By Mark Bergin
They go by names like Cloghboola Beg, Carrigagulla, Gortanimil, Reanascreena, Derreentaggart and Ardgroom. Through the veil of time, stone circles and burial dolmens remain a mystery.
There are stone circles found throughout Europe. Such locations as Stonehenge are famous. But there hundreds of other magnificent sites. The greatest concentration of circles in Europe is in the Cork/Kerry region in Ireland’s Southwest, where you can find more than 100. Likewise, burial tombs, which are as old, if not older than the circles, are scattered across the Irish landscape.
Until a time machine is created, we rely on theory and speculation to understand the sites. We can conclude that rituals or ceremonies were conducted at these locations. These may have been spiritual in nature. There may also have been civil ceremonies. Or both.
Should things like the stones locations be kept secret? Does that enhance their mystery or endanger them? Will the invasion by countless visitors destroy the sites? Not likely. Many locations require considerable effort to reach and the average tourist won’t be trekking to visit them. Tour buses can’t get close to most of the locations.
The circles and burial sites are found in a mystical land of beauty. They exist in solitude with no nearby tourist shop selling foreign-made trinkets.
Ireland of the past and present has paid great respect to the Otherworld. The circles and dolmens are in abandoned or unknown areas, some in the middle of a farm field, behind a church or miles from nowhere.
The traditional dwellers of old Ireland believe in a fairy world. Land is full of life and intersects with the spiritual world. A planned runway at Galway Airport was moved during construction because of an ancient fairy mound. Roads have been re-routed. Is this the thinking of the superstitious or a respect for the spirit of the land?
In Eternal Echoes, Irish Catholic theologian John O’Donohue tells the story of a giant stone in an Irish town.
“In silence and stillness, the stone held the memory of the village. Stone is the tabernacle of memory. Until we allow some of Nature’s stillness to reclaim us, we will remain victims of the instant and never enter the heritage of our ancient belonging.”
O’Donohue wrote that the Celtic imagination loved the circle.
“It recognized how the rhythm of experience, nature and divinity followed a circular pattern.”
The creation of the stone circles remains mysterious. It’s hard to imagine how the giant stones were moved to what are sometimes almost inaccessible locations. Once on site, the stones are typically buried in the ground to a depth equal to that which rises above the ground.
Some of the circles are geographically aligned with other sites. Others are clearly associated with lunar or solar events.
It’s hard not to feel moved and transformed at the sight of these ancient circles and tombs.
When standing near or within I wonder what stories the land holds. Who were the inhabitants? Did they hunt, gather or farm? What were their sacred intentions in the creation of these circles? What have the stones witnessed?
Research has been done on some of the circles and tombs in Ireland, especially larger circles like Drombeg and huge burial sites such as that found at Newgrange. Most have only been discovered over the past hundred years or so, typically during road building excavations or when a farmer plows a field.
Two of the most accessible sites are Drombeg, an impressive stone circle in the southwest, and Poulnabrone dolmen, a portal tomb, in the burren, along the west coast.
Many of the circles are oriented to positions on the horizon that correspond to calendar dates in the lunar cycle. In ancient Celtic culture, an awareness of nature and the moving of the sun and moon were of great significance. To honor those moments in time, they developed festivals and celebrations.
Drombeg stone circle is traditionally called the Druid’s Altar. There are burial pits and the remants of prehistoric huts nearby. The structure comprises a ring of stones with one recumbent stone laid horizontally between the standing stones.
The stones of the circle are aligned so that on the winter solstice each year, when the sun dips through a V-shaped ridge in the nearby hills, it comes into alignment with the axial and entrance stones and its rays pierce the centre of the circle.
With a cooking pit nearby, it was clearly part of community life. The cooking pit features a hearth. Tests have indicated that hot stones taken from the fire and placed in the cooking trough could boil 70 gallons of water for 15 minutes. I should note that there is some disagreement about the cooking centre. Some believe it was a sweat lodge, not a community kitchen.
Carbon 14 testing at Drombeg indicate that the circle was constructed between 4000 and 5000 years ago.
It’s mesmerizing to stand in the centre of one of these circles, like you’ve passed through a time portal.
The burial tombs, notably the larger ones, are as impressive as the circles. There are 300 known burial tombs in Ireland. Many more remain to be discovered.
The most remarkable burial sites are the passage tombs. In these massive grave sites, access to a burial chamber is only available through a passage. The tomb and passage are covered by round mounds of earth and stone. They are often found at the top of hills. Carbon dating has indicated that these tombs are older than the pyramids of Egypt. Queen Maeve’s grave at Knocknarea, near Sligo in the west, is one of the largest known passage tombs.
Newgrange burial tomb, in the east of Ireland is fascinating for its precise structure and alignment. Each year, on the winter solstice in December, light shining through a slit in the opening of the the burial tomb illuminates the underground tomb. The knowledge of physics and astronomy that would have been required to successfully build this structure is unfathomable.
In some cases, cremations occurred in or near the burial tombs. The graves often held several generations of deceased.
Poulnabrone dolmen is probably the most easily accessible burial tomb. It’s located in the burren region of Ireland’s west coast. When excavated in 1985 between 16 and 22 adults and six children were found buried along with a stone axe, a bone pendant, quartz crystals, weapons and pottery.
Poulnabrone dolmen is located along R480. There is parking available and it’s only about a hundred metre walk on stony terrain to reach the dolmen.
To reach Drombeg Stone Circle, travel along N71 highway from Clonakilty toward Ross Carberry. Turn left onto R597. In about four kilometers you’ll notice a sign-post for Drombeg. Don’t expect a neon sign. I know people have missed the sign. Tour buses cannot reach this (or most stone circle/burial sites) site. However, cars can park and then hike about 300 metres to the nearby circle.
How to find the others? Talk to locals. Spend time in the pubs. Talk to the folks who live there, especially some of the old-timers.
If you are traveling to Ireland and want some reference to search for circles and tombs, feel free to contact me. You can also do a web search for Jack Roberts and his book called The Stone Circles of Cork and Kerry, Bandia Publishing. It’s a great guide with maps to the locations of 100 circles.
On Twitter: @markaidanbergin