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.
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.
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.
hard to find, but once found, are a delight to the eye in their
marriage of landscape with the near-paranoia of human consciousness.
(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.
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.
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.
of Irish stone circles belong to the Middle Bronze Age, and are
often very small indeed.
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.
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.
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
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.
how people now link every meteorological event with global warming,
Bronze Age panic at climatic deterioration is not hard to understand.
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,
monoliths inside or outside, and some incorporate boulder-burials:
diminutive dolmens that already had a long history (e.g. at Carrowmore
in Sligo) and could have been do-it-yourself family sepulchres.
these, too, have related alignments or Stone-rows running off into
the heather and bog.
really tiny, have only five (occasionally four) stones, and are
tucked away in the hills,
others are quite large and prominent, with many stones.
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.
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.
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.
arises, however: why so many observatories, when just a few would
Was their construction more important than their use, or were astronomers
constantly checking each other and verifying their predictions ?
in an Age of Explanation which has not escaped the long shadow of
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
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.
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.
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
- relatively simple to conceive of and to erect, and completely
undatable because they are without context - could be older than
the oldest datable monuments.
is an antiquarian fake-Breton word for 'long stone' [compare Cloch
Fháda in Irish] - the actual Breton for menhir being
Peulvan or 'stone pillar'.
past is not over - it has not even passed."
distribution of Stone