3500 BC, many remained in use until as late as the Bronze Age transition, c. 2200 BC. About 300 of these Neolithic tombs are documented in Ireland, some with variations.

Portal tombs / dolmens / cromlechs

Portal tombs are constructed out of three (sometimes more) massive Standing Stones, bearing an even more massive slab which can weigh up to 100 tons and forms the roof of a straight sided chamber, often narrowed at the rear. The entrance, marked by tall portal stones,  usually faces east towards the sunrise, but this is not always the case as many such tombs face different directions. Most portal tombs were erected  in a valley near a stream or river between 3,000 and 2,000 BC. Examples include those at  Poulnabrone in the Burren, Co ClareKilmogue, Co. Kilkenny and Knockeen, Co. Waterford.

Passage tombs 

The passage tomb is a large round mound of earth or stone with a narrow passage leading from outside to a central chamber or chambers. Examples include Newgrange, Knowth (which has two passages) and Dowth.  Tombs like these two or the main tombs at Loughcrew often have spectacular astronomical, especially solar alignments. Geographical alignments seem obvious at Carrowmore. Some believe that the main purpose of these megaliths was not burial but connected with calendar calculations. Neolithic art is almost always found on passage graves.  Many later passage tombs were constructed at the tops of hills or mountains, indicating that their builders intended them to be seen from a great distance and / or that views were of great importance in their siting. There are 163 portal tombs in Ireland, the majority located in the northern half of the country, and most dating from c.3,100 BC.. Passage graves are also found in Britain, Scandinavia, northern Germany, parts of  the Netherlands, Iberia, some parts of the Mediterranean, and along the northern coast of Africa. In Ireland and Britain, passage tombs are often found in large clusters, giving rise to the term passage tomb cemeteries.

Wedge tombs

Generally but not exclusively found in the west and north west of Ireland,  these are often quite small, and look like truncated court tombs. Their sloping roof and narrowing walls at one end make them taller and wider at the entrance than they are at the rear, producing their characteristic wedge shape.  Like court tombs they have a gallery measuring anything up to 8m in length, which is split either by septal slabs or sill stones into smaller chambers. Uniquely, the side walls are made of two or three rows of stones, referred to as double or triple walling. The roofs are large slabs laid across the gallery, resting on the tops of the walls. In some cases the roof would have extended beyond the front to form a portico, which in a few specimens was split by a vertical stone place centrally in the entrance. It is very rare to find a wedge tomb with its roof still in situ, although, occasionally, one or two of the roof slabs are present, e.g. at Proleek, Co. Louth. Like other tombs they were covered by a cairn , which it is still often possible to determine. A few, such as Burren SW. Co. Cavan, still retain a large proportion of the cairn. Wedge tombs appeared on the Irish landscape in the Final Neolithic and were construcAn antechamber is separated from the burial area by a simple jamb or sill, and the doorway generally faces west.[1]ted into the Early Bronze Age. Almost 550 survive today, mainly dating from after 2,000 BC.  A particularly striking example is Labbacallee, Co. Cork, one of the largest. More are low sized, usually about 1.5 metres high, and are generally found on mountainsides, about three-quarters the way up. They were often covered by cairns, which could be round, oval or D-shaped, often with a kerb to revet it.  in the country.

A wedge-shaped gallery grave or wedge tomb is a type of Irish chamber tomb. They are so named because the burial chamber itself narrows at one end (usually decreasing both in height and width from west to east), producing a wedge shape in elevation. An antechamber is separated from the burial area by a simple jamb or sill, and the doorway generally faces west.[1]
A distinguishing characteristic of wedge tombs is the double-walling of the gallery. They were often covered by cairns, which could be round, oval or D-shaped, often with a kerb to revet it. More are low sized, usually about 1.5 metres high, and are generally found on mountainsides, about three-quarters the way up.
Wedge tombs were built between the Irish late Neolithic and middle Bronze Ages (about 2500 to 2000BC). Today, between 500 and 550 known wedge tombs survive[2] in Ireland, and are found predominantly in the west and north west of the island.

A wedge-shaped gallery grave or wedge tomb is a type of Irish chamber tomb. They areso named because the burial chamber itself narrows at one end (usually decreasing both in height and width from west to east), producing a wedge shape in elevation.

A distinguishing characteristic of wedge tombs is the double-walling of the gallery.
Wedge tombs were built between the Irish late Neolithic and middle Bronze Ages (about 2500 to 2000BC). Today, between 500 and 550 known wedge tombs survive[2] in Ireland, and are found predominantly in the west and north west of the island.

Heroes’ Beds / Graves: Partly destroyed / uncovered tombs, open chambers and dolmens were often re-interpreted in the light of mythology – mostly the Fianna cycle. Ireland abounds with structures said to be the (often final) resting places of legendary figures such as Diarmuid & Grainne. In addition, these and indeed more complete tombs were used as places of shelter by hermits, poor families, outlaws and rebels on the run.

Medieval tomb of Knight & Lady, Dublin

 

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