LivingTravelThe prehistoric monuments of Ireland

The prehistoric monuments of Ireland

When visiting Ireland you may get confused: what exactly is the difference between a wedge grave and a passing grave? What is a rath ? And when exactly is an island a crannog ? And where do Fianna and the fairies fit in?

There are many unique prehistoric monuments in Ireland, so here is a list of the most common types you can find, arranged in alphabetical order:


Roughly defined, a cairn is a pile of artificially constructed stones. The Tomb of Queen Maeve above Knocknarea (near Sligo) is an excellent example. Here we don’t really know if the cairn is solid or conceals a grave.


Cashew nuts are basically bells built mainly of stone. Often this takes the form of a circular enclosure made of earth with an exterior trench and an interior earth wall, topped by an additional stone wall. This wall could be basic and chest high or it could be a massive construction, depending on the Cashel.

Court tombs

First appearing around 3,500 BC, these are (generally) crescent-shaped tombs with a pronounced “courtyard” in front of the entrance. The courtyard was supposedly used for rituals, either during burials or on festive occasions afterward.


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 naturally or artificially created (or expanded). As a general rule of thumb, the more circular an island is, the more likely it is to be artificial.


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


In general, everything that cannot be identified and encloses a part of the landscape is known as an enclosure, which can be descriptive but not very defined. What this tells you is that there is a man-made structure that we don’t know much about. It could be ceremonial or military, a security ring – the main difference is that military structures tend to have a trench outside the walls for practical reasons. Enclosures can also be found alongside graves and / or hedges. Navan Fort (near Armagh) appears to have been a ceremonial precinct, as were some earthworks on the Hill of Tara.

Fairy Hills

After a few millennia of existence, the passing tombs and similar buildings that dot the Irish countryside were reinterpreted as gates to the other world and dwelling places for fairies. This may be partly a reflection of the mysterious symbols carved into the stones and artifacts that can be found in or near tombs.


Henges are circles built with stones or wood. They have a purely ceremonial background and may have astronomical or geographic alignments, such as a Drombeg Stone Circle. None of the Irish coverage is as spectacular as Stonehenge in England.

Tombs and beds of heroes

The partially destroyed and uncovered tombs, open chambers, and dolmens were often reinterpreted in light of Celtic mythology, primarily the Fianna cycle. Ireland is full of structures that are said to be (often late) resting places for heroes and lovers.

Hill forts

Hill forts are bypass fortifications or ceremonial enclosures, located on top of a hill. Sometimes these hill forts are combined or even placed on top of graves.

La Tène Stones

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

Ley lines

You can also find ‘The Old Straight Path’ in Ireland: Law hunters have identified several good examples on the Emerald Isle. Basically, ley lines are linear alignments that connect important places, forming a grid in the landscape. But since science, history, and even the existence of ley lines are disputed, that means the field is open for interpretation. As these alignments are much less supported by solid evidence than the astronomical or solar alignment of an individual site, much law hunting quickly descends into mere speculation.


These are standing stones inscribed in the ancient Ogham system, a special written language used primarily in Ireland. Unfortunately, the inscriptions are generally very short and not very interesting. The Ogham stones form a “bridge” between prehistoric and early Christian times.

Passing 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, although nearby Knowth actually has two passages. Tombs like these two or the main tombs at Loughcrew often have spectacular astronomical alignments, especially solar ones. Geographic alignments seem obvious at Carrowmore.

Portal tombs

The portal tombs are built with three (sometimes more) massive vertical stones, which have an even more massive slab, which then looks like a portal. The cover 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 ring fortifications located on headlands, one side of the “ring” often consisting of steep cliffs. The Aran Islands have the most spectacular forts of this type, especially Dun Aonghasa.


The routes are ringforts consisting mainly of a ditch and an earthen wall, the latter usually surmounted by a wooden palisade.


Any more or less circular fortification from prehistoric times is generally called a ring fortification – raths, cashels, and forton headlands are some examples of what falls into this broad category. The distinction between ringforts (defensive) and enclosures (ceremonial) is not always easy, as both make use of walls and trenches. A fort will generally have the trench outside the wall to make things more difficult to attack enemies.


Subways are cellars and underground passages created near settlements that are believed to have been used as storage areas, hiding places, and escape routes. Some appear near tombs like Dowth (near Bru na Boinne), causing considerable confusion among scholars.

Standing stones

Standing stones are basically monoliths placed alone or as part of a henge (see above). In conjunction with graves, enclosures, or natural features, even solitary stones can have astronomical, solar, or geographic alignments. However, some standing stones were erected for purely practical purposes, such as scrapers for livestock.

Wedge graves

Wedge tombs are very similar to court tombs; they actually look like smaller court tombs. Leading to the impression of a “wedge”, hence the name. Popular since 2,000 BC C.

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