The Stone Circles of West Cork: Multiple Stone Circles

West Cork is home to a great concentration of prehistoric stone circles. While all of them share certain characteristics, there is a clear division between those containing only five stones and the multiples stone circles that contain seven or more, such as the Derreenataggart stone circle on the Beara, sketched by Peter Clarke, above. This post is about the multiple stone circles – I am leaving the five stone circles until next time. If you haven’t yet read The Stone Circles of West Cork: An Introduction, you might like to do that now before reading further.

Although we love getting out in the field and visiting ancient monuments, such as this stone circle at Maughnaclea, we have to confess that the sun doesn’t always shine

Although this post covers some of the same ground as the Introduction, my aim here is to concentrate on the larger circles and show you what they actually look like on the ground*. An online search for ‘West Cork Stone Circles’ will bring you to many pages of information about Drombeg but precious little else. Drombeg is a marvellous site and its excavation yielded much-needed information about stone circles, but it’s only one site – the one with the signposts and car park.

How about this one, for example, at Cappanaboule – it’s a bit of a hike and there’s no car park – but what a place!

Multiple stone circles in West Cork all fall under the heading of recumbent or axial circles, in which two portal stones (usually the tallest in the circle) stand opposite a recumbent and the line that passes through the portals and over the recumbent is considered to be the axis of the circles. However, within this predominant design, there are variations in how the builders decided to construct their circles.

A closer look at the Cappanaboule stone circle: ten of the original thirteen stones are still there and there’s a boulder burial in the middle

The most noticeable variation, of course, is the size of the circle and the number of stones it contains, from seven to an estimated nineteen. We don’t know why the builders made these choices, although as with most construction, size can be equated with wealth: building a stone circle was an arduous undertaking necessitating the ability to commandeer a significant labour force. Perhaps also a larger circle with more stones permitted finer gradations of alignments, if this was the purpose of the circle, or more expansive ceremonials within the boundary of the circle.

This is Gorteanish stone circle on the Sheep’s Head, only discovered in the 1990s when the Sheep’s Head Way trail was being cut. It’s hard to see what’s here because it’s so overgrown but it probably included 11 stones, four of which are still standing and two possible boulder burials, one inside and one outside the circle

The portals are normally the tallest stones in the circle but occasionally they are also set radially, or edge-on, to give the impression of a natural entrance.

This is one of the two stone circles in the townland of Knocks. It illustrates well the portal stones being radially set and being the tallest stones in the circle. In my photograph you are looking across the recumbent to the portals and in Peter’s sketch you are doing the opposite

In only three cases an extra pair of stones helps to emphasise the entry point by creating a short passage. One example of this is Carrigagrenane, which is also one of the largest circles at nineteen stones.

Carrigagrenane stone circle has double portals, creating a funnel or passage into the circle. This site is very overgrown and hard to locate so a lot of bracken-bashing was necessary to get this shot. Amanda is standing between the two outer portals

Conversely, the recumbent or axial stone is normally the lowest stone in the circle and the broadest (since it is set with its long axis parallel to the ground) but even here variation occurs. The axial stone at Ardgroom Outward, for example, is a pillar stone. Indeed, it can sometimes be difficult to decide where the axis line of the circle runs, if stones have fallen or are missing.

Ardgroom Outward stone circle, on the Beara is spectacularly sited. The axial stone, along with all the others in the circle, is a pillar stone rather than a recumbent. Note also the large monolith outside the circle to the right. The natural view-lines are to the north

Monoliths (single standing stones or blocks set on the ground) are present at some sites, either inside or outside the circle (as at Ardgroom Outward, above). Where they are inside they are placed off-centre. Where they are outside, they can be close to the circle or some way off but visible from it. These are usually called outliers.

This is the second stone circle in the townland of Knocks, the more southerly of the two. My photograph illustrates the line of sight over the recumbent, across a slightly off-centre monolith, to a radially set portal. Peter’s sketch illustrates the whole circle

Quartz is a stone of choice for some of these monoliths but it is interesting that quartz is never in use as a circle orthostat. 

The stone circle at Maulatanvally includes a large quartz conglomerate block within the circle. I was struck by how it was gleaming on a dull day

Standing stone pairs can also function as outliers to a multiple stone circle. At Dunbeacon this outlier pair is almost half a kilometre from the circle across the valley, but each is clearly visible from the other. Originally a third standing stone also stood within 50 metres of the standing stone pair, but it has now disappeared.

Dunbeacon stone circle, recently corralled inside a wooden fence. The natural view-line from this circle is to Mount Corrin to the east, rather than the south or west. The standing stone pair in Coolcoulaghta are located in front of the furthest house to the left in the photograph.

Another association is with boulder burials, sometimes found outside the circle, as in Bohonagh (see An Introduction) where the boulder burial capstone is quartz and contains cupmarks. At Ballyvacky (below) a boulder burial stands about 50 metres from the circle and a standing stone once stood beside it.

My photograph is taken from the Ballyvacky boulder burial, looking across to the stone circle. Peter’s sketch shows what is still standing – seven of the original nine stones. You can see that the remaining portal is radially set and that the recumbent is the largest stone in the circle

Boulder burials, as we have seen, are also found inside the circle: one of the most spectacular examples of this is at Breeny More (below) where a group of four boulder burial are set in a square within a large circle from which most of the stones are missing.

Finally, occasional stone circles will be surrounded by a fosse or shallow ditch. The most striking example is at Reenascreena, below.

Visiting stone circles, I am struck by features which appear to be similar at all or most of the sites. Many are situated on elevated sites with expansive views to the south and west. While this has been well documented by archaeologists, it’s one thing to read about it and yet another to visit several circles on one day and find yourself expecting a certain set of circumstances as you tune in to patterns in the sites themselves. What the orientation descriptions don’t mention, for example, is that the choice of location often features rising ground behind the circles which obscures the horizon to the north.

The rising ground behind Dunbeacon stone circle cuts off the view of Dunmanus Bay and concentrates the view-lines towards the east and south-east

Occasionally the higher ground obscuring the horizon is not to the north at all, but to the south or south-west – confounding our expectations that the obvious view-lines will be to the south and west. Cappanaboule is strikingly situated thus, as is Ardgroom Outward.

And then we have examples in fairly flat country with no really obvious view-lines. This can be complicated by surrounding forestry, as at Knockaneirk (above) where, if there was an obvious orientation over the recumbent it has long been hidden by tall tree.

Ardgroom Outward stone circle is dramatically silhouetted against the mountains of the Beara peninsula as you walk up the track towards it

Next time I will write about the five stone circles – there are as many of them as there are the multiple stone circles and while they share most of the same features they have their own special character.

*Most of these photographs (like the one of Breeny More, above) were taken last year or in previous year, and many of them in the company of Amanda (Holy Wells of Cork and Kerry) and Peter (Hikelines) Clarke. I am indebted to Peter for the sketches. Not being able to get out into the field to visit and photograph more circles has been frustrated this year by Covid19 travel restrictions, so I have decided to go ahead and use what I have, rather than wait to add to my collection. 

We are on Twitter!

You wouldn’t want to do anything too hastily, like. We’ve only been blogging since 2012 –  beavering away, week after week, to let you all in on the epic stories and fabled landscape of West Cork (that’s Ballydehob Bay above, taken today). That’s seven years, 665 posts, four thousand regular followers, four hundred thousand visitors and about three quarters of a million views. About a third of you come from Ireland, two sizeable chunks of you from the USA and the UK, then Canada and after that it’s the United Nations of Readers. There’s a couple of African countries where we have yet to find a reader – and Greenland. Come on, Greenland!

Our beat – the Mizen Peninsula, from the top of Mount Gabriel

We’ve been called “West Cork’s premier Arts and Culture blog” and “…The wonderful literary and visually rich website . . . is a treasure, a sort of 21st century Robert Lloyd Praeger, online…” We’ve had letters and comments from all over the world, some of which have led us down all kind of interesting avenues for further research. It’s been humbling and exhilarating and we are grateful for all your support.

You can expect lots of archaeology – still working on more posts about stone circles, like this one at Ardgroom on the Beara

In all that time, we’ve operated across two platforms. First our blogging platform, WordPress, and second, Facebook, which we joined in Sept 2014. Both are marvellous, user-friendly (well, most of the time) services that have allowed us to connect to our readers and promote both our blog and West Cork. As a couple of retired professionals with average techie skills, that’s been a godsend.

From the Big Picture to something hard to see with the naked eye – these tiny Pixie Cup lichen are growing in our own garden

And now we are venturing from the Blogosphere to the Twitterverse. We’ve set up a Roaringwater Journal Twitter account, with the handle @RoaringwaterJ. We’ve tweeted a few recent favourite posts just to get us started, and will be tweeting all our new posts as they are published, and maybe the odd photograph or two as well.

We’re planning to look in depth at the wonderful Murphy Devitt stained glass windows in Cork soon. Here’s one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse from a MD window in Newbridge College

Don’t worry, Facebook Friends – we are staying on Facebook too. But if you have a Twitter account, please do drop by @Roaringwaterj and hit that Follow button. It’s taken us 7 years to get here, after all.

The Stone Circles of West Cork: An Introduction

Southwest Munster, and West Cork in particular, is home to the greatest concentration in Ireland of stone circles. There are two main kinds recorded in the National Monuments website, each making up about half the total number of circles – the multiple-stone circle and the five-stone circle. (There are also a small number of enigmatic monuments called ‘four posters’ which share some features with stone circles, but I will write about them some other time.) 

Peter Clarke’s illustration of the Ardgroom Stone Circle on the Beara, from his online journal, Hikelines

The division based on the number of stones is somewhat arbitrary, since both share most other features. Both have uneven numbers of stones – five in the case of the five-stone circle, and seven or more (up to 19) in the multiple-stone circles.

Our old friend Du Noyer loved to illustrate antiquities. We’re  not quite sure which stone circle this one is**

Both types are axial or recumbent stone circles. The name recumbent comes from the lowest stone in the circle, the only stone set on its side, with its long axis parallel to the ground. All the other stones are set upright and they often increase in size from the recumbent to the portal stones. The portals appear to form an entrance into the circles and are sometimes set end-on to the circle. An axis drawn from the point between the portals to the middle of the recumbent bisects the circle – hence the name axial stone circle. All these features can be seen in the photograph of Drombeg Stone Circle (below).

While the multiple-stones circles appear roughly circular, they may have been laid out using more complicated geometry than the string-marking-out-a-circle technique. Some are more elliptical than truly circular. The five-stone circles, given the dominance of the recumbent, are actually D-shaped.

The five-stone circle which is part of the Kealkill complex

Many of our stone circles have disappeared over time, with only folkloric memory indicating that here was once a circle of stones. Some have lost stones over time, while in others uprights have collapsed. Whole monuments have vanished into forests or dense undergrowth. Even where we still have partial circles it can be difficult to make out which are the portals and which the recumbent.

Upper: Labbamolaga – we think this was a stone circle but so few stones remain that it’s hard to be definitive. Lower: This sad little heap of stones is all that remains of the Ahagilla Stone Circle. The recumbent is to the left and a portal to the right.

The circles are constructed from local stone and in some cases it is easy to see where they have been quarried from nearby rock outcrops. There is no evidence of the builders transporting the stones from elsewhere, with the exception, perhaps of the quartz blocks which are found occasionally either as uprights or associated with the circle inside or outside it. Although quartz is found in abundance in West Cork a large block of it may have been especially prized and reserved for such a situation.

This sizeable quartz block lies beside the Lettergorman Five-Stone Circle

The circles were carefully and deliberately constructed: Fahy’s excavations at Drombeg and Reenascreena shows that the ground was levelled.  Stones were, it seems, selected for shape as well as size. The recumbent is usually flat on top, which may indicate the side closest to the parent rock from which it was split. Some may well have been deliberately shaped by knocking or splitting off sections – we often notice, for example, how well certain uprights mirror the landscape behind them, like the one at Ardgroom, below.

Stone circles are often associated with other monuments, most commonly boulder burials and standing stones, and at least two have radial stone cairns beside them. Some of the standing stones appear to function as outliers to the circle, extending alignments towards solar or lunar orientations (more of that next time).

Upper: This boulder burial is part of a complex of monuments at Bohonagh which also includes a stone circle (visible behind the boulder burial), a cupmarked stone and a standing stone which is no longer to be found. Lower: A standing stone pair (one fallen) at Knocknakilla with (behind it) a five-stone circle (recently fallen over) and a  radial stone cairn – of all the elements of this complex only this standing stone is really visible in the landscape

West Cork stone circles, from the sparse excavation evidence, date from the middle to late Bronze Age (about 1500 to 600BC). They are commonly found on elevated ground with a clear and expansive view southwards, but stretching from the northeast to the southwest – that portion of the sky in which both the sun and the moon rise and set.

This tiny monument is a five-stone circle at Inchybegga. When the grass grows tall enough you can’t see it at all

Our stone circles have always fascinated antiquarians, happy to label them ‘druidic temples’ or make outlandish claims about their construction by visiting Egyptians. Some of the older illustration owe more to the imagination than to accurate depictions.

Templebryan Stone Circle as it actually is (lower) and as depicted by the antiquarian, Clayton, in 1742 (upper). The illustration for Clayton, done by Ann la Bush, shows the fashionable preoccupation at the time for Egyptian-type obelisks. Nevertheless it is important in that it shows that there were more stones in the circle than there are now. Note the central block of quartz

In more recent times, they have been the subject of a great deal of new-age speculation about long-distance ley lines, mystical ‘energies,’ extra-terrestrial builders, associations with pagan goddess cults and the like. As an archaeologist, I think this is a pity, in the sense that these stone circles are fascinating enough as they are – they embody so much that we need to understand about the scientific knowledge, advanced construction technology, and social organisation of the builders. The belief systems that underlie their reasons for constructing these monuments are equally important and more difficult to discern after the passage of millennia, but should be based on close and serious study of the monuments themselves.

Above is the Derreenataggart Stone Circle on the Beara, and below is a much more romantic and monumental rendering of it from Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Ireland (1790s), illustrated by Daniel Grose. My lead image is also a Daniel Grose illustration, this time of a stone circle that once stood on the slopes of Hungry Hill, but which has since disappeared*

The next post in this series will be about the multiple-stone circles.

*The two illustrations by Daniel Gross are from Daniel Grose (c.1766-1838). The Antiquities of Ireland, a supplement to Francis Grose, by Roger Stalley, Irish Architectural Archive 1991
**I now know that this is almost certainly not a West Cork example but Boleycarrigeen in Wicklow (thanks to Ken Williams for the ID)

Top Fifteen West Cork Photographs of 2018

Photographs are vital to this blog, so we are always out and about with our cameras. This is a personal selection of images that pleased us in 2018. Some of these photographs have appeared in our posts, and some on our Facebook pages, but several are appearing here for the first time. Some of them remind us of places we’ve stumbled across, like the one above. It’s a room in the 15th century Castle Salem, all done up for a movie – a wildly romantic one, I bet.

From there to the iconic Fastnet Rock Lighthouse. They changed the bulb this year, to LED. We can still see the light at night, but it doesn’t sweep across the sky like it used to. On this trip, mostly photographed by my nephew, Hugo, the scaffolding was still up for the renovations.

We love the Beara and try to get over there as often as possible. It’s famous for its colourful villages – this one is Ardgroom. And not too far away is a wonderful stone circle – Robert mentioned it in last week’s post. This photograph is of the outlier and shows how it seems to mirror the shape of the landscape on the Iveragh Peninsula.

Coming back, or going, our route always takes us over the incredible Healy Pass. I’ve chosen the photograph below because the remoteness of the little farms take my breath away.

But if you look closely, this photograph also shows the old field patterns from tiny holdings long ago, including the lazy beds – ridges left from cultivating potatoes by hand.

Our own Mizen Peninsula is fertile ground for exploration. This enormous standing stone, for example, can be seen in Crookhaven Bay. But even though it seems to be set in the sand deliberately, some authorities feel it is a natural feature. There’s what looks like an old stone field fence nearby, and lots of archaeology in the area.

We’re looking down on that area from this vantage point (above), and across to Brow Head, always great for a wander – we included it in our West Cork Obscura list.

We love to bring our visitors out to the Mizen Head Visitor Centre too. It’s a wonderful experience, with dramatic scenery and vertiginous cliffs. There are lots of remnants still to remind us of the active past of this lighthouse and signal station, including this derelict, if picturesque, shed.

Of course, the weather isn’t always wonderful, even if it seems that way in a set of carefully-chosen images. But even when it’s wild, it’s worth taking the camera along – the photograph above was taken at the Altar in Toormore on a stormy day.

Robert, as our readers know by now, is a hare fanatic, and one of the highlights of his year (next to becoming a citizen!) was when little Berehert, a young hare, showed up on our lawn and hung around for a few days.

Meanwhile, nothing makes Finola happier than to wander around among the wildflowers. She runs a Facebook page on the Wildflowers of West Cork – so pop over there any time to see the amazing range of flowers that we get to enjoy here.

The other thing she loves is to drop into churches to study the stained glass. We’ve written about the fabulous George Walsh windows in Eyeries before, but there are lots of surprises wherever you go. She was quite taken with a wonderful three-light war memorial window in St Peter and Paul Church of Ireland in Bandon. Above is King David from that window, by the firm of Clayton and Bell. Gorgeous, isn’t it?

From March to October West Cork hosts a huge number of festivals. Everybody goes to everything – from the Ballydehob Jazz Festival (above), to events celebrating country and traditional music, history, wooden boats, the arts, short films, knitting (really), stone carving, food and more.

Our own view is a never-ending source of delight. This is sunset over the Goat Islands, Greater and Lesser, which lie west of Long Island. There’s a cleft down the middle, which is dangerous to try to navigate, and no place to land. As a result the islands are quite wild, with a herd of feral goats. For us, they have an air of profound mystery.

Our final photograph was taken yesterday – a traditional farmhouse on the slopes of Mount Gabriel. Lots more West Cork scenes in the months to come!

West Cork Obscura – Robert’s Choices

‘Hidden West Cork’ and ‘off the beaten track’ have been oft-used phrases in our posts – and that’s part of our mission with Roaringwater Journal: exploration of some of the more secret places, and researching and recording their stories. Finola has looked out her own favourites; my current choices are here – although, with 569 posts written to date between us, we could have picked out so many.

Header and above – one of the discoveries which made a great impression on me during the year was Tralong Bay, out beyond Glandore and Drombeg: it’s a beautiful piece of the coastline, at the end of a cul-de-sac and – it seemed to us – very little visited. But to visit is to transport yourselves back thousands of years as, on the beach and exposed at low tide, are the remains of an ancient forest. Here is the post.

A quirky discovery, not too far away from Tralong, was the pyramid-shaped mausoleum in the old burial ground at Glandore. For us, ancient graveyards are treasure troves of local history. This one – a peaceful and secluded place well worth a visit anyway – conceals an enigma: find the story here.

The Rock Art at Castlemehigan in its spectacular setting (above). Below is a close view of some of the markings on the rock

Delving back a few years, I found this December post on a visit to a spectacular example of Rock Art at the far end the Mizen Peninsula: Castlemehigan. The cupmarks on this earthfast boulder are impressive and the view from it is spectacular, especially on the clear winter day that we were blessed with. The rock was also in use as a Mass Rock during penal times, and there is evidence of this on the surface. We were told a story about those times by Florence O’Driscoll, whose land the rock is on. Make sure you have permission to visit if you go!

Finola managed to combine her consuming interest in wildflowers with industrial history and an account of a very special walk on the Sheep’s Head. It’s one of the marked trails on that peninsula – and takes in the deserted settlement of Crimea where a cottage has been partially restored (picture above) – finishing at the abandoned mine workings at Gortavallig, perched precariously on the very edge of a cliff (below). Here is the link to Finola’s post.

Here am I trying to get my head around the enigmatic ‘Rolls of Butter’ (above). I have to admit they are in Kerry (only just), but involved us travelling one of our all-time favourite roads, much of which is actually in West Cork: that’s the Priest’s Leap Road which runs over the mountains from Bantry (more or less) to Kenmare (more or less). We go out of our way to use this road because of the superb views – and a special piece of folklore – but, if you give it a try, be prepared for a narrow and steep journey (below)! Here is the post.

Archaeology dictates many of our outings. One of the less well-known monuments is Ardgroom Outward Stone Circle (pictured above and below) on the Beara Peninsula. This year, following a harsh winter, the weather turned sublime, and we have travelled extensively to make the most of it. We find ourselves often drawn to the Beara (much of which is in West Cork). This post describes an expedition which included stone monuments, colourful villages, stained glass – and ice cream! Have a look.

It was almost five years ago that we first reported on one of our perenially favourite West Cork locations: Gougane Barra (above). It’s a holy place – an alluringly beautiful lake sited in the Shehy Mountains, close to the source of Cork’s special River Lee. Here, in the sixth century, Saint Finbarr set up a collection of cells for his monastic community on an island. Here, also, lived the couple ‘The Tailor and Ansty’, immortalised in a book written in 1942 by Eric Cross. It’s a not entirely happy story as the book was banned because of its down-to-earth portrayal of the facts of life, and storyteller Tim Buckley (‘The Tailor’) was forced to burn his copy of it in front of the local priests: the incident led to an abrasive debate in Seanad Éireann on censorship. This story is, perhaps, one of the less well-known historical aspects of West Cork (and Ireland), but visit Gougane Barra for its beauty – and make sure you find the gravestone of ‘The Tailor & Ansty’: it was carved by their friend Seamus Murphy and bears the inscription . . .  A Star Danced And Under That Was I Born . . .

We hope that, between us, we might have given you some good ideas for exploration of our wonderful West Cork landscapes and – perhaps – encourage you off the highways and on to the byways: there are so many adventures to be had, summer or winter. Travel Well!

Sun’s Out!

On one April day after a bleak, harsh winter that had gales, hurricanes, blizzards and unceasing bitter east winds thrown at us – the sun came out! We were out too, and headed up to the Beara Peninsula to see if we could remember what sun-soaked landscapes felt like… They felt great!

Header – the glories of Cork and Kerry combine on the spectacular Beara; top photograph – finally, after a long,harsh winter, we see the spring blossoms appearing; middle – a wayside shrine on the road out from Glengariff; bottom – Hungry Hill dominates the views as we head west on the peninsula

You will remember our previous visits to the Beara: there are not enough superlatives for what it has to offer in the way of stunning scenery and colour. None of these photographs have been enhanced – what you see is exactly what we saw on the day – and it’s what you will see, too, if you choose aright (although even on dull days we always find plenty to interest us).

Top photograph – St Kentigern’s Church is in the centre of one of Ireland’s most colourful villages; middle – the sunlight plays games with the beautiful windows by glass artist George Walsh; bottom – light from the windows dances on the pews

We knew where we were going: Finola was keen to revisit the little Catholic church of St Kentigern in Eyeries, which has a fine collection of windows by George Walsh: it’s a gem – and at its best for the quality of the light enhancing it on the day. I wanted to see the settlement itself in the early spring sunlight as it’s one of the most colourful places in the whole of Ireland! Neither of us was disappointed.

Just a taster of the treats in store in Eyeries: on a beautiful spring day there was hardly a soul around, but we were still able to find an ice cream in O’Sullivan’s!

Our second objective was to travel into the hills and find Ardgroom Outward stone circle. The trail involves farm gates, stiles and a lot of mud – but the 9 stone circle (named locally ‘Canfea’) is a fine, almost intact monument with wide vistas to mountain and sea. The impressive outlier stone is 3.2m in height.

The magnificent Ardgroom Outward (or ‘Canfea’) stone circle is accessible via a marked, boggy path: the vistas from the site make the journey worthwhile. Finola is dwarfed by the huge outlier!

It’s barely a skip up to Eyeries from Nead an Iolair, so we had to carry on around the peninsula and take in the almost surreal views of oceans, lakes and mountains before dipping into Kerry and then heading over the top back into Cork county and down the Healy Pass – surely one of Ireland’s most spectacular road trips.

Returning home – with the evening sun setting gloriously over Roaringwater Bay – we reflected that there can’t be many places in the world where a single day can offer such a feast to satisfy all the senses.