text and photographs
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.
Carrif churchyard, county Louth
Bullaun in the Glandassan River, Glendalough,
click for a larger picture
Kilfountan, county Kerry
Toormoor or Toormour, county Sligo
bullauns have been reported around Glendalough, county Wicklow.
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
click for a
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.
click 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
The monastic enclosure, Inishmurray, county
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...
and photographed some thirty years later.
Bullauns 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 large 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
click for more
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 very deep Cupmarks
with High Banks in 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
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
Irish carvings have their origins, of course, in continental Europe
beyond that, in Egypt and farther East.
Grave-slab at Struell Wells, county Down.
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 (far left), 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. But fine grave-slabs are found in more remote spots,
Rossinver, county Leitrim
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, and hence of value to his fellow-monks.
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
for another slab in high-resolution
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
which include 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...
island of Inishmurray, off the coast of Sligo, many cross-slabs
and pillars survive, as well as ruined churches and monks' cells
(known as clocháns). Some slabs and pillars have been set
up on leachta, others stood or lay about until recently
removed to the schoolhouse 'for their protection'.
panoramic virtual visit to the island, with an excellent essay
on its history, can be enjoyed at
from the Dawn.
It is not
surprising in such a well-preserved island environment as Inishmurray
to find smooth oval, magic, holy, cure- or curse-stones (see
- here decorated both by engraving and deeper carving- placed
on top of a leacht.....
...not far from a large corbelled stone hut (sometimes mistaken
for a sweathouse) whose entrance
is now very low because of infill.
combination of rectilinear with curvilinear design occurs on grave-slabs.
carved on both sides is one of a few known to have crossed and
re-crossed the Atlantic as talismans to help the afflicted descendants
of emigrants from the area.
Bruckless, county Donegal: two sides of
the same slab.
Glencolumbcille, county Donegal:
two of many cross-pillars
marking 'stations' of the turas.
The eighth 'station' at Glencolumbcille.
Slabs and pillars seem to merge on certain sites - which,
like most of those illustrated here, are either on islands or
near to the sea.
Inishbofin, co. Galway
Caher Island, co. Mayo
the island of Inishkea North, large cross-slabs (unlikely to be
funerary) become crucifixion-slabs.
Inishkea North, county Mayo:
crucifixion slab and ornamented quernstone:
note the wounds of Jesus indicated by cup-marks
in county Cork, an impressive schist pillar is carved on both
sides. The SW side features SS Anthony and Paul the Hermit in
the desert, a praying figure, and a cross. Uniquely on the NE
side is a wicker-and-skin boat (currach) with rowers. It
was from this area that St Brendan the Navigator sailed to Iceland.
for a larger picture
rotated to the right
Though Dublin City
has a very fine cross-pillar which is nothing less than an
elaborate, latter-day standing-stone, the development is less
deft on some other early, near-coastal sites.
Tullaghora, county Antrim
to the later development of the cross-shaped "scripture crosses"
there was a definite tendency (possibly prehistoric)
to carve some of the large early pillars in human shape, as can
be seen at
Legananny, county Down
more spectacularly, at
for a larger photo
Skellig Michael, county Kerry.
rich inland monasteries, by the Romanesque period, carving of
small slabs was as sophisticated as that of the 'Scripture Crosses',
with truly Romanesque motifs such as sinners being devoured and
strangled by the Serpent.
Gallen, county Offaly
development was the "face-cross", on much smaller slabs
or very small pillars.
Knappaghmanagh, county Mayo:
(note the cup-marks or solution pits)
The most sophisticated
of the face-crosses, however, is not within the scope of this
website, for it is on the Hebridean island of Colonsay,
pillar, in a still-used ancient graveyard, is of the simpler,
more primitive kind.
Kilbroney, county Down.
in the north-west county of Donegal that pillars, slabs and crucifixions
merge together, and associate with motifs drawn both from pre-Christian
Ireland and Merovingian France.
Fahan Mura, county Donegal
Cross-pillar, Carndonagh, county Donegal
Inishkeel, county Donegal
Drumhallagh, county Donegal:
note the quartzite
pebbles at the base of this slab
and circular motifs of various kinds become a common feature on
the sculptured crosses of the following centuries - along with
enigmatic human figures,
as well as Biblical scenes such as The Fall, Cain and Abel, King
David playing his harp, Daniel in the Lions' Den, the Baptism
of Jesus, and the Last Supper.
Cross and "guard-pillars", Carndonagh,
the pillars may have been boundary-markers for the monastery
"Guard-pillar" of the cross at
Carndonagh, county Donegal:
a monk at the left, and a mythological figure (reminiscent of
Norse trickster/devil-god Loki) on the right.
The latter is not so different from our motif-statue of the smith-god
Nuadú of the horned helmet - also from a Christian site - which
may be five hundred or more years older.
Manticora on the side of a cross-pillar
at Tibberaghny (Tybroughney), county Kilkenny: one of a large
of enigmatic beasts and scenes on Irish crosses.
Click on the picture to read
ENIGMAS OF THE IRISH CROSSES >>