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A portal to the past in Ireland


The Neolithic site of Poulnabrone in Country Clare, Ireland, might appear to be just a rock in a field. But to Joshua Mark, it speaks volumes about life 5,000 years ago, even on a cold January day


The passage tomb of Poulunabrone (Image: Joshua J. Mark)

The Neolithic Age is a quiet time for the history enthusiast. There are no great epics, no legends, not even king's lists but only the moss covered sites, standing stones, sometimes with enigmatic carvings, and sombre, stone monuments. These sites do have their stories however, whispered in soft tones, and if one listens carefully one can sense their stories in the presence of the past. Poulnabrone, a dolmen in the region known as the Burren in County Clare, Ireland, is one such site.

In January of 2015 I visited Poulnabrone with my wife, Betsy. It was a cold day with a strong wind coming down from the highlands across the strange, cratered, rock slabs which make up the Burren.

Poulnabrone was a thirty minute drive from where we were staying at the Churchfield Bed & Breakfast in Doolin and, all along the way, we passed the stray castle or ruins of a stone church or house off in a field or looming suddenly from the hillside. All of these had their stories, such as the ruins of Leamaneh Castle with its tale of the infamous Maire ni Mahon ("Red Mary") and her many husbands, each of whom seemed to die mysteriously at convenient moments to advance her private goals.

We were going to visit a site with no such lively narrative. Neither of us had ever visited Poulnabrone and when we arrived and Betsy first saw the dolmen from the car park, she said "That's it? It's just a rock out in a field!" I laughed because, of course, she was right.

The photos one commonly sees of Poulnabrone are taken from a low angle and so the dolmen looks like an enormous monument, usually framed by the sky behind it, which one expects to find towering majestically like Stonehenge or the Ring of Brodgar.

In fact, it is quite modest when one visits: roughly 1.8 metres (5.9 feet high) and 3.6 metres (12 feet) long. Even so, it is much more than a rock in a field; it is a 5,000 year old Neolithic monument and, once she was standing before it, Betsy said simply, "It is amazing."

Poulnabrone is a truly amazing site. It is an exquisite monument of dark stone beautifully constructed and perfectly balanced rising from the pale karst landscape of the Burren. Poulnabrone is a dolmen, a single-chamber, megalithic tomb defined by a capstone resting on upright stones. All of the stones were brought to the site from miles away, none match the geological make up of the Burren, and were then assembled with perfect balance and precision, no concrete, no compounds whatsoever. The immense capstone of Poulnabrone rests on five upright stones: two portal stones, two orthostats (upright stones), and an end stone. Archaeologists who have worked at the site since the first excavations in 1986 have concluded that Poulnabrone is a passage tomb. Once upon a time, it is surmised, the site was erected as a doorway between this world and the next.



This feature article is from the Summer 2014 issue

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