Isolated on Mayo’s dramatic, cliff-girt north coast, the prehistoric site of Céide (pronounced “cage-a”) Fields is difficult to get to, but repays the effort. Here, archeologists have discovered a unique, 5000-year-old agricultural landscape, miraculously preserved under a thick layer of peat and undisturbed by later farming. A highly organized system of dry-stone field walls, dotted with individual houses and gardens in what were apparently peaceful times, covers an area of thirteen square kilometres, the largest Stone Age monument in the world. What’s remarkable about the site is its very ordinariness, its similarity to much of the Irish countryside today, as Seamus Heaney noted in Belderg:
A landscape fossilized, its stone wall patternings
Repeated before our eyes In the stone walls of Mayo.
Rough contemporaries of the tomb-builders of Newgrange, these farmers cleared the area’s forest to make fields for their cattle, sheep, wheat and barley, and built wooden houses, of which trenches and postholes are now the only traces. However, after only five hundred years, the climate deteriorated, causing the bog to gradually rise up over their farms.
The site is commemorated by an impressive, well-designed visitor centre, which features exhibitions and audiovisuals on the history and geology of the area and the formation of the bog, as well as a viewing platform and a fine café. Regular forty-minute guided tours take visitors outside to see excavated walls, animal and house enclosures and to learn about the ecology of the bog that swallowed them up. From the adjacent cliff-top viewpoint, you can see Donegal’s Slieve League on a clear day, and in the near distance the sea stack of Downpatrick Head, neatly layered and tufted with grass: according to legend, this is the severed head of the last snake that St Patrick chased from Ireland.