On our recent trip to Ireland we visited Fourknocks, a small passage tomb about 11 miles south of Newgrange. None of us had been there before and Vyviane Armstrong recommended it, so we asked our taxi driver to include it on our tour for the day.
It ended up being quite the adventure.
No key here
Fourknocks is not popular enough to support a visitors centre, but it contains some beautiful 5000 year old rock carvings that could – and would – be damaged if they were left open to the public at all hours of the day and night. So while anyone can walk into the field and see the tomb from the outside, going inside requires a key to unlock the door. The sign tells you where to find it.
Except the roads aren’t marked, and it’s not quite clear which left turn you should take – there is no true crossroads. We took the first left, which we soon figured out was wrong. We came back and took the next left and started counting houses. The sign said it was the 6th house on the right, but were we supposed to count the trailer? What about the house under construction? When we came to what we thought might be the 6th house, we pulled into the driveway and saw a sign. Maybe this was it? Then we got close enough to read it.
Obviously we weren’t the first people to guess wrong.
Thankfully, our taxi driver had a great sense of humor (his name is Emmett Currie – if you need a van driver in Dublin, contact me privately and I’ll pass his info along – he’s a good driver and a better person). We went on to the next house and got the key.
“No key here” became a running joke for the rest of the trip, and we’ll probably be dropping the phrase into conversation for years to come.
The door that wouldn’t open
So we drove back to Fourknocks, climbed the low rock wall, and walked up the hedgerow. The entrance is in the rear as you approach from the road. Cyn had the key. She put it in the lock, turned it, and pulled on the handle. Nothing happened. The door wouldn’t budge.
After a few minutes, she said “you try it.” So I did what she had been doing. The key turned easily and I could feel the mechanism moving inside the lock, but the door wouldn’t move. I put all the strength I had into pulling it open. It didn’t budge or bend – nothing.
Then Sami said “I’m going on top and pour whiskey to the fairies.” And as soon as her foot hit the first step, the door swung open like it was the front door to my house.
For the skeptics among you, I had one hand on the key and the other hand on the handle. If all of a sudden I had turned the key just a bit more and that opened the lock, I would have felt a click through my hand. I felt nothing. It went from “I think it’s welded shut” to “don’t let it hit you in the face as it’s flying open” in an instant.
Sami poured the whiskey and we went inside.
Up close and personal with 5000 year old rock carvings
Fourknocks was built somewhere between 3000 and 2500 BCE. Archaeologists believe it never had a permanent roof – the current concrete roof was added after it was first excavated in 1952. As with most of the Neolithic carvings from this era, the meaning of the symbols is uncertain. Here are a couple of my pictures – see what you think.
Although the mound is much smaller than the better known Newgrange, the interior chamber is over twice as large.
The fairy dog
We had been inside the tomb for perhaps 10 minutes when a small dog decided to join us. I was closest to the door – I tried to keep him out. He went around me like I wasn’t there. He looked around inside, as if checking us out, then went outside on his own. We went back to examining the carvings.
A couple minutes later we heard a long, loud howl like no dog any of us had ever heard.
Now, I’m not a dog person, but some of our group are – they said the same thing. I went outside and the dog was staring at me – this time I saw the dog instead of just glancing at him.
It was a small tan dog – nothing out of the ordinary. But his eyes were solid black, and there were broad red streaks under his eyes, as though the dog had dipped his fingers (if a dog had fingers) into red ochre and painted his face with it.
In Celtic lore, red markings are a sign of an Otherworldly animal – even I could tell this was not an ordinary dog. Apparently it was time for us to go.
I picked up my camera and asked if I could take a picture – the dog lunged at me. I put the camera down.
We filed out of the tomb, Cyn relocked the door, and we started walking back down the path toward the road. The dog followed along with us. It was like he was saying “you’re not as clueless as most humans who come here, but it’s time for you to leave.”
The dog was sitting in the middle of the road as we loaded the taxi. As Emmett started the engine, the dog came toward us, getting too close for us to see past the nose of the van. Emmett backed up carefully, trying to make sure he didn’t run over the dog, but when we turned around he was gone.
We returned the key, and the route back to Dublin took us by Fourknocks again. As we passed the mound, another car had stopped and two people were walking toward the entrance. And here came the dog to check them out.
If you want to insist this was just a dog doing dog things, be my guest. I was there. So were six other people. We heard the howl. We saw the eyes, and the red markings. We saw a dog interacting with people in a way that ordinary dogs don’t do. Couple that with the door that wouldn’t open until we agreed to give whiskey to the fairies, and I’m convinced this was a fairy dog who guards Fourknocks for its Otherworldly owners.
If you go
Google Maps and Google Earth show the exact location of Fourknocks. There is no public transportation or bus tour. You’ll need a car, or do like we do in Dublin and hire a taxi to drive you on your own tour.
I’d give you directions to Mr. Fintan White’s house, but I can’t. Google calls it “unnamed road.” Best advice I can give is that “turn left at cross” should say “bear left at Y.” You’ll know it when you get there – there’s a small circular driveway and “White” is on a stone sign by the road. The deposit is €20, and the key must be returned by 6 PM to get your money back.
You will definitely know if you turn in one house too soon: no key here.
And if you see a small tan dog with solid black eyes and red markings on his face, pay attention. Pay careful attention.