The oldest known Megalithic structure in Ireland is that of Newgrange in the Boyne Valley. It dates to around 3,200 BCE and predates both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Giza. Southwest Munster, and West Cork in particular, is home to the greatest concentration in Ireland of stone circles. There are two main kinds recorded in the National Monuments website ( see the link National Monuments Service (archaeology.ie) ), each making up about half the total number of circles – the multiple-stone circle and the five-stone circle. (There are also a small number of not clearly understandable monuments called ‘four posters’ which share some features with stone circles.)
The division based on the number of stones is somewhat arbitrary, since both share most other features. Both have uneven numbers of stones – five in the case of the five-stone circle, and seven or more (up to 19) in the multiple-stone circles. Both types are axial or recumbent stone circles. The name recumbent comes from the lowest stone in the circle, the only stone set on its side, with its long axis parallel to the ground. All the other stones are set upright and they often increase in size from the recumbent to the portal stones. The portals appear to form an entrance into the circles and are sometimes set end-on to the circle. An axis drawn from the point between the portals to the middle of the recumbent bisects the circle – hence the name axial stone circle. All these features can be seen in the photograph of Drombeg Stone Circle which featured in a blog by Andrew Gibbons earlier this year. While the multiple-stones circles appear roughly circular, they may have been laid out using more complicated geometry than the string-marking-out-a-circle technique. Some are more elliptical than truly circular. The five-stone circles, given the dominance of the recumbent, are actually D-shaped for example, Knocknacoille where some of you have seen my ritual decompressions take place. Many of our stone circles have disappeared over time, with only a memory in folklore mayindicate that here was once a circle of stones. Some have lost stones over time, while in others uprights have collapsed. Whole monuments have vanished into forests or dense undergrowth. Even where we still have partial circles it can be difficult to make out which are the portals and which the recumbent.
The circles are constructed from local stone and in some cases it is easy to see where they have been quarried from nearby rock outcrops. There is no evidence of the builders transporting the stones from elsewhere, with the exception, perhaps of the quartz blocks which are found occasionally either as uprights or associated with the circle inside or outside it. Although quartz is found in abundance in West Cork a large block of it may have been especially prized and reserved for such a situation.
The circles were carefully and deliberately constructed:the archaeologist EM Fahy’s (author of the journal “Cork Historical and Archaeological Society” 1957) excavations at Drombeg and Reenascreena shows that the ground was levelled. Stones were, it seems, selected for shape as well as size. The recumbent is usually flat on top, which may indicate the side closest to the parent rock from which it was split. Some may well have been deliberately shaped by knocking or splitting off sections – we often notice, for example, how well certain uprights mirror the landscape behind them, like the example of the Ardgroom stone circle.
Stone circles are often associated with other monuments, most commonly boulder burials and standing stones, and at least two have radial stone cairns beside them. Some of the standing stones appear to function as outliers to the circle, extending alignments towards solar or lunar orientations. West Cork stone circles, from the sparse excavation evidence, date from the middle to late Bronze Age (about 1500 to 600BC). They are commonly found on elevated ground with a clear and expansive view southwards, but stretching from the northeast to the southwest – that portion of the sky in which both the sun and the moon rise and set. Our stone circles have always fascinated antiquarians, happy to label them ‘druidic temples’ or make outlandish claims about their construction by visiting Egyptians. This stems from the Celtic Revival at the turn of the 20th Century in which WB Yeats was one of the main pioneers.
In more recent times, they have been the subject of a great deal of neo-pagan speculation about long-distance ley lines, mystical ‘energies’, extra-terrestrial builders, associations with cults and the like. As an amateur researcher and folklorist, I think this is a pity, in the sense that these stone circles are fascinating enough as they are – they embody so much that we need to understand about the scientific knowledge, advanced construction technology, and social organisation of the builders. The belief systems that underlie their reasons for constructing these monuments are equally important and more difficult to rationally investigate and surmise after the passage of millennia, but should be based on close and serious study of the monuments themselves.
Multiple Stone Circles
An online search for ‘West Cork Stone Circles’ will bring you to many pages of information about Drombeg but precious little else. Drombeg is a marvellous site and its excavation yielded much-needed information about stone circles, but it’s only one site – the one with the signposts and car park with multitudes of Summer tourists as its on the West Cork tourist route going from Clonakilty to Rosscarbery on the coast.
Multiple stone circles in West Cork all fall under the heading of recumbent or axial circles, in which two portal stones (usually the tallest in the circle) stand opposite a recumbent and the line that passes through the portals and over the recumbent is considered to be the axis of the circles. However, within this predominant design, there are variations in how the builders decided to construct their circles.
The most noticeable variation, of course, is the size of the circle and the number of stones it contains, from seven to an estimated nineteen. We don’t know why the builders made these choices, although as with most construction, size can be equated with wealth: building a stone circle was an difficult undertaking relying on the the ability to band together a significant labour force. Perhaps also a larger circle with more stones permitted finer gradations of alignments, if this was the purpose of the circle, or more expansive ceremonials within the boundary of the circle.
The portals are normally the tallest stones in the circle but occasionally they are also set radially, or edge-on, to give the impression of a natural entrance. In only three cases an extra pair of stones helps to emphasise the entry point by creating a short passage. One example of this is Carrigagrenane, which is also one of the largest circles at nineteen stones.
Conversely, the recumbent or axial stone is normally the lowest stone in the circle and the broadest (since it is set with its long axis parallel to the ground) but even here variation occurs. The axial stone at Ardgroom Outward, for example, is a pillar stone. Indeed, it can sometimes be difficult to decide where the axis line of the circle runs, if stones have fallen or are missing.
Monoliths (single standing stones or blocks set on the ground) are present at some sites, either inside or outside the circle (as at Ardgroom Outward ). Where they are inside they are placed off-centre. Where they are outside, they can be close to the circle or some way off but visible from it. These are usually called outliers. Quartz is a stone of choice for some of these monoliths but it is interesting that quartz is never in use as a circle orthostat ( an upright stone set in the ground). Standing stone pairs can also function as outliers to a multiple stone circle. At Dunbeacon this outlier pair is almost half a kilometre from the circle across the valley, but each is clearly visible from the other. Originally a third standing stone also stood within 50 metres of the standing stone pair, but it has now disappeared.
Another association is with boulder burials, sometimes found outside the circle, as in Bohonagh where the boulder burial capstone is quartz and contains cupmarks. At Ballyvacky (below) a boulder burial stands about 50 metres from the circle and a standing stone once stood beside it. Boulder burials, as we have seen, are also found inside the circle: one of the most spectacular examples of this is at Breeny More where a group of four boulder burial are set in a square within a large circle from which most of the stones are missing. Finally, occasional stone circles will be surrounded by a fosse or shallow ditch. The most striking example is at Reenascreena, below.
When I have visited some of these stone circles, I was struck by features which appear to be similar at all or most of the sites. Many are situated on elevated sites with expansive views to the south and west. While this has been well documented by archaeologists, it’s one thing to read about it and yet another to visit a few circles and find yourself expecting a certain set of circumstances as you tune in to patterns in the sites themselves. What the orientation descriptions don’t mention, for example, is that the choice of location often features rising ground behind the circles which obscures the horizon to the north. Occasionally the higher ground blocking the horizon is not to the north at all, but to the south or south-west – confounding our expectations that the obvious view-lines will be to the south and west. Cappanaboule is strikingly situated thus, as is Ardgroom Outward. And then we have examples in fairly flat country with no really obvious view-lines. This can be complicated by surrounding forestry, as at Knockaneirk (above) where, if there was an obvious orientation over the recumbent it has long been hidden by tall trees.
5 Stone Circles
About half of the stone circles in the Cork-Kerry complex consist of only five stones, and constitute a sub-group know as Five-stone Circles. While they share many similarities with the Multiple-stone Circles, they are a unique class of monument. Most strikingly, the Five-stone Circles follow the pattern of the larger ones in having two portal stones, usually the tallest orthostat of the circle, across from a recumbent, or axial stone which is usually the shortest. In describing them here, I am using the work of Seán Ó Núalláin, who surveyed and described all the Cork-Kerry Stone Circles in 1975. While his comprehensive paper is over 40 years old, it is still the most complete work on the Stone Circles of Cork and Kerry (The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 105 (1975), pp. 83-131).
Most of the Five-stone Circles I have seen now are complete or almost complete, although some of the orthostats have fallen. They are actually in remarkably good condition – perhaps their small size has offered them some protection against the need to ‘improve’ farmland. some have been filled in with field stones but most are simply marooned in little islands of grass in the middle of a field, occasionally with a protective fence to keep cattle away.
Two of the Five-stone Circles may in fact, according to Ó Núalláin, be actually Three-stone – it is assumed that both Cashelkeelty and Glanbrack had two more stones originally, but he muses that a setting of three stones could be seen as “representing the ultimate degeneration of the “circle” concept”. Neither are they truly circular – in fact they are mostly D-shaped, with the axial stone being the straight edge of the D. This is a function of their size – the axial stone, with its straight edge, represents a much bigger proportion of the circle that it would in a large Multiple-stone Circle, but it also brings up the issue of whether the circle shape is truly essential to the functions of this type of monument. The axis of the Five-stone Circles, that is, the direction of a line drawn between the portal stones across the recumbent, is generally NE/SW. This orientation is not exact, but most fall within a few degrees of it. Ó Núalláin agrees with Aubrey Burl in his analysis of the Scottish circles (and our own observations at the circles confirm this) when he says
“Thus the circles are so aligned that the entrances face the side of the heavens on which the sun rises and the axial stones face the setting sun. The broad splay present, 107 degrees, suggests that a general alignment on the side of the heavens on which the sun rises or sets was what was required, and that precise alignments on specific celestial events were not in question. It is worth noting however that the axial stones tend to group in a sector indicating a winter rather than a summer position.”
As with the Multiple-stone Circles, there are peripheral monuments associated with Five-stone Circles – standing stones, stone pairs, stone alignments, quartz blocks, radial cairns, and in once case (Mill Little) boulder burials. None of these are inside the circle so are referred to as outliers. One of the most complex of the Five-stone Circle sites is Kealkill, which includes two large standing stones and a radial stone cairn. Another complicated site is Cashelkeelty. With this one, we see the Five-Stone Circle (although it may be the second of Ó Núalláin’s Three-stone Circles), a row of three stones to the left, and in the distance orthostats of what may have been a Multiple-stone Circle. There are two Five-stone Circles in the townland of Baurgorm. In the first site, the more northerly of the the two, has two outliers but only one is visible as the other has fallen. There are two other standing stone recorded nearby. The portal stones are unusually far apart in this circle. The second site of the Baurgorm has a standing stone row (three stones of which only two are visible from where we were and of which one of the stones is split) and a single standing stone. The Mill Little Complex which comprises a Five-stone Circle which are a standing stone pair and three Boulder Burials. While there are many example of Multiple-stone Circles in association with Boulder Burials, it’s unusual to see them alongside the Five-stone Circles.
Ó Núalláin finds the size and shape of the stones unremarkable, apart from noting that the stones in individual monuments are roughly similar in size and shape. However, there is a little more to say about it than that. While the recumbent is invariably flat-topped, the flanking stones can vary from a gently rounded curve, to a slant, to what looks like a deliberately shaped angular peak. Have they been chosen, or shaped, with some purpose in mind? Two examples are shown here where the right flanking stone of the recumbent appears to have been chosen for its pointed shape. The first is Cappaboy Beg, the smallest of the Five-stone Circles and the second is Inchireagh. Even though the recumbent is usually the lowest stone in the circle, it’s not always the case. At Kealkill, for example, the recumbent is easily the largest and most dominant of the five stones.
We cannot rely solely on archaeological evidence to reveal more about the nature and purpose of the Five-stone Circles. Only one has been scientifically excavated – the one that is part of the Kealkill complex. No burials or deposits were found. A one-day dig in the 1930’s at the site of Knocknakilla, revealed a sort of flat-stoned pavement in the interior, with lots of quartz fragments. Glanbrack has cupmarks on the top surface of the recumbent. Obviously this will be a fertile field for some future researcher.
One thing to be noticed is that the Five-stone circles are differently situated from the Multiple-stone circles. Whereas Multiple-stone Circles are often on a bench on a hillside, with wide views in one direction and rising ground in the other directions (Drombeg is typical), Five-stone circles are often on flat ground in a valley or up the side of Mountains like Cullomane, Cappaboy Beg, Inchireagh and Knocknacoille but usually with panoramic views all around.
Purpose of Stone Circles
The Stone Circles of West Cork form a distinct group within all types of Irish stone circles – the axial or recumbent pattern is its defining characteristic and completely consistent across the geographical spread and different circle sizes.
But perhaps this post should come with a trigger warning. Back away now if you want me to talk about mystical energies or ley lines. Stop reading if you believe in vibratory signatures or that a pendulum or crystal will reveal some hidden secret to a circle’s purpose. There are loads of other places on the internet only too willing to engage with you on those approaches but you won’t find them in this written piece.
Let’s begin with the When? and By Whom? The idea of a circle as a way to create a dedicated space, of course, goes back to the earliest farming communities – John Waddell in his book “The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland” devotes a chapter to the arrival in Ireland of various traditions of monument building based on a circle, firstly earthen enclosures and on to the circular passage tombs of Brú na Bóinne and Loughcrew.
While the circles we are discussing here – the axial circles of West Cork – share their basic shape with many of these earlier monuments they should be viewed as a unique and recognisable tradition of monument-building. Very few stone circles have been excavated, but those that have support a Mid to Late-Bronze Age date, that is from about 1600BC to about 600BC. It was a tradition that occupied a restricted geographic region (Cork and Kerry) and had their closest parallels to the similar stone circles of Scotland. In Scotland, few have been excavated but those that have been also support a Mid to Late-Bronze Age date. Remember too that our stone circles are strongly associated with other monuments – boulder burials, standing stone outliers, stone pairs or rows. Where dates have been established, they place these monuments in the same era. Waddell sums up by saying “These new monuments may be related to an expansion of settlement and an intensification of agriculture reflected in the pollen record and pre-bog field systems.”
And now to the Why? Archaeological theories fall into two broad categories – axial stone circles were built primarily for calendrical purposes and stone circles were built primarily as memorials or burial places. I emphasise primarily as it is likely that anything that takes this level of resources to construct would have been multi-functional. Vice Admiral Boyle Somerville, ethnographer and archaeologist (1863 to 1936) was the pioneer of the calendrical approach and was nicknamed Irelands first ‘archaeoastronomer’.
There is no doubt that marking the turning of the year was of vital importance to an early farming culture. Two solstices, two equinoxes and the mid-way points between them, known as cross-quarter days, are the basis for many ancient calendars and festivals. Our own traditional festival days of Imbolg, Bealtine, Lughnasadh and Samhain correspond roughly to the cross-quarters and to the beginning of spring or the end of harvest. It makes sense to have some way to mark out those dates and building a stone circle to do so had the merit of being enduring in the landscape.
There is also the issue of the design of the circles – two portals across from a recumbent – a line has been observed and is being marked by the axis thus laid out. In West Cork, this axis line is NE (the portals) SW (the recumbent). However, there is a fairly broad spread on either side of the line so obviously it was not an immutable rule that the orientation was set to a certain point in the heavens but that it corresponded in a general way to that part of the sky in which both the sun and the moon rose and set – between the east for rising and the west for setting, moving across the southern sky.
Within that general orientation, settings over the recumbent have been observed at many, although by no means all, the stone circles. The most well-known is Drombeg, where the sun sets over the recumbent at the winter solstice. You can observe an equinoctial orientation at the Bohonagh site. Lunar risings and settings have also been noted. The winter sky appears to be what is most important – perhaps understandably given the psychological effect of passing the darkest and coldest time of the year.
Other theories have been argued – towards a sacred peak, for example, or to an upland area where people would move their cattle at a certain time of the year (known as transhumance, or as booleying in Rural Ireland) or to stars of first magnitude. Noted author and archaeoastronomer Terence Meaden has encouraged us to examine what is known as ‘shadowcasting’ as a way of building an 8-month calendar and has made many accurate observations at stone circles to support his thesis. While there is no doubt that fertility must have been important to early farmers, Meaden somewhat undermines his own research by his insistence on interpreting everything as sexual symbolism, to the point of seeing penises and vulvas in the the stones and in invoking the concept of celestial marriage to explain ‘union by shadow’ between phallic and female orthostats.
Then there are the outliers – standing stones or stone rows that provide further and different orientations. Sometimes these are close by the circle, as at Uragh or Glanbrack and sometimes at a distance, as at Dunbeacon.
The late archaeologist Aubrey Burl, in his book “Rings of Stone”, reminds us that these are ceremonial spaces. Not keen on archaeoastronomy, he paid attention to the shape of the monument as creating a place for ritual, and especially for dancing, commonly done on special festival or feast days. Circle dancing is one of the oldest forms of dancing and innately human, providing contact between the dancers and capable of involving all, or specific members of the community. Multiple-stone Circles such as Cappanaboule may have provided a platform for performances inside the circle, while dances at Five-stone Circles may have been outside the circle.
The second main theory revolves around the circle as a burial place. Once again, there is an insufficient amount of excavation reports to rely on, but Fahy found cremated human bone at all three of his excavations, Drombeg, Bohonagh and Reanascreena, indicating that the primary purpose of the circle may have been sepulchral. Archaeologist also point to the strong association of stone circles with boulder burials. However, once again, there is actually little evidence of human remains at those boulder burials that have been excavated. Waddell, in fact prefers the more descriptive and less functional term boulder monuments for this reason.
The question arises whether, if individuals were buried in any monument, it conclusively proves that that the primary purpose was to receive and honour the body of this person, who may have been a high-status member of the community. In support of this contention, we can look at the pyramids – enormous monuments erected through the commandeering of community-wide resources as tombs for pharaohs. While it may have had other, secondary purposes, the main reason for building a pyramid was to memorialise the dead and to affirm a belief in the afterlife.
Megalithic monuments in Ireland, even if they displayed certain orientations, such as Newgrange to the winter solstice, or wedge tombs to the autumn or winter setting sun, are regarded primarily as burial places. Should the primary purpose of stone circles, then, also be considered to be sepulchral. Or should we perhaps, think in terms of churches and cathedrals with crypts underneath them? To be buried in a crypt under a church (as opposed to outside in the graveyard) was the prerogative only of those who had the power and prestige to exercise that privilege: however it does not mean that the only or even main purpose of the church was as a memorial to those buried within its walls or under its floor. Where the remains were those of the founding saint the claim is stronger and the church’s role as a centre for pilgrimage may take precedence over its other liturgical functions. Likewise, although churches are traditionally oriented east-west, it does not follow that their primary purpose is to celebrate the sunrise.
Whatever the ultimate answer, there is no doubt that for us in the present day, a visit to a stone circle is a very special experience. First of all, in West Cork, it is always an adventure going off the beaten track and in spectacular countryside. When you’re lucky, the circle will be right beside the road, or on the other side of a field of wildflowers, like the one at Drombeg. This rarely happens– normally I have to drive up a mountain (to get to Knocknacoille for example), trudge through a bog, beat back thick thorny bushes, get lost on tiny roads with nowhere to turn around and develop a hatred for Google Maps.
Finally, and despite which I have written here, I will to be the first to admit that upon visiting a stone circle has a profound experience. By this I mean that it connects you somehow to all that went before and it raises all the deep existential questions about why our ancestors expended their precious resources to build these complex and labour intensive structures.
Arís eile, go raibh maith agat as do chuid ama ag léamh seo,
Seán Ó Tuama.