Glens of the Scientists

It’s Easter Sunday, but we didn’t see the sun dancing at dawn this morning. In fact, so far it’s the first wet day that we’ve had since we’ve been in ‘lockdown’ because of the Covid 19 crisis. Such a contrast from the view over Roaringwater Bay yesterday (Saturday, see above) when the weather was absolutely flawless: no wind, blue sky over balmy sea, and temperatures akin to midsummer. But for today’s post I’m going back a few weeks to the days when Coronavirus was just something that was happening, in the news, a world away from West Cork – and we were still free to roam the countryside.

Spring equinox came early this year. We were out for it, in a biting east wind but dry under clear skies. Our destination was a vast landscape of glens and hills to the east of Bantry town. The place fascinates us: it is alive with prehistory. There are literally dozens of scheduled monuments spread over many townlands. They include stone circles, standing stones, stone alignments, ancient cairns and other anomalous stone groupings. This is probably one of the west of Ireland’s richest and most concentrated areas which records, through physical remains, human activity from the Neolithic period – the earliest settled farmers – through to the Bronze Age, when the first metallurgists began to explore and exploit the underlying geology of the landscape.

Upper – look carefully – there’s an alignment of three significant standing stones in these fields in Cullomane West, but our first stop was a nearby anomolous stone grouping which included an equinox alignment – (lower) – towards the west horizon

It was pure chance that we were out on the day of the spring (or vernal) equinox – the time when the length of the day equals the length of the night. And pure chance, also, that our first stop, in the townland of Derreengreanagh, presented us with a spring equinox alignment. We had the permission of the landowner to cross her fields to access these stones which are hidden away from any highway or byway. We found two substantial standing stones and a small group of recumbent stones. By checking the relative positions of the two tall stones on a ‘sunseeker’ app, we were able to establish that they line up perfectly with the spring equinox sunrise to the east and the spring equinox sunset to the west. Furthermore, the point at which the sun rises on the eastern horizon on this day is marked by a distant hilltop – also in perfect alignment:

As I look around the glens on our wanderings, I see into the past. I see rich, sheltered meadows watered by natural streams, stunted oak forests, sunlit glades. I feel the warmth of the sun as it gets stronger, contained by the bowl shaped landscapes; I find flocks of sheep which don’t seem to mind our trespassing (carefully) on their domains – they are content with their environment. The place is at peace in its own time.

I try to feel closer to those who dwelled in this relative tranquility thousands of years ago. I can imagine that the shape of the landscape, and its natural offerings, attracted them. They might have been my own distant ancestors, or yours. But they were no different from you and me. Their lives were technologically unlike ours, but we can’t suppose that their responses to what was around them would be unrecognisable to us. They would have welcomed the abundance which fed them, through their ability to understand the principles of sowing and harvesting; they were able to make shelters from natural materials – wood, stone and furze. But, beyond the practicalities, surely they would have seen wonder in nature. How could they not respond to the ever changing light, the vastness of the sky, the awesome infinity of the stars? The strange movements of sun and moon… The constancy of things all around them?

Hiding in nature: this five-stone circle in Baurgorm townland is heavily overgrown and guarded by thorn trees, yet it survives: its orientation and the alignment of the stones was undoubtedly deliberate

The next townland over from Derreengreanagh is Baurgorm, where our researches were rewarded with an almost intact five-stone circle. Within site of this is another stone alignment (see picture 3 above), and several other scheduled monuments are nearby. There is no ‘Stonehenge’ or ‘Newgrange’ in these glens: everything is relatively low-key and is unlikely to impress the average 21st century sightseer. Yet these stones are still there, set in the landscape where they were first placed – with a purpose – in these glens so many generations ago.

Walking the glens: walking through prehistory

In my opinion (and this is only my opinion, remember), the people who lived in these glens were our earliest scientists, and the surviving ancient stones are the hard evidence of their science. They were observing and recording the world they saw around them and marking the elements of that world which were of the greatest significance. One of these must have been the solar cycle. The equinoxes were of paramount importance: through the half-year after the spring equinox the days were longer, lighter and warmer, while through the half-year after the autumn equinox, their world was darker and colder with short days and long nights. The alignment of the standing stones at Derreengreanagh marks this calendrical division with great accuracy, and must have taken a great deal of time and human endeavour to set up. The shape of the terrain, the undulations of the horizon, and the daily progression of the sun had to be understood and integrated into a  construction so monumental that it has survived intact for 3,000 years or more. There’s nothing magic about this, or mystic or religious: it’s pure science.

Not just the sun, but the phases of the moon and the trajectories of the stars would have been observed and studied by our ancestors. What came before Christianity in Ireland? St Patrick’s work was to convert the Irish, but all he says in his own Confessio about them is that they worshipped ‘idols and unclean things’. But he also refers to ‘all those who adore’ the sun. That’s a fascinating concept: ‘adoration of the sun’. Patrick didn’t use the phrase worship of the sun. but he had specifically mentioned worship of idols. I could be reading too much into the Confessio as it has come down to us, but the concept of ‘adoring’ as opposed to ‘worship’ fits well with the idea of Ireland’s earliest settled people being obsessively concerned with the movement of this source of light, heat – and life. In the remotest regions of West Cork we find an ancient wisdom.