An unknown Irish cairn and a tiny house

I rescued this post from my drafts, added to it and thought, why not post it? We can all use a little mental travel and story time right now.

In the middle of January 2019, I stole away for a self-retreat to Ireland. I needed a place to set down and take a real vacation where I wouldn’t feel my internal pressure to see and do everything like I do when I visit a new place. My first visit to Ireland was in 2007 and I’ve been lucky to visit Ireland every year since 2013, (some years more than once). It has a certain sense of a second home to me. I have a few friends there, I can travel the country without a map and I love to drive on the left side of the road.

Through an odd turn of events I stayed at a converted barn that I had seen on a tiny house blog. (Turns out they do their booking through airbnb) I saw it and knew I had to stay there. It was in the center of a village in the garden of an old house. The owner was very nice and easy to work with and I felt at home from the moment I stepped in.

I didn’t plan much of the trip in advance, only the flight, car and the tiny house. My plan was to be social media free, and let the trip guide me. It’s not something I am terribly good at, but my intention was to chill out for once. The social media part was easy for me. I’ve been pulling away for the last couple of years. 

On the way to the cottage, in the middle of a crossroads between hedge lined fields, I saw a brown heritage sign for a site I had never heard of called “Fourknocks.” I thought it was a translation error, but I immediately looked it up once I got to the cottage. Turns out it's an estimated 5,000 year old Neolithic burial mound/passage tomb off the beaten trail. It was excavated between 1950 and 1952, at which time a cement roof was added to preserve it further, then the mound was grassed over to preserve its original look. It is thought to have had an animal hide covering originally due to the post hold found in the center of the structure. Fourknocks rests in a field in County Meath, five miles from The Hill of Tara and is said to be in direct line with Newgrange (the most famous passage tomb in Ireland)...and I just so happened to stay down the street.

When I say off the beaten path, I really mean it. My friends who live just over the county line, less than 20 minutes away, and have lived in Ireland their whole lives had never heard of it. I could say this was a surprise to me, but it wasn’t. I regularly find and go to places in the country that residents have never heard of before. These places find me, draw me in and beg me to visit. It’s happened in other countries too, but for me and Ireland this is a much more regularly occurring theme.

I intended to visit this cairn many times during my 10 day trip, but the trip took me to other places and Fourknocks ended up being one of the last things I did before Ieft. It was a magical send off and a story that could only happen in Ireland.

Even though Fourknocks was “down the lane,” it took me a while to find it. Sometimes farm roads all look the same, and you just shrug and have to say, “I’ll get there eventually.” It was a moody Irish day, the kind where it’s a second from raining the whole day long, aka everyday. I finally found the place, pulled over to the side of the road, caught the opening in the wall and read the sign. It told me to get the key from Mr. White down the lane and gave directions. Thankfully I took a picture of the sign because I really needed the directions after I got lost and almost went to the wrong house. But thankfully, my brain started to say, “Sawrah, this is wrong, go back,” and I actually listened. Back at the start, the White’s house was much closer than I had originally driven, but not exactly close if you know what I mean. It’s at least a mile or so from the site.

Thankfully they have a sign out front with their name on it. I rang the bell of this stranger’s house (as I would only ever do in this country), and was greeted by a kind little old lady. She gave me the key in exchange for a 20 euro deposit that I would get back when I gave the key back. (Yes, this really happened.)

I drove back up the road, parked in my side of the road parking spot again, and then walked up the lane between a high hedge and a fence. I felt the site before I saw it. It had an intensity to it, and then I rounded the corner and actually saw it. It wasn’t terribly different visually from other passage tombs I’ve seen or been in, but I also wasn’t alone in the middle of a field with the key to the site those other times. Looking at the heavy steel door and the skeleton key in my hand, I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to be able to open the door. I started to freak out, all the while trying to manage the overwhelming energy presence of the site. I decided to circumnavigate the site to ground myself and get myself to a space where I could enter the site and to see if that was even a good and welcome idea.

I walked around it three times, and then decided to go for it...mildly terrified. As I went to put the key in the lock, I realized I had forgotten the flashlight at the tiny house that the owner had recommended I bring to the site. I resolved to use my phone’s flashlight (it was not bright enough). I took a deep breath, turned the key and then cautiously opened the door. I was frozen in place. I was able to see in and also see how dark it was. A few “light tubes” in the ceiling let natural light in, but, you know, it’s Ireland, light is hard to come by. I seriously considered again if I was going to be able to walk in. It was a rounded “room” and empty in the middle. Stone laced the floor and the entire interior.

Then I realized I had to go in. How could I get this far and NOT go in. I opened the black steel door as wide as I could to let as much light in from the outside as possible. I tried to find a rock to wedge it open, I did not want to get stuck inside, who knows what cell service is like inside a tomb? It’s times like these that I realize why I never became an archaeologist, they have to go into so many dark tunnels and tombs like this. I never would have made it, no matter how much I like this stuff and history. (As an aside, when I go inside places like this I am consistently reminded of entering burial chambers and tombs in Egypt in the Valley of the Kings, and being so uncomfortable with being that far underground no matter how beautiful and enchanting they were.)

With the door shoved open as far as possible, I took a step forward, standing in the doorway. I stood immobile looking inside, my body breaking out into a shiver. For the next 15 minutes or so, I took baby steps inside, pausing each time to get my bearings. I was overwhelmed by the presence in the place. Though the tomb had long since been cleared out after it was rediscovered (remains of about 60 people were found), the energy had not changed. It was a very neutral energy, but it could be felt.

Looking up and to my right, my eyes were met with a huge curbstone with deep etchings on it. It was remarkably well preserved, some of the best I have seen in Ireland. Stepping further inside, at the edge of the short “passage” part of the tomb, I found myself at the edge of a domed circular enclosure. From the entrance point where I still hovered, barely breathing, I could see three small caverns or chambers cut out of rock making a cross with the entrance. The one directly ahead had a curbstone above it, again ornately etched and well preserved. The two on either side were cloaked more deeply in shadow, one had a stone above the other did not.

I gathered myself enough to start to examine things more closely. Aware of every breath and movement I made, I decided to walk clockwise to my left. I hugged the edge of the circle, examining the stones, feeling deeply the energy of the space. I walked up to what I will call the western cavern, had a look around and then tried to walk towards what I’ll call the northern cavern that was directly across from the entrance. Something stopped me. I could not cross the middle threshold of this place from that point. I physically couldn’t do it. Instead, I had to walk back the way I came, cross the southern entrance, visit the “eastern” cavern and then I was able to go to the northern one only from that side. It was truly unusual, in an hour of already bizarre and incomprehensible things.

I’d like to say I got more and more comfortable the longer I stayed in there, but that just isn’t true. I was freaked out the whole time, but I was guided to keep going. I spent some more time in each of the areas, just breathing, taking some pictures, and experiencing a connection to the place.

Eventually it was time for me to leave. I closed my time there, and headed for the door. I took out my skeleton key, and tried to lock the big black hulking metal door...and it wouldn’t lock. I tried and tried and tried. After 10 minutes or so I began to ask myself, what does one do when they can’t lock a tomb that they had to let themselves into. What is the protocol for this? Do I go back to the White family and tell them, and leave the tomb open while I drive back down the lane? I tried slamming my body into the door to get it shut enough that the lock would engage, to no avail. I examined it further, after many more tries, and realized that the door and metal frame were warped. It became apparent to me that I had to heave the door in the opposite direction of the lock in order to get the door back in the frame so that the lock could engage. It was a challenge, and I nearly did a party dance when I heard the lock engage.

Feeling victorious, I stashed the skeleton key in my pocket, circled the tomb once more on the outside, let my gaze drift across the rolling green fields behind it, and then headed back down the lane to return the key.

Upon returning, Mrs. White greeted me again, this time taking more of an interest in me, engaging me about my experience. Then as if she hasn’t realized it before, she asked, “Are you on your own?” I laughed and said yes. Her reply, “Well aren’t you brave,” took me aback and made me realize that they don’t get a lot of solo wandering American women checking out their tomb, but it made me smile nonetheless. I chatted with her for a bit, and then said my goodbyes to her and the tomb, feeling like I had conquered a marginal bit of fear that day, and I was happy for it. Travel never ceases to challenge my edge, and gently coax me to dance with it with more vigor.

Notes on this site - Have 20 euros with you for key deposit. Bring a flashlight. You can't see the mound from the road, look for the signs for the site. You have to be really looking for this site to find it.