Twenty kilometres south of Limerick city on the R512 towards Kilmallock, a cluster of grassy limestone hills spring unexpectedly from the plain, sheltering in their midst Lough Gur, the site of dozens of largely prehistoric monuments. Their importance lies in the fact that many of them are not ceremonial sites but stone dwelling places, dating from around 3000 BC onwards, which have furnished archeologists with most of their knowledge of the way of life in Neolithic Ireland. That’s not to say that this curious landscape did not have a ritual aspect, as it was also revered as the territory of the sun goddess, Áine, and accrued a powerful mythical reputation, for example as the location of some of Fionn Mac Cumhaill’s adventures in the Ulster Cycle.
Before it was partly drained in the nineteenth century, the lake (now C-shaped) formed an approximate square, with a nine-kilometre shoreline around a large triangular island, Knockadoon. The drainage, which left a marsh on the eastern side of the island and lowered the lake’s level by 3m, revealed hoards of prehistoric items. These included myriad bones of ritually slaughtered oxen, gold and bronze spearheads, a bronze shield, swords and dozens of stone and bronze axes, all of which appear to have been thrown in as offerings to the gods of the lake but which are now scattered around the museums of the world. The tranquillity of the lake, broken only by the sounds of geese and a wealth of other birdlife, allows you easily to set your imagination to work on how life would have been here five thousand years ago.