From date is bigger than To date
If you’re interested in imagining how people lived in ancient times: their dwellings, places of burial and prayer, stone forts and ancient cooking pits, you will find all in abundance in Mayo.
The first people to colonise Mayo did so around 7000 BC, during the Mesolithic period. They were probably nomadic tribes, with no permanent structures. Then around 3500 BC, in the Neolithic period, the first farmers arrived in Ireland, and brought with them agriculture skills, knowledge of animal husbandry and domestic craft such as pottery-making and weaving. The region was important during this period as the 160 or more megalithic tombs testify. The large stone chambers indicate that people began to bury their dead collectively around this time, marking these tombs out as some of the earliest extant architectural structures in Ireland.
A landscape fossilized,
Its stone wall patterings
Repeated before our eyes
In the stone walls of Mayo
Seamus Heaney wrote a poem called Belderg, about the most important archaeological site in Mayo, at Belderrig, known as Ceide Fields, near Ballycastle in North Mayo. The site was discovered in the 1930s by a schoolteacher, Patrick Caulfied, who when cutting turf, uncovered piles of stones, which he discerned were too orderly to be natural and must have been arranged by human hands. Some forty years later, his son uncovered the significance of the find. Buried under blanket bog for 5,500 years, it is the oldest known field systems in the world. In addition to panoramic views over the Atlantic from atop the cliffs, a visit to the site offers a unique glimpse at an internationally significant Neolithic landscape, showing how life was organised and lived, with the first examples of the stone walled fields which are notable to this day. With evidence of domestic and animal enclosures, as well as tombs, the story of Ceide Fields changed our perception and knowledge of our Stone Age ancestors.
Mayo will keep both the generalist and specialist busy with a number of Bronze Age monuments including 34 wedge-tombs (Breastagh and Rathfran North near Killala, , Knocknalower near Belmullet, Carrowcrom near Ballina and Cong); 24 stone circles (Barnacuille overlooking Broad Haven, Slievemore in Achill, Glebe near Cong), 12 stone rows (Killdangan near Westport); and a few hundred fulachta fiadh, or ancient cooking-sites (all over the county). From the Early Iron Age (c. 400 BC-AD 400): there are promontory forts, ring forts (Ballymacgibbon near Cong, Carrownalurgan near Westport) and souterrains (Killala) as well as over 250 crannóg or lake dwellings (Loughannascaddy in Achill.)
With the arrival of the Celts, purportedly the ancestors of the Irish, between 300 BC and 250 BC, comes the introduction of a new language and a move away from bronze to iron in the fashioning of tools and weapons.
Ancient monuments are scattered all about the county and its islands. To dedicate a visit to one such island, Caher Island (Cathair na Naomh, ‘Ring Fort of the Saints’) is a good choice. Though unpopulated, it was once home to an early Christian monastic settlement and was the centre of ancient pilgrimage. There are remains of a small chapel, 7th century monks’ hermitages and ancient tombstones. Stone crosses, some carved in a kind of frame, with the effect of a cross within a cross within a cross face away from the wide ocean and towards Croagh Patrick, as if in homage to the saint who is reputed to have visited this outpost. Archaeologists and historians believe the Dolphin Stone on the island establishes links between Caher and holy places elsewhere in Europe. To get a sense of how early civilisations lived and worshipped, consider joining the small but dedicated group who visit Caher Island on August 15th each year.