Dolmens are megalithic monuments found dotted around the Irish landscape. Standing for millennia, they perch majestically on grassy hillsides, on craggy cliffs, on winding roadsides, and even right between modern day homes.
I think of dolmens as symbols of Ireland. When I was a little girl we would always be on the lookout for dolmens when driving around the Irish countryside.
Now, dolmens are not unique to the Emerald Isle, but are found throughout the British Isles and other parts of Europe and Asia.
Ireland is home to over 150 of these ancient portal tombs, and so I think it is fair to consider these historic monuments as symbols of our ancient past.
And so today, I hope you’ll join me as we take a little tour of Ireland’s wondrous dolmens, both great and small.
Dolmens are single-chamber megalithic tombs. Vertical stones usually support a massive flat capstone making the structure resemble a table.
When first built dolmens were typically covered with earth or smaller stones to form a tumulus. Over the centuries these earthen coverings have weathered away, revealing their spectacular stone “skeletons.”
The term dolmen means stone table. The word dolmen is derived from two Breton words, with “dual” meaning table, and “maen” meaning stone.
The most amazing thing about some of these dolmens is their massive capstones.
At a time when there was no power assisted hoist or crane, our ancestors figured out how to raise, prop, position and balance these gigantic table tops upon three or four supporting stones.
Brownshill, the largest dolmen in Ireland and Europe is found in County Carlow. That massive capstone weighs over 150 tons, which is a staggering 330,693 pounds.
Our Celtic forefathers were no weaklings, that’s for sure
Whenever I lay eyes on a dolmen I can’t help but ask the inevitable question – how on earth did early Irish men and women, manipulate these gargantuan stones into place?
And the truth is, nobody truly knows how they did it.
Legend claims it was early Irish giants who tossed these monuments together using their mythical strength and prowess to mark the landscape with these enduring memorials.
A troupe of mere mortals surrounding these stones could never generate enough manpower to heave and hoist these megaliths into position.
And so it’s safe to say, some form of ancient engineering marvel was utilized by our ancestors, to create these rocky shrines.
For me, dolmens are lasting proof of the genius of our forebears, testament to their skill and determination to mark the landscape of their homeland.
Dolmens date from between 4,000 BC to 2,000 BC and tend to have a large concentration along Ireland’s coastline, especially in the east.
Ancient remains have been found near some of these monuments, and so it is thought they may have been used to commemorate the dead. Or perhaps they were places for holding ceremonies and celebrations.
Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare is the oldest known dolmen in Ireland. When excavated the remains of 22 people from the Neolithic Age were found. Their burial site beneath the monument included personal items like pottery and stone axes.
The dolmen pictured above is found on the Mizen Peninsula in County Cork, a few miles west of the town of Schull. It’s called the Altar Wedge tomb. Perhaps it was used by the druids as an altar, but the Irish used it as an altar far more recently.
At the time of the Penal Laws in Ireland (17th century), when attending Mass was illegal, this dolmen in Cork was used as an altar by a priest-in-hiding, who would gather his flock to covertly say Mass. Locals would surround the area with lookouts for English soldiers, as the Irish prayed.
With more than 100 dolmens scattered throughout Ireland, we know for certain our forebears attributed some special significance to building these monuments.
They built these structures to last, and they have stood the tests of time. Some are over 5000 years old and are found in various states of repair and disrepair throughout Ireland.
Some are covered in vegetation.
Some simply stand sentinel by the roadside.
Some give historical interest to a garden landscape.
Some lie hidden amongst the trees and bushes.
And some, simply take your breath away, perched amidst the spectacular scenery of the Emerald Isle.
And so if you take a trip to Ireland, and love to discover a little bit of history, do visit a dolmen on your travels.
Who knows? The site of one of these dolmens may turn out to be your Irish thin place.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)