Dolmens, properly called Portal Tombs, mark burial places in a very distinctive way, with large capstones elevated at an angle and held up by huge standing stones.
They were created between 3000 BC and 2000 BC and are generally held to be tombs, though they may also have had a ritual significance.
The stones we see now would have originally been covered in earthen mounds, with the area below the capstone forming an entrance leading to the tomb proper. Hence the correct name of Portal Tombs.
There are more than 100 dolmens scattered throughout Ireland, in various states of repair.
Quite how the people of the time manipulated the truly massive capstones into place is unknown, but the fact that so much of their work still stands some 4,500 years later is a testament to their evident skill.
Where to See Dolmens
Poulnabrone Dolmen, Co Clare
The Poulnabrone Dolmen is one of the finest remaining dolmans in Ireland. It is also one of the most visited, so unless you arrive early in the morning you are likely to find quite a few people around.
Poulnabrone means “hole of the sorrows” and in 1986, when the area around the dolmen was excavated, the remains of 16 adults and children were found to have been buried there, over a period of perhaps 500 years.
Alongside them were many artefacts, including arrowheads and axes, stone beads and broken pottery, some of which are now on display in the National Museum in Dublin. These allowed archaeologists to date the dolmen with some confidence to about 2,500 BC.
The region where the dolmen stands – the Burren – is a treasure trove of stone age remains, with some 70 tombs and about 500 circular stone structures or forts. Keep your eyes peeled as you drive around, get out of the car occasionally and take a walk around – the echoes of our ancient ancestors are never very far away.
Location: On the R480 in Co Clare, between Ballyvaughan and Kilfenora.
Browne’s Hill Dolmen, Co Carlow
This Dolmen has the largest known capstone, estimated at over 120 tons! It has collapsed on one side, but is an impressive sight and well worth a visit.
Don’t be fooled by its appearance from the road – it looks small and insignificant, it is anything but, as you can see in this picture!
In fact when you’re up close it is really impossible to understand how people so long ago, without mechanical lifting equipment, managed to move the truly vast capstone into position.
Location: About 2 miles from Carlow town on the R726.
Ballykeel Dolmen, Co Armagh
Ballykeel differs from many dolmens in have three portal stone, so is of a type know as a tripod dolmen. It is known locally as ‘The Hag’s Chair’.
The 3 metre long capstone was at one time on the ground, but in 1965, following excavations carried out at the site, it was replaced.
There are quite distinct remains around the dolmen of a stone structure – a cairn or cist – which was at one time part of the tomb.
Location: About 5km from Forkhill, Co Armagh, on the Camlough road, it is well signposted.
Kilclooney Dolmen, Co Donegal
Kilclooney is unusual in having 2 dolmens in close proximity to each other, the largest of which is shown. The much smaller second one is about 90 metres away and is partially collapsed.
This is another tripod dolmen but which shows very clearly a feature found on several other dolmens.
If you look at the third, smallest, portal stone you can see that there is a smaller stone (known as a choking stone) on top of it, on which the capstone actually rests. Stones like this were added to give the tomb entrance additional height or to get the angle of the capstone just right.
Location: About 6km from Ardara in Co Donegal, on the R261, close to the village of Kilclooney.
Proleek Dolmen, Co Louth
The truly gigantic capstone on the Proleek Dolmen has led to its being nicknamed the Giant’s Load.
The domed capstone weighs about 40 tonne and stands about 7-8 foot high.
To get an idea of scale, if you stand under the capstone you will just be able to reach up and touch it – if you are tall.
There is invariably a scattering of pepples on top of the capstone, which you can just see in this picture. This is due to a legend which says that if you throw up a pepple and it doesn’t fall off you will get married within the next 12 months.
Location: About 3km from Dundalk in Co Louth. To get to the dolmen you go though the grounds of the Ballymascanlon Hotel and then across the golf course, following the signposts.
Carrowmore Dolmen, Co Sligo
About 30 megalithic tombs can be seen at Carrowmore, spread over an area of 1.5 sq miles, making it the largest such site in the country. There are several dolmens in various stages of preservation, all of them quite small compared to those found elsewhere but nonetheless impressive.
The remains here are among the oldest known, over 700 years older than those at Newgrange and yet the site is not anything like as frequently visited.
Most of the remains are close to the large central cairn of Listoghil, but the largest dolmen, pictured, is to the north of that.
Location: Leave Sligo on the R284 towards Leitrim. After about 13km, keep left at a V junction. 5km later take a right at the V junction. Carrowmore is just over 1km along this road. It is well signposted.
Gaulstown Dolmen, Co Waterford
This is an unusual dolmen in that it has six upright stones instead of the usual three. It is quite large, with an internal height of well over 6 feet. The dolmen looks completely different depending on the angle from which you view it, so it’s worth walking around a bit to get the different views.
There is a small cist nearby, and quite a lot of other megalithic remains in the general area. The tourist office in Tramore have a guide to finding them.
Location: Follow the N25 west from Waterford, turn left at Tramore cross roads. Go right at the next crossroads and it’s signposted from there.