Queen Maeve’s Tomb sits high above the town of Sligo, Ireland on a low mountain named Knocknarea (“Mountain of the Moon”). Legend states that it is good luck to bring a stone up the mountain to place on the large cairn, but that it is bad luck to remove a stone. This would explain it’s formidable height.
From the center of town, the mountain looks anything but daunting. It looks like another one of those beautiful hills that Ireland’s Northwest is so well known for. Look a little closer however, and you’ll notice a bump on the top of this relatively flat-topped hill. This bump is of course, the tomb of Queen Maeve herself.
In Celtic mythology, Queen Maeve was known as the Warrior Queen of Connacht. Unfortunately, the queen had a reputation of being quite unkind, having murdered her own sister Eithne with the intent to covet Eithne’s husband. She also seems to have made her way through a number of husbands, disposing of each by murder. She figures prominently in “Táin Bó Cúailnge” or the Cattle Raid of Cooley. In an argument with her then-husband King Ailill over whose wealth was greater, they were almost entirely equal. However, she was found lacking in only one commodity. Ailill owned a bull, the strength and brute of which Maeve’s own could not match. Maeve soon learned of an even more impressive bull in Ulster, but was not granted permission to borrow it. Thus, she gathered an army and launched an invasion on Ulster. Her men were driven out of Ulster by Cúchulainn, but she was successful in capturing the bull. She brought it home to Connacht where it fought and killed Ailill’s bull, and then found its own way back home to Ulster.
Queen Maeve was considered victorious in this feat. However, previous misdeeds would come back to haunt Maeve, most notably, the murder of her sister. Eithne’s son sought revenge on his wicked aunt and is said to have killed her with a slingshot filled with hard cheese.
Her unsavory reputation thus led her to be buried in County Sligo, far from the royal capital of Connacht in Roscommon. Many believe that this was an attempt to keep her spirit a safe distance from the people she once ruled. Within the tomb Maeve is believed to stand upright in full royal regalia. She has been buried there since neolithic times.
Knocknarea is easily reached by car from Sligo Town. It is located on the Strandhill Peninsula, about 4 km from town. The hill offers a car park and an information sign outlining the significance of the neolithic cairn. Climbing the hill (Approx. 1080 ft.) takes about 45 minutes, and you can expect to be greeted by more than a few bleating sheep along the way. There isn’t one specific pathway, so be sure to wear a good pair of sneakers or hiking boots to navigate the sometimes rough terrain. The summit of Knocknarea is nothing short of fascinating, offering views of the town and surrounding county. However, it is at this point in the climb that you will realize the slight bump on the top of the mountain was not so slight afterall, as the top of Maeve’s cairn itself stands a sharp 40 ft from this point. Millenia of visitors depositing stones for good luck certainly does add up!Campers frequent the mountain, which means you are likely to find a few appropriately placed logs or large rocks to relax on and enjoy a packed lunch at this point. Climbing the final 40 feet in this expedition will make you glad you wore your sneakers, as the loosely deposited rocks can make this part of the hike a bit difficult at times. If you were impressed by the mountain’s summit, you will be in awe once you reach the top of Maeve’s cairn. To feel that you are standing on something so large not only physically, but historically as well, brings a sense of reality to Ireland’s well known mythical past.