Creevykeel Court Tomb: Giants and Little People Meet at a 4,500 Year Old Irish Tomb
With its prominent and central open court, Creevykeel Court Tomb is one of the finest court tombs in Ireland. The earliest usage of the site goes back around 4,500 years, but it is a multi-epoch and multi-purpose structure that has drawn people again and again across the ages.
The tomb is a prehistoric monument located in County Sligo, in the Irish province of Connacht. Whilst court tombs may be found in various parts of western and northern Ireland, Creevykeel Court Tomb is often reckoned to be one of the finest examples of this type of tomb in the country. Although the tomb was built during the Prehistoric period, there is evidence that it was re-used during the Early Christian period.
Creevykeel Court Tomb. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
A Castle of Enchantment with Giants’ Graves
Creevykeel Court Tomb is situated at the foothills of Tievebaun Mountain, not far from the sea at the village of Mullaghmore. This megalithic tomb was referred to by the local population as Caisleán Bhaoisgin, which, translated from Irish, may be said to mean ‘Castle of Enchantment’.
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The court tomb was also known as the ‘Giants’ Graves’ when it was first catalogued in 1909, and has continued to hold an air of mystery until the present day:
“A local person said that he saw lights coming from within the tomb…The only explanation he could offer was that it was the ‘little people’…This is their property here, you see. It wasn’t excavated at that time, now. It was all covered over in trees. So it was much more sinister looking at that time than it is now.”
-Gerald Keogh, local resident, 1979
Features of the Creevykeel Court Tomb
As indicated by its name, Creevykeel Court Tomb is a type of tomb structure known as a ‘court tomb’. Such tombs are found in western and northern Ireland, and Creevykeel Court Tomb is amongst the best examples of this type of funerary structure. Court tombs almost always have a north to south orientation and most were originally covered by cairns, though in many cases, these structures have disappeared.
One of the most significant features of court tombs is their open courtyards, which gives this type of funerary structure its name. These courtyards may have been used for ritual activities, including ancestral burial and worship ceremonies, most likely witnessed by a whole tribe.
The central court can be seen here at Creevykeel Court Tomb. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Like other court tombs, Creevykeel Court Tomb has a courtyard, which is oval in shape. The entrance to the courtyard is located in the east and is attached to a narrow passage lined with standing stones. The courtyard of Creevykeel Court Tomb has a length of 15 meters (49 feet), and a width of 9 meters (29.5 feet), making it one of the largest of its kind in Ireland. At the western end of the courtyard is the gallery, which served as the burial chamber of the structure. At the entrance of this gallery are two huge jamb stones (standing stones of an entryway), on top of which was a lintel stone. This lintel stone had fallen out of place, but was repositioned during the restoration of the monument. The area in front of this entrance was paved.
The burial chamber is accessed through an entrance with two jamb stones topped by a lintel stone. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The gallery of Creevykeel Court Tomb is divided into two chambers by another set of jamb stones. Within these two chambers, four groups of cremated bones were discovered. The gallery would have once been covered by a cairn.
Artifacts Found at Creevykeel Court Tomb
Although there are three subsidiary galleries in the court tomb, no human remains were unearthed. Instead, artifacts such as pottery fragments, quartz crystals, and flint arrowheads were found within them.
A second chamber is accessed through another set of jamb stones. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
As the ceramics from the site included undecorated Neolithic pottery and Early Bronze Age pottery, it has been thought that the earliest sections of Creevykeel Court Tomb were built during the Late Neolithic period, i.e. around 2500 BC. A construction in the northwestern part of the court tomb has been dated to the Early Christian period, suggesting that the tomb, which by then would have been abandoned, was re-used.
In this structure, as well as in three hearths at the end of the court, remnants of a primitive metal foundry were discovered, which indicates that the function of the site was altered. Nevertheless, it has been suggested that the placement of the metal foundry in the tomb was meant to evoke the spiritual power of the site, which points to the belief that these ancient metalworkers were endowed with magical powers.
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The structure dated to the Early Christian period used for metalworks. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The Tomb in Local Folklore
Creevykeel Court Tomb was first catalogued in the OS Name Book of 1909.It was subsequently excavated in 1935 by H. O’Neill Hencken and the Fourth Harvard Archaeological Expedition in Ireland. Apart from conducting archaeological work at the site, Hencken also recorded local folklore about the court tomb and had the monument reconstructed.
Today, Creevykeel Court Tomb is a tourist attraction and for many locals it still retains the magic and allure that it has held for thousands of years.
the sun shines,
a cuckoo spreads its charms;
limpid blobs of dew
bind newly-minted grass
on the early-morning farms.
We follow a plot of death
but not to keen or whine
at this ancient ‘giant’s grave’
where only the cuckoo stirs
and the sun shines.
Death is an obsolete rite,
a burnt-out prehistoric bone,
as remote to us who stray here
— fresh from bed and breakfast —
as this cairn of skeletal stone.
The cuckoo chants.
Lambs bounce on springy feet.
The first fly of the year
sweeps through a cottage window.
The day is gathering heat
“Song,” by Dennis O’Driscoll, 1996
Top image: Creevykeel Court Tomb. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos .
By Wu Mingren
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