Ancient Calendars

One of West Cork's ancient calendars

One of West Cork’s ancient calendars

We’ve been catching up on our rock art project this week and it’s brought us out into the field. On Saturday the weather was spectacular – crisp, but with a totally blue sky and vibrant colours. See Amanda’s photo of the day here. We spent most of the day just east of Rosscarbery, a picturesque settlement above the water at Rosscarbery Bay, where the birdlife viewing is always a delight.

One of the sites we visited was Bohonagh. Not only does it boast cupmarked stones, but a very fine boulder burial and a stone circle.

Bohonagh Stone Circle

Bohonagh Stone Circle

West Cork is particularly rich in 3000 year old Bronze Age stone circles and most of them are of the ‘axial’ or ‘recumbent’ type. This means that the circle is laid out on an axis that is oriented in a particular direction. On one side of the circle is a stone laid longways – the recumbent stone. Across from the recumbent are the portals: two tall stones that appear to create a doorway into the circle. Sometimes the stones rise in height from the recumbent to the portals, and the portal stones may be set ‘end-on’ to the circle. There are always, therefore, an uneven number of stones – up to 17 have been recorded, although many circles are incomplete, with fallen or missing stones. The purpose of the axis was to provide a line of sight on a sunrise or sunset (and perhaps even moonrise and moonset) at important calendrical points such as solstices and equinoxes.

The portal stones at Bohonagh

The portal stones at Bohonagh

Bohonagh quartz

Quartz at Bohonagh

A feature of these circles is that many of them include quartz rocks: sometimes as one of the circle stones, sometimes as an additional rock in the interior or exterior of the circle, and sometimes on a nearby monument such as a boulder burial. At Bohonagh there were several quartz rocks, including one lying outside the circle and two supporting the boulder burial. In one case, at Ballycommane, we have seen an enormous quartz rock function as the capstone of a boulder burial – quite awe-inspiring in its visual impact. Interestingly, this same phenomenon occurs in a stone circle in Cornwall – Boscawen-Un in the West Penwith Peninsula, not that far from West Cork! As we watched the quartz under the boulder burial glisten in the sun (impossible to capture on a photograph) we knew it had to be seen as a very special stone to the builders of these circles.

Brooding stones at Dunbeacon

Brooding stones at Dunbeacon

Stone circles often command sweeping views of the surrounding countryside. This makes them well worth visiting, even if a goodly hike is involved. Because they are invariably located on private land, it is good practice to try to track down the landowner and request permission, and of course to always close gates and observe good field etiquette on a visit. Don’t be surprised to find that many are no longer intact: the centuries have taken their toll and many of the stones have fallen or disappeared over time. On the upside, this adds to the romantic wildness of the scene.

Gorteanish Stone Circle, re-discovered in the laying out of  the Sheep's Head Way

Gorteanish Stone Circle, re-discovered in the laying out of the Sheep’s Head Way

One of the most famous of the West Cork stone circles is Drombeg, near Glandore. Here, people gather on the winter and summer solstices to witness sunrise and sunset.

Drombeg on a wet day

Drombeg on a wet day

At Bohonagh, the alignment is to the spring equinox sunrise and sunset, due east and west. We plan to be there!

Old Stones

A classic piece of Rock Art - on display in Dublin's National Museum

A classic piece of Rock Art – on display in Dublin’s National Museum

As we enter October, we begin to look towards the dark part of our year – and to think of the Cailleach who, in these western parts of Munster, is known as The Hag of Beara: in early tales she is pictured as a prolific figure responsible for shaping the landscape by carrying huge stones in her apron and dropping them to form hills and outcrops, as well as ancient standing stones, circles and alignments. She is also seen wielding a great hammer with which she sculpts and refines her geological creations. She has had seven periods of youth, one after another, so that every man who lived with her came to die of old age. Her grandsons and great grandsons are so many that they make up entire tribes and races. She falls asleep on Bealtaine (May 1st) and wakes again on Samhain (November 1st) – we will be looking forward to the storms which will herald her coming. Until then she rests on a hillside overlooking Coulagh Bay, beyond Allihies on the remote Beara Peninsula, where her rocky incarnation depicts her as both a young maiden and an old crone.

Monuments in the mist: The Hag of Beara and Drombeg Circle

Monuments in the mist: The Hag of Beara and Drombeg Circle

Ireland is stuck in a stream of warm air coming up from the tropics at the moment: this makes temperatures two or three degrees higher than the norm for early autumn, but also causes a damp landscape shrouded in fog: we have missed our view of the Fastnet for several days.

Standing stones

Some West Cork standing stones

The weather hasn’t hindered our exploration of Ireland’s old stones – the terrain created by the Hag. Yesterday we went to Drombeg Circle: a popular site for tourists. Many visitors will fail to notice the rock art carved on the recumbent stone that points out this megalithic monument’s alignment with the winter solstice. At the foot of another stone we found some enigmatic markings which I readily interpreted as a dancing Hare.

Drombeg Rock Art - and a mysterious Holy Well in Rossbrin Cove

Drombeg rock art – and a mysterious holy well in Rossbrin Cove

Bishops Luck - a megalithic close by Nead an Iolair: according to local legend, a

Bishop’s Luck – a megalith close by Nead an Iolair: according to local legend, a bishop is buried under this!

Ireland’s history is written in stone: the natural landscape; megalithic monuments; buildings – cottages, castles, farms, churches, lighthouses; every townland is rich in examples. Building material, track surfacing, grave marker and artists’ canvas (perhaps): stone has been a resource to aid human occupation for thousands of years.

Stone in context: Galley Head Lighthouse

Stone in context: Galley Head Lighthouse

The ultimate stone monument - Newgrange Passage Grave, County Meath - the spectacular quartz facing is a conjectural reconstruction

The ultimate Neolithic stone monument – Newgrange Passage Grave, County Meath – the spectacular quartz facing is a conjectural reconstruction