Irish Genius
Some Spared Stones of Ireland


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field guide

irish prehistoric tombs:





stone circles

(rock art)


stone forts, crannógs & souterrains

ogam-stones &

& cross-slabs
part one

enigmas of the irish crosses


& the phallic continuum

satan in the groin


the earth-mother's

east of brittany:
megaliths of western and southern france






from Drakestown, county Meath

In England, "Dobbie stones, stones with natural or artificial hollows in which offerings, such as milk, can be placed, have been used traditionally in rites for raising the wind. The modern tradition of these stones is that they are receptacles for milk for sacred cats and are sometimes called Cat Troughs."

~ Pennick, Nigel,
Practical Magic in the Northern Tradition, Aquarian: Wellingborough 1989.

At the village of Bentham near the Yorkshire-Lancashire border, a dobbie or hobgoblin was supposed to live in a well called The Tweed Trough.

On Haworth Moor, West Yorkshire, 'cat troughs' were filled with milk and honey by farmers and villagers for much the same reason that the Scottish Highlanders reputedly poured milk into their cup-and-ring stones to appease the gruagach or evil spirits or goblins/brownies.

The Celtic goddess Bríde (Brigid or Bridget), associated with Imbolc (lactation) had a magical white cow, and at least one of Ireland's multiple-bullauns (Killinagh, county Leitrim) is known as St Brigid's Stone...



For a bullaun in NW England (Cumbria) click here.





part two



text and photographs by
Anthony Weir

Although originating in megalithic times, the commonest kind of bullaun
(bullán in Irish) is a portable stone or craterolith associated with an ancient church or monastery, in which there is a deep, hemispherical depression.

Carrif Churchyard

Carrif churchyard, county Louth

Bullaun in the Glandassan River, Glendalough, county Wicklow

click for a larger picture

Kilfountan, county Kerry

Toormoor or Toormour, county Sligo

Some forty bullauns have been reported around Glendalough, county Wicklow.

In many places all over Ireland, like Toormoor (above), remains of a monastic site have been gathered together to make a leacht or altar, beside a multiple bullaun (bottom centre). Bullauns (from a word cognate with 'bowl' and French 'bol') are usually associated with monastic sites, but their origin and function(s) are much earlier. The hemispherical depressions hollowed out of small or large boulders may have anything from one to fifteen bullauns

Triple bullaun from Ardtole church, county Down,
now outside the church at Chapeltown

Multiple-bullaun, Cong, county Mayo

click for a closer view

Multiple-bullaun, Gortavoher, county Tipperary

Some have a continuing ritual use, involving the saying of prayers and the turning of smooth pebbles in their hemispherical beds.

click for a larger picture

Multiple-bullaun, Killinagh, county Cavan

The water-smoothed pebbles can occur on their own as cure-stones (or curse-stones), as on the island of Inishmurray

The monastic enclosure, Inishmurray, county Sligo
click for another view.

click for more

Clocha Breaca (Speckled Stones), Inishmurray

now removed to the National Museum in Dublin

or at another Sligo site where each stone was turned with a Lord's Prayer and a shoelace was tied around the minuscule pillar to ensure that the affliction was firmly left behind.

Cure-stones, Killerry, county Sligo...
and photographed some thirty years later.

Bullauns are not unique to Ireland, of course, being found on the Swedish island of Gotland, and, I am told, in Lithuania. I have seen two beside a megalithic tomb in France. Possibly enlarged from already-existing solution-pits caused by rain, bullauns are, of course, reminiscent of the cup-marked stones which occur all over Atlantic Europe, and their significance (if not their precise use) must date from Neolithic times.

Deep, ringed cups and solution-pits on the front roofstone of a Wedge-tomb
in Burren, county Cavan

Thus some are associated with megaliths:

Templebryan North, county Cork

and others look anything but Christian.

Click for a hi-res picture
click for a large photo

Feaghna, county Kerry: multiple bullaun and phallic pebble-and-socket

It is unlikely that all bullauns (of which there must have been thousands) were beds for cur[s]e-stones, and there has been some speculation as to what they contained. The story of St Kevin of Glendalough and the Deer Stone bullaun at Glendalough in county Wicklow miraculously filled with milk every morning for the saint to drink suggests a possible original use in an island which was always supremely pastoral - though the accretion of rancid curds or butter in the crevices of the stone might have been a problem. Birds would quickly have drunk milk thus left out. More likely, special grains and/or seeds might have been ground in some by a stone pestle, prior to making a ritual healing or cleansing porridge.

However, in his account of the Folklore of county Clare at the end of the 19th century, T.J. Westropp told of people making hollows in front of portal-tombs and wedge-tombs, and leaving milk an offering for the Sídhe or earth-spirits - usually misleadingly translated as 'fairies'. He went on to say that stones such as that in front of the wedge-tomb at Newgrove could have been for this purpose. He names a few examples of tombs with bullauns nearby, thus suggesting that at least some bullauns (and deep cup-marks) were used for offerings of milk (a symbol of purity as well as sustenance). All somewhat speculative, of course!

Baltynanima, county Wicklow

Another possibility is suggested by the use of bullaun-like stones in Africa, where they have been used to attract rain. A prehistoric bullaun in France has a channel in the rock leading to it, and it is reported to be almost never without water, even in very dry weather - which was when I saw it. It was large enough to have been useful as a mirror.

The possibility of a more down-to-earth (additional) function cannot be excluded!

click for more Click for more

Ritual they certainly were. In the graveyard (a site of evident antiquity) at Killadeas in county Fermanagh are some curious stones, including a relief carving of an ecclesiastic (The Bishop's Stone), a broken phallic pillar, a perforated stone, and a multiple-bullaun (or slab with very large cup-marks) set up on its edge and Christianised on the other side with a cross in relief.

On this Killadeas stone the depressions could be interpreted
either as Bullauns or very deep Cupmarks
(compare with High Banks in Scotland)

At Ardane, county Tipperary, river-rounded pebbles (not in the photographs) occur together with cross-slabs and a holy well within a fairly-modern enclosure - so the attraction of round pebbles and hollows transcends the ages - and the faiths.

click to enlarge

"St Berrihert's Kyle", Ardane: always a place of poor light

Most of the little slabs at Ardane are actually pillow-stones - originally placed under the head of a dead monk in his grave. Hundreds of them survive in the Midlands of Ireland.

Cloontuskert, county Roscommon

One in county Roscommon has a combination of motifs: the 'cross-crossy' and the sacred Jewish menora. It also recalls the Icelandic End-Strife pictogram.

Poitiers (Vienne), France:
roughly-contemporaneous Merovingian cross-decorated stone

The Irish carvings have their origins, of course, in continental Europe - and,
beyond that, in Egypt and farther East.

Grave-slab at Struell Wells, county Down.

Not all small slabs were pillow-stones.
Some are obviously trial-pieces, as one of a little group at Saul.

click to enlarge

Cross-slabs from Saul and Raholp (far left), county Down

The large rich, central monasteries have left us the largest number of cross-slabs, which became larger and were placed on top of the grave rather than in it. But fine grave-slabs are found in more remote spots, too.

Rossinver, county Leitrim

Sometimes they were personalised with the name of the dead monk.

Fuerty, county Roscommon: the inscription reads
Or do anmain Adacáin - A prayer for the soul of Adacán.
The fish might hark back to the Sacred Salmon of Wisdom,
or to the
I.X.Q.E.U.S (Ichtheus=Fish) acronym for Jesus Christ,
Son of God, Saviour, popular before the adoption of Christianity
as a religion of Empire by Constantine - or Adacán might simply
have been an excellent fisherman, and hence of value to his fellow-monks.

At Clonmacnois hundreds have been found, some of which are very elaborate, and date probably from the 11th or 12th century, whereas others might be four or five hundred years older.

Click for another slab in high-resolution

Clonmacnois, county Offaly
click for another slab in high-resolution

In the South Dublin - North Wicklow area there is a group of slabs, carved in granite in the twelfth century which are thought to show Scandinavian influence, and seem to hark back to megalithic style and motifs which include the deep cup-mark or bullaun..

Dalkey, county Dublin

On the other hand, a grave-slab in county Cork shows a more urbane influence, possibly from Britain or Continental Europe, with its sophisticated 45° labyrinth pattern.

Tullylease, county Cork - the Latin incription reads:
Quicumquæ hunc titulum legerit orat pro Berechtuine
(May whoever reads this pray for Berechter)

The distinction between cross-slabs and cross-pillars is blurred. Some larger slabs have subsequently been erected as pillars. And some fallen cross-pillars look like slabs...

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On the island of Inishmurray, off the coast of Sligo, many cross-slabs and pillars survive, as well as ruined churches and monks' cells (known as clocháns). Some slabs and pillars have been set up on leachta, others stood or lay about until recently removed to the schoolhouse 'for their protection'.


A panoramic virtual visit to the island, with an excellent essay on its history, can be enjoyed at
Voices from the Dawn.

It is not surprising in such a well-preserved island environment as Inishmurray to find smooth oval, magic, holy, cure- or curse-stones (see above) - here decorated both by engraving and deeper carving- placed on top of a leacht.....

...not far from a large corbelled stone hut (sometimes mistaken for a sweathouse) whose entrance is now very low because of infill.

The same combination of rectilinear with curvilinear design occurs on grave-slabs.

One such, carved on both sides is one of a few known to have crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic as talismans to help the afflicted descendants of emigrants from the area.


Bruckless, county Donegal: two sides of the same slab.

photo by Tom FourWinds

Glencolumbcille, county Donegal:
two of many cross-pillars
marking 'stations' of the

The eighth 'station' at Glencolumbcille.

Slabs and pillars seem to merge on certain sites - which, like most of those illustrated here, are either on islands or near to the

Inishbofin, co. Galway

Caher Island

Caher Island, co. Mayo


On the island of Inishkea North, large cross-slabs (unlikely to be funerary) become crucifixion-slabs.

Inishkea North, county Mayo:
crucifixion slab and ornamented quernstone:
note the wounds of Jesus indicated by cup-marks

At Kilnaruane in county Cork, an impressive schist pillar is carved on both sides. The SW side features SS Anthony and Paul the Hermit in the desert, a praying figure, and a cross. Uniquely on the NE side is a wicker-and-skin boat (currach) with rowers. It was from this area that St Brendan the Navigator sailed to Iceland.

click for a larger picture rotated to the right

Though Dublin City has a very fine cross-pillar which is nothing less than an elaborate, latter-day standing-stone, the development is less deft on some other early, near-coastal sites.

Tullaghora, county Antrim

In contrast to the later development of the cross-shaped "scripture crosses" there was a definite tendency (possibly prehistoric) to carve some of the large early pillars in human shape, as can be seen at

Legananny, county Down

and, more spectacularly, at

click for a larger photo

Skellig Michael, county Kerry.

In rich inland monasteries, by the Romanesque period, carving of small slabs was as sophisticated as that of the 'Scripture Crosses', with truly Romanesque motifs such as sinners being devoured and strangled by the Serpent.

Gallen, county Offaly

Another development was the "face-cross", on much smaller slabs or very small pillars.

Knappaghmanagh, county Mayo:
(note the cup-marks or solution pits)

The most sophisticated of the face-crosses, however, is not within the scope of this website, for it is on the Hebridean island of Colonsay, Scotland.

This little pillar, in a still-used ancient graveyard, is of the simpler, more primitive kind.

Kilbroney, county Down.

It is in the north-west county of Donegal that pillars, slabs and crucifixions merge together, and associate with motifs drawn both from pre-Christian Ireland and Merovingian France.

Fahan Mura, county Donegal

Cross-pillar, Carndonagh, county Donegal

click for more

Inishkeel, county Donegal

click to enlarge

Drumhallagh, county Donegal:
note the quartzite pebbles at the base of this slab

Knots and circular motifs of various kinds become a common feature on the sculptured crosses of the following centuries - along with enigmatic human figures, as well as Biblical scenes such as The Fall, Cain and Abel, King David playing his harp, Daniel in the Lions' Den, the Baptism of Jesus, and the Last Supper.

Cross and "guard-pillars", Carndonagh, county Donegal;
the pillars may have been boundary-markers for the monastery

"Guard-pillar" of the cross at Carndonagh, county Donegal:
a monk at the left, and a mythological figure (reminiscent of the
Norse trickster/devil-god Loki) on the right.
The latter is not so different from our motif-statue of the smith-god Nuadú of the horned helmet - also from a Christian site - which may be five hundred or more years older.

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Manticora on the side of a cross-pillar (or cross-shaft)
at Tibberaghny (Tybroughney), county Kilkenny: one of a large repertoire
of enigmatic beasts and scenes on Irish crosses.

Click on the picture to read



<part one

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