The Prehistoric Monuments of Ireland

Know Your Passage or Wedge Tombs, Raths, Cashels and Crannogs

Reconstructed Crannóg at the Irish National Heritage Park
© Bernd Biege 2014

When visiting Ireland you might get confused - what exactly is the difference between a wedge tomb and a passage tomb? What is a rath? And when exactly is an island a crannog? And where do the Fianna and the fairies fit in?

There are plenty of unique, prehistoric monuments in Ireland so here is a list of the most common types you may encounter, sorted by alphabet:

Cairns

Roughly defined, a cairn is an artificially constructed pile of stones.

Queen Maeve's Grave on top of Knocknarea (near Sligo) is a prime example. Here we actually do not know whether the cairn is solid or hides a tomb.

Cashels

Cashels are basically ringforts built mainly of stone. Often this takes the form of a circular enclosure made out of dirt with an outer ditch and an inner earth-wall, topped by an additional stone-wall. This wall might be basic and about chest-high or could be a massive construction, depending on the Cashel.

Court Tombs

First appearing around 3,500 BC these are (usually) half-moon shaped tombs with a pronounced "courtyard" in front of the entrance. The courtyard was supposedly used for rituals, either during burials or at festive occasions afterward.

Crannógs

Crannógs are a type of ringfort that is built on small islands near the mainland, where the fort is identical in size to the island itself, and both are often connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge or causeway.

The island could be either natural or artificially created (or expanded). As a general rule, the more circular an island the more likely it is to be artificial.

Dolmens

Dolmens are the uncovered remains of portal tombs. The most famous Irish dolmen is Poulnabrone in the Burren.

Enclosures

Generally, anything that cannot be identified and encloses a part of the landscape is referred to as an enclosure - which might be descriptive but is not very definite.

What this tells you is that there is a man-made structure we do not know a lot about. It could be ceremonial or military, a ringfort - the main difference being that military structures tend to have a ditch outside the walls for practical reasons. Enclosures might also be found in conjunction with tombs and/or henges. Navan Fort (near Armagh) seems to have been a ceremonial enclosure, so were some earthworks on the Hill of Tara.

Fairy Hills

After a few millennia of existence, the passage tombs and similar buildings which dot the Irish countryside were re-interpreted as gates to the otherworld and dwelling places of fairies. This may in part be a reflection of the mysterious symbols carved into the stones and artifacts that could be found in or near tombs.

Henges

Henges are circles built out of stones or wood. They have a purely ceremonial background and might have astronomical or geographical alignments, such a Drombeg Stone Circle. None of the Irish henges are as spectacular as Stonehenge in England.

Heroes' Graves and Beds

Partly destroyed and uncovered tombs, open chambers, and dolmens were often re-interpreted in the light of Celtic mythology - mostly the Fianna cycle. Ireland is full of structures that are said to be the (often final) resting places of heroes and lovers.

Hill Forts

Hill forts are either ringforts or ceremonial enclosures, located on a hilltop. Sometimes these hill forts are combined with or even placed on top of tombs.

La Tène Stones

Only found in Turoe and Castlestrange, La Tène Stones are basically standing stones with carvings identical to those of Celtic tribes on the European mainland.

Ley-Lines

"The old straight track" can be found in Ireland too - ley-hunters have identified several good examples on the Emerald Isle. Basically, ley-lines are linear alignments connecting important places, forming a grid on the landscape. But as the science, history and even existence of ley-lines is disputed, that means the field is wide open for interpretation. As these alignments are far less supported by hard evidence than the astronomical or solar alignment of an individual site a lot of ley-hunting quickly descends into mere speculation.

Ogham-Stones

These are standing stones bearing inscriptions in the ancient Ogham-system, a special written language mainly used in Ireland. Unfortunately, the inscriptions are generally very short and not very interesting. Ogham stones form a "bridge" between pre-historic and early Christian times.

Passage Tombs

Passage tombs are round tombs with a definitely identifiable passage leading from an entrance to the burial chamber. Most popular around 3,100 BC. One of the best-known passage tombs in the world is Newgrange, though nearby Knowth actually has two passages. Tombs like these two or the main tombs at Loughcrew often have spectacular astronomical, especially solar alignments. Geographical alignments seem obvious at Carrowmore.

Portal Tombs

Portal tombs are constructed out of three (sometimes more) massive standing stones, bearing an even more massive slab, which then looks like a portal. The covering slab can be up to 100 tons in weight and forms the roof of a chamber. Most portal tombs in Ireland were erected between 3,000 and 2,000 BC.

Promontory Forts

These are ringforts located on promontories, one side of the "ring" often consisting of sheer cliffs. The Aran Islands do have the most spectacular forts of this kind, especially Dun Aonghasa.

Raths

Raths are ringforts consisting mainly of a ditch and an earth wall - the last usually topped by a wooden palisade.

Ringforts

Any roughly circular fortification from prehistoric times is generally called a ringfort - raths, cashels, and promontory forts being some examples of what falls into this broad category. The distinction between (defensive) ringforts and (ceremonial) enclosures is not always easy as both make use of walls and ditches. A fort will usually have the ditch outside the wall to make things harder for attacking enemies.

Souterrains

Souterrains are cellars and underground passages created near settlements which are believed to have been used as storage areas, hiding places, and escape routes. Some appear near tombs such as Dowth (near Bru na Boinne), leading to considerable confusion amongst scholars.

Standing Stones

Standing stones are basically monoliths placed on their own or forming part of a henge (see above). In conjunction with tombs, enclosures or natural features even solitary standing stones may have astronomical, solar or geographical alignments. Some standing stones were erected for purely practical purposes, though - as scratching posts for cattle.

Wedge Tombs

Wedge tombs are very similar to court tombs - actually, they look like smaller court tombs. Leading to the impression of a "wedge", hence the name. Popular from 2,000 BC.