The Enigmatic Bullaun

Bullaun Stones abound in Ireland. They are usually found nowadays at sites with ecclesiastical connections, as in the example above at Maulinward, an ancient West Cork burial ground. This association does not reduce or affect their traditional uses – according to folk convention – to cure or to curse. The Irish word Bullán means ‘bowl’ – a water container. At pilgrimage sites, such as St Gobnait‘s, Ballyvourney (below), the bullaun stones often hold quartz fragments or smooth, rounded pebbles – perhaps incised with a cross – which are turned around each time a pattern or procession is completed.

The Maulinward example on the header picture shows how the tradition of making offerings at some of these locations continues to this day. At other sites, such as the one below, the hollowed-out stone filled with rainwater takes on the properties of a holy well, and is visited for cures or simply good fortune.

This example, outside the door of the church at Cill Lachtáin, Co Cork seems to have been mounted to perform as a holy water stoup: the plaque reads ” . . . This blessed font of Cill Lachtáin was standing in Cloch Aidhneach from 600AD to 1600AD . . . “ Others resemble fonts and are similarly associated with places of worship. Look at this striking stone from Timoleague Friary, whose purpose – according to tradition – is clearly stated:

In the sixth century, the Council of Tours ordered its ministers ” . . . to expel from the Church all those whom they may see performing before certain stones things which have no relation with the ceremonies of the Church . . . ”  Such an order doesn’t seem to have prevented folk customs of curing continuing into the twenty-first century.

The ongoing use of bullauns as fonts, stoops or holy wells does not explain their original purpose (which is probably pre-Christian: here’s an interesting conjectural world view of the phemomenon), and it’s quite likely that we will never fathom for sure what they were for. The example above, at Kilmalkedar, Co Kerry is as enigmatic as they will get, with its multiple ‘basins’ carved into a large earth-fast boulder isolated in the middle of a field, although not far from a remarkably complex ecclesiastical site. But the one I find the most fascinating can be found along the Priest’s Leap road, a mere few steps away from our own home in West Cork . . .

This rock outcrop – known locally as The Rolls of Butter – is large (I’m there to give it scale!) with seven scooped-out bullaun like basins and a somewhat phallic central upright stone. The basins each contain a large, smoothed pebble. Some folk traditions in Ireland identify such pebbles as ‘cursing stones’: “. . . if you wanted to put a curse on someone, you turned the stones anti-clockwise in the morning . . . ” However, the curse had to be ‘just’ otherwise it came back to curse you in the evening! The illustration below – of ‘cursing stones’ at Killinagh, Co Cavan was made by antiquarian W F Wakeman in 1875. He also noted the similar local folk traditions of these examples.

Many bullaun stones or stone groups around Ireland have been included in the National Monuments records, and number in the hundreds. Functional, magical, sinister? Who knows . . . Your guess is as good as anyone else’s. But one thing is certain – they are intriguing and mysterious. Keep a look out for them – as we do – in your travels around this land.

Note: this is a re-run of a post I published five years ago – but it’s been augmented, updated and – hopefully – improved!

Scratched Stone – Scratched Heads

stone scratches

Aultagh Ogham Stone

One thing always leads to another – that’s something you can be sure of when we are on our archaeological adventures. A case in point was a recent expedition to have a look at Ballynacarriga Castle (not far from Dunmanway, County Cork: 16th century – notable for having a Sheela-na-gig carving built high up into the outer masonry wall, and some unusual carved inscriptions on the internal stonework).

Ballynacarriga Castle (left) with its Sheela-na-gig (right)

Perhaps these various stone scribings turned our minds to the subject of Rock Art (easily done). Our excellent guide on that morning, Margaret Murphy of the Skibbereen Heritage Centre, offered to show us an Ogham stone not too far away, in the townland of Aultagh. How could we refuse?

finding the stone

Assistance required in finding the stone!

Our goal was beside an ancient track in Aultagh Wood (Coil an Ailtaigh), approached from a private driveway. Margaret knew the owner who readily gave us permission to have a look. In fact, he provided sterling service after we had searched in vain for the elusive rock – opportunely arriving with a pole to clear the thick undergrowth, and soon revealing this modest boulder to our eager gaze.

stone discovered

Stone uncovered…

The stone lies close to a drainage ditch and has possibly arrived there from another location at some time in its history. In one area the surface of the rock has been damaged, affecting part of the scribings: it may be that it was once standing – now it is prone with carved marks clearly visible on the upper surface.

stone in context

The Aultagh Ogham Stone in context

The last time I wrote a post about ogham (here it is) I gave a very general overview of the subject. Ogham stones are concisely described by the Irish National Monuments Service as:

…upright monoliths or recumbent slabs, onto which ogham script has been incised. Ogham script consists of groups of 1-5 parallel lines and notches cut along the side or across the edge of a stone to represent the sounds of the Irish language. It is usually read up the left angle. The inscription gives a person’s name (usually male) and immediate antecedent/s or tribal ancestor. The stones may have functioned as memorials, grave markers or territorial markers and date from the late 4th to the early 8th century AD.
Fine examples of ogham stones in Ireland

Here’s the entry in the National Monuments Service records for our Aultagh stone:

Description: On a W-facing slope, in Aultagh Wood. Fallen stone (L 1.1m; 0.7m x 0.3m) with inscription on flat face. According to Macalister (1945, 75) ‘fashioned by an illiterate artificer, copying by rote from a wooden model cut for his guidance’ and reading UBEDABO ALTASI.

MacalisterThat’s quite a bald statement from Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister who was Professor of Celtic archaeology at University College Dublin from 1909 to 1943, during which time he compiled and edited the catalogue of all known ogham inscriptions from Britain and Ireland. Macalister’s theories on ogham are generally out of favour today (some commentators have claimed that his interpretations are gibberish) but he seems to accept the Aultagh stone as being within the early medieval ogham tradition. Yet it seems to me very different from many of the other stones we have seen: it is very sharply incised, obviously with a fine-tipped metal tool, whereas a majority of the traditional or ‘classic’ ogham stones are larger and more robustly carved.

Possible ogham stone at Maulinward, West Cork (left) and others from the Stone Corridor at UCC

When you begin to delve into modern literature on ogham you realise how very many varieties of examples there are, and also how many differing interpretations there are of how to ‘read’ the script. This was monumental writing, labour intensive and time consuming to undertake. For this reason it is generally supposed that ogham was ostensibly reserved for marking important graves or places, and that the inscriptions are all names.

Aultagh Inscribed completeAultagh Ogham Stone – ‘classic’, ‘scholastic’ – or ‘fake’?

There are suggestions that ogham inscriptions for more general – and less monumental – usage were once carved on wood, and might have been language primers for the bardic poets. Later inscriptions are sometimes termed ‘scholastic ogham’ deriving from the fact that the inscriptions are believed to have been inspired by manuscript sources, instead of being continuations of the original ‘monument’ tradition. Hallmarks of scholastic ogham are the median line and scribings being on the flat face of a stone (as at Aultagh) rather than on the edge. Ogham was occasionally used for notes in manuscripts down to the 16th century, and the burgeoning interest in all things antiquarian from the 18th century onwards led to  a popular ogham revival. A typical example, from the graveyard in Ahenny, Co Tipperary, has an English inscription dated 1802 and this in ogham: FA AN LIG SO NA LU ATA MARI NI DHIMUSA O MBALLI NA GCRANIBH, interpreted as ‘Under this stone lies Mary Dempsy from Ballycranna’. Macalister takes the view that this inscription, and others like it, were written “with much more zeal than discretion”, while some scholars have suggested that this more modern usage of the scribing should be termed ‘fake ogham’.

Aultagh Incised Stone

My own drawing of the Aultagh inscribed stone – traced from detailed photographs

You may like to have a go at translating the inscription at Aultagh for yourself. Firstly you will need to select your decipherer: a quick internet search will show that there are many, and also a whole lot of inconsistencies. But perhaps this is all part of the head-scratching: and also part of the whole fascination of a historical subject where many of the elements can only be guessed at…

ogham-alphabet

Cures and Curses

Wishing Stone at Maulinward

Wishing Stone at Maulinward

I am a firm believer in wart wells: there is one at Clonmacnoise, the holy centre of Ireland, and some years ago when I was visiting the place I dipped my finger – warts and all – in it. Within… well, perhaps it was two or three weeks… the warts had gone. The Cynics among you will be saying that they might have gone anyway, but I have had other warty experiences to reinforce my beliefs. When my daughter Phoebe was 11 years old and we were living back in Devon she had a really bad outbreak of warts on her hand. The doctor couldn’t recommend anything but our neighbour was very sure of what to do: take her to see Auntie Grace who lived up the lane. We duly knocked on Auntie Grace’s door and showed her Phoebe’s hand. “That’s alright, Dear” she said, and shut the door. That was all. But within a week (more or less) the warts had vanished completely, never to return.

Curing my warts at Clonmacnoise

Curing my warts at Clonmacnoise

Bullaun Stones abound in Ireland. They are usually found at sites with ecclesiastical connections – as the two examples above (and this one), but this association does not reduce or affect their traditional uses: to cure or to curse. The Irish word Bullán means ‘bowl’ – a water container. At pilgrimage sites, such as St Gobnait‘s Well, Ballyvourney, the bullaun stones often hold smooth rounded pebbles – perhaps incised with a cross – which are turned around each time a pattern or procession is completed.

In the sixth century, the Council of Tours ordered its ministers “…to expel from the Church all those whom they may see performing before certain stones things which have no relation with the ceremonies of the Church…”  Such an order doesn’t seem to have prevented folk traditions of curing continuing into the twenty-first century.

Wart Well at Timoleague Friary

Wart Well at Timoleague Friary

Traditionally, in Ireland similar stones are used for less benign purposes than curing warts or other maladies. Thankfully not in West Cork but in faraway Cavan a group of bullaun basins and stones at the ruined Killinagh Church are associated with curses, as explained here by Harold Johnston in a 1998 interview: “…if you wanted to put a curse on someone, you turned the stones anti-clockwise in the morning.” However, the curse had to be ‘just’ otherwise it came back to curse you in the evening!

An 1875 drawing of the Killinagh Cursing Stones

An 1875 drawing of the Killinagh Cursing Stones

Nearer to home, in County Cork, are the ‘cursing stones’ known locally as  the Clocha Mealachta – not in this case associated with bullaun basins but kept hidden under a slab of rock, which seems a bit sinister to me.

Hidden Cursing Stones at Labbamolaga, Co Cork

Hidden Cursing Stones at Labbamolaga, Co Cork

I prefer the legends which show bullaun stones as a force for good: in more than one location they are said to be associated with a local saint. St Kevin of Glendalough (in County Wicklow) drank every morning from the Deer Stone, a bullaun which miraculously was always filled with milk.

Deer Stone at Glendalough

St Kevin

St Kevin