The remains of court-tombs are usually sprawling and untidy, and
thus are eminently suited to the degraded, litter-strewn and increasingly
bungaloid landscapes of Ireland. Their handsome offspring, however,
Portal-tombs, are paragons of compactness in their ruination
- for very few survive intact.
moreover, wonderfully sculptural, and fine subjects for photography,
whereas court-tombs are very difficult to photograph except in
Often they are referred to as dolmens: an antiquarian term
which is Frenchified fake-Breton for 'stone table'.
striking feature of portal-tombs is the massive capstone of the
single chamber, supported on two portal-stones, between
which a door-stone often survives. Occasionally, a free-standing
pillar-stone beside the portal-stones suggests a harking back
to a forecourt-tradition - for these sepulchres, built at the
end of long cairns, are a kind of extremely refined and compact
both surfaces of the capstones are almost always tilted at an
angle not too far from 30 degrees, whose serious significance
is lost in the fog of time.
were often inserted to ensure not just stability but the correct
angle, indicating a construction perhaps more precise than might
be supposed. A good example is at Kilclooney
More in Donegal - but the most startling use of chockers that
I have encountered is in the Dordogne.
capstones (up to 100 tonnes in weight) were most likely raised
by a simple and effective system of logs used as rollers, strong
wooden poles used as levers (which also acted as brakes) and a
(sketch after Bruno Marc)
tombs the capstones are double, a larger one partly supported
by a smaller to the rear of the tomb.
appealing and remarkable feature of portal-dolmens compared with
other megaliths is the alteration in appearance according to the
angle of view. In this they are truly sculptural.
court-tombs are concentrated in the North and West of Ireland,
especially on upland at around 200 metres, portal-tombs also occur
in the East, South and South-West of the island, sometimes on
quite low ground near the coasts - as with court-tombs. Most are
tucked away in less open places than the court-tombs,
and just a few, such as the Brenanstown
dolmen now in a Dublin suburb,
and "The Labby" in county Sligo,
away in hollows.
a report on recent 'vandalism' to this tomb, click here.
like Legananny in county Down,
dolmen at Altdrumman in county Tyrone,
the spectacular ruin at Muntermellan in Donegal,
The tomb at Legananny
in county Down is oriented so that the underside of the
dramatic roofstone and the tip of the backstone are lit by the
early-morning sun around the winter solstice - a feature well-known
in certain famous passage-tombs,
but not generally associated with portal-tombs, which
can, more than any other type of megalith, triumph over present-day
may house the living in the future,
did in the past.