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)

Cashelkeelty – More Than Meets The Eye

It’s on the wild and remote Beara Peninsula and it’s a bit of a trek to get up to it – but so worth it. We are fortunate that we know quite a lot about Cashelkeelty, which is in the Kerry section of the Beara, not far from Lauragh. There were excavations here in the 70s and 80s led by old friends, John Barber and Anne Lynch. Pollen analysis in the region has added to our understanding of the environment during the Bronze Age.

You can see both the multiple stone circle (the closer set of stones) and the 5-stone circle and stone row from the knoll near the site

But none of this is obvious on the ground and there are no explanatory signs, so I’m going to lay out what we know about this marvellous complex of monuments, so that when you go (Yes, do go!) you’ll know a bit more about what you are looking at. Make it part of a day trip, like the one that Robert is describing this week.

Park in the little car park about 2 km west of the turn off for Derreen Garden. Someone has handily marked it on Google Maps as ‘Parking Place Stone Circle’ and take the path that runs upwards through the woods, turning left (and ever upwards) when you come to another path. It’s a Robert Frost experience – the woods are not only lovely, dark and deep but also mossy and mysterious, with hints of old walls here and there.

When you emerge into open country, you are actually on the Beara Way and this stretch was beautifully described by Peter Clarke in his Hikelines blog.

Peter Clarke’s sketch of the 5-stone circle and stone row ©Peter Clarke/Hikelines

In fact, you are walking now along or beside a medieval road that once ran from Kenmare to Castletownbere. Once you know this, you can pick it out and imagine walking or riding along it in rough woollen garments, or perhaps the  flowing robes of a monk, or the full armour of a knight. But this road is actually one of the newer items in this landscape.

The landscape itself is Bronze Age. People made their living here by growing some cereals (probably barley and emmer wheat) and by herding cattle and sheep. Pollen analysis tells us that forest cover declined – that is, it was cleared by the early agriculturalists – beginning about 1500BC and intensifying around 1100BC. Pre-bog field systems are everywhere here – look for the lines of upright boulders defining walls and small fields as you walk.

According to Billy O’Brien in his Iverni (got your copy yet?) deterioration in the climate and higher rainfall about 1000BC led to increased acidification and the spread of bogs in many areas. So what we are looking at here, in the Mid to Late Bronze Age, is an open pastoral landscape. This is important because the views from here are panoramic and significant, and they would not have been obscured by trees.

Ancient fields

And in this open landscape these early farmers lived in houses of which no traces remain, probably of wood and thatch. What does remain are the monuments they built of stone – they meant them to endure and endure they do. There’s a five-stone circle, and a stone row right beside it, and about 30 metres to the west another set of upright stones.

The stone row was built before the 5-stone circle, possible hundreds of years before. There are three stones now, but the Lynch excavation established that there had been a fourth. Like most of  the stone rows on this part of the world it is oriented ENE/WSW, or towards the morning and evening horizons in summer. As regular readers know, I am always intrigued by the way the shapes of the stones seem to mirror the landscape behind it and this is no exception.

The 5-stone circle now only has three stones, but the sockets for the remaining two were found in the course of the excavations. In the centre, covered by a stone slab, was the cremated remains of a person in his or her 20s. Radio carbon dates (later re-calibrated) established the construction to about 1300 to 700BC, placing it in the Late Bronze Age. Mike Wilson of the Mega-WHAT site has analysed the orientations of both the stone row and the 5-stone circle – you can see the results of that here.

Visitors love to leave little offerings at sites like this. You are looking into the 5-stone circle, towards the recumbent. The slab is more or less where the cremated remains were discovered in the excavation

From here you can clearly see another set of stones to the west. What looks like another stone row is actually the remaining uprights of a multiple stone circle, as Anne Lynch documented in her account of the excavation. There were either 11 or 13 stones originally. The tallest stone now standing must have been one of the portals. The middle stone was originally lying down but was re-erected in the course of the excavation.

Once again, I am struck by how these three stones appear to mirror the horizon behind them. Can this really be a coincidence? If so, it’s a an eerie one. To understand how and why multiple stone circles were built, read my post Ancient Calendars.

To round out the Bronze Age monuments, there’s a Fulacht Fia just south of the 5-stone circle – you can read more about these ancient cooking places in my post Ballyrisode Fulacht Fia.

This little road leads to a stone building, perhaps originally a cottage. It’s the green roof you can see in the second photograph

Cashelkeelty is an amazing site – so many monuments, such evidence of Bronze Age activity from daily living and farming to monument-building. We still have their stone edifices to remind us that these people were sophisticated builders who wanted certain of their practices and rituals to endure for centuries. What we no longer see easy signs of, we can imagine – the forest clearing, the planting and herding, the communal feasting. Take a little while at this site and ask whether our own efforts will endure for thousands of years.