Megalithic tombs of Ireland

Sean O Nuallain (1979), provides some historical background to Ireland’s megalithic structures when he writes, “The earliest evidence of human activity in Ireland occurs mainly in the northeast of the country and has been assigned to the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age, with radiocarbon determinations indicating a date prior to 6,000 B.C. for some sites. In this region, noted for its abundant supply of flint, excavations have yielded stone implements, some of which compare with Mesolithic artifacts of the Maglemosean culture of northern Europe. Wooden arti­facts must have been common but scant evidence of these survives. These early inhabitants lived mainly on the coast or along rivers and led lives based on hunting and food gathering with fish, game, nuts and fruit forming their staple diet.”

O Nuallain (1979) continues on to say, that “By about the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. a completely new mode of life, utilizing agriculture and stock-raising to control the food supply, reached Ireland. Closely associated with these great innovations, hallmarks of the Neo­lithic or New Stone Age, was the practice of collective burial in great monuments of rough, unhewn stone, known as mega­lithic tombs (Greek: megas, great; lithos, stone).”

Megalithic tombs date back to Early Bronze Age and Neolithic age. These serve as Ireland’s earliest burial sites. It is known that whoever had such a tomb built for them was a prominent member of the community at the time—most likely to be a chieftain, a priest, or a landowner (Michigan State University, 2009).

The source ‘Ask about Ireland’ (n.d.) lists several different kinds of Megalithic tombs. They are listed as 1) Dolmens 2) Court Tombs 3) Passage Graves and 4) Wedge Shaped Tombs. These 4 types of tombs are described below.


These tombs used to be called “Cromlechs” some two-hundred years ago. Cromlech means ‘curved stones.’ The word dolmen comes from two Breton words meaning ‘stone table.’ Academics 300 years ago saw dolmens as alters for druidic sacrifice, while the social/folklore narrative described dolmens as being beds for the romance of the young lovers Grainne and Diarmuid. Dolmens, it is now known, are simply elaborate burial places for the dead. One striking example is Poulnabrone located in the Burren which has 22 burial sites, and it is said that it dates back to around 3800 B.C. (Ask about Ireland, n.d.)

Typically, a dolmen is made up of between 3 and 7 upright stones supporting a massive capstone. The sheer weight of these capstones has caused many to fall over the ages, like for example, Browneshill near Carlow, where the large stone on top has been estimated at 100 tonnes in weight. How men with primitive engineering could have moved such stones boggles the mind, though experts have posited that they used a “temporary earthen ramp” to erect such ancient monuments (Ask about Ireland, n.d.).

Court Tombs:

Also known as ‘court cairns’ these impressive and large-scale tombs consist of a lengthy roofed gallery of large boulders covered with a cap of smaller stones. There is a part of these cairns which has a semi-circular court where it is thought that funeral rituals would have been performed. These court tombs are found mostly in the north-west and north of Ireland—and they probably have links with Scotland. Only a few, very special people would have been buried in such tombs. They would usually have been cremated first (Ask about Ireland, n.d.)

Court tombs were the first megalithic monuments that were built in Ireland. They are part of a European heritage of tomb building which also gave rise to the long barrows in Britain. There are almost three hundred and thirty court tombs in Ireland, and as previously stated, they are mostly found in the northern half of the country. They are comprised of various formations but many are quite complex and large structures (O Nuallain, 1979).

Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim, and Donegal contain the preponderance of court tombs (O Nuallain, 1979). In fact, the area around Bunatrahir Bay in northwest Mayo contains 28 tombs—almost 9% of the total number, and it is quite possible that it is an area of initial settlement. There is a gradual loss of architectural features further to the east (e.g. eastern orientation and two chambered main galleries) which are standard in the western points. And there is an eastward progression from the concentration in the west all the way in to Antrim and onwards into Scotland (O Nuallain, 1979).

The contents of court tombs:

Out of the entire number of court tombs, (at the time of the writing of O Nuallain’s 1979 article) thirty-seven of them have been scientifically excavated, however only nine of these excavated tombs lie in the western cluster. It is clear that more excavations are desirable in the west, and at the time of the writing of O Nuallain’s article we now have a fairly good idea of the contents of the tombs. In terms of burials, most of them were cremations, but sometimes there were inhumations (O Nuallain, 1979). The quality of the state of inhumed remains is often poor. There is an example of a court tomb at Audleystown in Co. Down, on the east coast of Ireland that has in it 34 individuals—both inhumed and cremated. There was pottery found in the tombs including round-bottomed Neolithic bowls. These were both decorated and undecorated and were found also with flat-bottomed coarse wares. Other implements found at the site were devices made of flint, kite shaped arrowheads, round-nosed scrapers, javelin heads, plano-convex knives and most prevalent of all were hollow scrapers. Axes comprised of flint or polished stone are relatively common and beads made of stone have been found at eight sites (O Nuallain, 1979).

The siting of court tombs:

It is noticeable that there is no special rule for the siting of court tombs, however a few, like the monument at Deerpark in Sligo, occupy dominant and commanding positions. That being said, there is a preference, generally speaking, for upland and coastal regions. Hillocks of glacial materials (drumlin hills) were avoided and limestone bedded soils were particularly attractive. There appears to be a settlement pattern also. The siting and distribution indicate a settlement pattern of small communities based on stock raising and agriculture. There was the discovery of bones of oxen, sheep, goats and pigs in excavated tombs and grain impressions could be seen on pottery from a tomb at Ballymacaldrack, Co. Antrim (O Nuallain, 1979).

Court tombs in north Mayo:

Amazing new evidence for the neolithic way of life practiced by the tomb builders has been unearthed beneath the blanket bogs of north Mayo since 1979. In particular, we are speaking about the buried field system at Behy-Glenulra—and since the excavations a fuller picture is emerging. The area of the particular field being surveyed is 800 by 1200 meters. Within the archaeological system are four small oval enclosures and the court tomb of Behy (mentioned above) is found there. The biggest of the enclosures has been excavated and it has been shown that the tomb is a habitation compound. Radio carbon dating has put the pottery and artifacts found at the compound at 2150 B.C. The other tomb found nearby has a similar set of artifacts and there is some evidence to suggest that the tomb may predate the main field walls (O Nuallain, 1979).

Passage Graves:

O Nuallain (1979) writes that passage graves played a large part in the spread of megalithic tombs and they are found on the Atlantic coast of all of Europe—from Scandinavia to Iberia. O Nuallain (1979) also writes that “In its classic form a Passage-tomb consists of a circular mound, surrounded by a kerb and enclosing a chamber approached through a passage. The passage is low and narrow while the chamber is higher and may be round, oval or rectangular in shape. Side or end chambers opening off the main chamber are often present.”

Passage grave carvings and inscriptions:

A prominent feature of Irish passage tombs and their antecedents in Brittany are carved designs on the roof stones and orthostats. Irish passage grave art is abstract in design with spirals, circles, serpentine lines, arcs, lozenges and triangles being the more usual elements on display. These designs are often scattered on the stones, but they are often combined with beautiful ornate designs which are adapted to the shape of the stones. Some designs, for example the ‘eye-motifs’ are considered anthropomorphic. Particular motifs can be favoured at particular graves—for example, spirals at Newgrange, rayed circles at Dowth and concentric rectangles at Knowth (O Nuallain, 1979).

The meaning of the designs and elements used in megalithic art is unknown, but it is reasonable to assume that it had a sacred significance since the art is associated with burial monuments. Much of the Irish art elements are found throughout Atlantic Europe, but in Spain and Portugal the art is found on small ceremonial objects (e.g. small cylinder-idols) and on pottery associated with the tombs. The Breton tombs however bear detail in many respects to the Irish art—with a few differences. Pictures of axes are found on French tombs but not found on Irish tombs. Despite differences, it is clear that Irish and Breton art are closely related because of so many similarities. These similarities, along with the tomb architecture and grave furniture suggests that the Gulf of Morbihan, in South Brittany as the possible and approximate place of origin of the Irish passage tomb series (O Nuallain, 1979).

Locations and examples of Irish passage tombs:

A unique trait amongst Irish passage tombs—something which is unlike other tomb types in Ireland—is that passage tombs are situated on ridges or hilltops and they are typically grouped in cemeteries. It is hard to estimate the number of Irish passage tombs because quite a few round hilltop mounds which could contain passage tombs remain unopened. A possible number of about 300 seems plausible but this number will only be added to once more excavations happen. Like other types of Irish tombs, passage tombs are largely confined to the northern half of the country but a few examples occur in north Munster and south Leinster. There are 4 major cemeteries in Ireland. They are as follows: Bend of the Boyne in the vicinity of Slane Co. Meath, Loughcrew about 65km to the west, Carrowkeel, Co. Sligo-90km northwest of Loughcrew, and Carrowmore on Sligo Bay. The 4 cemeteries account for almost 50% of the passage tombs in Ireland (O Nuallain, 1979).

As is investigated below, the 3 massive mounds of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth dominate the Boyne cemetery, and they are the greatest architectural achievements in western Europe of passage tomb buildings (O Nuallain, 1979).

Out of all the passage graves in Ireland, the best known is Newgrange, Co. Meath. They are named ‘passage’ graves because “a passage leads from the rim of a round mound to its centre (or near the centre), where there is a burial chamber covered over with stones and earth” (Ask about Ireland, n.d.) The layout system of these passage graves is not dissimilar to the pyramids of Egypt, but it is likely that most of the Irish passage graves are older than the pyramids of Egypt. One other difference between passage graves of Ireland and the Egyptian pyramids is that the pyramids were designed as a tomb for a single individual—usually a pharaoh, whereas the Irish graves were tombs for a number of cremated individuals. These passage tombs are found in the sea side countries of western Europe and it is thought that the ideas behind their construction may have come from Brittany in France, where some of the oldest known examples can be found (Ask about Ireland, n.d.)

Finds in Irish passage tombs:

Artifacts found at Irish passage tombs are very consistent. The variety of pottery consists of rather coarse round bottomed bowls decorated by looped arcs are inscribed on a series of impressed slabs. Large mushroom headed pins, of antler or bone, stone beads and pendants—with some of the pendants in the shape of pestle-hammers are prevalent and show the deposition of personal ornaments with the dead. Small chalk or stone balls have been found at many locations and are presumed to be fertility objects. Tools and weapons of flint and stone are virtually unknown in these tombs, unlike deposits in other types of Irish tombs. It appears that the large stone basins—a common type of artifact found in Irish passage tombs—seemed to have a function in the burial ritual. Occasionally unburnt bones are found amongst the deposits but cremation was the normal burial method. Excavations show that some monuments accommodated large numbers of burials. For example, the large quantity of cremated bone found at the passage on the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath, has been thought to represent 100 of more individuals (O Nuallain, 1979).

The dating of the passage tombs:

The earliest passage tombs date to about 3,500 B.C. and these are found in Brittany, France, although as is the case with Irish passage tombs, they were still being constructed in the third millennium B.C. As of the time of writing of the O Nuallain (1979) article, few radiocarbon dates were available for Irish passage tombs. Newgrange has produced two passage tombs, dating at about 2,500 B.C. and the tomb at Tara has a date of about 2,100 B.C. One of the smaller tombs at Knowth has a similar approximate date to Tara. These determinations indicate a late Neolithic date for Irish passage tombs (O Nuallain, 1979).

Newgrange, Co. Meath—An example of a passage grave:

For those who have seen Newgrange in all its splendor, they can surely attest to the fact that it is a masterful piece of stone age engineering. The passage is aligned to a point on the distant horizon where the sun rises on what are usually the shortest few days of the year. On those few days, the sun shines for just over 15 minutes through a narrow slit near the entrance right into the back of the burial chamber. Newgrange is famous for its remarkable spiral decoration on its stones in front of its entrance, however it is the amazing achievement of capturing the sun’s rays at winter solstice that has made Newgrange world famous (Ask about Ireland, n.d.).

Knowth & Dowth-Other examples of passage graves in the Boyne Valley:

Although Newgrange is the most famous, it is only one of about 300 passage graves in Ireland. Most of these types of graves are found in the northern half of Ireland. That being said, there are two famous examples of passage graves also in the Boyne Valley, Co Meath, not too far from Newgrange. Knowth has been widely excavated and has possibly the greatest example of Stone Age ‘art’ in any part of Europe. It is not the same as Newgrange in that it has two different burial chambers, back-to-back. They have their own particular type of character also. But there are other passage graves in Co. Meath also—the partially ornamented passage graves of the Loughcrew hills. It is also known as Sliabh na Calliaghe (Ask about Ireland, n.d.)


The Knowth monument has about 17 satellite tombs and it stands about 1.3 km to the northwest of Newgrange. The Knowth monument is approximately the size of Newgrange but encompasses two tombs set back-to-back with only a few feet between them. The incurving of the kerb at the west and the same at the east mark the entrances to the passages going through to the chambers. The western tomb was almost 35 meters in overall length and is made up of a long passage that bends to the south as it approaches the chamber. A few of the roof stones and many of the orthostats are ornamented. The entrance kerbstone is ornamented with a design of concentric rectangles. The tomb to the east is about 40 meters in overall length, and is made up of a passage leading to a cruciform chamber. A wonderfully decorated basin-stone stands in the recess on the right. Even though the Knowth monument has yet to be fully excavated, it has already produced the greatest body of megalithic art ever found in a passage tomb (O Nuallain, 1979).


Dowth is the third great monument in the Boyne cemetery—​almost 2 km to the northeast of Newgrange. Dowth is the largest of the three mounds, and as of 1979, it has not yet been excavated. It encompasses two tombs situated about 20 meters apart. The tomb at the north has a passage 14 meters long. An “L shaped” extension, leading from the southern recess is totally unique. The passage of the second tomb is short and leads to a circular chamber 5 meters in diameter. A few orthostats and kerbstones are decorated but this is not as well ornamented as in Newgrange or Knowth (O Nuallain, 1979).

Sligo—a hub of passage graves:

It is worth mentioning that passage graves are usually situated on hill tops, where they can be clearly viewed from miles around. A noteworthy example of this is Queen Medhbh’s grave at the top of Knocknarea in Co. Sligo. Sligo is an area which is rich with passage graves. There is a location in Sligo named Carrowmore where a group of these megalithic tombs are batched together (Ask about Ireland, n.d.). Excavations at this site suggest that the tombs may be up to 6,000 years old. (Ask about Ireland, n.d.)

Wedge shaped tombs:

Wedge tombs are a relatively simple type of tomb. They were built by the last group of megalithic tomb builders who arrived in Ireland. Wedge tombs typically consist of a main chamber, often with a short portico at the front and sometimes have a small ‘end chamber’ at the rear. (O Nuallain, 1979).

O Nuallain, (1979) writes that “A total of 387 wedge-tombs are known in Ireland but only nineteen examples have been excavated. Communal burial was still practiced by the wedge-tomb people and both cremation and inhumation are attested. Many sites were poor in finds and indeed eight tombs produced no pri­mary pottery. Beaker ware from eight sites together with barbed and tanged arrow­heads from three others-- places these tombs in the early Bronze Age. Though Beaker is the dominant pottery in the tombs, occa­sional finds of Neolithic sherds indicate an overlap with earlier cultures. Metal finds from four sites may be primary deposits.”

Early French ancestors of the Irish wedge-tomb:

The allées couvertes of Brittany in France are probably the fore runners of the Irish wedge tombs. These French structures are of like design to their Irish counterparts. They have features such as kerbs, double walling, septal stones, end chambers, and porticos. The Breton tombs yielded finds such as Beaker flat bottomed coarse ware like those found in some Irish tombs. Barbed arrow heads were also found and hold up the opinion that the allées couvertes are ancestors of the Irish line of wedge-shaped tombs (O Nuallain, 1979).

Early metal workers and wedged shaped tombs:

The source ‘Ask about Ireland’ (n.d.) describes the connection between metal working and wedge-shaped tombs by saying, “Metal began to be worked in Ireland before 2000 B.C., and one type of megalithic tomb that may have been used by these early metallurgists was the wedge-shaped grave, which consists of a long stone-lined and roofed gallery placed in a wedge-shaped mound of stones that narrows in width towards the back of the tomb. So-called Beaker pottery found in some of these tombs hints at links with copper-mining, particularly in Kerry, but other locations on upland limestone pasture, like the Burren, suggest that pastoralists, too, may have been involved in their construction. One of the finest examples is Labbacallee, Co. Cork, but they are also found in many other parts of the country.”


  1. Ask about Ireland (n.d.) Late Stone Age Megalithic Tombs. Available at: Accessed: 16/11/2023

  2. Michigan State University, Study Abroad Programme. (2009). Megalithic Rocks. Internal Report: Folder 3, Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail—Clogher Environmental Group Ltd. Unpublished.

  3. Morahan, L. (2001). Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo: archaeology, landscape, and people. Westport: The Croagh Patrick Archaeological Committee, p 31.

  4. O Nuallain, S. (1979). The Megalithic Tombs of Ireland. Neolithic Tombs and their Art. Available at: Accessed 17/11/2023.