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.

Boyle Somerville: Ireland’s First Archaeoastronomer

Henry Boyle Townshend Somerville (1863 – 1936) is mostly know in Ireland now for how he died, murdered by the IRA in 1936. And that’s a tragedy in many ways, not least of which is that the notoriety of his death has obscured his important contributions to Irish archaeology and especially to the once-controversial field of archaeoastronomy, of which he was a distinguished pioneer. [The portrait above is by Walter Stoneman and used with permission from the National Portrait Gallery under a Creative Commons License.]

Boyle was about 30 in this photograph. This illustration is from Somerville and Ross: A Biography by Maurice Collis. The family lived in Drishane House, below, in Castletownshend, West Cork. 

Boyle was one of the famous Castletownshend family of Somervilles that included Edith, the writer with Violet Martin of the Irish RM stories. He was her favourite brother and companion on youthful adventures, including the incursions into the souterrain at Knockdrum Fort, armed only with a poker and a candle. See Robert’s companion piece about this ancient site.

Boyle drew the first proper survey of Drombeg and his observations established the winter solstice orientation. Today, crowds gather to witness this spectacular event

He went off to sea in 1877 at the early age of 13 – seafaring was in the Somerville blood – and rose through the ranks of Commander, Captain and finally Vice-Admiral. Throughout his time in the navy he was engaged in surveying and in hydrographic, intelligence and research projects all over the world. He collected ethnographic materials (now in the Pitt-Rivers Museum) and wrote papers on his experiences.

Another one of Boyle’s stone circle solar events, this one occurs at the autumn equinox at Bohonagh

But it was astronomy that fired his imagination, and specifically the astronomy of ancient sites. Following on the work of astronomer Norman Lockyer, he surveyed monuments in Scotland and Ireland and demonstrated that many of them had significant solar, stellar and lunar orientations. His 1927 paper, simply titled Orientation, in the first issue of Antiquity is a readable and well-argued essay that argues for the acceptance of the importance of calendrical observations to early farming communities.

The Bohonagh complex of monuments as Boyle described them – a stone circle, a cup-marked stone and a boulder burial

It is hard to remember now that the scientific community of the time was dismissive, but even the writer of his obituary in the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland could not resist a patronising summation:

He was an accomplished surveyor and careful observer, and if the theories as to the orientation of megaliths which he held are not universally accepted, his investigations have resulted in presentations of an accuracy too often absent from the surveys of many writers on those subjects.

Makes him sound like a crank, doesn’t it? But let’s go back to that bit about being an ‘accomplished surveyor and careful observer.’ In paper after paper, he did just that – carefully observed and documented the archaeological monuments of West Cork and elsewhere. It was he who first described the West Cork Stone Circles and coined the term recumbent, providing properly surveyed plans and making careful notes of the way in which they offered sightings to solar events at significant times of the year through the axis provided by the line running from the ‘entrance’ through the ‘recumbent.’ (For an explantation of how this all works, see our post Ancient Calendars.)

Reenascreena Stone Circle with its surrounding shallow fosse

Take a look at a couple of his papers for the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society. The first, on Five Stone Circles, is a good example of how he conducted his surveys. The second, titled Prehistorics sets out the case for a proper classification system for megalithic structures. Most of the terms he recommends, such as Standing Stone, Stone Row, Stone Circle, Passage Grave and Cup-Marked Stone are familiar to us and in everyday use now and he probably didn’t coin the terms. However, one of his terms never gained acceptance, and I think that’s a pity. It’s the charmingly named ‘Clochtogle’ and it’s what we now call a Boulder Burial. But in fact Clochtogle is a better term in being simply descriptive rather than assigning a function, since, as he points out in his paper, and as I pointed out in this post, there is precious little evidence that points to these monuments being burial places and they seem singularly unsuited for that function.

The Rathruane Clochtogle

Clochtogle is based on the Irish term cloch tógáil (cluck toe-gawl) which simply means raised up or lifted stone. We have lots of them in West Cork. In looking at the photograph of the Rathruane clochtogle (do you think this term might still catch on?) I am struck by how it seems to mirror the shape of Mount Gabriel in the background. Boyle, in his writings, did point out that not every monument was oriented to quarter or cross-quarter calendrical events: some, he said, may have other traditions reflected in their orientations. In our own investigations of West Cork monuments we are constantly struck by how many encompass views of Mount Gabriel.

Brian Lacey has an excellent paper in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland* in which he describes Boyle Somerville as an important and distinguished. . .Irish archaeologist. . .and one of the founders of international archaeoastronomy. He details his various contributions to the field, and does not shy away from mentioning his less-than-scientific interest in ley-lines and also in the use of a medium to communicate with the builders of Drombeg. Edith, along with most of their circle (and indeed many of the literati of the time) routinely used mediums and ouija boards. After his death, as her biographer Maurice Collis puts it, Edith ‘lost no time in getting into touch with Boyle.’ But this does not detract from Boyle’s ultimate contributions: Without any doubt, states Lacey, Boyle Somerville was an extremely important and internationally-influential Irish archaeologist for his time. He deserves to be remembered better and celebrated with pride in this country.

Boyle’s death, at the hands of an IRA hit squad, triggered a national outcry. There’s a good account of it here so I won’t repeat the information that is widely available. I will emphasise, though, that the murder horrified the local community and brought together Catholic and Protestant in mourning the death of one who was highly regarded and universally respected in Castletownshend. Edith determined to raise a monument to the memory of her beloved brother and the notion that took was to erect a bench outside the entrance to Drishane House for the use and enjoyment of the village. She asked Seamus Murphy to execute it, one of his first commissions. Next time you come by, linger at this spot and reflect on the life of Vice-Admiral Boyle Somerville. Accomplished, erudite, decorated and distinguished, he is remembered by those who knew him by the simple and deeply moving words Cómharsa Maith – Good Neighbour.

*The Skibbereen and District Historical Journal, Vol 7, 2011, also has a paper by Brian Lacey about Boyle Somerville, substantially similar to the one in the RSAI Journal. It is not available online.

 

Out and About with Visitors in West Cork

At Coppinger's Court

At Coppinger’s Court

Vi and Grant and Jan and Brian came to stay last week – good friends from Canada here to see the Real Ireland. 

We had some challenges right away. First, the rental car Grant had booked was under repair and the substitute, although it nominally held all six of us, was too cramped and uncomfortable to venture too far afield. Second, muscle wear and tear issues among the group dictated that walks not be too long or arduous. 

No problem! The weather was (mostly) fine, we got in one good hike on the Sheep’s Head, and then set about discovering the delights of flatter terrain, local amenities and cultural events. Robert and I hadn’t toured Bantry House before, although we had been there for concerts. The house will be a future post in itself, but for the moment it’s worth recording that this may be the last summer to see it with its original furniture, as much of it is on the auction block later this year.

One day we spent exploring the area south east of Skibbereen. We started with lunch at Glandore overlooking the harbour, then on to the obligatory stop at the Drombeg Stone Circle, one of the better-know recumbent stone circles that dot West Cork. On to Coppinger’s Court (another subject for a full post), a 17th century fortified house and home to one of the fearsome characters in West Cork history. Back then to Castletownshend and dinner in Mary Anne’s, followed by a concert in the little church of St Barrahane’s. This was an evening of Beethoven, Debussy and Rachmaninov with Christopher Marwood of the Vanbrugh Quartet on the cello, and the brilliant young American Alexander Bernstein on the piano. It was truly a world-class performance, eliciting a standing ovation from the appreciative audience.

At Drombeg, Jan and Brian

At Drombeg, Jan and Brian

Concert In St. Barrahane's, Castletownshend

Concert In St Barrahane’s, Castletownshend

Another day, we wandered around Schull, dipping into the shops and stopping for coffee. Later that evening we attended PlayActing Theatre’s two one-woman shows in the local parish hall. Karen Minihan brought us up to date with her character, Eileen, going through a midlife crisis – it was moving, sad and funny all at once. Then Terri Leiber took us into the experience of eight-year-old Stacey negotiating the dysfunctional lives of the adults around her in 1960s Britain – a tour de force in which she played every role, with a minimalist stage set, a soundtrack from the times, and a beautiful nuanced performance.

Terri Leiber in May the Force

Terri Leiber in May the Force

Shopping at the local markets always makes food preparation easier and fresher and we all took turns. 

In Baltimore, we walked out to the Beacon, with its marvellous views of Sherkin Island and the faraway mountains of Kerry. We hope it’s a good memory to take away of this special part of Ireland. 

At the Baltimore Beacon

At the Baltimore Beacon

Vi and Grant, Jan and Brian – Ferdia has been missing you already!

Ferdia

Ferdia