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: Five-Stone Circles

About half of the stone circles in the Cork-Kerry complex consist of only five stones, and constitute a sub-group know as Five-stone Circles. While they share many similarities with the Multiple-stone Circles, they are a unique class of monument. I’ve described the Multiples in detail here, so if you need to refresh your memory about that group, you can do it now and then come back and read on. While most of the photographs in this post are my own, I gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Ej Carr in allowing me to use two images (above and the last one in the post) of the Uragh Five-stone Circle and Standing Stone and of Peter Clarke for his drawing of the circle at Cashelkeelty (below).

Most strikingly, the Five-stone Circles follow the pattern of the larger ones in having two portal stones, usually the tallest orthostat of the circle, across from a recumbent, or axial stone which is usually the shortest. In describing them here, I am following the work of Seán Ó Núalláin, who surveyed and described all the Cork-Kerry Stone Circles in 1975. While his comprehensive paper is  45 years old, it is still the most complete work on the Stone Circles of Cork and Kerry (The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 105 (1975), pp. 83-131). 

Lettergorman, with its large block of sparkling quartz

Most of the Five-stone Circles I have seen now are complete or almost complete, although some of the orthostats have fallen. They are actually in remarkably good condition – perhaps their small size has offered them some protection against the need to ‘improve’ farmland. some have been filled in with field stones but most are simply marooned in little islands of grass in the middle of a field, occasionally with a protective fence to keep cattle away.

Glanbrack, at the top of a small hill with views to all sides. This is one of the ones that Ó Núalláin thinks may have only ever had three stones. Note the two outliers

Two of the Five-stone Circles may in fact, according to Ó Núalláin, be actually Three-stone – it is assumed that both Cashelkeelty and Glanbrack had two more stones originally, but he muses that a setting of three stones could be seen as representing the ultimate degeneration of the “circle” concept.

This is Clodagh Five-stone Circle, also with two outliers immediately outside the circle. There is another standing stone pair nearby

Neither are they truly circular – in fact they are mostly D-shaped, with the axial stone being the straight edge of the D. This is a function of their size – the axial stone, with its straight edge, represents a much bigger proportion of the circle that it would in a large Multiple-stone Circle, but it also brings up the issue of whether the circle shape is truly essential to the functions of this type of monument.

Hard to make out exactly what’s what at Inchybegga Five-stone Circle, since the stones are small and the circle is disturbed and filled with field stones

The axis of the Five-stone Circles, that is, the direction of a line drawn between the portal stones across the recumbent, is generally NE/SW. This orientation is not exact, but most fall within a few degrees of it. Ó Núalláin agrees with Aubrey Burl in his analysis of the Scottish circles (and our own observations at the circles confirm this) when he says

Thus the circles are so aligned that the entrances face the side of the heavens on which the sun rises and the axial stones face the setting sun. The broad splay present, 107 degrees, suggests that a general alignment on the side of the heavens on which the sun rises or sets was what was required, and that precise alignments on specific celestial events were not in question. It is worth noting however that the axial stones tend to group in a sector indicating a winter rather than a summer position.

 

This intriguing site is Derryarkane Five-stone Circle. It is dominated by a Whitethorn Tree, traditionally never cut or interfered with. Under the tree the circle is complete although one of the portals has fallen. Robert is standing at an outlier about 35 metres away

As with the Multiple-stone Circles, there are peripheral monuments associated with Five-stone Circles – standing stones, stone pairs, stone alignments, quartz blocks, radial cairns, and in once case (Mill Little) boulder burials. None of these are inside the circle so are referred to as outliers.

One of the most complex of the Five-stone Circle sites is Kealkill (above), which includes two large standing stones (one of them is truly enormous) and a radial stone cairn.

Another complicated site is Cashelkeelty. Here (above) we see the Five-Stone Circle (although it may be the second of Ó Núalláin’s Three-stone Circles), a row of three stones to the left, and in the distance orthostats of what may have been a Multiple-stone Circle

There are two Five-stone Circles in the townland of Baurgorm. This one (above), the more northerly of the the two, has two outliers but only one is visible in this photo as the other has fallen. There are two other standing stone recorded nearby but we could not find them. The portal stones are unusually far apart in this circle.

This is the second of the Baurgorm circles and from it are visible this group of stones – a standing stone row (three stones of which only two are visible from where we were and of which one of the stones is split) and a single standing stone.

This is the Mill Little Complex which comprises a Five-stone Circle (visible to the right of and behind Simon Tuite of Monumental Ireland), a standing stone pair (foreground, with field stones around them) and three Boulder Burials. While there are many example of Multiple-stone Circles in association with Boulder Burials, it’s unusual to see them alongside the Five-stone Circles.

Ó Núalláin finds the morphology (size and shape) of the stones unremarkable, apart from noting that the stones in individual monuments are roughly similar in size and shape. However, there is a little more to say about it than that. While the recumbent is invariably flat-topped, the flanking stones can vary from a gently rounded curve, to a slant, to what looks like a deliberately shaped angular peak. Have they been chosen, or shaped, with some purpose in mind? Two examples (above and below) are shown here where the right flanking stone (to the right of the recumbent) appears to have been chosen for its pointed shape. The first is Cappaboy Beg, the smallest of the Five-stone Circles and the second is Inchireagh.

Even though the recumbent is usually the lowest stone in the circle, it’s not always the case. At Kealkill (below), for example, the recumbent is easily the largest and most dominant of the five stones.

We cannot rely on archaeological evidence to reveal more about the nature and purpose of the Five-stone Circles. Only one has been scientifically excavated – the one that is part of the Kealkill complex. No burials or deposits were found. A one-day dig in the 1930’s at another site, Knocknakilla, revealed a sort of flat-stoned pavement in the interior, with lots of quartz fragments. Obviously this will be a fertile field for some future researcher.

Glanbrack (above) has cupmarks on the top surface of the recumbent. Our second photograph, taken from the further of the two outliers, reminded us that on the day we visited the field had been half-spread with slurry (we held our noses). While we were engrossed in our photographing and observing, we suddenly became aware that the tractor had arrived at the gate (can you see it?) to do the second half. We hot-footed it out of there!

One thing we have noticed from our visits is that the Five-stone circles are differently situated from the Multiple-stone circles. Whereas Multiple-stone Circles are often on a bench on a hillside, with wide views in one direction and rising ground in the other directions (Drombeg is typical), Five-stone circles are often on flat ground in a valley or at the top of slight eminences (like Cullomane, above, and Cappaboy Beg and Inchireagh below) but usually with panoramic views all around. While we have noted this casually, we would need to go back and check these observations more carefully before being too categorical about them.

In my next post in this series I will get started on the Discussion – what conclusions can be drawn about the nature and purpose of Stone Circles? What do we know about who built them and why? And once again, thank you to Ej Carr for this superb shot of Uragh.

 

Standing Stone Pairs: A Visit to Foherlagh

An unexpected delight – a trip on a Sunny October afternoon to visit a very fine standing stone pair in Foherlagh, just north of Kilcoe Church and School on the M71, between Skibbereen and Ballydehob.

The trip was suggested by Amanda who was, of course, looking for a holy well, said to be associated with a mass rock. All of these – the standing stone pair, the holy well and the mass rock – were grouped in one place so we had to undertake this expedition! Thus we found ourselves knocking on the door of the genial farmer, Dennis Minihane, who donned wellies right away and took us up the hill behind his house.

The view from the top of the hill

We had no idea what would greet us, but as we ascended it dawned on us that the views were pretty spectacular. The standing stone pair came into view, and it was obvious they were enormous. When we reached the top we were greeting by a complete 360 degree panorama – south to the islands of Roaringwater Bay, west to Mount Gabriel, east to Baltimore and north to the hinterland. Kilcoe Castle glowed gently in the foreground, while far away we recognised the distinctive pyramid shape of the Mizen peak at the end of the Peninsula.

Looking toward the end of the Mizen Peninsula

Standing stone rows and pairs are a phenomenon of south west Ireland, and this part of West Cork has many examples. While there are about seventy rows of three to five stones (such as the Fingers at Garranes near Castletownsend, or the Maughnasilly row), there are over a hundred stone pairs, of which Foherlagh is a particularly fine example. Invariably their long axis (that is, standing at one end  and looking along the row or pair) is oriented northeast/southwest. Typically the stones are graded in height, with the taller stone (or tallest, in the case of a stone row) at the southwest end.

Garranes stone row, known as The Fingers, near Castletownshend

Sometimes stone pairs are associated with other monuments. We’ve visited, for example, the Kealkill complex, where a stone pair is associated with a five-stone circle and a radial cairn. There’s also the Coolcoulaghta pair, from which the Dunbeacon stone circle is clearly visible.

Upper: The Kealkill complex of monuments; Lower: the Coolcoulaghta standing stone pair (and the most unsympathetically situated electricity pole in Ireland) from which the Dunbeacon stone circle (now sadly coralled by a wooden fence) can be seen

In Foherlagh, however, there are no other prehistoric monuments apart from a single standing stone a few fields away. What there is, is a pointed outcrop which local tradition has identified as a mass rock – see our post Were You at the Rock? for more on this type of monument. The mass rock had a scoop-out in it that may have functioned as a wart well. Amanda was pleased to find this and no doubt will do her usual thorough write-up on Holy Wells of Cork.

The standing stone pair is clearly oriented northeast/southwest. Depending on where you stand, the axis may point to the Mizen Peak (as does the Altar Wedge Tomb further down the Peninsula) or to Mount Gabriel (as do most of the examples of rock art we have examined in this region). Wherever the line points, it is clear that the expansive views are to the south west.

In his examination of stone rows and pairs*, Seán Ó’Nualláin says “The stone rows and pairs then, like the stone circles, are built so that their long axes indicate a general alignment on the sector of the heavens in which the sun roses and sets, and both series tend to group in a position indicating a winter rather than a summer position for the sun.” He might have added that this is also true for the sector in which the moon rises and sets – Maughnasilly row, for example is associated with lunar, rather than solar, orientations.

Maughnasilly stone row on a dramatic day

Ó’Nualláin, based on excavated examples and clear associations, gives a likely Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age date for stone pairs and rows. That would mean they were erected 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Jack Robert’s‘ drawing of the Foherlagh pair, from Exploring West Cork

But what was their function? Perhaps they were yet another element of the calendrical systems that seem to have been a vital part of this early agricultural society. They may also have been used as territory or routeway markers, or as memorial stones for individuals. Some archaeologists have suggested an anthropomorphic element, in that some pairs may represent male and female figures. The pair at Foherlagh were certainly chosen to be very different in shape, although I am left wondering which –  the tall more rounded one or the shorter very square one – might be the more female or masculine figure.

Thank you to Amanda and Peter for suggesting the expedition, Carol for providing the oohs and aahs of a first-time visitor to Ireland, and Dennis for so generously sharing his land and his stories with us.

Amanda and Carol provide scale

Seán Ó’Nualláin, Stone Rows of the South of Ireland, in Proceedings of the Royal Irish AcademyVol. 88C (1988), pp. 179-256. Available on jstor.org