Category Archives: IRELAND

A Tale of the Deeds of Tuatha de Danann and the Formorians – the Race of Giants

Archaeological Tour organised by Tour Partner Group (TPG), previously Irish Welcome Tours. The tour runs from minimum 5 participants. Maximum: 10 participants.

DAY 1: Dublin

Visit at the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin. You will listen to an informal lecture on Prehistory of Ireland with the classification of megalithic tombs and a rich history of stunning archaeological finds. Then we are going to see Giant’s Graves in Co Dublin: Ballyedmonduff Giant’s Grave. It is one of the Ireland’s finest wedge tombs. The site is reached by way of a walking trail from a gate on Ballyedmonduff Road (see: Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb Within the Lore of Giants). Next, Brennanstown Giant’s Grave, which lies in the valley of Glen Druid about a mile southwest of Cabinteely. It is a hugely impressive portal tomb known as Brenanstown Dolmen.

The term Giant’s Grave is probably the most widely used as far afield as Ireland, Sardinia and Denmark. It can be readily understood how giants were invoked to explain these monstrous architectural achievements (Evans, 1938). Legends of giants, who undertake extraordinary feats are very common in Irish mythology. These legendry tales were usually used by the 18th century Victorian Antiquarians and earlier writers. Already in ancient times, these so-called romantic concepts had abounded with possible origins of the builders of great megalithic structures, not only in Ireland but worldwide (Powell, 2012).

The below evening activity is available only for the dates: 18 April and 20 June:

An evening of folklore and fairies (it does not include meal).

A Tale of the Deeds of the Tuatha de Danann and the supernatural race of giants – the Formorians. This unique, authentic and entertaining evening of Irish storytelling offers a memorable night out in Dublin. Guests are enchanted by stories of Irish life long ago and gain fascinating insights into the beliefs surrounding the fairy world and Irish rich culture of storytelling. Take your imagination back in time as you listen to the magical tales of Irish Folklore our ancestors shared when they gathered around the fire at night. You will leave this unique evening with a deeper understanding of Irish culture and the Irish landscape, bringing the stories of Ireland with you on your journey

One Night stay in Co. Dublin

DAY 2: Co. Louth & Co. Antrim

Welcome to the Land of legendary Giants. For some reason they had once chosen Ireland for their dwelling. Next stop is Proleek known as the Giant’s Load – imposing and masterful.  The dolmen is said to have been erected by the Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, whose body was buried nearby (Dempsey, 2008). Local legend claims that the dolmen dates back to a battle between a Scottish giant Para Buidhe Mór Mhac Seoidin and the Irish mythical hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Para challenged Fionn mac Cumhaill to combat, but Fionn poisoned the nearby river and Para drank from it. Another local tradition claims that if a visitor puts three stones atop the dolmen, they will be granted a wish, or will be married within the year.

Afterwards, we travel by the ancient lands of the High Kings of the Kingdom of Ulaid stopping to visit the Navan Fort. It is a place where myth and reality meet. It is one of Ireland’s most famous and important archaeological sites. Legends say that Macha, the ancient goddess of war and fertility, scored the earth with her brooch pin and traced the famous outline of this sacred stronghold of the hero Cu Chulainn, home of the famous Red Branch Knights and Ulster Cycle of tales. Cú Chulainn and Finn McCool are two of Ireland’s best-known mythological heroes and legend has it they were both giants often fighting each other on the Connemara Mountains.

Beaghmore – a whole set of seven stone circles is our next stop. An enigmatic site described as a transportation portal in the book The Giants of Glorborin: Ancient Conflict in a New World by Jim Murdoch. Then, we will be passing by the Lough Neagh. The giant Finn McCool, who had a hand in many a ruction in the north, had made the lough by scooping out a huge fistful of earth to throw at a retreating English giant; it fell into the Irish Sea and became the Isle of Man. We will have an opportunity to explore the Giant’s Ring: the hedge at Ballynahatty is just so impressive, measuring almost 200 metres in diameter with an embankment almost four metres high in places. This hedge is an enormous amphitheatre with the remains of a passage tomb as a focal point (Dempsey, 2019).

One night stay in Co. Antrim

DAY 3: Co. Antrim

The below acivity is offered only in an itinerary available for the dates: 19 March and 18 April, 2023:

Departure from Belfast to Doagh Holestone – 1.39 m (4.5 ft) tall standing stone, with its prominent perforation, is known locally both as the Holestone and the Lovestone. The reason for the first name is evident, while the second name for the stone requires a bit of explanation. While some holed stones in Ireland are known for oath-making and others for use in childbirth. The Doagh Holestone, 1.6 km outside of Doagh on Holestone Road, has acquired a reputation as the place to exchange marriage vows. Although the waist-high hole in the pillar is but 8 cm in diameter, it is sufficient for a woman’s hand to pass through, where she may grasp the hand of her intended on the opposite side of the stone. It may be that such ceremonies had their origin in an era when clergy were not conveniently available in rural communities, and a betrothal using the Holestone was good enough, according to local custom, to avoid the stigma of an illegitimate birth. A priest or the civil authorities could then later ratify the marriage when one was available.

The below activity is available only in an itinerary for the date: 20 June, 2023:

If you like cliffs and do not be afraid of the void, then we recommend you to visit the Gobbins! Famous throughout the country, this place is a hiking trail dug into the cliff, and will take you along the northern Irish coast. Breathtaking landscapes guaranteed! A walk along The Gobbins Cliff Path is more than just a fun day out in nature. Its a journey through time and into the elements. You’ll gain a new perspective on the sea, on Northern Ireland’s landscape and on yourself. 

Torr Road-Ballycastle, undoubtedly one of the most scenic drives in Ireland affording views of Scotland and the Scottish Isles. Stop to admire and take photos of Dunluce Castle. Then, walk in the footsteps of giants and discover the secrets of the stunning Causeway Coastal Route. Giant’s Causeway is a gigantic geological formation consisting of more than 40,000 hexagonal basalt columns, some of which reach up to 12 meters high!  According to the legend, the columns are the remains of a causeway built by a giant. The story goes that the Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), from the Fenian Cycle of Gaelic mythology, was challenged to a fight by the Scottish giant Benandonner. At the same time, the story is related to the origins of the Lough Neagh.

One night stay in Co. Derry.

DAY 4: Co. Donegal

Departure from Derry

Next, we will head off to Malin Head and take a circular walk around it, which is the northernmost point of Ireland. Our walks starts at the car park close to Lloyd’s Tower, at the highest part of the headland. Shortly after setting out keep an eye open for a 30m deep chasm through which the sea roars; it is called locally Hell’s Hole. Soon the gravel path comes to an end, and after a sign warning about the cliffs, a more natural meandering path continues to the extremity of Malin, a place called Banba’s Crown. The ancient Book of Invasions says that Banba, with three men and 150 women followers, was the first woman to invade Ireland, and her name has become one of the ancient names of the island, the others being Fódla and Éire. It is wonderful to sit on the clifftop, in the midst of the sea pinks and watch the Atlantic. Legends say that Tír na Nóg, the land of permanent youth and health, lies to the west, in the path of the sun. You are at the most northerly point of Ireland. To the southeast, the rounded mountains of Inishowen roll westwards to Dunaff Head, while to the north, over the horizon, only the Outer Hebrides interrupt a straight line to the Arctic. Time of the walk: 1 hr 30.

Prehistoric rock art, Inishowen, County Donegal: the Isle of Doagh in Inishowen is one of the most important sites in Western Europe for rock art dating back to at least 3000 B.C. There are more than 40 known sites (the biggest collection in Ireland) with two new discoveries having been recently made close to the Isle. Most of the sites consist of cup-and-ring art, but very little is known about their significance. It is speculated that in ancient times the Isle of Donagh may have been considered a sacred island. Time of the: 1 hr 30 minutes.

Finally, welcome to the ancient kingdom of the mystical Tuatha de Danann and the site of their ancient seat at the Grianan of Aileach Fort. The origins of the fort are dated back to 1700 BC. It is linked to the mysterious invaders who came to Ireland before the Celts and built stone forts on top of strategic hills and fought against a fierce race of giants. This area of Inishowen is one of the richest in the country for historical monuments and nearby you can find ancient passage tombs, early Christian churches, rock art and some of the earliest Celtic crosses.

One night stay in Co. Donegal

DAY 5: Co. Donegal (Tory Islnads). An additional day offered only for 20 June, 2023.

Today, we will satnd face to face with Balor of the Evil Eye. We will first take a ferry from Magheroarty to cross the sea. County Donegal’s Tory Island is a beautiful spot to visit, home to distinctive scenery, monastic ruins and locals with fascinating stories to tell. There were, it seems, many giants hereabouts once. You would never know that one of mythology’s most fearsome men is said to have lived here once. Balor of the Evil Eye a mythical Cyclopean giant and demon, made Tory his island and Tor Mor, a tower on Tory, his fortress. Balor was a ruthless and brutal giant with a singular, poisonous eye on his forehead that unleashed a fiery devastation when opened. It was on Tory that he ruled and imprisoned his only daughter, Ethnea, until she betrayed him and brought about his downfall. The place was named Torach, the Island of Towers, for its high broken cliffs. There are shattered black buttresses, pillars, and towers of basalt. If you pass on the sea, you are often apt to mistake them for strongholds in ruins. Old legends assert that the castellation was the pastime of giants. 

Take up this invitation and you certainly won’t be disappointed: make your way to the top of Dún Bhaloir – the legendary fort of Fomorian chief, Balor – and you’ll be surrounded by 90-metre-high cliffs as you gaze out across the wild, roaring Atlantic. We will also visit An Chros Tau (The Tau Cross), an iconic cross dating back to Colmcille’s monastic period (6th century). The intriguing Cross suggests early seafaring links to the Coptic Christians of Egypt. Carved from a single slab of slate, the island’s fishermen pray here before heading out to sea. Whilst exploring Tory, you may also find a graveyard with a very mysterious backstory. In September of 1884, the HMS Wasp set sail for Tory, with the unenviable task of collecting rent from residents and overseeing evictions. Disaster struck in the wee hours; the ship hit rocks and sank. Though the reasons for the sinking have never been fully established, many islanders attribute the Wasp’s demise to An Cloch Mallacht (their Cursing Stone). Dating back to Druidic times, the stone could supposedly be used to release negative forces on enemies. Six Wasp crewmen survived the tragedy, while eight of the dead are buried in the island’s Reilig Ghallda (Foreigners’ Graveyard). 

Second night stay in Co. Donegal

DAY 5/6: Co. Donegal & Co. Sligo

Departure from Letterkenny. Stop at the Poisoned Glen, which lies at the foot of Mount Errigal, the tallest peak of the Derryveagh Mountains range. It is one of the most renowned areas for its sweeping valleys, imposing mountains and shimmering lakes. Glen received its name from Balor of the Evil Eye, the one-eyed Chieftain who lived on Tory Island. Balor had a gorgeous daughter who he kept closed away in a Tower out of men’s view. However, word of her beauty spread and she was kidnapped and brought to Magheroarty. It’s thought that Balor was killed by a rival chieftain in the Glen with a spear through his eye. The blood poured from Balor’s eye turning the Glen red and splitting the great stone Cloch Hatán in 3 parts.

In his brief discussion of the Kilclooney Dolmen and its environs, R. Æ. Baillie concludes that, with dolmens’ history lost, “…it must ever remain a mystery how those huge stones were lifted up and carried, often considerable distances.” Was it a feat of giants …? But perhaps the biggest mystery about this portal tomb is why there is a miniature dolmen doppelgänger, with its capstone on the ground, only 5 m (16.5 ft) away.

Next, we will follow the road to Cloghanmore Megalithic Tomb and Mallin More Megalithic cementary. “The Great Stone Heap” was discovered in the mid-nineteenth century. Strikingly unique of this court tomb is that its two secondary burial chambers each contain something not found in any other court tomb: an orthostat with the signature rock-art designs of the Irish passage tomb. While not nearly as numerous nor as complex as the decorations at the Newgrange or Loughcrew passage tombs, characteristic passage tomb art on the two stones was noted when the monument was first discovered. Then we shortly stop by Slieve League Cliffs – Ireland’s ultimate sea cliff experience. Afterwards, we make our way to Sligo and will see beautiful Ben Bulben and listen to the legend of Diarmuid and Gráinne. 

Night Stay in Co. Sligo

DAY 6/7: Co. Sligo

We start from Carrowmore Megalithic Site. It’s one of the most dense concentrations of megalithic tombs of different categories. Portal, court and wedge tombs usually are nicknamed giant’s graves. It’s the largest megalithic complex in Ireland and a not-to-be-missed experience for anyone interested in Irish history, pre-history, original peoples and settlements, or for those just curious about huge, ancient ruins…and how they might have gotten there. Walking along the paths beside the monuments gives many opportunities for taking photographs and asking questions of the brilliant local guides. 

“The road winds gently upwards on ever narrowing roads, until the last of the cottages is left below […] The cliffs, green and limestone grey, rise on each side of you now and are peaked in many places by sudden domes, like bald-headed giants rising above the hill tops” (Chris Thompson, Story Archaeology, 2012). The 15 passage tombs of the Carrowkeel Complex lie on this line created by the eastward spread of Neolithic burial practices some 6,000 years ago. It is also the site of a mythical Battle of Moytura which took place between the Tuatha de Danann and the ancient giants of Ireland.  Lured from his stronghold on Tory Island, Balor the Giant was blinded in battle and mistakenly burned his own army to the ground. A huge hole was seared into the earth and later, filled with water, becoming Sligo’s Loch na Sui: the Lake of the Eye.

Heading off to Co. Cavan and Cavan Burren Park. Folklore tells that two young giants, Lugh and Lag, challenged each other to jump a gorge in order to show off to the female giant whose love they both sought. Unfortunately, Lag fell to his death. But that’s how the Giant’s Leap Chasm got its name. And the nearby Giant’s Grave, where Lag is said to lie, is a wedge tomb built to its striking shape some 4,000 years ago. Whatever folklore says, facts can be even more fascinating. We will follow The Giant’s Leap Trail (2.7km). Duration – Approx. 50mins on bog-bridge and gravel path terrain with a 35 metre climb.

Second night in Co. Sligo

DAY 7/8: Co. Fermanagh

Departure from Sligo and climb up the slopes of the Cuilcagh Mountain often referred to as Ireland’ Stairway to Heaven. The view that you’re treated to from the top of the Cuilcagh Boardwalk is pretty special.

It’s along one of those surprising roads less travelled – and an experience to really make your day. Layers of history peel back to reveal a breathtaking wealth of natural and manmade features, all fused together into an exceptional prehistoric landscape. After your walk, take a tour of the spectacular Marble Arch Caves, which are a major tourist attraction, set in the picturesque foothills of Cuilcagh Mountain, just a short journey from the island town of Enniskillen in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. The landscape encompassing the Marble Arch Caves was formed over 340 million years ago. Today this natural environment of caves, rivers, mountains, ancient woodlands, waterfalls and gorges offer an opportunity for visitors to enjoy the incredible range of activities and experiences the Marble Arch Caves have to offer.

Finally, we head off to Co. Meath.

Night stay in Co. Meath.

DAY 9/10: Co. Meath

Heading off to the Boyne Valley. It will take you another step closer to the passage tombs of Newgrange and Four Knocks, one of Europe’s most dazzling megalithic sites. According to common knowledge, these were served as burials, however, studies in archaeoastronomy carried out by scientists such as Lomsdalen (2014) and Brennan (1994) show that megalithic architecture holds a strong relationship to the sky and thus some researchers argue these were originally astronomical devices.

Finally, we visit the Hill of Tara, known as Temair in gaeilge, the ancient seat of the High Kings of Ireland. It has been shrouded in myth and legend from the time of Tuatha Dé Danann right up to modern Irish history. In ancient Irish religion and mythology Temair was the sacred place of dwelling for the gods, and was the entrance to the otherworld. Saint Patrick is said to have come to Tara to confront the ancient religion of the pagans at its most powerful site. Sitting on top of the King’s Seat (Forradh) of Temair is the most famous of Tara’s monuments – Ireland’s ancient coronation stone – the Lia Fail or “Stone of Destiny”, which was brought here according to mythology by the godlike people, the Tuatha Dé Danann, as one of their sacred objects. It was said to roar when touched by the rightful king of Tara.

Second night in Co. Meath

DAY 10/11: Co. Meath

For volonteers, in the morning, a balloon flight over the Boyne Valley (only offered in itinerary for the date of 20 June, 2023). You should request it at the moment of booking the tour.

On this last day, we move to Loughcrew Cairns – Passage Tombs (see: Magic in the Hag’s Cairn of the Loughcrew Hills at the Equinox Rising Sun). It is a megalithic burial site dating from 3500BC-3300BC built on three hilltops. There are around 30 cairns and mounds dotting the site making it one of the largest megalithic burial grounds in Ireland. The site is known in Irish as ‘Sliabh na Cailleach’ which translates as ‘Mountain of the Witch’. (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). Legends link the site with a witch called Cailleach Bheara who is also associated with such megalithic sites as CARROWMORE in Co. Sligo. According to another account LOUGHCREW was inhabited by a hag named Garavogue’. The story goes that the hag was a giantess who is said to have dropped huge heaps of stones from her apron onto the land as she jumped from hilltop to hilltop. The very same story is heard at other megalithic sites in Ireland and … in Malta. CAIRN T is the principal monument of the entire Loughcrew complex, sitting on its summit, the highest point in Co. Meath. Known as “The Hag’s Cairn,” it features a megalithic writing on its orthostats, which is read by the equinox sunrise. Its mystery has not been revealed … 

In the afternoon, you will be transfered back to the city centre of Dublin, from where you can either go to the airport or to your hotel in Dublin.

END OF THE TOUR

Requirements:

  • You should be equipped with waterproof clothes and appropriate footwear such as hiking/walking boots with a thick tread and ankle support. Trainers are not acceptable.
  • The itinerary includes moderate walking (1-4,5hrs) tours so a level of physical fitness is needed.

DATES:

19 March, 2023 : 10 days/9 nights (available for booking till 5 February, 2023).

19 March, 2023 : RATE FROM €2 600 per person.

18 April, 2023: 10 days/9 nights (available for booking till 5 March, 2023).

20 June, 2023: 11 days/10 nights (available for booking till 30 April, 2023).

SERVICES INCLUDED IN QUOTE:

9/10 nights’ accommodation at the hotels 3*/4* suggested, double/twin rooms with private bath/shower. Single rooms on request.

9/10 full Irish Breakfasts at your hotels

An archaeologist and local guides specialized in folklore/archaeology (if a given tour is additionally guided).

Private driver-guide

Tory Island crossing (return) (only for 18 April and 20 June, 2023).

Admissions to:

  • Evening of folklore and fairies (only for 18 April and 20 June, 2023).
  • Navan Centre Guided Tour
  • The Giant’s Causeway
  • The Gobbins (only for 20 June, 2023).
  • Carrowmore Megalithic Site
  • Marble Arch Caves
  • Newgrange

Service charges and taxes at current rates.

All services are subject to availability at time of definite booking.

NOT INCLUDED IN PACKAGE PRICE:

International flights

Beverages, lunches, dinners

Any other services not stated in the above

TERMS&CONDITIONS:

1. A non–refundable deposit is required to confirm the booking.  This is 10% of the whole rate per person.

2. In event of cancellation the following charges will apply:

a) booking deposit is strictly non-refundable 

b) 6 – 4 weeks before date of departure 30% cancellation charge will apply 

c) 4 -2 weeks before date of arrival 50% cancellation charge will apply 

d) 2 weeks or less before date of arrival 100% cancellation charge will apply

2. TPG is not responsible for any injury, accident or stolen goods – please get travel insurance and relevant visas before booking this tour and have a passport with at least 3 months past the end date of the tour.

3. Single travellers are very welcome. If we are unable to find your roommate or you wish to have a single room, there will be the supplement added to the total rate. Early registration will facilitate this process.

4. Please hold off booking your international flights, until the tour is confirmed in writing via email. TPG is not responsible for any costs incurred. Please email for further details.

5. Itinerary may be subject to change if circumstances arise beyond reasonable control.

6. TPG accepts no responsibility for losses or incidental expenses due to delay or change in schedules, hotel booking irregularities, defaults, accidents, sickness, quarantine, emergency, weather, strikes, war, travel restrictions, or other causes. All such losses are the sole responsibility of the participants. Please make sure you have travel insurance to cover all the unexpectable incidents.

Why with us? What makes us stand out?

  1. Carefully selected date of the trip. March (after Saint Patrick’ Day), and April are not so touristy months, and the time specifically builds up a unique ambiance of the archaeological landscape. June, in turn, promises a good weather and allows to participate in a wider range of activities.
  2. A unique combination of 3 subjects: archaeology, folklore and a grandeur of nature.
  3. Friendly relations with local guides built over the years. Thanks to them, you will see authentic, unique and low-tourist places that other agencies often do not offer.
  4. Off the beaten track – the tour offers alternatives to Ireland’s most popular tourist attractions.  And if they are still popular, like Newgrange or the Giant’s Causeway, you will see them from a different perspective.
  5. A small group of 5 to 10 participants. Thanks to this, we move more efficiently, and thus – we are able to see more. In such conditions, you also have better contact with the guides and your comments, questions and expectations will always be noticed.
  6. Experienced guides with extensive knowledge of Ireland. You also have an opportunity to participate in an informal study expedition with an archaeologist.

If you are ready to embark on the tour at any of the above dates, please register your interest. We will be happy to answer your questions and send you further details.

Following ‘Via Michaelica’, from the Mounts to the Caves

As an archaeologist, currently conducting PhD research on early Christianity, I have embarked on an expedition, or rather a pilgrimage, that takes me in most of its complexity with the Seven Archangels, and the seven sanctuaries-mounts dedicated to Saint Michael. They were built along the ley line, stretching southwards from northern Europe, with the Skellig Michael jutting from the Atlantic Ocean, to Mount Carmel In Israel, as its final point. But is it just a point or a cluster of sites around this holy place, important to both, Jews and Christians? (see: Sacred Geography Enclosed in the Idea of the Apollo-Saint Michael Axis)

So far, I have visited the three sanctuaries in the north of Europe. Yet, when I started my exciting journey in 2006, I barely associated the sites with the Archangel; at that time, I was not aware of the fact they are all placed on the imaginative line running 60 degrees 11 minutes west of north or that they are actually seven in number, all aligned southwards on the extension of the axis. In 2008, during my short visit in Cornwall, I learnt there is much more to the story I had known so far. For some, saying that a book can change your life is a cliché … Maybe … But in my life I have read at least two books that turned out to be the bestsellers of my life, giving me proper guidelines on how to live with passion. Having encountered one of them in a small bookshop in a town of Tintagel, my perception of legendary places, shaped by the faith of pagans and Christians alike, has greatly grown; it has triggered my imagination and challenged me to follow a Christian pilgrimage path that was firstly marked by Saint Michael’s steps.

Together with my travel companions, in October, 2022, I am heading off to two other Archangel’s sanctuaries in Italy. First, I will climb up the Mount Pirchiriano, beautifully situated in Piedmont of north-western Italy, where the silhouette of Sacra di San Michele is shouting in between the peaks of the Alpes. And then I will travel southwards to not less prepossessing Monte Sant’Angelo on Gargano Peninsula, surrounded by the navy-blue waters of the Adriatic Sea. Thought-provoking is a binding connection between those two sites and Mont Saint Michel in France, of which Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo on Gargano is the only one not consecrated with a human hand.

Visual reports online from my expeditions will be available on my website. Later on, they will be richly supplemented with exhaustive written descriptions. Meantime, I invite you on a pilgrimage along Saint Michael’s Axis.

January, 15th, 2023: More than two months have passed since my last trip to the Sanctuaries of Saint Michael. In October, I managed to visit the fourth of them, Sacra di San Michele (see :The Middle-Way Point of the Angels’ Battle in the Piedmont Region), and in November, the fifth one, which is the famous Monte Sant’Angelo on the Gargano peninsula. The time turned out to be extremely intense, because apart from going to Italy and studying along St. Michael’s Line, I also visited Christian sacral places in Lebanon and Egypt. Many of them are also related to angels’ activities, not only to Saint Michael, but also to his other six archangel companions. In Lebanon, I had the opportunity to travel through the sacred Valley of Quadisha, where Saint Michael is celebrated as much as Saint Elijah. I also tried sweet wine, made from grapes grown on Mount Hermon – the same one that was to witness the descent of fallen angels to earth… In Egypt, I visited the meeting place of Saints Paul and Anthony. It reminded me of the scene from the Irish High Crosses, showing two Saints with a raven flying with bread over their heads. I climbed up more than 1,000 steps to the cave of Saint Anthony, and after entering the sanctuary of the monastery, I got lost in thinking about the scenes of saints, angels and Majestas Domini.

The five first steps on ‘Via Michaelica’, while travelling southwards: Skellig Michael (2015), Saint Michael’s Mount (2008), Mont Saint Michel (2005, 2008), Sacra di San Michele (2022), an Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo on Monte Saint’ Angelo (2022). The best way of experiencing the pilgrimage is to travel with your close freinds. Song by Sia “Unstoppable”; photo: the illustration of Saint Michael’s Sword with all the seven points; the board can be seen inside the Church of Saint Michael at Sacra di San Michele, in Piedmont.

All the thoughts come together in one piece that adds new chapters to the work on Saint Michael’s legendary Sword, (and to my PhD).

While Saint Michael is still chasing and hunting for demons, along the Line from north to south, I am coming back to my studies … I hope you will enjoy new articles that will soon appear on the website.

Featured image: Bronze statue of Archangel Michael, Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Photo by Wuestenigel (2017). Source: Catholic Herald (2017).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Photo: Bronze statue of Archangel Michael, Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome. Photo by Wuestenigel (2017). In: Catholic Herald (2017). Available at <https://bit.ly/2jhwxSd>. [Accessed 15th April, 2018].

Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb Within the Lore of Giants

Like two months before Christmas, 2018, a group of three archaeology students started to conduct a thorough archaeological survey of Ballyedmonduff wedge tomb in Co. Dublin, in order to gain a better understanding of the site. I was one of them. Although we were not allowed to do proper archaeological digs, we documented instead the archaeological remains in detail, including research of the folklore surrounding the so-called ‘Giant’s Graves’ as the wedge tomb of Ballyedmonduff is usually called (McGuire et al. 2019:3). Before the date of submitting the project, in February, 2019, we visited the site a number of times. “The tomb itself is marked on the Park’s map, as the ‘Giant’s Grave’ [and] is situated on land owned by Glencullen Adventure Park (GAP), a privately-run facility mainly engaged in the provision of mountain biking trails. Some of these trails run close to the tomb” (Ibid.:4), which frequently made our work in the field more difficult, when groups of people, like children of a school trip started climbing up the tomb stones and jumping between our tools and measuring tapes. The weather was not on our side either. Although it was not often raining (or snowing), it was really freezing, especially in the shadow of the forest, and adding that we were spending long hours of working in the filed, mostly staying in the same position, while taking precise measurements, making a drawing or reading levels calculations. So a nearby coffee shop often saved our lives. On the other side, I remember this project as one of the most interesting assignments at the university and the reason why I have actually chosen archaeology as my profession. Comparing it to the work I do for living, sitting for hours in a noisy office and listening to complaining clients, wading through the mud and patiently observing stones definitely win. And when no one appeared on the trail at that time, there was such an eerie silence, soaring in the darkness of the surrounding trees, that it seemed it would disturb the sleep of the buried giant who would finally wake up to leave his lair of stones.

Wedge tombs are the most numerous and distinctive type of megalithic passage tombs. They are found all over Ireland but mainly in the west and the south-west (Ruggles, 2005:435; O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39). Mystery surrounds these great stone monuments which stand remarkably in lonely places and fit into wild Irish landscapes (Evans, 1938:7).  Wedge tomb constructions mainly took place between 2500 – 1800 BC. (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39), placing them chronologically towards the end of a rich tradition of Neolithic tomb construction in Ireland (Ruggles, 2005:435) and constructions petered out circa 1900-1600 BC. (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).  Over five hundred examples of wedge tombs are currently known in the Republic of Ireland (Ruggles, 2005:435), but many more have been destroyed over the intervening centuries (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).  A map of the distribution of wedge tombs in the Republic of Ireland is shown in Figure 10, based on GIS data with the latest information from the NMS (National Monuments Service Website).

The Ballyedmonduff tomb forms part of a small group of wedge tombs in the Dublin region (see Figure 11) which include Ilmashogue Wedge Tomb located half way up Three Rock Mountain near Kilmashogue Recreation Area car park – (SMR DU025- 00701); Killakee Wedge Tomb in Massey’s Estate Forest Park – (SMR DU025-022); Laughanstown Wedge Tomb in Cabinteely – (SMR DU026-024); and Shankill Wedge Tomb (SMR – DU026-059). 

Figure 11: The Ballyedmonduff as a part of a small group of tombs in the Dublin region, with Ilmashogue Wedge Tomb, Killakee Wedge Tomb, Laughanstown Wedge Tomb, and Shankill Wedge Tomb; based on GIS data for the use of the Survey of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’), made by Maurice McGuire, Joanna Pyrgies, and Susan Ryan, February 2019. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In terms of their chamber size, wedge tombs can be divided into two separate categories: single wedge-shaped, box like constructions, and long and low wedge-shaped galleries (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).  The former is typical of north-west Clare, while the latter occur particularly in the north, although examples happen elsewhere (Ibid.:36-39). Ballyedmonduff appears to be large, complex and well-built in the context of the class as a whole and as a gallery grave belongs to the second category of wedge tombs. Whilst wedge tombs vary widely in size (Ruggles, 2005:435), they have defining characteristics – a trapezoidal central chamber, with its sides formed by two lines of large, upright stones (orthostates), getting wider and higher toward the entrance end, from east to west, and forming a wedge shape (Ó’Ríordáin and de Valéra, 1952:61-81), hence their name.  An antechamber is separated from the main chamber (the burial area) by a jamb or sill.  Such tombs were often covered with cairns, which could be round, oval or heel-shaped, often with kerb stones around to support the whole construction (Ibid.:61-81).  

The other characteristic that confirms the wedge tomb as a significant category of monument, is the strong consistency in their orientation, with their doorway generally facing west (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). Nearly all known examples face the western arc of the horizon, with a large group facing south-west (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). It is unusual to have such a clear preference for westerly orientation among a group of Neolithic tombs (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). Their pattern of alignment fits the sun descending or setting model (Ruggles, 2005:435; An Salisbury et al. 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). In other words, Ruggles (2005:435) notes that each wedge tomb was oriented upon a position where the sun was seen either to set, or to be descending in the sky on a significant day – perhaps the day on which construction was begun.

Levels exercise on the site of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb, located in Glencullen Adventure Park (GAP), Ballyedmonduff, Ireland. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Wedge tomb concentrations appear to be denser around mountains than in the lowlands (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232). Throughout Ireland, wedge tombs can be found at elevations.  They are on the summits or slopes of drumlins, hills or foothills, with a smaller number on the sides of higher mountains (including Ballyedmonduff). Unlike in the case of portal or court tombs, it seems that builders preferred hilly locations, though not to the exclusion of other landscape settings – one exception is that no wedge tombs are found on mountain peaks (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81). They do not often appear to have been in close proximity to the coastline, as in the case of Altar Wedge Tomb in Co. Cork.  Still they show a pattern of concentration closer to rivers or lakes (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226-227, 231-232; Ó’Ríordáin, De Valera 1952:61-81).  Salisbury and Keeler (2007:226-227, 231-232) note that it seems likely that water represented no more than an exploitable resource to the wedge tomb builders, with no ritual or cosmological significance. The suitability of an area for settlement and farming, together with the availability copper (e.g. in Cork-Kerry area), influenced the locations of wedge tombs (O’Sullivan and Downey, 2010:36-39).

The lore of the giant’s tombs

Prehistory in Ireland begins around 8000 – 7000 BC (Powell, 2012:11-16).  The most prominent remains of this early prehistoric period are the megalithic tombs in general, the majority of which were constructed in 4000 – 2000 BC. (Ibid.:11-16).  Depending on their particular shape and category, some of them have been referred to as Giant’s Tombs or Graves, others were called Druid’s Altars, mainly to describe portal tombs (dolmens) (Ibid.:11-16).  During the first part of the 19th century, before the completion of archaeological research on Irish megaliths, such tombs were widely noted in literature (Ibid.:11-16). A great number of these legendary sites reappear on the OS maps in 1902, 1904-05, 1907 and 1913-14 under names such as Cromlechs, Druid’s Altars, Giant’s Beds, Giant’s Griddles, Giant’s Graves or Dermot and Grania’s Bed (Cody, 2002). According to Survey of Megalithic Tombs of Ireland, Vol. 1-6, some of the tombs had been destroyed, others were not accepted after inspection as proven megalithic tombs, and the reasons for their rejections are noted in each case (De Valéra and Ó Nuallain, 1961-1989; De Valera, Ó Nuallain 1982).

Many megalithic structures are so huge that numerous legends say they were built by a race of giants for different purposes (Powell 2012:11-16). Some of them were believed to have held dead giants, which would account for their enormous size, and hence the name Giant’s Tomb seemed appropriate (Ibid.:11-16), although not all megalithic tombs have been known under that name. According to OS maps from the first part of the 20th century, and our GIS survey, the greatest number of Giant’s Graves is present in County Sligo (73), which looks like a huge megalithic cemetery. In Ireland, the term Giant’s Grave usually refers to wedge tombs (46), court tombs (54), portal tombs (9) and unclassified tombs (21). The same records indicate there is no passage tombs known as Giant Graves (see Figure 12) (Powell 2012:11-16; De Valéra and Ó Nuallain, 1961-1989).

The term Giant’s Grave is probably the most widely used as far afield as Ireland, Sardinia and Denmark (Evans 1938:7). It can be readily understood how giants were invoked to explain these monstrous architectural achievements (Ibid.:7).  Legends of giants, who undertake extraordinary feats are very common in Irish mythology (Powell 2012:11-16). These legendary tales were usually used by the 18th century Victorian Antiquarians and earlier writers (Ibid.:11-16).  Already in ancient times, these so-called romantic concepts abounded about the origins and the builders of great megalithic structures, not only in Ireland but worldwide (Powell 2012:11-16). The term Giant’s tomb was already recorded at the beginning of 2nd century AD. by Plutarch, a Greek biographer and essayist (Plutarch, 2nd century AD.).  Plutarch describes that when the Roman general Sertorius (123-72 BC) took over the city of Tingis (Tangier, Morocco), he broke open the tomb of Antaeus, the giant venerated by Phoenicians (Ibid.). To his surprise, he found a body sixty cubits long (about 27 metres) (Quayle and Albertino, 2017), “and after performing a sacrifice filled up the tomb again, and joined in magnifying its traditions and honours” (Plutarch, op. cit.) (see On the Southern Side of the Strait of Gibraltar).   

Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’). Photo by Maurice McGuire. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Most of the megalithic monuments, from the Greek, megas, ‘great’, and lithos ‘stone’, are today assigned to major classes and each are named after an important distinguishing feature (Powell 2012:11-16). Among them, there are the so-called tombs, temples, fortifications, citadels, towers, alignments, and hedges (Quayle, Alberino). Megalithic architecture was also described by the ancient Greeks as cyclopean after the race of giants with only one eye, who were believed to have been great craftsmen and builders (Ibid.). For the ancient, Cyclops were the offspring of gods, and they attributed them with megalithic structures throughout the Mediterranean, such as the walls of Mycenae (Ibid.). The term cyclopean masonry is nowadays used by archaeologists to describe an engineering technique that incorporates large stones without the use of mortar (Ibid.). The style ranges roughhewn stone structures as displayed, for example, in nuraghe towers all over Sardinia, or in structures of north-western and south Europe, Africa, Near East, and southern Asia, to incomprehensibly precise edifices devised with immense polygons of blocks (Italy, Greece, Malta, Egypt, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Peru etc.) (Ibid.). The knowledge of cyclopean masonry vanished but all over the world, anywhere megaliths are present, legends of giants abound (Ibid.).

In relation to megalithic sepulchre architecture there are four major categories, such as passage tombs, court tombs, portal tombs and wedge tombs, with other minor categories (Powell 2012:11-16). The so-called giant’s tombs or graves are scattered all over Ireland: the Giant Leap (wedge tomb) in Co. Cavan’s Burren Forest Park, Giant’s Grave on the Laois and Offaly border in Killinaparson, Moytirra East Court Tomb in Co. Sligo, and Giant’s Load (dolmen) at Proleek, Co. Louth, to name just a few.  Some of them tell a story of giants buried there, others, such as the megalithic tomb in Killinaparson are believed to be the resting place of ancient warriors or heroes (Slieve Bloom Association, 2019).  In Proleek, the dolmen is said to have been erected by the Scottish giant named Parrah Boug McShagean, whose body was buried nearby (Dempsey, 2008).  Co. Cavan’s Burren Forest Park, also has a giant story associated with its name (Goldbaum 2010-2019).  According to Harold Johnson (1998), from the nearby town of Blacklion, the giant, attempting to impress a lady, failed in his final attempt to jump the nearby chasm, which is, of course, called the Giant’s Leap (Goldbaum 2010-2019).  After the giant’s fell down and broke his back, he was buried in what’s called now the Giant’s Grave (Ibid.) There are two giant’s tombs near Dublin, one of which is a portal tomb located in Brennanstown, the other is the subject matter of the project and is known as Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb.  Although the latter is also referred to as a Giant’s Grave, there is no known local folklore of a giant or giants linked to this site.

The Giant’s Grave of Ballyedmonduff is located on the lower south-eastern slopes of the Two Rock Mountain, close to the stream (Ó’Ríordáin and De Valéra, 1952:61-68). Nowadays there is a dense pine forest, but in the past, there may have been splendid views of Dublin Bay and Wicklow mountains from the site (Ibid.: 61-68). The grave’s structure consists of a gallery aligned approximately west-east (Ibid.:61-68).  Today partially destroyed and disarranged, the gallery is divided by two septal stones into three parts of different size: ante-chamber, separated burial chamber, and a smaller niche or chamber closed with the back stone (Ibid.:61-68).  The eastern side of the tomb (which was once covered by a cairn) is delimited by horse-shoe shaped kerbs with a row of orthostats forming a straight façade at the western end, onto which the entrance to the tomb opened (Ibid.:61-68). During excavations in 1940s there were some finds recorded at the site: about 150 pieces of pottery, twenty-seven pieces of flint, a perforated polished hammer, and a few fragments of cremated bone of human origin (Ibid.61-68).  

Wedge tombs are said to have primarily served as collective burials for social groups (Evans, 1938:7) and territorial markers (Salisbury and Keeler, 2007:226, 231-232).  Yet, some giant’s graves yield no osseous remains (Frazer, 1895:64). Some scholars even suggest such constructions as wedge tombs did not originally serve as sepulchre at all but they were re-used as tombs by later generations or cultures (Brennan, 1994).  According to Walsh (1995) wedge tombs were not simply burial structures or territorial markers.  They seem to have served a variety of functions ranging from the practical to the symbolic (Walsh 1995).  Studies in archaeoastronomy carried out by scientists such as Lomsdalen (2014) and Brennan (1994) show that megalithic architecture holds a strong relationship to the sky. Accordingly, some theorists, for example Kaulins (2003), claim Ballyedmonduff used to be a geodetic astronomical planisphere (i.e. a star chart formed by the position of the stones), and the largest megalith on the site marks the constellation of Andromeda, while other stones are related to other major stellar constellations of the sky.  He believes that all of the stones were intentionally placed there to serve a particular purpose and were not placed there by chance (Ibid.).  Each was selected for their particular position out of the many stones available (Ibid.).  Kaulins (1995) also notes that megaliths made of quartz, granite or particular colour deserve special attention. 

As there is no straight answer on the purpose of giant’s graves in Ireland, it is valuable to look closer at other megaliths bearing the same name outside Ireland and compare them, especially the tombs built in Sardinia – an island famous for its legendary gigantic inhabitants.  All over this island, there are massive stone sepulchres commonly called the tombs of giants.  Similarly, in Ireland, most of the megalithic stones once incorporated into ancient monuments were partially dismantled long ago by residents of local villages, however, they are still impressive (Quayle and Alberino, 2017).  Sardinian licenced archaeological guide Maria Paola Loi, confirms there are legends in Sardinia saying that the tombs themselves were not designed to house the bodies of giants (Loi, 2017). The giant’s body was inhumated first underneath and the monument was built on top once the body was buried (Ibid.).

Loi (2017) explains that an aperture inside the tombs was used by young men during the so-called rite of passage ceremony to stay in contact with the soul of ancestors, known as heroes or giants. Boys would crawl into the narrow opening of the entrance stele and sit down in the tomb gallery on particular celestial events, when it was believed that the giants’ powers were released (Ibid.). She notes that each boy would individually spend a few days and nights there, meditating alone and absorbing the energy of the mighty one buried beneath (Ibid.).  Likewise, O’Sullivan and Downey (2010:36-39) explain that in Ireland “megalithic tombs were symbolic expressions of ideological beliefs, ritual authority and access to the supernatural”.  They also note that the wedge tomb was at the centre of a community of individuals who shared the same beliefs and values (Ibid.:36-39). The ancestors may have been regarded as spirits whose function was to communicate with higher spirits to further the prosperity of the whole community (Loi, 2017).

Francesco Cubeddu (2011). Aerial view of the Giant’s grave of Sa Domu ‘e S’Orcu in Sardinia. CC BY-SA 4.0. In “Giants’ grave”. In Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There are two kinds of giant’s tombs in Sardinia (Loi, 2017).  The major group consists of the so-called horned cairns, namely long wedged-shaped galleries of upright stones, divided or segmented by stone pillars, sometimes with low transverse slabs between them, dividing them into oblong compartments (Evans, 1938:10-12). Unlike Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb, they do not feature a distinct chamber at the end, as the gallery is thought to have been an actual burial place (Ibid.10-12).  If preserved, the gallery is roofed by corbels and covered with cap stones (Ibid.:10-12), some weighing up to 20 tons (Quayle and Alberino, 2017).  Although cap stones were once present at Ballyedmonduff, as shown in the Ordnance Survey sketches, they are missing now at the site.  A very significant feature of the tombs in Sardinia is the entrance (Evans, 1938:10-12; Quayle and Alberino, 2017).  Namely, it is emphasized and set off by a curving line of orthostates, forming an imposing semi-circular façade embracing a forecourt (Evans, 1938:10-12; Quayle and Alberino, 2017). 

The term horned cairns come from the resemblance which the layout of the forecourt bears to the horns of a bull (Evans, 1938:10-12).  This type of forecourt does not occur in the typical form of Irish wedge tombs. Although monuments with this type of forecourt are found especially in the south-west of Scotland and the south of France, and seem to derive from Sardinia, Northern Ireland is the region of their richest development, and they are mostly clustered around Carlingford Lough in Ulster, such as Browndod tomb in Co. Antrim (Ibid.:10-12).

Remains of a statue representing an opulent woman or a goddess found in the area of the temple Ggantija. Is it a representation of the Giantess Sansuna? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although passage tombs in Ireland are not remembered as giants’ tombs, an Irish legend has it that the passage tombs of Loughcrew were created when a giant witch, walking across the land, dropped her cargo of huge stones from her apron (Ireland’s Ancient East 2018; see Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). Actually, very similar story is known on Gozo Island in Malta, where the giantess Sansuna is said to have built the temple Ggantija – the Place of Giants, carrying huge stones upon one of her shoulders or in an apron four kilometres to their current resting place (Newman 2016). On her way, likewise the Loughcrew witch, she dropped some of the stones (Ibid.). One of them is called Sansuna’s Dolmen and it is located exactly one kilometre south-east of the Ggantija temple (Ibid.) (see Sleeping Beauty of the Underworld).

Situated in the Golden Heights, south of Damascus, there is another giant’s tomb, however, of an outstanding shape (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). It is called Rujm el-Hiri or Gilgal Refaim (from Hebrew, Giant’s Circle of Stones) and it is an ancient megalithic construction consisting of an estimated four thousand tons of loose rocks of huge and various sizes, which makes it another cyclopean construction (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). The stones form concentric circles, with a tumulus at its centre (Hamilton-Brown 1990s; “Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). It is dated to around 3000–2700 BCE BC. (“Rujm el-Hiri” 2022). Like the other giant’s tombs, Rujm el-Hiri is also strongly associated with the race of giants, yet in this case it is not only a folk story but the biblical narrative that supports that (Hamilton-Brown 1990s). An Israeli archaeologist, Daniel Herman, claims that the tomb must have been dedicated to someone really powerful as its construction should have taken an enormous amount of time and effort (Ibid.). When Israelites came to this area, the tomb had already been there and they documented the identification of the site by saying that this region had been ruled by Og, the king of the Basham (Ibid.). The Bible mentions that king in Deuteronomy 3:11: “For only Og king of Bashan remained of the remnant of giants […]” (Ibid.)

Hebrew Wikipedia (2007). Gilgal Refā’īm is an ancient megalithic monument in the Golan Heights (Early Bronze Age II, 3000–2700 BC.). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo modified. In “Rujm el-Hiri” (2022). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I do not know if the giant buried in Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb was one of those mentioned in the Bible. Maybe … However, the world’s ancient tradition of giants is extremely rich, especially in the British Isles and in Ireland. Similar folk stories, some extremely attractive, and especially the connection of the race of giants with megalithic constructions, are now taken with a pinch of salt, especially among archaeologists. Today, mostly tourists are likely to listen to such tales, who, usually indulged amid the sounds of Irish music, are sipping beer in pubs. Yet, the stories of giants and their beds resound with a deep note of melancholy, especially for those who are longing for the unknown past. Actually, despite further archaeological research to reveal the truth about prehistoric megalithic structures, such as the Ballyedmunduff Wedge Tomb, their secrets continue to persist and stimulate the human imagination.

Article based on research conducted on site of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb by Maurice McGuire, Joanna Pyrgies, Susan Ryan (2017). Survey of Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb (‘Giant’s Grave’). University College Dublin.

If you wish to follow Irish giants’ trail farther, feel welcome to join our archaeological tour: A Tale of the Deeds of Tuatha de Danann and the Formorians – the Race of Giants.

Featured image: There are at least two giant’s tombs near Dublin, one of which is known as Ballyedmonduff Wedge Tomb. Although it is referred to as a Giant’s Grave, there is no known local folklore of a giant or giants linked to this site. Photo by Maurice McGuire. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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Walsh, P. (1995) ‘Structure and deposition in Irish wedge tombs: an open and shut case’. In: Waddell, J. and Shee Twohig, J. (eds), Ireland in the Bronze Age. Proceedings of the Dublin Conference, April 1995, pp. 113-27. Stationery Office: Dublin.

   

Magic in the Hag’s Cairn of the Loughcrew Hills at the Equinox Rising Sun

Within the Loughcrew complex, Cairn T (Hag’s Cairn), which is situated on Carnbane East, is the most outstanding of all (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). As if it had been designed as an astronomical construct, the mound “stands in the focal position and takes the most prominent place on the highest summit of a megalithic area” (Brennan 1994:46). Originally there were fifty to a hundred mounds (Ibid.). In the seven remaining mounds, sufficient stones are in their original alignment for a beam of light to be projected into the chamber and against the backstone, presenting a clearly defined frame of light (Ibid.). The number of remaining mounds allows to reconstruct the main elements in a planned astronomical and calendrical scheme.

Major mounds and their satellites

In 1980, two researchers, Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts studied the two most important cairns at Loughcrew, T and L, which are supplemented by smaller satellite mounds linked to their larger counterparts by orientation and alignment (Brennan 1994:46-50). “Cairns L and T – [initially] appeared to be oriented in the same direction according to archaeological surveys done before 1980s, however, [the explorers have eventually concluded that] in terms of real function, the equinox rising sun is focused on Cairn T, but does not approach anywhere near the passage of Cairn L” (Brennan 1994:48).

While conducting their studies, the both researchers had encountered similar problems as we did during our study trip, while they were trying to reach the Cairn T in March to observe the spring equinox (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch). Martin Brennan (1994:46) writes that “the mountains were covered in snow and the […] winds from the east blew icy gusts down the passage of the mound.” Actually, 5000 years ago the climate was more favourable to celebrate the spring equinox.

What does the equinox mean?

“Equinox literally means equal night. In terms of hours, equinox is the date, when the hours of day and night are equal. The two extremes of this are winter solstice, when the night is longest, and summer solstice, when the night is shortest” (Brennan 1994:90). So equinox (spring and autumnal) is midway between these two points (Ibid.:90). “At equinox the sun is raising due east to the horizon” (Ibid.:90).

Hag’s Cairn

As the major mound, Cairn T “dominates a group of smaller satellite mounds clustered around it on the summit of the Mountain of the Sorceress, [called like that for the mentioned reasons (see: Sliabh na Callighe (Mountains of the Witch)]” (Brennan 1994:48). It is orientated about nine degrees south of east and above the horizon (Ibid.:90). Therefore “the beam [of light] does not enter the mound until the sun rises to the proper altitude. At the spring equinox the angle of the sun’s path is very high in relation to the horizon, whereas at the autumnal equinox the angle of the ecliptic is lower. […] What [one can witness] at Cairn T [at the equinox is] the intended projection of light and its interaction with [the carved symbols]” (Ibid.:90).

Views from Loughcrew Passage Tomb near Oldcastle, County Meath. Photo by Stephen Keaveny (2014). CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo source: “Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

During their research at the time of the spring equinox, Brennan and Roberts noticed a rectangular patch of light on the upper left of the backstone inside the Cairn T (Brennan 1994:47,93). It was starting to take a regular form, “brilliantly illuminating the entire chamber in a glowing splendour of shimmering golden orange light” (Ibid.). As the researchers notice, it gives a different effect from the one observed at Newgrange at the winter solstice. Whereas in the latter, the beam of light sweeps across the chamber, inside the Cairn T at Loughcrew, “the light [assumes] a clearly defined geometric shape that [is] projected on to the upright backstone and [moves] diagonally across it, tracing the path of the sun against a mural of prehistoric art” (Ibid.).

Encrypted message of Loughcrew?

“The arrangement of the engravings in relation to the sunbeam reveals that there is quite precise time reckoning and careful determination of the equinoxes” (Brennan 1994:92). The beam of light is concentrated on one stone at the back of the passage chamber (C8) and in its journey it progresses from left to right (Ibid.:94). Finally it gradually moves down the stone, “reflecting the movement of the rising sun” (Ibid.:94) and “illuminating key symbols as it progresses” (Ibid.:92). “It is the beam of light itself which finally and conclusively identifies the inscriptions as solar symbols” (Ibid.:94). The focal point of the entire process is a petroglyph representing “a large circular radial sun on the right of the stone” (Ibid.:93; see 94).   

The researchers were highly impressed by the observed phenomenon, where the sliding beam of light played the role of a guide or key to the encrypted message left by the builders of Loughcrew. In this context, the petroglyphs on the backstone (C8)  in Cairn T may “be interpreted as the language of unknown archaic astronomers” (Brennan 1994:92).

“For the first time we were seeing the signs and symbols in the context in which the artist had meant them to be seen. Suddenly markings that had appeared to be random and haphazard became part of an intricately structured system that derived its meaning from the solar event we were witnessing” (Brennan 1994:47)

Cairn T at Loughcrew. Photo by William Whyte from Dublin, Ireland (2008). CC BY-SA 2.0. “Loughcrew” (2019). In. Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Furthermore, the entrance stones and the narrow passage shape the beam of light into a regular geometric form of a rectangle (Brennan 1994:94). At the end it disintegrates in the process of moving on the right and away from stone C8 (Ibid.:94). The rectangular shape reconstructs itself reaching stone C10 (Ibid.:94). At autumnal equinox the process is repeated (research carried out at the site on 22nd September, 1980 by Martin Brennan and Jack Roberts) (Ibid.:98). “The beam of light clearly centres on the sun’s disc, repeating the imagery of the spring equinox. [Although the] focal image in both events remains the same, […] different sets of engravings are utilized to measure the beam of light” (Ibid.:98). With the same width of the beam as at spring equinox, at the autumnal its length changes and is about double as it is in the spring (Ibid.:98). In both cases, however, “the illumination of the sun wheel unambiguously links the prehistoric art and the astronomy” (Ibid.:100).

Precise solar construct

According to the results of research done at the site on 20th March in 1980 (on the day of the spring equinox), Cairn T turned out to be a precise astronomical instrument or a solar construct (Brennan 1994:48). Combined with the prehistoric petroglyphs, the visible differences in the movement of the sunlight on the backstone made it far easier and more precise in identifying the actual day of equinox  at Loughcrew than the day of winter solstice at Newgrange (Ibid.).

Epitaph for Jeremiah …?

Michelangelo, Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512). The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Jeremiah” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

There is a growing belief that Cairn T is actually the burial place of the Bible Prophet, Jeremiah! Some authors claim that Jeremiah’s message is encoded in the petroglyphs inside the entrance to the Cairn and that they even reveal the exact date of his death on 21st of September in 581 BC (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017). According to the same authors, the Cairn T itself would have been designed to demonstrate the autumnal equinox just in memory to the Prophet (JAH 1998-2006). “These are the same [authors] who also believe that the Ark of the Covenant is buried on the Hill of Tara” (Murphy 2017-2020).

Jeremiah was the Jewish prophet known from the Old Testament from his prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem (O’Bryan 2017). According to one of the versions reporting a possible story of the lost Ark of the Covenant, Jeremiah may have been a person who escaped Jerusalem with the Ark in 587 BC (Ibid.). It may have happened just before “the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar took the city and destroyed the First Temple” (Ibid.). After the Book of Jeremiah, the Prophet escaped the conquered city together with other Israelites, among whom there was a Jewish princess and the scribe Baruch (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017). As the legend says, the group sailed to Ireland, after stopping in Egypt (possibly Tanis) (JAH 1998-2006; O’Bryan 2017) Other accounts state, however, that the Israelites actually headed off to the south, in the direction of Abyssinia (today Ethiopia).

Bethel aka Stone of Destiny

Dipre (D’Ypre), Nicolas. 1495–1531. Jacob’s dream of a ladder. Avignon. Musée du Petit Palais. Photo uploaded by Eugene (2011). Public domain {{PD-US}}. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons.

It is also believed that Jeremiah brought to Ireland the Stone of Destiny aka Jacob’s Pillar, which was once used by the biblical patriarch Jacob (Genesis 28:11-22) as a pillow while he was dreaming of angels ascending and descending on a ladder suspended between the Earth and Heavens (JAH 1998-2006; Gilbert 2015). Jacob thought he had found himself at the door to God’s realm and so he put the stone in a vertical position and called the place the Bethel, which means the House of God (Gilbert 2015). The Stone of Destiny, in turn, was called in Irish Lia Fáil, which means the Speaking Stone or the Stone that Roared to give an explanation for its oracular function (JAH 1998-2006; Keyser 1999-2009). It is believed that it became later the coronation stone for the High Kings of Ireland (Keyser 1999-2009; Gilbert 2017). Herbert W. Armstrong writes that “many kings in the history of Ireland, Scotland, and England have been coronated over this stone – including the present queen. The stone rests today in Westminster Abbey in London, and the coronation chair is built over and around it” (Keyser 1999-2009). Additionally, the stone has got the plate behind it labelling it as ‘Bethel’ (Gilbert 2017).

Jeremiah, Ollamh Fodhla and Tuatha de Danann

Illustration of the Stone of Scone in the Coronation Chair at Westminster Abbey, 1855. Anonymous engraver. The History of England (1859) by D. Hume, continued by T. Smollett, E. Farr and E.H. Nolan Also published in The Queens of England (c. 1889) by Sydney Wilmot. Uploaded in 2006 and in 2016. Public domain {{PD-US}}. Colours intensified. Image source: “Stone of Scone” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Some authors look for evidence for the story in Irish Annals. None of those refers to Jeremiah (Keyser 1999-2009). However, the Annals of Clonmacnoise mentions a mysterious personage of Ollamh Fodhla who appeared on the Island accompanied by an Oriental princess (Gilbert 2015). As the story goes they brought to its shore ancient relics: a harp, chest and a stone (Ibid.). A leading authority on Irish history, Roderic O’Flaherty, however, states that Ollamh Fodhla could not be the same person as Jeremiah due to completely different origins and lifetime of both characters (Keyser 1999-2009). Some scholars also suggest that the Stone of Destiny was brought to Ireland already prior to 700 BC by mysterious people, the Irish myths refer to as Tuatha de Danann – a supernatural race who came to Ireland in ships (Gilbert 2015). It is suggested they were actually representatives of the Tribe of Dan – one of the tribes of Israel, according to the Torah, who had lived along the coast in the north of Israel (today Palestine) (Ibid.). Simultaneously, it was the place where Jacob had got his vision. Israelites from the Tribe of Dan were in danger of becoming captives of other invaders – the Assyrians (Ibid.). As they were excellent sailors, they may have escaped by the sea and reached the shores of Ireland together with their treasure – the Stone of Destiny (Ibid.). In this version, however, Jeremiah could not have played the role he has been ascribed to by the legend.

Replica of the Stone of Scone, Scone Palace, Scotland. The stone rests today in Westminster Abbey in London, and the coronation chair is built over and around it. Additionally, the stone has got the plate behind it labelling it as ‘Bethel’. Photo by Aaron Bradley from Vancouver, Canada (2013). CC BY-SA 2.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Stone of Scone” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Just speculations

Although such stories are fascinating, they are decidedly criticized or even ignored by academics. First of all, the Cairn T of Loughcrew was not built as a burial place for Jeremiah or aligned according to the day of his death as it is itself dated back to the second part of the fourth millennium BC, whereas Jeremiah lived in the sixth century BC. Most authors point to the fact that Irish records do not mention Jeremiah’s landing in Ireland or the fact he brought there such treasures as the Bethel or the Arch of Convents (Keyser 1999-2009).

Tuatha Dé Danann as depicted in John Duncan‘s “Riders of the Sidhe” (1911). Public domain. Colours intensified. Painting source: “Tuatha Dé Danann” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The assumption that the Prophet was buried in the Cairn T of  Loughcrew is not borne out either by Irish Annals, petroglyphs of the cairn (unless somebody has deciphered their meaning) or by archaeological evidence. If the Bethel is the same as the Stone of Destiny, which is still under question, it seems more possible it was brought by the Israelites from the Tribe of Dan. Still these are also speculations …

Inside the Cairn T

We did not have a chance to visit Loughcrew in March. Yet I had already climbed up the Hag’s Hill together with my sister when she came to Ireland several months before our study trip. It was in October and we travelled with a group of tourists to the Boyne Valley. The weather was a little bit better than in March. There was a shower from time to time but without strong winds or low temperatures. Still it was wet and some people slipped down the side of the Hill and got covered in mud before they reached its summit. Although the visibility was quite poor because of the mist, we could eventually enter the Cairn T in small groups and admire the mysterious symbols on huge stones inside the passage. Together with my sister we were amazed by their circulating lines, zig-zags and circles engraved in stone. Fascinated with their various shapes I was tracing enigmatic lines with my fingers as if I in hope of understanding the prehistoric writing by touch.

I was tracing enigmatic lines with my fingers as if I in hope of understanding the prehistoric writing by touch . Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Do they contain any encoded messages at all …?

If you would like to experience more the mysteries and ambiance of Loughcrew cairns and face the Witch, you can join us on an archaeological tour : A Tale of the Deeds of Tuatha de Danann and the Formorians – the Race of Giants.

Featured image: Bing Map of the Cairn T at Sliabh na Caillighe (Loughcrew, Ireland). The map created by Archaeotravel by means of the Bing Maps. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Tuatha Dé Danann” (2020). In: Wikipedia. Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/33haaCw>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

“Jeremiah” (2021) Wikipedia. Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/3buWSJ3>. [Accessed 9th January, 2021].

“Loughcrew” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2Xolsmz>. [Accessed 9th January, 2021].

“Loughcrew” (2019). In. Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/2K0hoWp>. [Accessed 9th January, 2021].

“Stone of Scone” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <http://bit.ly/38un5p7>. [Accessed 9th January, 2021].

Brennan M. (1994) The Stones of Time. Calendars, Sundials, and Stone Chambers of Ancient Ireland. Vermont: Inner Traditions International, Rochester.

Dipre (D’Ypre) N. (1495–1531). Jacob’s dream of a ladder. Avignon. Musée du Petit Palais. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at <https://bit.ly/3aVu9t5>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Gilbert, A. In: Gaunt T. (2015) “The Stone of Jacob” In: Secrets of the Bible. Season 1; Episode 8. Documentary.

Hurson R. (2014). “Entrance carvings Loughcrew Cairn T”. In: Wikimedia Commons. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2Sy4eUx>. [Accessed 29th May, 2021].

JAH (1998-2006) Jeremiah’s Tomb (The Tomb of Ollamh Fodhla). Available at  <https://bit.ly/2U8zCWC>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Keyser J. D. (1999-2009) “The Coronation Stone – Jeremiah in Ireland”. In: Sanders, M. S. Mysteries of the Bible. Available at  <https://bit.ly/39MA7wi>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

McCormack L. (2020) “The Autumnal Equinox and the Sliabh na Calliagh Passage Tomb Complex” In: Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland. Available at <https://bit.ly/2WcTHhi>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Murphy A. (2017-2020) Mythical Ireland. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2WcWAP3>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

O’Bryan L. (2017) “Could Ireland’s Cairn T Really Be the Tomb of the Prophet Jeremiah?” In: Ancient Origins. Available at  <https://bit.ly/2xvtDDJ>. [Accessed 14th March, 2020].

Back in Time between Peatlands and Cliffs

Over fifty years ago, “a team of archaeologists from UCD, [in Ireland], led by Professor Seamus Caulfield, first started to come to the remote north Mayo village of Belderrig, to uncover and study the ancient stone-walled field systems there. [The] link between UCD and Belderrig continues, with teams of student archaeologists [keep returning] to the village to progress the work [that was started by the] local man, Professor Caulfield” (McNulty 2008).

Professor Seamus Caulfield at fieldwork in the wetlands of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Again in Belderrig

Our team of students reached Belderrig in the very late evening. It was a part of a residential fieldtrip to Mayo, organized by the School of Archaeology, between the 6th and 8th October, 2017. Our destination, Belderrig or rather “Béal Deirg […] is a Gaeltacht village and townland in County Mayo (“Belderrig” 2019), in the north-western Ireland. The journey started at our University in Dublin and took nearly five hours. Factually, “coming to Belderrig is travelling back 1000 million years and more. [As] a rural area located in a region rich in historical and archaeological heritage, […] it is a [gift] to the geologist, archaeologist and the botanist” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020).

Archaeologists and students at pet bogs in Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Having reached our destination, we were first directed to the local pub to warm up and have dinner. Oh yes, those hearty Irish foods with dark beer are so good, especially on rainy and windy days of autumn, like that one. When we finally finished, the night had already fallen down, and it was completely dark when we finally went to bed in one of the cottages accommodating students.

Rewarding experience

Next morning, I got up earlier and went out for a short walk. The smell of salt air was overwhelming. Outside, there was waiting “the largely undisturbed openness of the countryside and the closeness of the wild Atlantic that stands in contrast with small cosy [whitewashed] cottages with their fireplaces. […] Once in Belderrig you forget traffic, haste, stress, depression” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020).

After our self-made and quick breakfast, Professor Caulfield guided us to the open fields of the area to examine the site trench with an excavated section of a bog and the lay-out of the ancient walls. It was creepy cold and windy out there. And foggy damp, which is actually typical of wetland, especially in autumn. Most of the area is covered in bogs, turf and wild grasses. The only way to excavate was cutting through the topsoil with a sort of sharp shovel, driven into the ground with enough force to cut through the entire layer. Our experienced teachers showed us how to do it and it was fun for all of us. Still the conditions of archaeological work in Ireland are quite hard: bog water is extremely cold and with the mixture of strong wind the weather gives you an unpleasant feeling of coldness in your body. Waterproof clothes and wellingtons do not mean bog-proof so one can get completely soaked to the skin. Nevertheless, the sites are so beautiful in Mayo, you can easily forget about your wet clothes and just enjoy the field trip.

The site trench with an excavated section of a bog in Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Archaeological digging is a quite complicated process but it is also a rewarding experience. Also each time it is different as it depends on where you do particular research: in the bogs or in bone dry sand. One time you plunge in water, the other you catch sunburn. Every time, however, it’s very exciting to feel and touch the history. This is one of the reasons I love archaeology.

6,000-year-old site

“When the Celts arrived in Ireland, the island had been inhabited for over 7 000 years. These pre-Celts have left no written records: they were literary pre-historic. But they have left extensive archaeological evidence, of which Newgrange is the most celebrated example”

Laurence Flanagan (1999) Ancient Ireland: Life before the Celts.
Wetlands in the are of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In July, 2008, an archaeological team “recorded the findings they had uncovered over the weeks, before they prepared to back-fill the site trench. Close to them were the reminders of past digs but, even without excavating the trench, the existence of 6,000-year-old life in the area is clearly evident. […] Over the weeks, the soil which was removed from the site was brought to the nearby Belderrig Research and Study Centre where students painstakingly sifted through the dirt and looked for signs of hazelnut, charcoal, fish bones and other items which could be analysed and dated” (McNulty 2008).

Fieldwork in Belderrig…
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A significant part of the archaeological survey in Belderrig is the study of the ancient stone-walled field systems. “The lack of good agricultural land in the […] region is one of the main reasons why the structures stayed relatively intact under the bog for [the millennia]. The discovery of the walls in Belderrig has allowed archaeologists the opportunity to understand how [they] were constructed and to map out where they appeared on the landscape” (McNulty 2008).

For years, the site has consequently become a subject of one of the most important archaeological “study of the hunter-gatherers and the early farmers who lived in the region [in around 4 000 BC]. The landscape at that time in Belderrig could not have been more different from what it is now, with the area then characterised by light and mixed woodland of pine and hazel. Bog was just being formed and, over time, much of the woodland was eventually cleared by the Neolithic people to make way for their fields” (McNulty 2008).

Archaeological evidence from the coast

We walked slowly along the rough seashore being followed by the sound of the “Atlantic crashing against the windswept landscape close to Belderrig pier” (McNulty 2008).

Open spaces between the bogs and the coastline in Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

It is truly “a beautiful sprawling coastal area, scenically located adjacent to the […] Ocean between Ballycastle and Belmullet. [It] offers a magnificent scenery of sea and cliffs capes, and dramatic mountains. […] From [there we had] fine views as far as Porturlin and Portacloy to the north west, [with] the Stags of Broadhaven [rising] majestically in the distance. On a clear day one can see the Sligo coastline and the cliffs of Killybegs and Teelin, [in County Donegal].

The Belderrig coasts.Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Belderrig Cliffs also contain some of the most spectacular coastal geology [and archaeology] in Ireland” (Mayo Ireland Ltd. 2020): “[the erosion of the sea’s edge reveals evidence of 6,000-year-old fish bones and pieces of quartz, which was the dominant stone used by the Stone Age farmers in making stone tools” (McNulty 2008).

Megalith on the way

Walking across the prehistoric mountainous landscape, we came across a megalithic structure, whose stone elements were protruding out from the ground.

The region between Ballycastle and Belmullet offering a magnificent scenery of sea and cliffs capes, and dramatic mountains. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In prehistoric architecture, a MEGALITH is a large, often undressed stone, that has been used in the construction of various types of Neolithic, Chalcolithic or Bronze Age monuments, during the period 4500-1000 BC.

Toppr (2019); see Lucie-Smith (2003), p. 136.
Buried wedge tomb in the area of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

This one found in the filed, however, was rather small in size. Accordingly, it was a lesser-type of megalithic graves, known as wedge tombs, commonly found in Ireland. Wedge tombs look like stone boxes of different size with a sloping roof slab (Byrne 2020). “They are somewhat similar in appearance to some portal dolmens. Like the other kinds of monuments, they would have originally been covered with a cairn of stones” (Ibid.).

Cliffs of the Atlantic Way, Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Céide Fields

Between Belderrig and Ballycastle, archaeologists discovered an extensive Neolithic field systems (Jackman 2018: site 68). Following the main Atlantic Way, we were travelling there on our last day of the field trip in County Mayo.

A pine tree 4000 years old from Belderrig. Photo taken in the visitor centre. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Before we reached the site, we stopped on the cliffs, and like from a viewing platform, we were looking for a while at the rolling bog land of Céide Fields (High Fields) (Fagan, Durrani 2016:281). They were impressive. “During the Neolithic period the climate would have been both drier and warmer than now” (Jackman 2018: site 68). Millennia ago, the Céide Fields were covered in forests of pine, birch, hazel and oak (Ibid.: site 68). Once they were felled by Neolithic farmers, the landscape was used for agriculture (Ibid.: site 68). However, “[over] millennia the climate has changed, and become both colder and wetter, allowing for the development of the blanket bog that has sealed and preserved much of this fascinating ancient landscape” (Ibid.: site 68). It is precisely Neolithic and dated back as far as to around 3 500 BC (Lavin 2011:111; Kelly 2016:119; “Céide Fields” 2020). “Radiocarbon dating for a hearth beside the remains of a house confirms [such a dating of the site, namely], that humans lived [there] a few centuries before [the third millennium BC]” (Lavin 2011:111).

One of the walkways running parallel to the Neolithic field wall at the Céide Fields. Source: Jackman (2018: site 68).

Today, the Céide Fields cover remote coastal area and “[consist] of megalithic burial monuments, dwelling houses and enclosures within an integrated system of stone walls, all of which are spread over 12 square kilometres. […] Many of its features are preserved intact beneath blanket peat that is over 4 metres deep in places. The significance of the site lies in the fact that it is the most extensive Stone Age monument [in Ireland with the oldest known field systems] in the world and the oldest enclosed landscape in Europe” (Kelly 2016:119; see “Céide Fields” 2020). The Céide Fields also provide an actual image of the Irish countryside from five millennia ago, so it is better to understand how the Neolithic agriculture worked (Lavin 2011:111).

Another megalithic tomb

Strong gusts of wind coming from the Atlantic Ocean kept pushing us forward across the Fields. Apart from the remains of the prehistoric past scattered all over, we met a few clusters of sheep looking at us curiously, as if judging our rights of being present in their territory.

Behy Court Tomb in the middle of the Céide Fields. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

There are wooden walkways over the fields to make visitors feel more comfortable while walking and to avoid getting wet. No need to say, we deliberately gave up such facilities to reach real treasures of the site, walking directly through the bog, beyond the tourist track.

One of the most significant landmarks of the Fields was the megalithic monument, known as Behy Court Tomb. It is situated just in the middle of the Céide Fields, still partially buried in the bog peat. As explained by our professors, it was initially described as a passage tomb as it features an entrance passageway leading to the cruciform gallery inside it, which is an important characteristic of this group of Neolithic tombs (Earth is Mysterious 2019-2020).  Court tombs usually have neither an entrance passage or a cruciform gallery but an elongated rectangular burial chamber with the exedra or forecourt (Ibid.). As the latter element has been also found at Behy Tomb, it could be simply described as a hybrid variant of court and passage tombs. Still, it is usually defined as a court tomb in the professional literature on the subject.

Broken Fort

Before heading off back to Dublin, we were yet planning to visit the nearby site of Downpatrick Head, which is strongly associated with Saint Patrick and his mission of converting Ireland to Christianity.

The modern statue of Saint Patrick at the headland.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Saint Patrick is actually believed to have carried his ministry in the north of Ireland, particularly in County Mayo. As some local folklore stories go, one of the pre-Christian gods or pagan priests, Crom Cruach resided on the headland (modern Downpatrick Head) and kept holy fires burning continuously (Makem 1997). “He dominated the whole area and [people] feared him. […] Saint Patrick was travelling in the area and approached the point of the headland. Crom Cruach rose up against him. The saint picked up a rock, carved a cross on it, lifted it with both hands above his head and roaring out a prayer, hurled the rock with great force into the [holy] fire. There was a mighty explosion and a blinding flash. When the smoke and confusion cleared, the point of the headland had split off and was sitting out in the water with Crom Cruach still on it. He was destined to remain there until he died, which [was not] too long afterwards. According to the story, he suffered horribly, being eaten to death by midges” (Ibid.).

Very similar stories about the beginning of Christianity in Ireland, especially saying of the holy fire being extinguished by Saint Patrick, also circulate in County Meath. Similarly, they also refer to Saint Patrick’s fight with ancient priests and pagan gods on the Hill of Slane.

The beautiful legend told in County Mayo additionally offers an explanation for the origins of the sea stack of Dún Briste (Gaelic for Broken Fort) (Makem 1997). It is a single large rock at Downpatrick, protruding out of the ocean at the height of forty-five meters. Once joined to the mainland, now being lashed by foaming ocean, it is one of the most scenic landmarks of County Mayo and Wild Atlantic Way.

Spectacular cliffs at Downpatrick. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“During the Second World War (or ‘the Emergency’, as it was known [there]), a lookout post was constructed [at Downpatrick] to keep watch for shipping or submarines that might stray into Ireland’s neutral waters and a large EIRE sign was created from white stones to warn aircraft away from crossing into Irish airspace” (Jackman 2018: site 70).

Private tour

Sitting over a cup of coffee inside the visitor centre at Céide Fields, I admitted to Professor Caulfield that I have been strongly interested in the studies on early Christianity in Ireland, once conducted by Françoise Henry (16 June 1902 – 10 February 1982), who was a scholar of early Irish art, archaeologist, and art historian at University College Dublin.

Doonfeeny standing stone with early
symbols of Christianity.
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Henry was also a strong supporter of a thesis of Coptic influences on Pre-Romanesque art in Ireland. I knew Henry was studying early Christian symbols on prehistoric slab stones on the island of Inishkea North in County Mayo, where she kept returning between 1937 and 1950. Although the island was too far to get there, Professor Caulfield offered to guide me to another nearby site with cross-slabs, which was also on the way to our next scheduled destination. I enthusiastically agreed and drove to the site together with my guide, while the rest of the group was supposed to wait for us at Downpatrick.

Doonfeeny standing stone

Doonfeeny is a short five-minute drive from Céide Fields. We simply headed west on the road for a little over 2,5 kilometres and then turn right up a narrow road with grass growing in the middle of it (Jackman 2018: site 69). We followed this road for approximately 500 metres till we saw the tall stone pillar in the graveyard on one side and the ruins of a church on the other (Ibid.). We pulled in the car and started climbing up the hill to reach the slender trunk of stone soaring over the landscape.

Doonfeeny pillar in the graveyard. Source: Sacred Landscapes (2020).

“The area around Doonfeeny is an important early medieval landscape, with a number of ringforts and archaeological monuments” (Jackman 2018: site 69). Probably the most outstanding is our object of interest, the square-sectioned, leaning pillar “that stands proudly on a green hill overlooking the Atlantic” (Ibid.). The stone is also called a Menhir or Cloch Fada, which means ‘Long Stone’ (Sacred Landscapes 2020).

MENHIR, from the Breton words ‘men’ stone, and ‘hir’ is a long, a single upright stone, often of enormous size, which was deployed either on its own or in connection with a tomb site.

Megaliths. Encyclopedia of Stone Age Art (2020).

Although Doonfeeny stone is upright and fixed to the ground on its own, it does not look like a huge boulder as its shape is elongated and slender. “Folklore has it that this stone is on alignments with clefts in neighbouring hills and solar positions” (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

What was its original function?

“The Ordnance Survey letters (1838) describe the stone in the following manner: ‘A stone 18’ or 20’high and 9” thick, fixed in the ground and inkling to the East, on the N.W. side of which is cut the form of a cross about 2’ long, with a small cross 10” long and some ornamental incisions under it’” (Sacred Landscapes 2020).

Doonfeeny stone with the so-called Maltese cross, below the Latin cross. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Doonfeeny stone “was likely to have first been erected in the Bronze Age, perhaps to mark a territorial boundary, or possibly to mark the area as sacred” (Jackman 2018: site 69). The pillar is also called the Ogham stone as it boasts signs of ogham inscriptions. Ogham writing, apparently called after Ogmios, the Celtic God of writing, was the original “Irish alphabet used on monuments from 300 A.D. to 700 A.D.” (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020) (see Pictish Symbol Stones: from Pagan Beast to the Cross). Unfortunately, the ogham inscription incised on the stone are today mostly time-worn and cannot be deciphered (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

“There once existed a tradition in parts of the west of Ireland that some of these standing stones were used as ‘Fertility [Objects]’ by women seeking to get pregnant, or alternatively, as a primitive form of contraception, and it is recounted that women were known to prostrate themselves before these stones all the while praying that ‘they might be delivered from the perils of childbirth’” (Sacred Landscapes 2020). “Although we may never know for certain the true intention of those who erected the stone, it still undeniably creates a powerful visual signpost in the landscape. it stands some [five metres] tall, making it [the second highest standing stone] in Ireland” (Jackman 2018: site 69; see Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020).

On the verge of Christianity

Doonfeeny cross with Latin cross (above) and Maltese or Greek cross (below).
Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As much as other prehistoric sites, Doonfeeny pillar “was appropriated in the early days of Christianity, and two crosses were carved into the stone, a single line Latin cross with forked ends and horizontal base placed over a double-line Maltese type cross with a curved ‘birds-head-design’ line [at its foot]” (Jackman 2018: site 69). Some interpret the symbol of ‘birds-head-design’ as the wheel and sun-burst that possibly would symbolise the Resurrection (Ballycastle/Belderrig Development Co. 2020). “The crosses may date to as early as the sixth century or seven century, or perhaps even earlier” (Jackman 2018: site 69).

Two forts and a killed swine

The site’s information boards says that the church ruins in Doonfeeny Churchyard date back to the seventh century (Sacred Landscapes 2020). Nevertheless, it was overbuilt on the site previously occupied by an ancient church, probably from the sixth century (Ibid.). The Ordnance Survey Letters (1838) and the board also inform that to the south of the church, there is a cemetery surrounded with a fosse in the form of a fort, which is Dún (Fort) giving its name to the parish: Dún Fhíne (Fine’s Fort) (Ibid.).

The layout of the Four Maols’ Fort. Source: Sacred Landscapes (2020).

After the information on the board, north of the parish church there is an earthen work, called ‘The Fairy Fort of Doonfeny’. In fact, these are the remains of Rath Ui Dubhda, standing for ‘O’ Dowd’s Fort (Sacred Landscapes 2020). As a local story goes, the Four Maols, known as the infamous murderers, built the original fort there, which they dedicated by killing a swine (Ibid.). This pagan act was apparently inspired by a pro-Christian tradition, where the animal was a substituted for human sacrifice (Ibid.). The board ads that the Four Maols’ grave can be seen in Ballina, a town in north County Mayo (Ibid.). The grave is well recognizable as it is marked by a dolmen (Ibid.).

Saint Patrick again

From the site  we could see Dún Briste at Downpatrick Head (Jackman 2018: site 69).

One of the so-called blow holes in the area of Belderrig. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“It is enticing to consider that the ‘real’ Patrick may have seen this tall stone with his own eyes. It is not a great distance to Foghill, believed to be Foclut, the area that he described in his writings where he was held as a slave as a young man. The stone would have certainly already been standing for thousands of years before [St] Patrick’s time, and may have still been a distinctive marker on the landscape. If a young Patrick did see the stone, did he know what it symbolised? Or was it just another unknowable symbol in the strange pagan land in which he found himself?” (Jackman 2018: site 69).

Legend-encrusted blow-holes

When we finally caught up with the rest of the group reaching atop the visitor centre at Downpatrick, we were rewarded with “a wonderful view of this ancient and sacred landscape stretching as it does off down by the majestic Céide cliffs and across the foam to historic Downpatrick Head with its awesome, legend-encrusted blow-holes and the mighty storied sea-pillar of Dún Briste” (Sacred Landscapes, “Downpatrick Head” 2020).

Of the growling blow-holes we had already come across in the area of Belderrig, which are called Poille Beaga – ‘Small Holes’, the one on the headland of Downpatrick, Poll na Seantuinne or Poll na Sean Toinne, meaning ‘the Hole of the Old Wave’ (Sacred Landscapes, “Downpatrick Head” 2020) “is by far the largest, most impressive and the one most associated with the history and folklore of the place” (Ibid.). Although they are all carved naturally by thousands of years of marine erosion, there are a few legends ascribing these chasms more supernatural origins (Ibid.).

Legendary Ireland

Such stories are ubiquitous in whole Ireland. They may have appeared when ancient people were looking for a reason of natural phenomena. Nevertheless, in many cases, they may directly refer to historical circumstances or characters who had fired the imagination (Harpur, Westwood 1997:6).

Picturesque cliffs between Belderrig and Ballycastle. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The seed of legend was definitely sown in this region of Ireland, whose ancient past continues to draw tourists, pilgrims and … archaeologists (Ibid.:6).

Featured image: Dun Briste at Downpatrick, Co. Mayo. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland

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