Stones Alone

Over the years we have written a lot about stone. That’s not surprising, because our interests in Irish archaeology involve stones: standing stones, stone circles, rock art, gravestones . . . It’s what the surviving history of our earliest dwellers on this island is all about. So I thought it would be a good idea to sift through our Roaringwater Journal photographic library – which goes back a decade – and turn up some pictures and stories which I have never used before: all of them involving stones. That header pic, above, is a boulder burial at Rathruane, just outside our West Cork village of Ballydehob.

Here’s another boulder burial, a long way away in Co Cavan, now surrounded by trees which are probably relatively recent. Finola wrote about this monument type six years ago, and pointed out that they are not well named: when examined archaeologically, very few of these stones have been associated with buried human remains. They are said to have been positioned between 1,500 and 1,000 years BC, a time we refer to as the ‘Bronze Age’. So, by then, humans were already aware of the use of metal for tools, weapons and decorative adornments. But imagine the time before that – when people only had natural materials to hand – wood, vegetation and, of course – if you wanted to create something permanent – stone: we call these times Neolithic – and generally that covers the period of habitation of Ireland from 6,000 BC onwards.

Here is another West Cork site: Breeny More, to the north of Bantry. There’s a whole lot of stones here including, unusually, four ‘boulder burials’ arranged in a square. There are also further stones in this grouping which were once part of a stone circle. The site is magnificently located, with distant views west across to Bantry Bay (below).

We are all familiar with groups of stones arranged in a circle. Here is the ‘stone circle’ at Ardgroom, County Cork: it’s on the Beara Peninsula. As with the Boulder Burials, these monument types are generally thought to date from the Bronze Age.

These modestly sized ‘five stone’ stone circles are also in County Cork. The National monuments Survey of Ireland lists 53 ‘five stone’ circles in the county, while a further 41 ‘multiple stone’ circles are noted. There are also some anomalies which defy definition, such as ‘The Fingers’ at Knockdrum, West Cork, just outside Castletownshend:

This appears to have been, originally, an alignment of five tall standing stones. One has fallen and broken, while the fifth is now missing. It is reasonable to assume, from the number of stone ‘monuments’ all around us in West Cork (and in many other parts of Ireland), that these sites were of great significance to the populations who constructed them. But we don’t know for sure why they are there – although theories abound.

I am fascinated by the number of single standing stones we come across in our travels. It’s impossible to say how many there are in Ireland – probably thousands. And they can range in size from the large stones – above – in West Cork, to individual examples in moorland or fields, or on roadsides – below.

The Irish word ‘carn’ means a heap or pile of stones, Cairn monuments are mounds of stones, often marking the summit of a significant hill or mountain. They may or may not be ancient, and we have seen them change significantly over time. On Mount Corrin, not far from us in West Cork, there were two cairns only a few years ago. Now there is a single, significant cairn (top pic below): this implies a deliberate ‘re-ordering’ of what was there before. Regardless of their history, they can be visually impressive.

The centre pic above is a small cairn on a Sheep’s Head summit, while the enormous one above is in The Burren, County Clare. The Burren is an extraordinary landscape of exposed limestone. The limestone formed as sediments in a tropical sea which covered most of Ireland approximately 350 million years ago. Today, the Burren supports a remarkable assortment of wild flowers: over 70% of Ireland’s species of flowers are found there, among the ubiquitous stone surfaces.

Ever since humans set foot on Irish soil, they have embraced the stones – both for practical uses such as shelter or enclosure, but also as a means of marking and communicating. Readers will be familiar with our particular interests in Prehistoric Rock Art:

This is an important example of Ireland’s Rock Art, from West Cork, perhaps dating from 5,000 years ago: it was discovered in comparatively recent times. The painting is by Keith Payne, and is an interpretation of this same rock outcrop. We have no evidence that the carvings were ever coloured – or pigmented.

Today we are very familiar with the use of stone as a building material: this practice is likely to have been current since very early times. In Ireland we have many examples of ancient – but undateable – stone buildings. The ‘Oratory’ at Gallurus is a good example of a built enclosure (walls and roof) made entirely from stone. A present day view of it, top, shows this remarkably preserved structure; archaeologists and historians have long debated its age and likely use. The print above dates from 1756.

Over the centuries, crafstpeople (like Séamus Murphy – see last week’s post) have used stone as a medium for memorials – the message is likely to survive beyond lifetimes. If only we knew what some of the messages should spell out to us! Our last – striking – image is from Fourknocks – a decorated chambered cairn within the Boyne Valley complex which we visited in 2016. This carved decoration was probably made 5,000 years ago: we can only wonder at its meaning and its authors . . .

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