Murky grey clouds and a spattering of rain mark our pre-dawn arrival at Drombeg stone circle in Glandore, west Cork. On December 21st, visitors will descend on the megalithic “sacred site” in the hope of witnessing a more dramatic sunrise vista.
On the winter solstice, the sun rising over the Atlantic will shed a path of light through two winter sunrise portal stones, across the circle to the Sunrise Keystone. About 7½ hours later, the setting sun will send its final rays of daylight on the shortest day of the year through a V-shaped topographical gap in the hillside, lighting up the flat surface of the altar stone and crossing the circle to exit between two axial portal stones.
The near-perfect circle of 17 stones is an example of ancient Bronze Age engineering, oriented to the sun. But Ronan Murray, the author of a book based on nine years of research at Drombeg, says the stone circle is much more than that.
Gesturing out over the ancient site of standing stones set against the dramatic backdrop of the Atlantic coastline, Murray says, “You can’t look at this and not wonder what the significance behind it was.”
In his book The Secrets of Drombeg, Murray sets out a new theory. He says the circle shows clear evidence of Babylonian design concepts based on numbers and geometric angles. "They created a harmonious geometry based on numeral compatibility between the sun, moon and stars," he says.
Murray (58) is originally from Oregon, where he worked as a civil draughtsman and surveyor before arriving in Ireland in 1996 with a backpack and a plan. He was looking for stone circles. “I was fascinated by Ireland’s ancient past. I walked up the west coast looking at stone circles for six months,” he says.
He later settled in west Cork and arrived in Drombeg in 2005. “When I first came upon it I saw the tracking of the sun on the horizon, and I thought, they [the early Bronze Age builders of Drombeg] had to have been using that, because it was stable, like an annual clock,” he says.
Murray says the marvels of Drombeg are not just evident on the winter and summer solstice; the circle’s portal geometry follows a seasonal chart connected to the sun and the moon’s movement across the sky at eight different times of the year, including the spring and autumn equinox. He claims the site forms part of a 24km “regional triad” of stone circles, which includes a circle 8km north at Reenascreena and 8km east at Bohonagh. The three form an equilateral triangle.
“It’s an almost perfect triangle; the survey was 810ft off. Over a 24km closed traverse, that’s not bad for the Bronze Age,” he says. The site at Drombeg, which includes a spring well and fulacht fiadh, is aligned to the North Star, according to Murray. Historians depict the primary function of the fulacht fiadh as a method of cooking using water heated with hot stones, but Murray believes the water pit at Drombeg was used to cool moulds for Bronze Age domestic implements and weapons. He believes that people in the Bronze Age thought the water of the “sacred” spring well was being “energised” by the sun, through its geometric connections to the stone circle.
The Babylonian connection is in the repeated form of what Murray refers to as “base 10” (decimals, whereas the ancient Egyptians used fractions) and the number 720. At the equinox, the sun crosses its own diameter 720 times from sunrise to the following sunrise, based on the Babylonian water clock. “The equal triangle became the structure for the regional triad of stone circles. Seven hundred and twenty sun diameters divided by 60 degrees [the angle of the equal triangle] gives a 12-degree sun angle,” he says.
How these concepts might have been transferred from the Mesopotamian region to an early Bronze Age settlement in west Cork 3,000 years ago is a mystery. Murray speculates that, while migration is a possibility, it is equally likely that the Drombeg design was developed indigenously.
The fundamental idea behind the circle, says Murray, was to bridge the gap between the people and their gods. “The biggest revelation was that they were aligning sunlight to water. The first baseline they set was to Doolic Rock off Galley Head, a stable point out in the sea.”
The site incorporates several other geographical points of significance, including sunrise and sunset “V notches” or gullies in the surrounding hinterland, which Murray says were carved into the hills by the stone circle’s creators. In a field about 1km south of the stone circle site is a standing stone about waist height that sets out a straight line from Doolic Rock, through the site’s spring well, and is aligned to the North Star. The stone circle is aligned to this field stone at an angle of 4.5 degrees, linking the well to the stone circle.
“The North Star is the one point in the night sky about which all stars revolve in a circular motion. We know in our modern world that over many centuries [the view of] the pole star changes due to the off-axis rotation of the Earth,” says Murray. He believes the Drombeg people could see the North Star, which may have disappeared from view a few hundred years later due to the Earth’s axial rotation.
Although Murray acknowledges that academics might discredit his theory, he believes that what can be seen at Drombeg today is in line with the original designers’ concept because the stone circle’s orientation to the North Star is evident.
When the site was mapped by Prof Edward Fahy in 1957, the circle was incomplete. Two stones were missing and were later replaced by proxy stones, and one was "broken and fallen" and later reset.
“They took out the three most important stones, the sunrise stone, the equinox stone and the stone that connects the circle to water. The circle was strategically disassembled. It is quite possible that as the centuries progressed and the pole star moved out of alignment, perhaps the people of Drombeg believed they had lost favour from the gods and disassembled the site, taking out the critical stones, collapsing their portal to the other world.”
Secrets of Drombeg: The Stone Circle and Fulacht Fiadh by Ronan Murray is available from mcpublishing.ie (€36)