All across West Cork – in the middle of pastureland, in isolated bogs, on the tops of mountains – you see standing stones. Mostly single but also found in pairs, or rows of three or more, they are as ubiquitous as they are mysterious. A scan of the Ordnance Survey map of the valleys running eastwards from Bantry, just north of us, shows a great proliferation of standing stones, and we have been tempted into the field often to hunt for them. We usually find them, but even when we don’t the search brings us into magnificent countryside.
The most numerous are, of course, single standing stones. The practice of erecting monoliths dates from the Neolithic and many of the stones we see may indeed be as old as that, or Bronze Age. Some may be medieval or more recent still – local people occasionally have memories of a grandfather placing a stone to act as a cattle scratching post.
If the stone has rock art on its surface, as is the case with the Burgatia stone near Rosscarbery, for example, we can safely conclude that it’s probably Bronze Age. Ogham incisions, or an inscribed cross will assist with an Early Medieval date. But the vast majority are unmarked and their functions may have varied. Some excavated examples have yielded evidence of burials at the base, and some seem to mark boundaries or entrances to mountain routeways.
Stone pairs and stone rows often occur in close proximity to other Bronze Age monuments such as stone circles and boulder burials. Some are further away from the monument but clearly visible from it.
Like the stone circles, the pair or row has an alignment – generally northeast/southwest, and a further alignment is formed from the two to the boulder burial or stone circle.
Irish folklore is rife with stories about standing stones. Many were said to have been hurled there from a nearby mountain by Finn McCool. Kevin Dannaher in his book Irish Customs and Beliefs relates several instances of petrification. Here’s an example:
…our early saints are…credited with passing fits of choler during which several miscreants were rendered harmless…When St Fiachna discovered that a dairy woman was stealing his butter he did not hesitate to loose a mighty curse against her, which turned not only herself, but her dairy and all her utensils as well, into stone. In proof of which they are still plain to be seen close to the saint’s church at Teampal Fiachna, a few miles south east of Kenmare.
One kind of standing stone is particularly intriguing – the holed stone. Tradition has it that these are marriage stones: the couple would join hands through the hole to exchange vows.
*Both holed stone photographs are by Amanda Clarke