Irish Megaliths
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IRISH PREHISTORIC ARCHITECTURE
part four

Stone Circles
and Stone Rows:


Beaghmore, county Tyrone


observatories
and/or social cohesion ?


text and photographs
by Anthony Weir



As with most of its prehistoric monuments (apart from Passage-tombs), Irish stone circles are mostly more charming than impressive: Ireland has nothing to compare with the astonishing British masterpieces such as Callanish, Castlerigg, Avebury and Stonehenge.
The nearest Ireland gets to those is the circle which was built to enclose the Passage-tomb at Newgrange.

Newgrange, county Meath

But circles were being built in the north-west of Ireland at least a couple of hundred years before the dramatic edifices of Britain. These were circles of boulders deriving from the kerbs of the passage-tombs which were constructed in large numbers on good low-lying farmland.

Carrowmore, county Sligo

But, as with Portal-tombs, the often diminutive Irish circles are in wonderful locations, complementing rather than dominating the beautiful and even dramatic landscapes they are surrounded by as no later architecture has ever set out to do, much less achieved.

Carrigagulla, county Cork

Many are hard to find, but once found, are a delight to the eye in their marriage of landscape with the near-paranoia of human consciousness.

Ardgroom Outward, county Cork

Unlike Britain (whose finest examples are at Brodgar on Orkney and Castlerigg in Cumbria), the largest Irish circles tend to be - as ever with Irish architecture - the least beautiful.

They also not only imitate earthen henges, but in some cases are enclosed by henges or earth-banks. These large Neolithic circles have many stones - sometimes set cheek by jowl - and are 30 metres and more in diameter. Some have alignments on the southern moon, others on the equinoctial sunset.

Ballynoe, county Down

The Irish circles of the Early Bronze Age, however, are much smaller and quite unlike British examples such as Callanish, Avebury and Stonehenge. They could have been erected by rather small groups of people - even single extended families. Many are only roughly circular. And some are intimately associated with alignments or Stone-rows and circles filled with stones.

Beaghmore, county Tyrone

The bulk of Irish stone circles belong to the Middle Bronze Age, and are often very small indeed.

Beaghmore, county Tyrone

We can see and feel, without the teleologies of excavation, pollen analysis, dendrochronology, carbon-dating, and so on, that the many stone circles (and perhaps also stone rows), are magical and ceremonial constructions: open-air temples or observatories.

The word temple derives from Latin templum, whose original meaning was 'viewing-space'.
This space or platform was in early- and pre-Roman times not for viewing celestial bodies,
but for viewing birds - birdwatching. For augury (from a proto-Latin word for 'bird') was practised
by observing the flight of birds
(often geese) at prescribed times, or before taking important decisions.
Augury was practised by augurs, who would then inaugurate proceedings or actions.

It seems more than likely that prehistoric tombs and stone circles were templa for some kind or kinds
of augury, whether celestial or avian. Or even the interpretation of clouds

Those of the Middle Bronze Age were erected at a time of climate-deterioration in areas of marginal soils which had never before been exploited and exhausted: the uplands of counties Cork and Kerry, Tyrone and Derry - with a few examples on the Galway-Mayo border. Some of the Munster (Cork/Kerry) circles are so near to each other that they might have been requisite holy places or shrines for families: something between the modern Infant of Prague in the hallway or on the landing, and the roadside Grotto or Calvary. Many are in spectacular settings.

Considering how people now link every meteorological event with global warming, Bronze Age panic at climatic deterioration is not hard to understand.

But recent fieldwork has established that even quite small stone circles have a sophisticated astronomical function: to foretell eclipses of the sun and moon. Accurate predictions of these dramatic events would certainly have empowered the mathematicians who made them, especially to a population worried about climate-change.

For a very fine web-page showing how stone circles were used as observatories, see:
http://www.antiquity.ac.uk/ProjGall/wilson/index.html

Uragh, county Kerry

Many include monoliths inside or outside, and some incorporate boulder-burials:

Boulder-burial, Mill Little, county Cork.

low, rough, diminutive dolmens that already had a long history (e.g. at Carrowmore in Sligo) and could have been do-it-yourself family sepulchres.

Dromroe, county Kerry

Some of these, too, have related alignments or Stone-rows running off into the heather and bog.

Kealkil, county Kerry

Some are really tiny, have only five (occasionally four) stones, and are tucked away in the hills,

Kealkil, county Kerry

whereas others are quite large and prominent, with many stones.

Bohonagh, county Cork

Drombohilly Upper, county Kerry

Five is the minimum number which can include two Portal-stones (at the NE), an axial or recumbent stone (at the SW) and two other stones to make a ring.

Gowlane North, county Cork

Almost all the second and third period circles are thus aligned - like the Wedge-tombs with which they were roughly contemporary, and which are sometimes close by. Yet there are no circles in the Burren of Clare, where there are dozens of Wedge-tombs - an area which could never be tilled. On the other hand, one or two Wedge-tombs were built inside circles: the inevitable overlap and borrowing of contiguous and contemporaneous cultures - which goes hand in hand with cultic rivalry and mutual destruction - as even today in Ireland with a burning of a Catholic church by Protestant fanatics, and in the Balkans with the destruction of mosques by Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Clogherny, county Tyrone

The assumed association of stone circles and rows with marginal or faltering land and climatic deterioration would suggest that their axial orientation is in fact an occidentation towards the summer sunset or moonset in the tradition of wedge-tomb builders - an attempt to ensure that the power of the sun would continue its magical effect on over-tilled and monocultural, rather than over-grazed, soils. In which case their social function would have been the building rather than the subsequent arcane, astronomical use. That this power of the sun was itself in doubt is instanced by an eighteen-year period in the 12th century BC when pollen analysis reveals there was no growth at all - as if a volcanic eruption had produced a cloud of ash which blocked out sunlight for a generation.

The question arises, however: why so many observatories, when just a few would suffice ?
Was their construction more important than their use, or were astronomers constantly checking each other and verifying their predictions ?

Lissyviggeen, county Kerry

We live in an Age of Explanation which has not escaped the long shadow of Victorian insistence that explanations should be as free as possible from excitement or sin, and thus cannot get our compartmentalising minds around phenomena which involved magic, mystery, burial, celebration, the fertility of soil and livestock, mayhem, machismo and phallic rites, cruelty, torture and scapegoating, potlatch events, week-long drinking bouts, divination, astrology and star-gazing - but certainly bore no relation to the embarrassingly crass screenplay of the 1973 film, 'The Wicker Man'.

Garrane, county Cork Castlenalacht, county Cork

Yet we can, if we tear ourselves away from our literal, mechanistic, domineering, rectangular, concrete (and often at the same time inanely-romantic) mind-set, marvel at the æsthetic magic of constructions which are, paradoxically, in humble sympathy with the landscape that their builders sought to subdue by force-majeure and ritual.

Derryinver, county Galway

As with all megaliths (not only in Ireland) we see now only a small fraction of what once was. Many stone-circles and rows must have been damaged or wrecked by cattle leaning and rubbing against them over the centuries. A huge amount of destruction was wreaked in the early twentieth century. Some of the large stones of one great row in county Cork (Dromfeagh, near Dunmanway) can now be seen strewn along field-fences. What may have been a row a hundred metres or more long is now one sad, single stone not even included in this gazetteer.

Many single Standing-stones may be all that remains of a more complex monument. Some might be a portal-stone from a tomb, and others may be sole survivors of stone-pairs or stone-rows. But thousands are single monuments or menhirs * which were erected for various purposes: the marking of a burial, the commemoration of a person or an event, the marking of a ritual place, a signpost, sighting-stone aligning with a geographical feature or other megalith - or as a rubbing post for cattle. Only the most impressive, elegant or otherwise remarkable ones are listed in the gazetteer.

Some standing-stones - relatively simple to conceive of and to erect, and completely undatable because they are without context - could be older than the oldest datable monuments.

* Menhir is an antiquarian fake-Breton word for 'long stone' [compare Cloch Fháda in Irish] - the actual Breton for menhir being Peulvan or 'stone pillar'.


"The past is not over - it has not even passed."
William Faulkner


distribution of Stone Circles

 

click to see an interactive panorama on a fraternal site

 


A little stone circle in the Basque Pyrenees.

An expanded version of this page is also on the

developed from this website, with many more photographs.

 

 

POSTSCRIPT:

BEWARE OF FAKE CIRCLES
such as those in Ravensdale Forest, county Louth,
at the tip of the Mullet Peninsula, county Mayo,
and this one by the roadside just outside Tempo, county Fermanagh.


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RECOMMENDED READING:

Two excellent books on stone circles are:

BURL, Aubrey: The Stone Circles of Brittany and
the British Isles, Yale University Press, 2000.
ISBN 0 300 08347 5

This is a book of over 460 pages with a few black-and-white photographs
and detailed text. A few of the Irish townland names are wrongly-spelled.

MILLIGAN, Max & Aubrey Burl: Circles of Stone -
The Prehistoric Rings of Britain and Ireland, Harvill 1999.
ISBN 1 86046 661 3

A book of superb photos and succinct texts covering 70 of the most
photogenic circles of the British Isles.

These books may be ordered
at a discount through:

abebooks.com
(secondhand)


and outside the UK through amazon.com



For maps of tombs and stone circles in Ulster (six counties) peatlands see:
www.peatlandsni.gov.uk/archaeology/tombs.htm#stonecirclesmap




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click for a slide-show of   Ballynoe Stone Circle, county Down