In Beltany's inner circle

The Beltany stone circle in Co Donegal is as old as Newgrange, and as shrouded in mystery, writes Eileen Battersby

The Beltany stone circle in Co Donegal is as old as Newgrange, and as shrouded in mystery, writes Eileen Battersby

A short walk along a gently winding path flanked by forestry leads up a Co Donegal hillside. The views of the landscape of counties Donegal and Tyrone are long and generous and include the burial mound atop Croaghan Hill. This is mythology and folklore laid open on a natural stage. At its centre is one of Ireland's most dramatic and evocative Neolithic monuments, the Beltany stone circle.

One of five such monuments in a county rich in archaeology, and one of the finest in Ireland, it overlooks what was once the ancient territory of Magh Itha. Aloof, imposing, and profoundly spiritual, this great stone circle, once a ritual or ceremonial site, is as old as Newgrange. The 64 remaining standing stones, of an estimated original 80 or more, retain a sense of gravitas. A community chose its physical setting; subsequent generations sought its splendour. Great meetings would have taken place here. Decisions were made, disputes settled.

As its name suggests, Beltany must have had associations with the Celtic feast of Beltaine (also spelt Bealtaine), celebrated each year on May 1st and part of pastoral life devised to encourage the summer growth. It is also believed that, in common with Newgrange, there is evidence of astronomical alignment involving two sets of two stones. One of the alignments takes place at sunrise in early May, the other corresponds with the winter solstice.

Considering the glories of the rising sun, particularly in winter, the Irish meaning, belt aine ("bright fire") evokes the image of the circle appearing as a ring of fire. Having been left thankfully undisturbed by modern commercialising hands - aside from the forestry - Beltany, 5,000 years old and rooted in history as well as myth, is remarkable and mysterious, a place of solitude and curiosity with many secrets.

Situated less than two miles outside the recently designated heritage town of Raphoe in east Co Donegal (close to the Co Tyrone border at Strabane) Beltany, as heritage as well as through its physical shape, that of an all-embracing circle spanning an enclosure, has a wealth of symbolism. All traditions meet here.

IT WAS THE presence of this circle that prompted Raphoe native Mary Harte to organise a recent conference in the town through Raphoe Community in Action. Initially, there was surprise: a conference? Here? Beltany: Rediscovering an Ancient Landscape brought leading archaeologists such as Brian Lacey, chief executive of the Discovery Programme, as well as local historians and wildlife experts to the town's cathedral hall. Townspeople who had previously felt archaeology and heritage were confined to the universities discovered we all have a share in the legacy of the past.

For all the professionalism of the approach - which included formal lectures on geophysical surveying as applied to Beltany, folklore, the Neolithic period, and pre-Christian carvings such the Beltany Head and early Christian period stone carvings - it was also an example of how well local people, be they gentleman historians or amateur archaeologists, serve heritage. Inside the hall, the walls were decorated with posters and photographic murals created by the school children and citizens of Raphoe, who set out to explore their identity through heritage.

This is a town made interesting by its unaffected ordinariness and relaxed quality of having been left behind by time and industry. The local hotel remains closed; there is no cafe. Several abandoned shops, some quite derelict, stand idle. The local consensus is renewal, but not neon, not plastic. This is a heritage town that appears to understand the difference between preservation and pastiche.

Once a plantation town, and certainly one of the earliest secular settlements in the country, Raphoe is built around the traditional diamond or fair green where the weekly market used to take place. The town, formerly the smallest cathedral city in Europe, enjoyed episcopal significance and its cathedral, a modest church on the main street, with some parts dating to the 12th century as well as later 15th to 17th century stonework and carvings, is still in use.

Raphoe possesses an authentic, attractive plainness, save for the ugly modern petrol station imposed by progress and justified by its replacing the town's old petrol and diesel pumps. People greet each other by name. Although there are daily traffic jams, it is not a tourist spot. There is a range of period buildings, most notably the 18th-century Volt House, built for the widows and families of churchmen and now serving as a community headquarters. Four churches - Church of Ireland, Presbyterian, the Congregational and Catholic - testify to the history and cultural divisions.

LOCAL ACCENTS SOUND strongly Northern, but this is the South and the religious balance in the mixed community of more than 2,000 now has a slightly higher Catholic to Protestant ratio. Formerly, the shops and business had been predominately Protestant-owned, while the Catholics were farm labourers. Raphoe has three banks, but with the decline of its once-strong farming base they remain open but quiet.

Battles were fought here during the plantation period, and sieges have taken place. Further back, in about AD 550, Colmcille established a monastic settlement, which was developed by Eunan, who would later become the patron saint of Raphoe.

A belief in heritage and a desire to reactivate national awareness in the area motivated Mary Harte to hold the conference. A former BBC radio journalist, her interest in archaeology and the fact her home is at the foot of Beltany Hill made the conference seem the most natural and practical course of action. "I wanted to bring the academics and the local people together."

Later, intent on checking a historical fact, she leads the way to the 18th-century house on the diamond where she grew up the eldest of nine children - "hence my bossiness" she says, and hence also her habit of getting things done. Watching the television news is the man of the house. He is Paddy Harte, who served what was formerly the constituency of Donegal North East from his election to the Dáil in 1961 until he lost his seat in 1997. Copies of his memoir, Young Tigers and Mongrel Foxes, are stacked in the corner. A print of the First Dáil hangs in the hallway. PJ Ward, who sat for Sinn Féin in that historic Dáil, once lived two doors away. Mary Harte's home at the foot of Beltany Hill was built by the family of William Wilson, who had been MP for Donegal in the 19th century.

Raphoe Community in Action was set up in 1995 to promote the regeneration of Raphoe and establish good relations among all groups in the community. "When I was young," recalls Mary Harte, "I couldn't wait to get out of the place, but my children wouldn't want to live anywhere else." She knows responsible heritage management will help Raphoe.

Hunting hounds bay in the distance as we stand in the ruins of Raphoe castle, the Bishop's Palace, dating from 1637 and once a magnificent building. Harte points to the back of a modern hangar-like structure, the former Fruit of the Loom factory, which opened in 1989 with many promises and operated for 10 years with a staff of about 600. Its closure was a local tragedy. "We don't want something like that to happen to Raphoe again."

SURVIVAL LIES IN local identity, and an element of this is the presence of the Beltany Stone Head, which proved one of the stars of the conference as well as its icon. Purchased privately during the 1940s, the head had been loaned by the owners to Fermanagh County Museum. However, the daughter of the original owner later decided to present it to the National Museum in Dublin. A replica was then made and given by the National Museum to the museum in Fermanagh.

Helen Lanigan Wood, curator of Fermanagh County Museum, felt the carving's rightful place was Co Donegal. During the conference she presented the replica to the county.It now resides in Donegal County Museum in Letterkenny, some 20km (12 miles) from Raphoe.

According to Mary Harte, the original, which she tried to borrow for the conference, is not currently on display. "It's in storage, no one can see it, which is a shame."

Meanwhile the conference, attended by around 300 over the three-day programme, culminated in a field trip to the Beltany stone circle. Although the wind tore at his charts and diagrams, Kevin Barton explained the astronomical alignment, while Brian Lacey read the landscape in the context of myth, history, Cenel Conaill and the nearby Kilmonaster cemetery complex.

Theories were offered as to Beltany stone circle having been a passage tomb. This evocative, dramatic monument is many things and responds to the ever-changing light. Under an eerie red harvest moon, it again becomes a circle of fire. By day and by night, Beltany has its stories and its ghosts.