Emerald Isle

Portal Tombs

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore, Irish fairy tales and More Irish Tales and Legends

Portal Tombs of Ireland

Nothing evokes the magic and mystery of Ireland's mythological heritage quite like the sight of a huge portal tomb, or as they are otherwise known, dolmens, standing starkly against a wilderness background. What ancient people built them, and for what purpose?

The famous portal tombs we see around Ireland today were not built to stand alone, but were rather nearly covered by earth and small stones to create a tumulus or burial mound, so that only their pillar stones or uprights and the capstones were left open to the sky. The two stones which hold the capstone or table at an angle are called portal stones, and this is where the name comes from. They used to be called cromlechs on older maps.

The stone supporting the capstone to the rear was called the backstone. Smaller padding stones are sometimes wedged between the cap and supporting stones level the top or balance it at the proper angle. Cremated and partial human remains are often found within dolmens.

There are almost two hundred dolmens scattered around Ireland, often fairly close to court tombs, but built outside the settlements gathered around court tombs.

One of the most famous dolmens in Ireland is the Poulnabroune Dolmen, which means the "hole of sorrows", and after its interior was excavated, the reason it had this name became clear! Inside was found the remains of over thirty people of all ages from infants to adults. About half of those were adolescents and they were roughly equal numbers of men and women. By far the most striking finding however was the condition of the bones.

They showed signs of short, harsh lives, spent in hard physical labour, with bone damage indicating a lot of time spent carrying very heavy weights. They also showed signs of malnutrition and a largely vegetable diet, with little animal protein. Several of them suffered great violence, including being stabbed from behind, as if while fleeing, and hit with sling stones. Some of the victims survived  after being injured, others did not.

This chilling evidence for what could almost certainly be descibed as the vicious maltreatment of lifelong slaves matches almost perfectly with tales of the old Fomors in Irish mythology, perhaps giving us a clue about the builders of these great monuments:

"The new Fomorian kings were called Conand son of Faebar and Morc son of Dela, who had their fastness in a strong place to the far north, on Tory island. These two warlords enslaved the Nemedians and demanded a heavy tax – two thirds of their cattle, grain and children, to be delivered each Samhain at the plain known as Mag Cetne!"

Many of the tombs were re-used and associated with newer legends, with people calling them Druids' altars and marking them as hiding places and beds for other heroes.

Portal Tombs in Ireland

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