Some Spared Stones of Ireland

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text and photographs by
Anthony Weir

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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.

Bullaun at Carrif.

Carrif churchyard, county Louth

Bullaun in the Glandassan River, Glendalough, county Wicklow

Kilfountan, county Kerry

Toormoor or Toormour, county Sligo

Some forty bullauns have been reported around Glendalough, county Wicklow.
Click here 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 Down,
now outside the church at Chapeltown

Multiple-bullaun, Cong, county Mayo

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 on the image 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

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click for another photo

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

They 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 large picture
click for a high-resolution 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 the picture for more, on a fraternal website.

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.

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
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, 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.

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.

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.

Clonmacnois, county Offaly

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 - including 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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