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.
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.