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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,
Carrif churchyard, county Louth
Bullaun in the Glandassan River, Glendalough,
Kilfountan, county Kerry
Toormoor or Toormour, county Sligo
bullauns have been reported around Glendalough, county Wicklow.
for more information.
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
now outside the church at Chapeltown
Multiple-bullaun, Cong, county Mayo
Multiple-bullaun, Gortavoher, county Tipperary
have a continuing ritual use, involving the saying of prayers
and the turning of smooth pebbles in their hemispherical beds.
on the image for a larger picture
Multiple-bullaun, Killinagh, county Cavan
pebbles can occur on their own as cure-stones (or curse-stones),
as on the island of Inishmurray
click for another
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
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
Deep, ringed cups and solution-pits on the
front roofstone of a Wedge-tomb
in Burren, county Cavan
are associated with megaliths:
Templebryan North, county
look anything but Christian.
for a high-resolution photo
Feaghna, county Kerry: multiple
bullaun and phallic
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.
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!
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
possibility of a more down-to-earth (additional) function cannot
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 Cupmarks (compare
with High Banks, 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.
"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
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
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
Cross-slabs from Saul and Raholp, county Down
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.
Sometimes they were personalised with the name of the dead monk.
Fuerty, county Roscommon: the inscription
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.
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.
Clonmacnois, county Offaly
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
- including the deep cup-mark or bullaun.
Dalkey, county Dublin
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
Quicumquæ hunc titulum legerit orat pro Berechtuine
(May whoever reads this pray for Berechter)
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...