If Not the Fairies, Then Who Built the Ancient Poulnabrone Dolmen?
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.
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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)
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 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.
Drew, D. P. (1983). Accelerated soil erosion in a karst area: the Burren, western Ireland. Journal of Hydrology, 61(1-3), 113-124
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.
Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26333465