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Poulnabrone portal tomb in Burren at sunrise, Ireland           Source: Patryk Kosmider

If Not the Fairies, Then Who Built the Ancient Poulnabrone Dolmen?

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Incredible monuments dating back to various ages are found throughout Ireland, including the Giant’s Causeway, the Blarney Stone, and Fort Newgrange, which is older than the pyramids. All have a story to tell and one site that provides fascinating insight into the Stone Age society is the Poulnabrone dolmen. Located in the west of the island, this portal tomb is one of the best known of the 200 found in Ireland.

The History and Mysteries of Poulnabrone Dolmen

The mysterious megalith is set in the spectacular landscape, in a remote area in the County of Clare, and is thought to date between 3900 and 3000 BC, the late Neolithic period.

Poulnabrone can be translated to ‘hole in the quern stone’.

The remoteness of the location means that it was hard to access, but the dolmen was probably used to bury members of the local elites for many centuries. Excavations in the 1980s revealed the remains of over 30 individuals that date to about 3200 BC. Archaeologists believe that the bodies may have been ritually purified by fire and their bones then deposited in the burial area. Examinations of the remains show that few lived beyond 40 years and many had arthritis at an early age.

Location of Poulnabrone dolmen in the Burren National Park, southwest of Ireland (Vincent / Adobe Stock)

Location of Poulnabrone dolmen in the Burren National Park, southwest of Ireland (Vincent / Adobe Stock)

It appears that the dolmen was a ritual site and was still regarded as a sacred place in the Bronze Age. This is based on the discovery of the skeleton of an infant interred here in around 1500 BC. This location was also likley used for burials in the early Celtic period.

Scholars have argued that the structure was not only a memorial monument but also a territorial marker. By building it on higher ground, it marked the boundary of the tribe who inhabited the locality.

The monument is protected by the Irish government and in the 1980s the dolmen had to be restored after the capstone cracked. This monument has been the source of controversy in the past and archaeologists claim that the site and its environment is under threat from over-tourism.

Mythology of the Poulnabrone Dolmen

Popular culture often depicts fairies as benevolent winged creatures, but according to Irish folklore, they are a great deal more malicious. As the dolmens were said to be built by fairies and therefore regarded with superstitious dread, it helped to preserve the structures. These tiny supernatural beings, who are said to have lived in the dolmens, would kidnap children and leave a changeling in their place. Irish country people would never refer to them by name, instead calling them ‘the good people’.

The Changeling (Artwork by Shelly Wan)

The Changeling (Artwork by Shelly Wan)

Remains of the Second Largest Portal Tomb in Ireland

The megalith is justly famous, in part because of its remarkable location as it is set on a plateau that offers an amazing view of the karst-limestone plain known as the Burren.

Poulnabrone is the second largest Irish portal tomb, built on what appears to have been an artificial mound. This structure consists of standing stones topped by a capstone which is 6 feet (2m) long and 10 feet (3.2 m) wide. The capstone slopes to the west, which is unusual.

Guarding the entrance of the megalith chamber are two portal stones, each about 6 foot (3m) high. This dolmen would once have been covered with earth and topped with a cairn and would have been visible for miles.

The entrance is oriented to the north where a ‘sill stone’ (also called a threshold stone) forms part of the entryway. The three standing stones may once have been part of an antechamber. In the vicinity of the megalith is a fallen portal stone possibly from the antechamber, and some small standing stones, whose purpose is rather mysterious.

Visiting the Poulnabrone Dolmen

The megalith is in a remote location but is well signposted and no fee is charged to explore the site and visit the stones. Information boards provide additional information as there are no guides available.

The Cliffs of Moher, which have appeared in various shows and movies (Douglas / Adobe Stock)

The Cliffs of Moher, which have appeared in various shows and movies (Douglas / Adobe Stock)

The Poulnabrone dolmen is on the way to the world-famous Cliffs of Moher and there are two other chambered tombs located nearby. They date from the same period and are believed to have formed part of some cultural landscape in the Neolithic period.

Top image: Poulnabrone portal tomb in Burren at sunrise, Ireland           Source: Patryk Kosmider

By Ed Whelan


Dexter, T. F. G. 1932 . The Sacred Stone. Perranporth: New Knowledge Press.

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Drew, D. P. (1983). Accelerated soil erosion in a karst area: the Burren, western Ireland. Journal of Hydrology, 61(1-3), 113-124

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Scott, Y. (2017). Ruins in Ireland, Ireland in ruins: symbols and semiotics in Irish visual art. The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 40, 142-173.

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Hi Ed,

Exciting article to read Ed thank you for sharing say are there anymore interesting structures or sites in Ireland that's considered a great mystery?

The Giant's Causeway
The Blarney Stone
Fort Newgrange
& Fairies
Last of All Dolmens.

Is it possible the above 5 mentioned before Dolmens could somehow be connected? That the answers lies with each mystery of Ireland?

What if the Giant's Causeway is the reason for the Dolmens?

Suppose that the Giant's and the Fairies came together to build those mysterious structures?

Perhaps the Dolmens are sort of like well with The Aboriginals in Australia there's an mysterious structure there that draws huge crowds.

Visitors have often said about the site speak of a Deep Spiritual experience when around the spot in Australia; so what if the Dolmens are like that Australian Structure in a way?

The picture of the Fairies up above resembles that of infants almost, or evil little Cupids I may have a Biblical answer for those Fairies but, I'll save that for another time.

Until next time Ed Goodbye!

Sebakhet Merytanpu's picture

Occasionally, there are those who wish to determine the use of a particular monument or structure in order to further their personal connection with heritage or faith. In those cases, specifically, I agree with Guillaumé that social and scientific agencies need to step back from the practice of trying to define exact use or meaning. Oftentimes, it should be left to the seeker of spiritual connection to personally decide what this place represents.

I also advocate for the regulation and decrease of tourist activity in sacred locations such as this. The internet exists; anyone can see everything all over the world. There should be a very limited number of visitors, because the preservation of the past should always take precedence over financial gains.

This mystical place was created over 5,000 years ago, and the best theories of the educated are likely nowhere even close to what actually happened here. Humanity's insatiable need to know everything, to solve every mystery, to define every reason for the decisions of the ancients will eventually be the downfall of these magnificent windows into the past.


We really need to stop the practice of deciding exactly what the ancient buildings are for.

We do not know and will probably not ever know as we view the world through our cultural paradigm and not theirs.

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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