Grange – Ireland’s Largest Stone Circle

If you are travelling through County Limerick, you shouldn’t miss a visit to Ireland’s largest stone circle: Grange, near the Lough Gur complex. There are 113 stones in this circle today, generally standing close by each other (‘contiguous’) and thus unlike the majority of the circle monuments in Ireland, where individual stones are separated.

The great circular arena which these stones define is also on a platform raised (in the present day) about 600mm above the surrounding land. Excavations which took place between 1939 and 1954 (S P Ó Ríordáin 1951) and subsequent radiocarbon dating indicate a construction date just short of 3,000 BC, which makes the circle one of the oldest in Ireland.

The internal diameter of this circle (a ring drawn around the inner faces of the stones) measures approximately 45.5 metres. Here is Ó Ríordáin’s drawings of the elevations of the stones:

Finola bravely stands against the largest stone in the circle, which is traditionally named Rannach Crom Dubh. The meaning is not clear; Crom suggests ‘bent, crooked, or stooped’, while Dubh means ‘black or dark one’. Rannach can mean ‘open-handed’, which could imply a trading connection. This stone is said to weigh over 40 tonnes and was brought to this spot from three kilometres away. Interestingly, some say that this stone marks the ceremonial entrance into the circle and is aligned with the sunrise on the 1st of August, known as Lughnasadh, the day that marks the beginning of the harvest in Ireland. In fact, there are many orientations that can be given to this circle. This article by Ken Williams explores some possibilities here.

This Beaker pottery sherd was found and recorded by Ó Ríordáin. It is one of a great number of such remains to be found at the site. One commentator made the suggestion that . . . The breaking of Beaker pots against the standing stones seems to have been part of a ceremony . . . Can we trace the more modern tradition of breaking wine glasses after a toast to such an early origin? It’s said to bring luck and happiness in some cultures. This would, of course, imply that the great circle was a celebratory feasting site.

There is evidence today that visitors feel compelled to leave offerings at the site: coins, small stones, beads, and other ephemera. The examples above are adjacent to Rannach Crom Dubh, while below is one of the standing stones in the circle that appears to have been deliberately cut, or slotted, at some time in its history. Today, coins are deposited within this slot.

My own feeling about this site is that it is an arena where people gathered to feast and celebrate. An ancient ‘circus’ perhaps? Ken Williams analyses the possibilities of archeo-astronomical alignments in his article, mentioning our West Cork friend Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville, whose detailed work we have investigated, here.

The features of this site are fascinating and provide much food for thought, especially when seen through the eyes of archaeologists. Of course, we want to know who conceived this monument, and who was in charge of the human power and organisation that was required to erect it. There won’t be a simple answer to this: it’s likely that many generations were responsible and that there were numerous incarnations over time. That’s what is so fascinating about ancient history: if only we had a time machine!

There are traces of other, smaller, stone circles close by this one, but I was intrigued to read in one of the accounts of this site that there was previously a further – even larger – circle nearby, and this has vanished altogether. I have to ask: how could such a massive structure disappear completely? Legend gives us an answer: it was supposedly stolen by Merlin and brought over to England to create Stonehenge!

13 thoughts

  1. Wonderful post of one of my favorite places. To me this is the best of the fairy rings. What a wonderful place to congregate. Sharon and I spent quite awhile there and met the owner of the land who was a kind fellow. There is a nice circle about 55 feet across not far to the north which I found to be quite charming. To the south as I recall there is a large outlier stone known as The Stone of the Tree. Good fun!

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  2. Really interesting.Thank you for sharing. I find stone circles fascinating and wonder as to how many people have touched them… and the stories they could tell.

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  3. A TV programme a while back suggested that the English circles were built at the time of the influx of Beaker People as if to ward them off or similar. It was suggested the B P wiped out the older inhabitants.
    Perhaps breaking Beaker pottery here was an act of rebellion, or rebuttal?

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    • It may have been a “potlatch” ceremony. The word comes from NW Coast Native Americans, but the term has been used for rituals of destruction or costly deposit all around the world. The basic idea is that the destruction of useful goods (perhaps seen as a sacrifice to gods/spirits) reduces their number in the community, which might have a status-leveling effect, making everybody seem “more equal” than before. This might in turn increase community cooperation/identity. I am of course ignoring any psychological benefit of “knowing one has pleased the gods/spirits” because we can’t dig that up 🙂

      But one thing that can also happen is that, if people deposit/break equal numbers of goods, then the person who already had the most is still left as the person with the most material status. Therefore the ritual could reduce social competition for leadership but still leave a clear sign of who was the most powerful — solidifying his political claims. I am not sure how far studies of potlatch have progressed in the years since I studied it, but it is an interesting topic, especially when we look for analogies in the ethnographic record of living (or historically recent) tribes/chiefdoms.

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