8. Listoghil Reborn as a Place of Medieval King-making?

Might Listoghil have been re-invented in the Gaelic era as a place of royal inauguration? The absence of recognisable references to Listoghil or Carrowmore from the corpus of Gaelic literature is not conclusive in this regard. Liz Fitzpatrick gives a comprehensive account of the difficulty of obtaining reliable information regarding the inauguration sites of Gaelic Ireland. The seeker, she writes, is drawn into a world of lost central places (2004, 13).

Fitzpatrick proposes that the unrecorded location of the Uí Fíachrach inauguration site Carn Inghine Briain, mentioned in the Book of Lecan, may have been at an earthen mound at Kilrusheighter, near Aughris, in County Sligo, blessed with spectacular views of Knocknarea and Meadbh's Cairn (Fitzpatrick 2004, 76). But could Listoghil, the site towards which the satellite tombs of Knocknarea are directed, be another possible candidate, in an era before the territory of the O'Dowds shrunk west of the River Moy? Indeed, Listoghil, on superficial examination, might be argued to meet certain qualifications in terms of physical attributes seen to characterise sites chosen for inauguration (Fitzpatrick 2004, 38).

8.1 Inauguration flags

8.1.1 Footprint stone

We note that a particularly strong relationship between footprint impression and inauguration stones exists in Irish folk tradition. The placing of the foot in a rock footprint, most often a single one, is attested in a number of accounts (Fitzpatrick 2004, 125). Kerbstone 43 at Listoghil is of gneiss. It lies just off-line to the axis of the monument to the east-southeast of the chamber, in a position approximately equivalent to the decorated Entrance Stone, K1, in Newgrange. Its dimensions are 137 x 70 x 43cm (above ground). The upper surface has a double depression in the shape of a footprint (29 x 20cm) pointing to the central chamber. The petrosomatoglyph figure appears to be a natural feature (Figure 20).

Figure 20

Figure 20: Footprint stone, K43, Listoghil

8.1.2 Artefactual evidence

The archaeological evidence in support of medieval activity at Listoghil is thin in the extreme. A bronze fragment (ID 90100) was found on the surface of the mound (Burenhult 1998a, 29). Burenhult's discovery of a single radiocarbon date of c. 550 cal AD, referred to earlier, retrieved from the northern corner of the central chamber at the base of stone E may indicate a medieval intrusion. The yellow glass bead of unknown date located to the north of the kerb might also be of relevance in this context. Perhaps any saleable or highly collectible material had been removed by such 19th-century collectors as Roger Walker, who is documented as having removed a gold ribbon torque from one of the chain of Carrowmore sites (Ireland 2002, 154).

We may therefore assemble a list of kingly/assembly associations from Listoghil.

  1. The possibility, by comparison, and from the evidence of its remains (i.e. kerb, and partial cairn) that the monument once had a flat-topped mound
  2. The position of Listoghil at the symbolic and actual centre of a prehistoric landscape, close to a contested area, and to the tuatha boundary
  3. The folklore and landscape connection with the narrative of the Cailleach Bhérra, symbol of sovereignty
  4. The topographic connection to Knocknarea, associated in literature with Queen Meadbh, sovereignty goddess
  5. The landscape connection to a hill called Croaghaun in the Ox Mountains, bearing a passage tomb at its summit. Croaghaun is a name associated by Fitzpatrick (2004, 32) with a ceremonial landscape surrounding a king-making centre
  6. A solar alignment on Samhain, the period intimately associated with kingship and divination, which alignment is shared with the Mound of the Hostages, Tara
  7. A footprint stone, K43, in the prime position of entrance stone
  8. Archaeological evidence of the re-use of Listoghil and Carrowmore at later epochs, including the Bronze and Iron Ages, and small traces of activity in the medieval era

8.2 Objections

Fitzpatrick states 'the symbolic meaning of the footprint stone and the making of royalty cannot be construed as synonyms of each other' (2004, 128). No recorded instances, for example, of the practice of the rite of the single shoe in Irish inauguration ritual is attested any earlier than the 15th century (Fitzpatrick 2004, 128). The footprint on K43 is a natural feature of a stone that appears to have been in situ for five and a half thousand years. We have no evidence of whether it was even visible in the medieval period; in modern times it was covered by disturbed cairn material until it was excavated.

Furthermore, there is no clear indication whether Listoghil was flat-topped or not. Any of a profusion of flat-topped cairns and other flat-topped structures in the region eclipses Listoghil on this basis. It must be noted that, as Fitzpatrick points out, the inauguration sites of the Gaelic kings lack homogeneity. They can assume a variety of forms, including church sites, ring forts, barrows and various other type of mounds. Earthen mounds were generally preferred over stone ones. From the perspective of local history the O'Dowd territory appears to have diminished beyond the River Moy by the time of the Gaelic revival in the mid-14th century; the one recorded mention of Carn Inghine Bhriain may have been a form of wishful thinking rather than historical fact (Fitzpatrick 2004, 70).

8.3 Remembering and forgetting

While acknowledging emerging evidence of deeply rooted links with a prehistoric past at the royal sites of Ireland, Waddell rehearses the thorny problem of continuity (2011). There are breaks, interruptions, re-inventions, and, as today, examples of propaganda masquerading as history. Therefore the strands and apparent long-standing connections we may seek to follow may belong to an array of very different fabrics. From the vantage point of the 21st century, we need to be wary of blurring together highly discrete layers of growth which may have coalesced around artificial landmarks.

If the medieval practice of inaugurating kings was conducted at Listoghil, it remains, as at Teamhair, Eamhain Macha and Cruachán Aoi (Fitzpatrick 2004, 48), virtually archaeologically invisible. Although we can argue in terms of seasonal assembly places as opposed to royal residences for the Gaelic kingmaking sites, the scarcity of physical evidence of medieval usage, despite various excavations, is a serious problem for the medieval kingship-making-at-Listoghil argument. Despite the tantalising threads that can be invoked, the evidence is, as yet, too fragmentary to permit any confident resolution.

Although many among the preceding list of flags of medieval king-making may be contested or even dismissed, the apparent presence of at least a small number of attributes of this distinctive rite at Listoghil is puzzling. This may tell us something about the only vaguely understood nature of the medieval evidence. But we must face the question squarely. Is it conceivable that some nascent form of chiefdom, from which the paradigm of Gaelic kingship will evolve, is already budding in the middle of the fourth millennium BC at Listoghil? Could this account for the distinctive burial ritual at Listoghil compared to other Carrowmore passage tombs? Most of the bones found scattered inside and outside the central chamber were unburnt (Burenhult 1998b, 45) and it appears that defleshing of human bones may have occurred (Burenhult 1998a, 17). The antiquarian discovery at Listoghil of a 'kiteshaped javelin head of flint' (Bergh 1995, 199) is also interesting in this context.

It may be timely to draw comparisons with kingship studies in Iron Age Europe during the Roman era. It seems that kingship was not a universally employed institution in the Germanic societies of north-western Europe into the second half of the first millennium AD. 'Evidence for kingship is harder to find among societies further from Roman influence. It may be that the lack of written accounts concerning these regions explains the lack of evidence for kingship, but may also be that kingship was of little benefit to societies lacking pressures which required response' (Anderson 1999, 21).

'It is difficult to establish firm evidence for formal kingship in Scandinavia itself much before the Viking Age, and discussions of kings and overlords in southern Scandinavia before the eighth century often feel uncomfortably anachronistic' (Anderson 1999, 21).

Although we are bound to keep an open mind, the proposal of Neolithic kingship in Sligo must remain, as of now, radical, highly conjectural and unsupported.

8.4 Evolving narratives

An alternative to a radical deep Neolithic model or a Medieval continuity model might posit a crucial phase in the nascent development of chiefdom, in Cúil Irra at least, at a time close to the Bronze Age/Iron Age transition, a time when burials and depositions were made in the Carrowmore satellite tombs, and when major morphological changes—including constructing an alignment towards the saddle—were made to C26. The use of Listoghil in this era may be supported by the single date of 600 BC on the surface of a pit that lay under the cairn near orthostat C (Burenhult 1998b, 17). It is noteworthy that the un-burnt human bone material from one of the horizons in the chamber of C27 consists of skull parts, mainly teeth. 'An early Iron Age tradition with deposition of skulls as sacrifices or burials cannot be excluded' (Burenhult 1980a, 67). The evidence of ritual and burial activity (pits, burial cists, signs of burning and a number of artefacts) at Structure 10, Knockahur, just west of Carrowmore, a ring-fort-like structure never used for settlement (Burenhult 1980b, 71), demonstrates interest in the immediate area during this period, but also the array of choices, including a plethora of barrows and other mounds, as regards ancient sites available to medieval re-inventors.

The small and enigmatic chambered monument at Cloverhill (Carrowmore), 2km from Listoghil, documented by Wood-Martin and Wakeman as part of the Carrowmore series, displays carving that has been tentatively assigned to the La Tène era (Shee Twohig 1981, 235). A carved motif on the inside of stone B Listoghil, has had a possible comparison made between the lower part of the motif and 'crook' motifs carved on orthostats C3, C8 and C9 at Cloverhill. The carving on the inside of stone B, the chamber blocking stone, seems to have been made with a metal tool (Hensey and Robin 2011 117, 125). It was also compared by Hensey and Robin to carvings on stone M20 at Millin Bay (Co. Down) and on two decorated stones at Malinmore court cairn (Co. Donegal) (2011 123). The decoration on these monuments is regarded as Iron Age in date (Shee Twohig 1981, 233, 235). This is a vital piece of evidence, for, if the art on the back of stone B is Iron Age, this is conclusive proof of access to the central chamber in that era.

Listoghil may not be a unique example of an Iron Age alignment hijacking. O'Brien cites evidence of an alignment from the Altar wedge tomb (Co. Cork).

This monument is precisely aligned on Mizen Peak (232m OD), a pyramidal shaped hill some 13 kilometres away across an open bay…Mizen Peak is believed to be Carn Uí Néit, a place connected in early legends with the Tuatha Dé Danann people (2002, 170).

The sun sets behind this mountain in early February and early November. This may, according to Ruggles (1999, 159), explain the special significance of the Altar monument in the Iron Age, evidenced by a pit of this date containing shells and the bones of marine creatures (O'Brien 2002).


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