Heading north in County Sligo, the outline of Knocknarea is clearly visible in the distance. The origin of the hill’s Irish name has been lost to time but there’s no shortage of suggestions, varying from Cnoc na Rí (hill of kings – my preferred option) to Cnoc na Ré (hill of the ages, or possibly, moon) to many others.
Like most of the Sligo mountains and hills, Knocknarea has a cairn (an enormous mound of loose stones dating back at least 2500-3000 years that usually conceals a passage-grave beneath) which is also very visible and is probably one of the biggest in the country.
In Irish, this particular cairn is called Meascán Méabha, which roughly translates to ‘Méabh’s Lump’ and it relates of course to Méabh Leathdearg or Méabh of Connacht (anglicized needlessly to Maeve) who played such an important role in the great Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). According to the remaining literature, when she died Méabh was buried upright at that site so that she could face her Ulster-based enemies.
That’s all a bit of a fanciful conceit of course, given that Méabh was originally a land goddess (a representation of Mother Earth) transformed into a human personage over the ages. Needless to say, a lot of people continue to take the Táin Bó Cúailnge literally however, and hence get a bit excited when they come to Sligo and visit it. They also tend to get a bit outraged when they learn that the cairn has never been excavated until you point out there are literally tons of cairns all over the locality and given the unlikelihood of Méabh actually being buried there, it makes more sense to focus limited national archaeological resources elsewhere.
Undeterred in their conviction that this is the final resting place of some famous queen, some of them are driven to continue uphill to gather cairn stones as souvenirs which they then carry away with them.
To the point that it’s now becoming something of a conservation issue.
It’s often part of the human condition that we can’t just look at and respect what’s directly in front of us. Driven to interfere and meddle, we often end up destroying the very thing we love. Fortunately, there are still plenty more stones on the cairn but if people keep nicking them, it’ll eventually end up being unintentionally excavated far sooner than expected.