Carlow History, Pre-Historic Ireland

Browneshill Dolmen, Co. Carlow

Browneshill Dolmen, Co. Carlow

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien

Browneshill dolmen

Browneshill dolmen is located a few miles outside Carlow town on R726, also known as Pollerton Road. The dolmen is located on the right side of the road when heading eastwards out of Carlow town and towards Killerrig and Hacketstown. The townland name is Kernanstown and the Browneshill name comes from the fact that the dolmen was located in the Browneshill estate.

The dolmen is situated on a north facing slope under the ridge line. It consists of a massive capstone sloping to the south and resting, in 2016, on a flat stone. In former times the capstone was embedded into the earth. A sloping capstone is a feature of dolmens in which the capstone slopes towards the back of the monument.

This capstone is estimated to weight about 100 tons (the information board beside the dolmen claims 150 tons) and is claimed to be the heaviest in Europe. The north end of the capstone is held up by three standing stones, with a fourth stone standing free nearby.[1] It is not clear if the capstone was sourced locally or was brought from a distance.

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Megalithic monument

The Browneshill dolmen is an example of the numerous megalithic monuments which dot the landscape. The word ‘megalithic’ comes from two Greek words mega and lithos which mean large stones. The 100 ton capstone at Browneshill certainly keeps to that meaning.[2]

About 40,000 megalithic monuments exist across Northern and Western Europe. Many are situated in imposing landscapes and a good number have a cult following on the tourist map. These megalithic monuments are the most visible relics of the prehistoric past in Northern Europe.[3]

There are about 1,200 megalithic monuments in Ireland of which the best known is Newgrange. The Irish megaliths, like there Northern Europe cousins, are grouped into four main types: court-cairns (329 examples), portal-tomb (161), wedge-tomb (387) and passage-tomb (300).[4]

Megalithic tomb

The megalithic monuments of Northern Europe have attracted the interest of antiquarians since the seventeenth century but it is only since the 1960s that a proper scientific study of the monuments has occurred.[5] In the past the megalithic monuments have been generally described as megalithic tombs but so few have been excavated that a blanket term of ‘tombs’ may not be accurate in every case. Of the small percentage of Irish megalithic tombs that were excavated only a certain number contained human bones.[6] But the soil type may have erased any previous remains over the centuries.

Dating the monuments

Because so few monuments have been excavated, and the structures are made from un-dateable stone, it is difficult to put a precise date on the monuments. They are generally dated by radiocarbon analysis to the middle to late Neolithic period.[7] The Neolithic period is dated to about 4,000 to 2,000 BC. This period saw the large scale introduction of agriculture across Northern Europe and the decline in the hunter/gathering culture of the Mesolithic. Wheat and barley were the new crops and Browneshill portal-tomb continues that heritage as it sits in a field of barley or wheat in most years.

From about 3800 BC the Neolithic people started to build megalithic monuments of stone. Why they started to build these grand monuments when all around them were timber structures is difficult to answer. Because cremations and human remains lie within the monuments it is presumed they were tombs to honour the Neolithic dead or maybe they were built as a combination of religious centre for the living and home for the dead.[8]

Medieval churches were religious buildings that were occasionally used as burial places within for important local people. When the churches went into ruins after the Reformation with the change over from the Roman Catholic religion to the Protestant religion, increasing numbers of locals were buried within the abandoned churches.

Portal-tomb

In the past, these megalithic monuments have been called variously druid’s altar, dolmens, cromlechs, giant’s graves or Diarmuid and Grainne beds.[9] The Browneshill monument is usually called a dolmen and in the first Ordnance Survey map of 1840 was called a cromlech.[10] To avoid confusion with other megalithic tombs the dolmen is now usually referred to as a portal-tomb.[11]

Most portal-tombs in Ireland are found in Mid-Ulster in Counties Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, and Cavan. Another group lie in north County Clare and south Galway while in Leinster there is a chain of portal-tombs from south County Dublin through Carlow, Kilkenny and into east Waterford. Munster south of a line from Limerick city to Dungarvan in Co. Waterford has no known portal-tombs. Another empty area for portal-tombs is in the great central plain of Leinster and the centre of Connacht.[12] On the other hand Munster just loves wedge tombs and an arc from Dublin through Meath and Westmeath onto Sligo loves passage tombs. This regional preference is not totally understood – could it be different races of Neolithic people or just changing fashion?

Scholars disagree on where portal-tombs originated. Some says that they started in Mid-Ulster and spread to Clare and Leinster before crossing the Irish Sea to Wales and Cornwall with further examples in the Cotswold/Severn area. Other scholars say portal-tombs started in Cornwall and spread into Wales and onto Ireland.[13]

The portal-tomb is generally seen as an early example of megalithic monuments. It is generally agreed among some scholars that portal-tombs are derived from court-tombs and that court-tombs are the earliest example of the megalithic tomb.[14] But other scholars question this theory and that portal-tombs because of their very simplicity may predate the other types of megalithic tombs.[15] Over time the tombs became more elaborate, complex and larger.[16] But a good portal-tomb such as that at Poulnabrone in Co. Clare or at Kilclooney in Co. Donegal can be the most dramatic of megalithic monuments when viewed against the skyline. The Browneshill portal-tomb is set into the hillside and doesn’t display the same dramatic image of its cousins.

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A portal-tomb is an above-ground burial chamber, consisting of between three and seven standing stones holding up one or two capstones with the capstone sloping downwards to the rear of the monument. Usually a closing slab was placed between the front portal stones. The Browneshill portal-tomb has two portal stones, one closing stone and a spare free standing stone to the side.[17]

In former times there could have been other free standing stones surrounding the portal-tomb but were remove. An proper archaeological excavation would establish if any large stones are missing from the site. If stones were removed, they could have been reused on early church buildings to continue a religious attachment to the Browneshill portal-tomb.

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The word ‘dolmen’, which was formerly used to describe these monuments, comes from two Breton words which mean ‘stone table’ and portal-tombs look like giant tables.[18] Portal-tombs usually have only one chamber but two chamber examples exist as at Ballyrenan, Co. Tyrone.[19]

Although a full examination of every portal-tomb is needed to establish beyond doubt, it is generally believed that portal-tombs were not covered by earthen mounds even if some portal-tombs are near mounds such as at Malin More in Co. Donegal. The Browneshill portal-tomb did have cairn around it up to the nineteenth century and a subsidiary chamber which stood at some distance to the rear of the tomb. What we see therefore in portal-tombs is what is left for us to see. What kind of portal-tomb the Neolithic people saw at Browneshill and elsewhere is difficult to say for certain.[20]

Within the portal-tomb, based on the few excavated examples, was discovered cremated bone or a combination of cremation and inhumation bone.[21] Also in the tombs were grave goods such as Neolithic pottery, flint leaf-shaped arrow-heads, and stone beads.[22]

Wider landscape

The Browneshill portal-tomb is no isolated monument in the Carlow countryside. Across the wider landscape are other monuments to the Neolithic people. At Haroldstown there is a well preserved portal-tomb consisting of two slightly tiled capstones supported by ten standing stones.[23]

Away from the grand monuments of port-tombs Carlow is noted for a distinct group of Neolithic single burials known as the Linkardstown type, after the excavations of Joseph Raftery there in 1944. The burials in a massive stone cist consist of a single adult with occasionally a small child and occasion animal bones. Pottery is also sometimes found as a Baunogenasraid, Co. Carlow.[24]

Of more uncertain date is a large flat stone at Aghade. This once upright stone has a hole six inches wide at one end. It was possibly a ‘port-hole’ stone to close the chamber of a megalithic tomb. Legend says it was this stone which was used by Niall of the Nine Hostages to tie up Eochaidh, son of Enna Cinnselach. But Eochaidh broke free and killed the nine men sent by Niall to kill him.[25]

Beyond the Carlow landscape

Some scholars see the megalithic tombs as territorial markers to show the centre of a district or the boundary of same. But the Neolithic landscape of those far off days has changed so much from there to here that such ideas are difficult to prove. It would be too parochial to see each megalithic tomb in isolation or a group of such tombs. The transfer of information across great parts of Northern Europe on the building and functionality of these tombs should be seen as not difficult.[26] Many tombs are within a short distance to rivers or the coast and water travel was the easiest and fastest form of communication. The River Barrow near to Browneshill portal-tomb connected the area with the outside world and allowed the tomb to be no isolated monument in a field of barley.

 

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The photos below were taken in May 2016.

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[1] Peter Harbison, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1992), p. 50

[2] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts (Guild Publishing, London, 1988), p. 42

[3] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region (Vorda, Highworth, 1982), p. 1

[4] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 42

[5] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region, p. 1

[6] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 42

[7] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region, p. 28

[8] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region, p. 89

[9] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 42

[10] Peter Harbison, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland, p. 50

[11] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 42

[12] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 43

[13] M.J. O’Kelly, ‘Neolithic Ireland’, in A New History of Ireland: Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinin (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 81

[14] Laurence Flanagan, Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts (Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1998), pp. 44, 55

[15] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 54

[16] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region, pp. 28, 29

[17] M.J. O’Kelly, ‘Neolithic Ireland’, in A New History of Ireland: Vol. 1: Prehistoric and Early Ireland, edited by Dáibhí Ó Cróinin, p. 81

[18] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 53

[19] Laurence Flanagan, Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts, p. 55

[20] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 54; Michael Herity & George Eogan, Ireland in Prehistory (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1977), p. 89

[21] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, p. 53

[22] Laurence Flanagan, Ancient Ireland: Life Before the Celts, pp. 56, 57

[23] Peter Harbison, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland, p. 51

[24] Peter Harbison, Pre-Christian Ireland: From the First Settlers to the Early Celts, pp. 85, 86

[25] Peter Harbison, Guide to National and Historic Monuments of Ireland, p. 49

[26] T.C. Darvill, The megalithic chambered tombs of the Cotswold-Severn region, pp. 82, 91

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2 thoughts on “Browneshill Dolmen, Co. Carlow

  1. ginlisa says:

    Lovely reading and the photo were very good try get the dolmen house some time keep up the good work enjoy many more if your reading of history

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