“Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.” Rebecca Solnit
An important part of the Pilgrimage project is taking the group into the landscape on specific field trips. We do this in part so we can connect more closely with our ancient heritage, and the land, but also so that the group can walk and talk and form new relationships. It’s been well documented that walking can stimulate creative thought, and the process of being out in the open air, walking side by side with endless space to the front and behind, can open up new possibilities through new ways of thinking and a renewed ability to share intimacies.
The first of these field trips was to explore two key sites in Sligo both dating some 5,000 years old; Knocknarea; that most recognisable of landscapes with Queen Maeve’s cairn perched on top, and Carrowkeel; a less well travelled mountain with spectacular examples of intact cairns that you can still enter and experience.
For our first climb we were guided by archeologist Stefan Bergh, whose main research interest is focused on the interaction between people, place and landscapes in prehistory. He is an expert on Knocknarea, having published several pieces of work about the mountain. He is currently completing a new body of research which is nearing publication in the coming year or so.
While Stefan gave us a fascinating history of the mountain, the most powerful discussions were around the relationship between landscape and people. He noted how the most prominent mountains were chosen to host cairns so that they might impose on the landscape, to signify authority, and to be viewable from a great distance – Knocknarea itself can be seen for miles, and the ciarn atop the mountain is placed not at the direct peak, but at the most visible point on the summit.
Bergh likes to describe Knocknarea as a site with Burials, rather than burial site. He sees it as a major ritual centre, more linked to the mindset of the time than a daily routine. They have discovered evidence for the existence of several dwellings (over 15 of them) which are unlikely to be permanent homes, but more likely temporary resting places for visitors to the mountain.
Bergh has also recently discovered border walls that run parallell to the ground, across one particular side of the the mountain (the side you climb, not the strandhill sea side). They are walls but have gaps at intervals meaning they are unlikely to be a defensive structure, so what was their purpose? One theory is that they might act to separate the domestic from the ritual, marking the threshold at which you move into sacred space.
As he commented on the day, we might learn about bones, tools, artifacts of the time, but we just haven’t a clue about the song, the dance, the movement. Something brought into stark relief when Steve Wickham, who accompanied us on our walk, pulled out his fiddle and played a tune at the Cairn.
Of course the most famous myth about Knocknarea is that of Queen Maebh who is reported to be buried in the cairn, standing up, facing her enemies. Like most myths there are factual discrepancies, but her name has persisted, causing us to question on the day how does memory remain? We tell the important stories to each other and they change and mutate, so what kind of stories are kept and what stories slip into oblivion? and what does this tell us about ourselves as a people?
One of the most powerful things I took away from the day was conversations around the relationship between land and people. Over time the human-built Cairn becomes part of the natural mountain, and the mountain becomes part of the cairn, the substance and stories intertwined to bring new meanings. Recently people have started to climb the cairn, placing their own rock at the top. While this has significant problems, eroding the cairn and causing more and more slippage, it begs the question of where ritual begins? Is “ritual” constrained to ancient times, and if so should this new “cairn on the cairn” be removed, or is this a new ritual that has emerged?
The view from the top has changed little in thousands of years, and indeed some of the same families likely still live in its shadow. The mountain is “owned” by a farmer who allows people to come and go, repeating the ritual of thousands of years. We are still compelled to rise to the top, to ritualise our endeavors and gain new perspective.
For our second journey into the past we were guided by Martin Byrne, an artist, musician and, in his own words, a fringe archeologist with a deep love for Carrowkeel. He has created a very detailed website where you can explore the history and myth associated with the site.
Carrowkeel occupies several hilltops in the Bricklieve Mountains overlooking Lough Arrow in County Sligo. It is something of a hidden treasure as there is no interpretation centre or information booth to point you on your way (although there are now details of the walk on Sligo Walks site here ). This of course makes it all the more magical, as you feel you are ascending in a landscape that has changed little from the time of the cairn builders some 5,000 years ago. There are 14 cairns on the site, with two of them in such good condition that you can still enter them. These are Phase II monuments, whereas the much larger Newgrange and Queen Maeve’s cairn would be part of Phase III. Also on the site is evidence of a village settlement showing some 140 circular foundations, likely occupied by the cairn builders.
The Cairns are called pinnacles by the locals, and are associated with portals, magic and the otherworld. For Martin these are the original churches, and he calls them temples to life, echoing Stefan’s earlier comment that these are sites where burials took place, not burial sites. Many of us entered the cairns, which are surprisingly dry and warm, and for someone who is not inclined toward small spaces they are incredibly comfortable spaces to be in. Time slips away and they feel very secure and calming, almost meditative. We spent a great deal of time storytelling in the largest cairn, with Martin playing us a tune on his fiddle and Linda Buckley treating us to a beautiful Sean Nós song – which we will have footage of from our Pilgrimage films to share with you in due course.
Martin left us with the thought the word for a cave and the word for womb are the same in irish, and indeed he believes that the cairns at Carrowkeel were used as ritual markers in life and death, with a woman giving birth in one passage as some takes their final breaths in the other – with the soul passed from the old body, across the chamber to the new one.
I find Carrowkeel to be an incredibly powerful place, one that makes sense of the landscape for miles around, and has the ability to instantly diminish the considerable timeline between us and our ancestors, connecting directly though the land to those that stood there some 5,000 years ago.