Ring of bright fire


Viewed at dawn or dusk, stone circles often create the impression of being silent groups of watchers. Even more unnerving are the lone standing stones that, regardless of the quality of light, convey an eerie, spirit-like presence. Stone circles however evoke a tribal sense. Some individual circles seem to be aligned on the rising or setting sun or moon at the summer or winter solstices. Anyone who has visited Newgrange during the Winter Solstice will have experienced the feeling of seeing the large stones suddenly emerge from the darkness and appear to walk towards the tomb as dawn breaks. It's an illusion, but effective - although only 12 of an estimated 35 stones remain. Such deliberate alignments would suggest that the builders of these circles saw the sun as a symbol of death and rebirth.

For all the mystery, stone circles, the most fascinating and among the most beautiful prehistoric monuments in Ireland or Britain, possess a special appeal through their association with ritual and celebration, as well as with death and burial. Their function as gathering places suggest they were built by community effort. This juxtaposing of life and death underlines the different attitude the ancients held toward burial, seeing it as far more a part of life than we do.

To date, about 240 stone circles have been identified in Ireland. But as the newly published fourth volume of the Archaeological Inventory of Co Cork, a two-book survey of the Northern part of the county, brings Cork's present number of sites to 15,300 compared with the original estimate of 8,000, there may be more. Ireland's stone circles are divided into four main zones.

The Cork-Kerry series is the most extensive with 107 examples including the best known and most accessible Drombeg Circle with its 17 standing stones; as well as Lissyviggeen, in Co Kerry, with seven stones enclosing an area of about 4 metres in a setting with the feel of a forest clearing. The Western group claims the fine stone circle and great enclosure at Gur, Co Limerick, and the Nymphsfield stone circle near Cong, Co Mayo.

The Eastern group - though dominated by Newgrange - also includes Boleycarrigeen, in Co Wicklow (east of Baltinglass village), which consists of eleven thin, narrow slabs. Remote and not easy to find, it stands on a hill in a forest clearing. Better known as The Piper's Stone, the stone circle at Athgreany, also in Co Wicklow, comprises 12 granite stones, while the monument at Castleruddery, north-east of Baltinglass, is perhaps more accurately described as an embanked enclosure rather than circle.

The Ulster series is concentrated in the Sperrin Mountain counties of Derry, Tyrone and Fermanagh. Beaghmore in Co Tyrone (north-west of Cookstown) is a huge complex enveloped in blanket bog, consisting of at least three pairs of low stone circles and one solo example standing at a remove and filled in with some 800 small stones. Drumskinny near the Kesh-Castlederg road was discovered on excavation in 1962 to include an alignment of 24 small stones. Ballynoe in Co Down (south of Downpatrick) is a large circle of more than 50 stones where traces of cremated bone was found.

There are five stone circles in Co Donegal, the most impressive of which is Beltany, near Raphoe, one of the most beautifully situated monuments in the country. Raphoe is an East Donegal town with strong links to St Columcille through the monastery said to have been founded by Adomnan, the ninth abbot of Iona and author of the late 7th-century biography, Vitae Columbae (Life of Colum Cille). But the density of prehistoric monuments concentrated throughout its hinterland testifies to Raphoe's history extending far further back in time. Also in the area is Kilmonaster passage tomb cemetery, consisting of 12 megalithic monuments.

Less than two miles south of the town and west of the River Foyle is Beltany Hill, in the townland of Tops. On its summit is a fine stone circle consisting of 64 surviving standing stones of a possible 80, some of which may have been marked. While the view from the 300-foot hill top of the surrounding countryside is magnificent, the approach to the site is discreet to say the least.

Turning off the country road from Raphoe down a short lane leads to the rear gate of a farmyard. To the right of the yard is another lane, blocked with a boulder. It is more of a tree-lined walkway, genteel and suggesting a subtle climb. At the top of this passage is a stile and a wide-open field to cross. The sensation is of space and Beltany Hill is an inspiring, elevating place. Arriving here is like walking on a sacred stage, which it no doubt once was.

Gradually, the small shadows in the distance emerge, initially resembling a crowd, a casual gathering standing about admiring the rich panorama of the Donegal and Tyrone landscape. Then you realise you are looking at large standing stones. It is a big circle, some 45 metres in diameter, enclosing a raised stone and earth platform. Standing alone several metres from the south-east side of the circle is a large stone some two metres high. Any precise alignment at Beltany has yet to be proved but some work has suggested two possible alignments, one at sunrise on May 6th, the other to coincide with the winter solstice sunrise.

Within the circle is the base of a cairn (a cairn is a heap of stones usually applied to the mounds placed over and around pre-historic burial places) which may have contained a passage tomb. An Iron Age Celtic head, was found either in or certainly near the circle. Currently in storage at the National Museum, it was on longterm loan to the museum until becoming formally acquired in 1986 and has been exhibited in the past. The Beltany Head is a full head and neck with a pocking decoration suggesting a neck ornament or collar. The thick lipped face with its slightly protruding tongue resembles that of the Janus idol of Boa Island, Co Fermanagh.

As indicated from its name, the hill and indeed stone circle may have featured in Beltaine (from the Irish, "bright fire") celebrations. There are four main dates in the Celtic year in Ireland: Beltaine (May 1st), Samhain (November 1st), Imbolg (February 1st) and Lughnasa (August 1st). The first two mark the main divides, but the four correspond to what we now know as the four seasons. Oiche Beltaine, the eve of May 1st, celebrated the beginning of the growing season. Hilltop fires were lit to welcome the summer sun. It is likely that many such ceremonies took place on Beltany, with the circle as the central focus for the community gathered within.

Nowadays all is quiet, only the stones remain, but a visit provides a chance to survey a rapidly disappearing Irish resource, an expansive, traditional rural landscape.