Yes, you really can and we did go inside these ancient graves. My visit to Carrowkeel was a combination of a gentle hike and a heart pounding adventure. This is a spot with rolling green hills, sheep, archeological sites, and often a touch of fog. These cairns are not as big or as popular as some of the large ones outside Dublin, but well worth a stop. Being relatively isolated, they are off the beaten path and a bit of Ireland that not many people get to see.
Carrowkeel is an easy detour between Derry (aka Londonderry), Donegal, or Sligo and Galway or the Cliffs of Mohr. Getting there is pretty straight forward and the roads are decent, but there is a gate that may catch you off guard.
After you get off the highway you will start seeing signs like the one above. It is not every day you see instructions that say to follow the signs for the donkey sanctuary. The signs are a helpful reassurance that you are going the right way, but our GPS worked just fine.
I had a general idea of where we were going and but apparently had not done quite enough research, because I was completely surprised when we pulled up to this gate. The little sign said “Leave Gate as Found” but the others said things like “Private Property” and “Please Keep Gate Closed.” We checked and double checked the map, but it said to keep going. With the ambiguous signs we were a bit apprehensive about potentially trespassing. Luckily we had cell service and someone else mentioned this gate online, so we went for it. Sure enough, right around the corner there was a small pull off on the side for the road with one other vehicle.
This is the view from the start of the path. Looking up at the hill you can just make out the first cairn peaking through the fog, just right of center.
Most of the trail was wide and well groomed. Sheep wandered here and there. They looked a bit intimidating with their big horns, but they were timid.
The last bit of the trail turns right, off the wide path and onto more of a sheep trail that continues up the side of the hill. The fog rolled in just as were were climbing this final section and gave this place a very eerie feel. At the top you will come to the first cairn and there will be multiple foot paths going in various directions to explore the different sites. On a clear day you would have a good view of the surrounding countryside.
The Experience in the Tombs
There was one other family up here. Their figures floating in and out of the fog and voices echoing out of the underground chambers added to the uneasy feel of the place. There were several passage tombs, but only two that you could go in. The first one was accompanied by a plaque on a pedestal with a brief description of the site.
The first one (pictured below) was the easiest to enter, but still required crawling on all fours. I got down on my hands and knees, holding my phone with one hand as a flashlights and entered the passage. The ground was cold and clammy, the air was heavy, and every noise you made echoed back at you from the chamber. I’m not very superstitious, but crawling through this dark tight space made my heart pound.
Once I got inside it opened into a round symmetrical chamber with a number of small burial chambers around the wall. Don’t worry, all the remains and artifacts have been removed. The chamber was tall enough that I could easily stand and wide enough to reach my arms out without touching the walls. While these look like crude rock piles from the outside, from the inside you can see the carefully built structure that has kept this standing for thousands of years. The walls are solid and watertight, even though there is no mortar. If you turn off your flashlight the only light is the small glimmer from the passage. It was breezy outside, but the air in the chamber was completely still.
The second cairn was a little more difficult to get in and out of. It had a large cut stone in front of the entrance that you had to slip behind to get into the passageway. This one was a little large inside and slightly more elaborate. Each tomb had a crude stone archway and a shelf above it.
For a bit more info and a virtual tour check out Voices From The Dawn.
Don’t Forget to Bring:
Flashlight - A head lamp would be best so you can be hands free in the tunnels.
Shoes - You could probably handle this in regular sneaker, but being Ireland, you will want waterproof shoes. If it isn’t raining now it either just did or will soon, and the grass will be wet. We wore Columbia Hiking Shoes which were rugged and were a good value. Now we have Salomon Hiking Shoes and Mizuno Trail Running Shoes, which are lighter and more breathable.