Tag: sacred sites tours of Ireland

The Poulnabrone Dolmen and the Mystery of Portal Tombs

Poulnabrone dolmen is an example of a portal dolmen or portal tomb, not to be confused with passage tombs such as Newgrange! Dolmens are found in Ireland and throughout the world and are generally characterized as a single-chamber megalithic tomb, often consisting of three or more upright stones (megaliths) supporting a large flat horizontal capstone (table). (1)

poulnabrone dolmen
Poulnabrone dolmen on the Burren plateau in Ireland is a classic example of a portal tomb. Photo: Sacred Earth Journeys participant David Chasis

What is a dolmen?

Dolmens are thought to have been ancient tombs or burial markers and also served as places for ritual and worship although their exact purpose and significance is still debated by scholars and researchers. There are dolmen sites throughout Europe and Asia, including the dolmen Er Roc’h Feutet (Roch-Feutet) in Carnac, France, the Monte Bubbonia in Sicily, several in Gochang, South Korea and in Kerala, India.

Dolmens in Ireland

There are around 180 dolmens in Ireland known by many different names including stone tables, Cromleachs, or Giants’ Graves. They feature in Irish mythological stories and folklore and are often associated with graves of famous giants or warriors. (2)

Poulnabrone dolmen in Ireland
Our group visiting the Poulnabrone dolmen with Tour Leader Phil Cousineau on a journey to Ireland.

Poulnabrone Dolmen

Located in the Burren, County Clare, Ireland the Poulnabrone dolmen dates to 4200 BCE and stands almost 6 feet high and 12 feet long. In his article on Poulnabrone for Ancient History, Joshua J. Mark explains that all the stones used in the construction of the dolmen were brought to the site from elsewhere as none match the geological make-up of the Burren and were then assembled with perfect balance and precision without concrete or any kind of compound. (3)

Poulnabrone is one of the few Irish portal tombs to have been archaeologically investigated. (4) In the 1980s archaeologist Ann Lynch found the remains of 22 people from the Neolithic Age buried in the dolmen after excavations. She proposed that the bodies were brought to the tomb after decomposition had occurred thereby suggesting an elaborate and complex burial ritual. (3)

The Burren in Ireland
The Burren in County Clare, a karstic plateau, and home to the Poulnabrone Dolmen

Along with the bodies, Lynch also unearthed a variety of artefacts including a polished stone axe, a decorated bone pendant, several shards of pottery and two stone beads. These discoveries have led to the theory that those buried in the megalithic tomb were of a high or special standing in the community although why exactly these individuals were chosen remains a mystery.

The Spiritual Significance of Poulnabrone Dolmen

As Marks points out, the capstone of the tomb is set at an angle and the remains of the 22 bodies where found at the front, towards the highest point of the roof. This placement, it is thought, enabled the soul of the deceased to depart quickly and easily down to the afterlife or the Otherworld. (3) The descension is not thought to be connected with the later notion of Hell; rather, the “underworld” here is simply one realm of the Otherworld. Another theory as to the positioning of the stones suggests that instead of helping souls descend to the next life, the dolmen prevented evil spirits from entering this world.

As no scripts of any kind have been found to explain the significance of the Poulnabrone dolmen or other portal tombs, their exact purpose still remains a captivating mystery. What is known for sure, however, about these portal tombs is their enduring popularity – the megalithic tomb at Poulnabrone is one of Ireland’s most photographed archaeological site and a must-see for visitors to this beautiful isle.

Join our journey to Ireland in September 2017 with Tour Leader Phil Cousineau to see the Poulnabrone dolmen for yourself and delve deeper into the mystery of the portal tombs. A few spots remain on this exquisitely crafted tour – book yours today!

~ Sacred Earth Journeys


(1) http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Dolmen

(2) http://www.carrowkeel.com/files/dolmens.html

(3) http://www.ancient.eu/Poulnabrone/

(4) http://irisharchaeology.ie/2013/06/poulnabrone-tomb-life-and-death-in-the-burren/

Singing Retreat. The Voices of Ireland: An Interview with Virginia Schenck

SEJ note: This post was first published in May 2016 and updated in February 2018.

Vocal artist Virginia Schenck will be leading a unique singing retreat to Ireland in October 2018. Here, Virginia tells us why Ireland is an ideal destination for such a journey, what participants can expect from this vocal adventure, and what the presence of the renowned Irish musician Nóirín Ní Riain will bring to this singing retreat.

singing retreat
Our group with Virginia Schenck on a singing retreat in Ireland.

SEJ: What makes Ireland such an ideal destination for a singing journey?

Virginia Schenck: Ireland can’t seem to help but to hold on to its historical soul despite the continual globalization of our world. The expressions of her people – especially through music – ring from the core of their beings, seeming to resonate from the ground itself. On recent visits I have been struck by the openness with which people break into song in the midst of daily living. This freedom makes me question formalized concerts for which one must set a date, obtain a seat, and pay a fee for the listening.

Lough Gur in Ireland
The acoustically powerful site of Lough Gur in Ireland (Photo: Lough Gur Heritage Centre)

SEJ: You will be joined by a very special guest in Ireland – what will Nóirín Ní Riain’s presence bring to the singing retreat? How will she work with participants?

Virginia Schenck: Renowned musician and musical historian, Nóirín unites an often disjoined sacred and secular paradigm. She published a book Theosony: Listening with the ear of the heart, a topic which will greatly enrich the mission of our musical spiritual journey. She will spend [one] and half days of the trip with us, lecturing and leading our group in song and chant. As a group we will reenact a Druid ritual at Lough Gur, the oldest and largest stone circle in the British Isles, and [enjoy a guided tour of Glenstall Abbey grounds led by Nóirín]. In addition, Nóirín will introduce us to “keening” (the ancient wailing of the dead), songs of the goddess – and later Sainted – Brigid and Creation, and the wisdom of poets and bards throughout history.

noirin ni riain
Acclaimed spiritual singer Nóirín Ní Riain teaching our group at Glenstall Abbey, Ireland

SEJ: What can singers expect from this journey to Ireland – how will it help them on their own “vocal journey”? 

Virginia Schenck: The goal of the Voices of Ireland is to provide opportunity for participants to reflect musically on their sense of self and community as well as expression. Being in a culture outside of our day-to-day life allows us to open our ears to new sounds during the journey and beyond. I find that I am always informed when rubbing up against other cultures and their customs. Rules and conditioned listening drop off and I am more open to absorb new sounds. Singers and artists of all types are constantly seeking inspiration. What better way than to explore through other cultures, singing in community, and having the opportunity to expand your vocal and sensory options?

You can talk, you can sing. It’s all a journey. What do you sound like now?… and now?

singing retreat ireland
One of our participants singing in Ireland

SEJ: What does singing mean to you? Has your relationship with your own voice changed over the years? 

Virginia Schenck: Singing is both the extraordinary and the ordinary; through giving voice to my life, I can sing the valleys and high places, the “ecstasy” and “the laundry” to quote Jack Kornfield. I am always humming internally. It’s vibrational. I feel that within no matter where I am, but it is amplified when I visit sacred places like Ireland. It resonates with me, and I resonate with it.

I instinctually felt this connection to music as a young girl. My outward success took me to music school, practicing as a music therapist, and performing. I continue to explore more ways to integrate music into all aspects of my life, especially the spiritual realm. I am inspired by the nature of cultures outside my own that have held so closely to practices of music as a means of relating to everyday life. I never expect to arrive at a destination, but to remain curious, take what I learn, and keep singing!

Glenstal Abbey in Ireland
The enchanting Glenstal Abbey in Ireland

SEJ: Are there any aspects of the journey or any sacred sites that you’re particularly looking forward to?

Virginia Schenck: I am excited about every part of our trip! – from exploring the centuries of Irish culture through Neolithic sites to evenings at local pubs.  Every minute should bring unexpected riches.

I hope you will join me in seeking to reintegrate music into your everyday spiritual being.

Participants from our 2016 journey with Virginia were eager to share their amazing experiences with us. Read more on our Testimonials page.

“Virginia and Noirin helped us all feel so comfortable finding our true authentic voices. From the music in the pubs, to the singing on top of Slane hill, to singing in the depths of the dark caves – there was a strong sense of acceptance and love. I loved it, all of it!!” Joy Kaminski, East Rochester, NY

“I had no idea what a fabulous trip this would be – the journey exceeded my expectations! The small group of 12 had opportunities to bond and grow through singing, chanting, and sharing in a way that would not have been possible with a large tour. Virginia and Noirin were extraordinary.” Elaine Johnson, Dothan, AL

“Virginia’s crystalline authenticity and fun-loving spirit created a playground that allowed me to speak and sing voices I never knew I had.” Mary Shuman, Atlanta, GA

“At every turn on our pilgrimage to this ancient land, Virginia led us in song, inviting us into a deeper experience of sacred Ireland. Gradually our pilgrim voices blended into a choir, and I experienced our songs as a form of prayer joining us across the ages to those we visited, the ones who had come before. I can hear our voices still, and carry our songs in my heart.” Grace Barr, Atlanta, GA

Read more about the singing retreat: The Voices of Ireland with Virginia Schenck

You can learn more about Virginia and her accomplished career as a vocal artist here; for more information about Nóirín Ní Riain – described as having the voice of a Byzantine angel by Anjelica Huston – visit her website.