So yesterday I had to drive for an hour down to Carlow on a special mission for Santa Claus, which turned out to be a disaster. With Ryan and his older cousin Scott in the car I was determined not to make the trip a complete waste, so I checked my Interactive Ruins Map to check out what sites I had not yet visited in the area. Well I can tell you that there is quite a few in the Carlow area. Nearest was the Neolithic Portal Tomb known as Brownshill Dolmen. Its proper name is the Kernanstown Dolmen or ‘Dolmain Chnoc an Bhrúnaigh’ in Gaelic. It later came to be known Brownshill Dolmen after a previous landowner. This was my first time there and I was extremely impressed by not only the structure, but how well it has been taken care off. I would seem to be a popular site for tourists and is well signposted. There is even a purpose built car park for visitors with some information boards at the enterance to the site. It is a bit of a walk to the monument which can be seen from the roadside perched nicely on the horizon. What really impressed me was the paved pathway which leads you across the farm land on which the Tomb resides. Thankfully there was no need for fence hoping, or stomping through marshlands to get to the site. Both the monument and the path are fenced off which not only protects the surrounding farm land but it also protects this rare heritage site. If only this could be done for the many other equally worthy sites around the country.
It is believed to have been built sometime between 4000 and 3000 BC by some of the early Neolithic settlers in Ireland. The granite capstone is believed to be the largest of its kind in Europe and is estimated to weigh a whopping 150 tons. It is 6.1m in length and 4.7m wide, with a thickness of 2m. The capstone is thought to have been covered by an earthen mound with a gate stone blocking the entrance. Unfortunately no trace of this mound has survived. Earlier on in the year I came across another Neolithic tomb in the Phoenix Park in Dublin, it is much smaller but you can read about it at Knockmaroon Cromlech. To truly appreciate the sheer size of this ancient monument you really do need to pay a visit and experience it for yourself. I got my two little apprentice Ruin hunters to step into a shot just to give a true idea of how bloody big this thing actually is. It is known as a portal tomb due to the two portal stones on which the cap stone rests at one end. There is also a third stone a (prostrate stone), which propped up the cap stone on the other side and which may have originally been standing upright. Both portal stones are about 2m in height. In between the portal stones you find the door stone, which faces to the east and would have been the entrance to the tomb.. Although the side stones of this once magnificent chamber have long since gone, there is a standing stone resting to the North of the monument which may be the remains of a former façade or forcourt. According to records this tomb is one of three ‘dolmens’ in the locality, so I guess that I will be kept busy hunting for them in the near future.
There is very little solid information on Brownshill, due to the fact that the site has surprisingly never been excavated. We do know that it predates the Celts by a few thousand years. To this end the true extent of the chamber cannot be determined. We can only speculate about the origins of this fascinating ruin and use data collected from other similar tombs to make an educated guess as to its purpose? Aside from it being used as a burial chamber, some say that it was a place for religious ceremony and possibly even human sacrifice, some suggest that it was a sort of border marker. But until it has been properly excavated I guess we will never truly know? So what about the people who built this monstrous structure? The stone age settlers of this period had moved on from the hunter/gatherer lives of their ancestors and were the first to begin farming of the land. In addition to Dolmen’s these people used Moates or artificial mounds. Inside many of these tombs excavations have uncovered many various skeletal remains including burnt remains in burial urns, which would suggest that these people also practised the cremation of corpses just like we do today in many cultures and societies.
Some surviving stones from these monuments have been found to have been inscribed with Oghaim writing, which would have not occurred until the 3rd or 4th century A.D. This would suggest that these ancient monuments were re-used by later generations. In the years that followed these Dolmen tombs were commonly referred to as ‘Druids Alters’. Then there is the connection to an ancient legend of Dermot and Grainne, which tells of Grainne whom was due to marry the legendary Fionn MacCumhaill. Unfortunately she was in love with another, so she and Diarmuid eloped and went on the run. It is said that Diarmuid erected a stone bed each night for them to sleep on. Hence the Dolmen tombs also became known as ‘The bed of Diarmuid & Grainne.
It is quite mind boggling to imagine how these supposed primitive people would have constructed such a structure. Well there are three reasonable theories as to how they might have achieved such feats, but again these are all just educated guesses. The first theory on the building of such a structure is that they did not move the capstone at all. They could have dug holes where the uprights were to go, inserted these and then dug away the surrounding earth, leaving a Dolmen looking like it is today. Personally I would discount this theory due to the fact that these tombs were normally covered by a mound, which sort of defeats the purpose of this theory. Our second theory suggests they might have erected the uprights and then used a ramp of earth, stones and timber, upon which they could have levered the capstone into position. Bloody hard work even by todays standards, but I guess it would be possible. Then finally our third theory is that they could have levered up one edge of the capstone and crammed in earth and stones, raising it. If they continued this all round the capstone would eventually have risen to the level of the uprights and could then I have been prised into position. Again whilst possible, this would also take some serious amount of work to achieve. Whatever they did to achieve the finished result is still only speculation, all I do know is that its great to see these structures still standing and to find one that has been so well cared for. If you are in the area I would highly recommend that you stop of and pay a visit to one of the best heritage sites in the area.