The Stone Circles of West Cork: Discussion

The Stone Circles of West Cork form a distinct group within all types of Irish stone circles – the axial or recumbent pattern is its defining characteristic and completely consistent across the geographical spread and different circle sizes. I have described the circles in three posts now: a general Introduction, a post on the Multiple-Stone Circles, and a post on the Five-Stone Circles. If you have not already done so, you might like to refresh your memory by reading or re-reading those posts before carrying on with this one. My objective in this post is to address the question that everyone asks about these circles – When were they built? By whom? And most of all – WHY? I also want to share my own response to the experience of visiting and observing stone circles over many years.

Looking back at Uragh Stone Circle on the skyline

But perhaps this post should come with a trigger warning. Back away now if you want me to talk about mystic energies or ley lines. Stop reading if you believe in vibratory signatures or that a pendulum will reveal some hidden secret to a circle’s purpose. Run, if you think it’s appropriate to light a fire in a stone circle or leave an offering to an ancient goddess. You’ll find lots of other places on the internet to engage with you on those approaches but you won’t find them here. Still with me? All right, let’s get started.

Not all stone circles look monumental – this one at Trawlebawn has been filled with field clearance, but all the features are still clearly visible

Let’s begin with the When? and By Whom? The idea of a circle as a way to create a dedicated space, of course, goes back to the earliest farming communities – John Waddell in his book The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland devotes a chapter to the arrival in Ireland of various traditions of monument building based on a circle, firstly earthen enclosures and on to the circular passage tombs of Brú na Bóinne and Loughcrew. New circular structures, some amazingly complex, have been discovered recently near Newgrange, thanks to dry summers and drone technology.

The Cashelkeelty Complex on the Beara – in this image you can see the remains of what was probably a Multiple-stone Circle on the right, while in the upper left is the Five-stone Circle and row of three Standing Stones

While the circles we are talking about – the axial circles of West Cork – share their basic shape with many of these earlier monuments they should be viewed as a unique and recognisable tradition of monument-building. Very few stone circles have been excavated, but those that have support a Mid- to Late-Bronze Age date, that is from about 1600BC to about 600BC.  It was a tradition that occupied a restricted geographic region (Cork and Kerry) and had their closest parallels to the similar stone circles of Scotland. In Scotland, few have been excavated but those that have been also support a Mid- to Late-Bronze Age date. Remember too that our stone circles are strongly associated with other monuments – boulder burials, standing stone outliers, stone pairs or rows. Where dates have been established, they place these monuments in the same era. Waddell sums up by saying These new monuments may be related to an expansion of settlement and an intensification of agriculture reflected in the pollen record and pre-bog field systems.

Cashelkeelty again, looking up towards the Five-stone Circle and stone row. In the foreground are the fence stones of an ancient field system. Waddell based his conclusion about agricultural expansion partly on the findings of excavations at this site 

And now to the Why? Archaeological theories fall into two broad categories – axial stone circles were built primarily for calendrical purposes and stone circles were built primarily as memorials or burial places. I emphasise primarily as it is likely that anything that takes this level of resources to construct would have been multi-functional. Our old friend Boyle Somerville was the pioneer of the calendrical approach – see Boyle Somerville, Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer.

There’s a stone circle (large and sophisticated) under all that bracken!

There is no doubt that marking the turning of the year was of vital importance to an early farming culture. Two solstices, two equinoxes and the mid-way points between them, known as cross-quarter days, are the basis for many ancient calendars and festivals. Our own traditional festival days of Imbolc, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain correspond roughly to the cross-quarters and to the beginning of spring or the end of harvest. It makes sense to have some way to mark out those dates and building a stone circle to do so had the merit of being enduring in the landscape.

Each winter solstice people gather at Drombeg to watch the sun set over the recumbent – see our post, Drombeg Solstice Celebration for  more 

There is also the issue of the design of the circles – two portals across from a recumbent – a line has been observed and is being marked by the axis thus laid out. In West Cork, this axis line is NE (the portals) SW (the recumbent). However, there is a fairly broad spread on either side of the line so obviously it was not an immutable rule that the orientation was set to a certain point in the heavens but that it corresponded in a general way to that part of the sky in which both the sun and the moon rose and set – between the east for rising and the west for setting, moving across the southern sky.

This diagram is from Seán Ó Nualláin, The Stone Circle Complex of Cork and Kerry, in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquarees of Ireland, Vol 105, 1975

Within that general orientation, settings over the recumbent have been observed at many, although by no means all, the stone circles. The most well-known is Drombeg, where the sun sets over the recumbent at the winter solstice. We have observed an equinoctial orientation at Bohonagh with Ken Williams, Ireland’s foremost photographer of prehistoric subjects. That’s his photograph of that event below (used with permission). Lunar risings and settings have also been noted – see Mike Wilson’s observations at Drombeg, for example. The winter sky appears to be what is most important – perhaps understandably given the psychological effect of passing the darkest and coldest time of the year.

Other orientations have been posited – towards a sacred peak, for example, or to an upland area where people would move their cattle at a certain time of the year (known as transhumance, or as booleying in Ireland) or to stars of first magnitude. Terence Meaden has encouraged us to look at shadow-casting as a way of building an 8-month calendar and has made many accurate observations at stone circles to support his thesis. While there is no doubt that fertility must have been important to early farmers, Meaden somewhat undermines his own research by his insistence on interpreting everything as sexual symbolism, to the point of seeing penises and vulvas in the the stones and in invoking the concept of celestial marriage to explain ‘union by shadow’ between phallic and female orthostats.

Some stone circles are more accessible than others – this one, at Derrynafinchin, is right by the road, which had to take a detour around it

Then there are the outliers – standing stones or stone rows that provide further and different orientations. Sometimes these are close by the circle, as at Uragh or Glanbrack (below) and sometimes at a distance, as at Dunbeacon. 

The late lamented Aubrey Burl, in his book Rings of Stone, reminds us that these are ceremonial spaces. Not keen on archaeoastronomy, he paid attention to the shape of the monument as creating a place for ritual, and especially for dancing, commonly done on special festival or feast days. Circle dancing is one of the oldest forms of dancing and innately human, providing contact between the dancers and capable of involving all, or specific (e.g. young women) members of the community. Multiple-stone Circles such as Cappanaboule (below) may have provided a platform for performances inside the circle, while dances at Five-stone Circles may have been outside the circle.

The second main theory revolves around the circle as a burial place. Once again, there is a paucity of excavation reports to rely on, but Fahy found cremated human bone at all three of his excavations, Drombeg, Bohonagh and Reanascreena, indicating that the primary purpose of the circle may have been sepulchral. Archaeologist also point to the strong association of stone circles with boulder burials. However, once again, there is actually little evidence of human remains at those boulder burials that have been excavated. Waddell, in fact prefers the more descriptive and less functional term boulder monuments for this reason.

At Breeny More there are four Boulder Burials set within the remains of a Multiple-stone Circle

The question arises whether, if individuals were buried in any monument, it conclusively proves that that the primary purpose was to receive and honour the body of this person, who may have been a high-status member of the community. In support of this contention we can look at the pyramids – enormous monuments erected through the commandeering of community-wide resources as tombs for pharaohs. While it may have had other, secondary purposes, the main reason for building a pyramid was to memorialise the dead and to affirm a believe in the afterlife.

The perfect Five-stone Circle at Cappaboy Beg

Megalithic monuments in Ireland, even if they displayed certain orientations, such as Newgrange to the winter solstice, or wedge tombs to the autumn or winter setting sun, are regarded primarily as burial places. Should the primary purpose of stone circles, then, also be considered to be sepulchral. Or should we perhaps, think in terms of churches and cathedrals with crypts underneath them? To be buried in a crypt under a church (as opposed to outside in the graveyard) was the prerogative only of those who had the power and prestige to exercise that privilege: however it does not mean that the only or even main purpose of the church was as a memorial to those buried within its walls or under its floor. Where the remains were those of the founding saint the claim is stronger and the church’s role as a centre for pilgrimage may take precedence over its other liturgical functions. Likewise, although churches are traditionally oriented east-west, it does not follow that their primary purpose is to celebrate the sunrise.

Whatever the ultimate answer, there is no doubt that for us in the present day, a visit to a stone circle is a very special experience. First of all, in West Cork, it is always an adventure, off the beaten track and in spectacular countryside. When you’re lucky, the circle will be right beside the road, or on the other side of a field of wildflowers, like the one above at Inchireagh. That happens once in a blue moon – normally we get to climb mountains, trudge through bogs, beat back gorse, get lost on tiny roads with nowhere to turn around and make friends with the local farmers who act as guardians of their monuments. Oh, yes, and face down cattle!

Can you see the ring in his nose? I had wandered by a field full of cattle in my quest for a particular stone circle, not noticing that the gate was open. On my return, I was confronted with this gigantic bull and his harem. I turned tail and fled, eventually finding my way back to the road by a circuitous route – scratched, drenched, exhausted, and badly in need of ice cream

Finally, and despite my insistence on logic and science, I have to admit that visiting a stone circle is a profoundly spiritual experience. By this I mean that it connects you somehow to all that went before and it raises all the deep existential questions about why our ancestors expended their precious resources to build these extravagant and arduous  structures. This sense of wonder has been marvellously expressed for me in a poem by one of our readers, Finbarr O’Driscoll of Skibbereen. Originally published in the 70s, when I was doing my own research into rock art, including that at Drombeg, it resonated with me as soon as I saw it and I thank Finbarr for permission to reproduce it in full. It’s a fitting way to conclude this series.

DROMBEG

In an urn under
the stone the centre of
the stone circle
they found the ashes of
a child’s concise shape.

On the local limbo
of this wet hill I
of this congruent blood
cannot deny I
hold the godlessness was

good. Turning this thought
inside out again then
inside in unearths
no more. Again my heart
is as the urn then.

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. 

Imbolc – How Our Ancestors Welcomed Spring

February 1 – we celebrate it as St Brigid’s day now, and support the call for making it a national holiday. But we have celebrated it in Ireland forever as Imbolc, the calendar marker that heralds the arrival of spring.

St Brigid by Harry Clarke in St Barrahane’s Church, Castletownshend

What follows was originally a Joint Post by Finola and Robert, written way back in 2013. We have edited it to update the links and added some new photographs and are republishing it now.

Archaeologists have long been aware of the astronomical siting of some Irish megalithic sites, such as at Newgrange, and Loughcrew Passage Graves in Co Meath and Drombeg Stone Circle in West Cork.

Inside Cairn T at Loughcrew

We have become intrigued by the work of Michael Wilson, a talented amateur astronomer who is singlehandedly documenting the astronomical siting of many monuments in this area. Recently he has turned his attention to prehistoric rock art. Mike’s website contains an astonishing body of work, meticulously researched and rigorously recorded, along with explanatory notes.

Michael Wilson and his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

Michael Wilson carries out his Whole Horizon Analytical Technique (WHAT)

His thesis, in a nutshell, is that the builders and carvers of Neolithic and Bronze Age times were keen observers of the day and night skies and were intimately familiar with their surroundings. They situated their megaliths and rock art in places where the contours of the horizon allowed them to mark significant solar and lunar events, such as solstices, equinoxes, lunar settings and risings, and intermediate points. Thus, the sun at the winter solstice might rise at the highest point on a nearby mountain, or set in a deep notch in the hills at the spring equinox.

At Drombeg Stone Circle people gather on the winter solstice to watch the sun set over the recumbent stone

The solar calendar has four quarter days (the solstices and the equinoxes), four cross-quarter days (the half way points between the solstices and the equinoxes) and a further finer division into points half-way between the quarters and cross-quarters: an ancient 16 month calendar.

A few days ago [in 2013], Michael posted this:

Imbolc, the spring cross-quarter, is almost upon us. It will be on Feb 1st by the Gregorian calendar, where it is commonly known as St Bridget’s Day or Candlemas, but this is not the correct day. By day-count, the times to celebrate will be sunset on the 3rd and sunrise on the 4th. Astronomically, the sun will be exactly half-way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox at about 16:13 GMT on Feb 3rd, while Feb 2nd is the day to see the sun rise and set at the prehistoric positions for marking this festival.

We set out for our favourite rock art site, Ballybane West, before dawn on Feb 2nd, feeling incredibly lucky to have a clear sky. As the sky brightened, and the nearby hills started to receive the sun’s rays, the carvings on the rock surface became clearly visible.

The sun is already hitting the high ground across the valley

Then, the sun rose, exactly where Michael’s predictions said it would, at the highest point of a rounded hill on the horizon. As people had been doing 4000 years ago in this exact spot, we marked the cross-quarter day of Imbolc – a time when the land starts to warm up, the first spring flowers appear, and the ewes are visibly pregnant.

The carvings light up in the dawn rays

The slanting rays of the rising sun provide perfect lighting for seeing rock art, which is often difficult to observe at other times

If Michael is correct, we have to incorporate a new possibility into our thinking about rock art. There have been indications before that the location of the carved rocks was significant. For example, there is often a view of water or of a significant mountain, some theorists have posited that they are ancient boundary markers, and some rock art sites are inter-visible with each other.

But this way of looking at rock art elevates the actual siting of the rock as most important, and allows us to view the carvings themselves as a way to indicate the purpose of the site – a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The motifs, though, will probably remain as enigmatic as ever.

 

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)

Inspired by Stone

One of the many archaeological excitements in Ireland last summer was the discovery of a hitherto unknown passage grave with significant carvings beside Dowth Hall in the Bru na Boinne area of County Meath. These carvings are likely to date from around 5,500 years ago. In the picture above (courtesy of agriland.ie) from left to right are Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan; agri-technology company Devenish’s lead archaeologist Dr Cliodhna Ni Lionain; Devenish’s executive chairman Owen Brennan; and Professor Alice Stanton.

As you know, we are Rock Art addicts, so this week went along to this year’s Stone Symposium in Durrus, West Cork, to hear Cliodhna, above, give a fascinating illustrated talk on the finds at Dowth. Have a look at this post on the inaugural Stone Symposium from 2017. It’s great that the event is thriving and attracting interest and participants from far and wide.

Our attendance at the Symposium set me thinking about the whole subject of stone. It’s the most basic of creative materials, as relevant today in construction and art as it was to our Neolithic ancestors. Proleek Dolmen in County Louth (above) is an example of the early use of stone to create a structure which made a huge impact on the landscape. It’s a portal tomb over 3 metres high, and the supporting stones are around 2 metres high: the capstone is estimated to weigh 35 tons. It’s probably a more visually impressive structure today – in its ‘naked’ state – than it was when completed, as it is likely to have been covered over with a mound of earth and / or stones. There is folklore attached to this monument: it is known locally as the Giant’s Load, having been  carried to Ireland by a Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, who is said to be buried in the tomb or nearby.

Here’s another portal tomb – the largest in Europe – which I discussed in this post from last year. It’s known as Brownshill Dolmen, and is in County Carlow. Finola is in the picture to give the scale. This capstone is said to weigh 103 tons. The portal tombs demonstrate the use of stone in its rawest and most spectacular state: they are examples of Ireland’s earliest architecture, and we don’t really know what they were for. Perhaps it’s to do with status, either of the builders or of the chiefs or priests who might have been buried in them. They certainly make mighty marks on the landscape…

…As do all the other stone monuments which celebrate their makers – although perhaps they remain enigmatic to us today. Bronze Age stone circles have always fascinated, and at least we know that they have orientations which must have been significant. Drombeg in West Cork (above) is much visited at the winter solstice, when the path of the setting sun falls over the recumbent stone when observed through the two portal stones at the east side of the circle.

While the earliest dwellings of the inhabitants of Ireland thousands of years ago were probably constructed from organic materials  – earth, sticks and furze – stone began to play a part in architectural construction in Christian times. The remarkable Gallarus Oratory (above) on the Dingle Peninsula, County Kerry, was long thought to have dated from around the 8th century, although an early commentator – antiquarian George Petrie, writing in 1845 – suggested:

I am strongly inclined to believe that it may be even more ancient than the period assigned for the conversion of the Irish generally by their great apostle Patrick . . .

It’s a fascinating discussion to follow – Peter Harbison sets it out in detail here, and concludes that the Oratory could have been built as late as the 12th century, even after the great Romanesque flowering which included the building of monastic settlements and round towers.

The 12th century cathedral and (possibly earlier) round tower at Ardmore, County Waterford (above), should be a Mecca for stone enthusiasts because of its monumental architecture and carvings: St Declan founded the site in the 5th century, and his monastic cell survives. The Romanesque period in Ireland has many other examples of stone craftsmanship to show, proving that working with stone had become a high art in those medieval times. The examples below are from Killaloe Cathedral in County Clare.

One of the finest Romanesque sites is the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. Finola has written in detail on this architectural gem here and here. Suffice it for me to illustrate only one of its treasures – Cormac’s tomb, a sarcophagus beautifully carved in the ‘Urnes’ style – a Scandinavian tradition of intertwined animals.

For centuries, stone has also been a ubiquitous utilitarian building material all over Ireland. ‘Castles’ or – more properly ‘Tower Houses’ – date from roughly 1400 to around 1650, and many remain in a ruined condition, particularly on the coastline of West Cork: we can see five of them from Nead an Iolair. Some have been restored in modern times, including Jeremy Irons’ Kilcoe Castle. The example below is from Conna, East Cork.

Ireland’s landscape is sculpted from stone. Drystone walling is an ancient tradition still practiced for dividing up land, and varies considerably in style regionally, reflecting the differing geology across the island. Two examples from the Beara Peninsula (below) show the essential geometry of field patterns which stone wall building has created over the centuries.

Stone has also long been a medium for communication. We have commemorated our ancestors for centuries with grave markers, often with elegantly carved lettering. Of the two examples below, the first is from Clonmacnoise, and is likely to be early medieval, while the second is an inscription from 1791.

This is just a brief history of our use of stone, dating over thousands of years: I have chosen many examples – almost at random – but hope that I have demonstrated how important it is to continue this ancient craft. The West Cork Stone Symposium is doing sterling work in promoting it today: long may this continue!

Out in the Field

During the West Cork History Festival field trips, led by Roaringwater Journal last week, treats were in store. Many thanks to volunteers Jenny and Ray who worked hard to provide the refreshments (and who baked the scones!) on Friday’s ‘Art and The Great Famine’ excursion, which arrived at Reen Farm in time for tea.

Artist John Kelly‘s cows are abundant at his home at Reen, and the experience of the connections with this unique place and Famine times were admirably and sensitively presented by Siobhan Burke of West Cork Experiences (she’s on the left, facing the bronze tree, below).

The day included organised visits to the 110 Skibbereen Girls project at the old workhouse site in Skibbereen – where we were given a presentation by artist Toma McCullim – and a guided tour by West Cork Arts Centre’s Zenda Williams of the Coming Home – Art and The Great Hunger exhibition at Uillinn, followed by a visit to the mass famine graves in Abbeystrewery, where Philip O’Reagan of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre explained the site’s enormous significance. Just as well we had those scones to bolster us up!

On the previous day we began the ‘West Cork Archaeology’ tour at Knockdrum Fort, where – in benevolent weather – you get the most spectacular views (above). Finola talked about the Rock Art on the site, which takes it back in time perhaps 5,000 years, and she also explained about the alignment with the Bealtaine sunset discovered by Boyle Somerville, described here – and which we witnessed ourselves earlier this year (below).

Highlights of that day’s expedition also included an entertaining time at Castletownshend hosted by George Salter-Townshend (below, he’s leading us into the Castle which has been owned by his family since medieval times).

After more on archeoastronomy from Finola, at Drombeg Stone Circle (above), a further treat was in store at Castle Salem, near Rosscarbery, where we were given a tour and talk by its owner Peter Daly (below).

We were delighted to be given the opportunity to provide this ‘lead-in’ to the History Festival weekend itself which – as last year – was a roaring success. If you didn’t go to it, take a look at the festival programme, and see what you missed!

Because our time has been taken up with the festival we haven’t written any posts this weekend. Normal service will be resumed next week. I can’t resist finishing off with another look at John Kelly’s sculpture garden at Reen.