Waiting for the solstice sun to set in Connemara

 

Clever, these Bronze Age sun-worshippers of the western seaboard. Back over east, one has to rise before dawn to catch the winter solstice. In Connemara, however, one can lie in till lunch-time, because the stone alignments were built to catch the sun setting on the shortest day.

And if there is too much cloud about, as there was this weekend in the Gleninagh valley, one is never really disappointed. Even in soft Atlantic rain, the tranquil lake and blanket bog forming that natural amphitheatre between the Bens and Maumturks would take a last breath away.

"Mountains rearing out of the landscape" is how archaeologist Michael Gibbons describes the setting above Lough Inagh, three miles south-east of Kylemore valley, on farmland owned by the Bodkin family. Here, in former sheep-rustling, wool-smuggling country, three sets of two standing stones on a boggy knoll mark the Twelve Bens mountain gap where the sun dies in dark December.

Dating from about 1500 BC, it is one of eight such alignments on record in Connemara, an area which once had no place on the national archaeological map.

Ordnance Survey work here in the last century yielded few if any prehistoric sites of interest. It was bog shrinkage, caused not just by overgrazing but also by climate change, that threw them in recent years, he says.

As a result Gibbons's life, as Clifden-based archaeologist, heritage consultant and manager of the Connemara Walking Centre with his partner, Patricia Dunford, is one of constant discovery. Only a week or so ago a local farmer showed him yet another site.

The Connemara alignments are similar to ritual constructions in Donegal, south-west Scotland and west Cork, Gibbons explains. All have a north-south orientation. Most have a manmade pond or Bronze Age ritual pool beside. "Dig through it, and the first layer is likely to comprise poitin bottles," Gibbons says. "After that, whiskey bottles, and timber barrels for salting salmon at Christmas. And below that again, Bronze Age material, perhaps."

In each case, the chosen setting is nothing short of incredible. Pointing up to the Turks, Gibbons identified Maumean, Maumahoge, Knocknahillion, and the ancient "Pass of the Boar" itself, one of two ancient land routes into Connemara.

Though the aspect may have changed little, this valley once held a thriving population as refugees, bandits, beatniks from other parts migrated to Cromwell's definition of Hell. The stereotype of the Anglo-Irish landlord did not fit this territory until after the Famine.

Bracken marks the lazy-bed cultivation, and ridges show that settlement in the last century went right in to the heart of the highest Ben. Just as 19th-century settlement was tied into the glacial history - glaciation marking the most fertile patches - so marble outcroppings mark prehistoric sites. Strip off the bog, and Gibbons has no doubt that it would reveal rich evidence of our prehistoric ancestors' way of life.

Connemara expanded eastwards, taking in foreign parts like Spiddal and Oughterard, as it became a "good marketing term" in the 18th century and synonymous with wildness, Gibbons explains. The ancient border was from Leenane on Killary Harbour down to Screebe, and the flash-point between the people of Joyce Country and Connemara. The two peoples used to fight over who had patrimony of the holy wells.

One 18th-century English traveller described the Joyce womenfolk piling up stones for ammunition and the men squaring up to each other, ready to burn off some testosterone. An account by John Daunton, the earliest traveller in Connemara in 1695, records visiting a booley house. Entitled A Merry Dance Through Taigue Land, he also wrote about the O'Flaherty women peeing into the ashes, and using them to dye their hair.

As we waited for the sunset at about 2.15 p.m. Gibbons pointed out the use of quartz in the standing stones. Over at another alignment in Derryinver the combination of stones is slightly different, suggesting that numbers carried a mythological significance. On one site there is a ritual burial of a 10-year-old child beneath a tall stone. The cloud didn't clear. Did we feel cheated? No. Down below us, the still silent Inagh, with its crannog and islands named after deer and otter and eagles, had trapped the dying light.

The Connemara Walking Centre is running a series of field trips throughout 1998, including a four-seasons walking festival which starts on the New Year bank holiday weekend, and two highlands festivals in May and September. For more details, contact the centre at Island House, Market Street, Clifden, Co Galway, at (095) 21379, fax (095) 21845 and email walkwest@indigo.ie