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. 

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)