A stone circle is a ring of standing stones, taller than they are wide and spaced so that they don't touch each other, with a flat open space inside the ring. The ring may be a true circle or an ellipse. Stone circles have been built at various times throughout the world. This Entry looks at Irish stone circles, which are part of a tradition of similar circles found throughout the British Isles and in Brittany in western France. They were constructed over a period of about 2,000 years from 3000 BC to 800 BC and have a number of regional variations. We don't know what they were built for and, given the long span of years over which they were constructed, they weren't necessarily all built for the same purpose.
In Ireland there are about 140 stone circles still visible. In all of these, the stones are not cut into shape, but are their original natural shape. There are three main areas where stone circles are found, each with its own characteristic type, and about 40 miscellaneous circles in other parts of the island:
|West Cork and Kerry||Irish Recumbent or Axial Stone Circles||70|
|Central Northern Ireland||Circles with Lots of Tiny Stones||15|
|West Wicklow and Kildare||Piper's Stones||15|
The numbers are approximate because many of the circles are damaged or hidden, and it's a matter of opinion whether what's left is a stone circle or not.
Irish Recumbent or Axial Stone Circles
There are about 70 axial circles in Ireland, so they make up about half of all Irish stone circles. They are confined to the southwest of the island, in West Cork and Kerry. They were built in the Late Bronze Age, between about 1500 BC and 800 BC.
These circles have an odd number of stones between 5 and 19. While irregular in shape, the stones are normally taller than they are wide and have a flattish side facing towards the centre of the circle. One of the stones, known as the 'recumbent' or 'axial' stone, is different from all the others: it is wider than it is high, with a level top. The recumbent is positioned in the southwest of the circle. The line through the recumbent and the centre of the circle is known as the axis. It points in a northeast/southwest direction. All the other stones in the circle are arranged symmetrically about the axis. They are generally graded in size, with the smallest ones placed nearest the recumbent and the tallest being the pair of stones opposite the recumbent. These are known as portal stones: they form a ceremonial gateway into the circle. Sometimes they are turned so that their flat sides face each other.
Since the axis points southwest, the sun will set behind the recumbent stone as seen from the ceremonial gateway on the shortest day of the year. This day is known as the Winter Solstice and occurs on the 21st or 22nd of December. It is traditionally considered the mid-point of Winter in Ireland. While we don't know what they thought 3,000 years ago, the day was clearly important to the Late Bronze Age people.
It's tempting to think of the recumbent stone as an altar table, but it doesn't really match that role. While some examples do have a wide flat top, in many circles the recumbent is too tall or too low to reasonably serve as a table, ranging in height from 60cm (2 feet) to 1.4m (4 foot 6 inches). Others have a very narrow top which is only a few centimetres wide.
Most axial circles are positioned on sloping ground so that they have good views of the surrounding countryside.
Irish Recumbent or Axial Stone Circles are similar in many ways to Scottish Recumbent Stone Circles1 and are probably related to them. The two regions are about 800km apart, however, with no recumbent circles in between so it's not clear how they are related.
Drombeg, Glandore, County Cork
A good example of an Irish Recumbent Stone Circle, pictured at the top of this Entry, is at Drombeg between Rosscarbery and Glandore in West Cork.
This is a beautiful circle of 17 stones with spectacular views down to the sea2. The stones are between one and two metres high. Most are straight pillars but one stone on the north side is wide and shaped like a lozenge (a rhombus). This is generally interpreted as a symbol of female fertility.
At the other end of the field are the remains of some ancient huts and a fulacht fia - an ancient Irish cooking pool. Rocks were heated in a fire, then thrown into the pool. This would bring the water up to boiling point within about 15 minutes, and large animal carcasses could then be boiled in the water.
Take the R597 from Rosscarbery towards Glandore. After 4.2km, turn left at the junction signposted with a brown sign for the circle. After 700m there is a small car park on the right. Walk for 200m along the footpath to the circle.
Kealkil, Ballylickey, County Cork
Location: [51.745138, -9.370659]
This a tiny circle, only 3m across, but is an absolute gem. There's a good view of the surrounding hills and down to the sea. There are five small stones, each about a metre high. Unusually, the recumbent stone is at the northeast end of the axis and is the tallest of the five stones. Behind the ring are two very tall standing stones: one is 2.5m and the other is over 4m (13 feet) in height. Records show that this was originally 6m tall (20 feet) but the top broke off it. The two tall stones form a line which is parallel to the circle's axis.
There is also a ring-shaped pile of small stones which is all that is left of a cairn - this was probably a burial mound. An unusual feature of it is that among the rubble you can still see flat slabs standing on their edge that radiate outwards from the centre.
This circle can be reached by a 150m trek across an extremely water-logged field from the road. Wellington boots are highly advisable. To find the circle, take the N71 from Bantry towards Glengarriff for 6km. At Ballylickey, turn right onto the R584 towards Macroom. After 4.7km turn right at Burke's Foodstore. After 460m at a crossroads, turn right and immediately take the road going up the hill to the left of the Brown Pub. At the T junction at the church, turn right. After about 300m, turn left and take a steep road up the hill for 900m. The gateway for the circle is on the left at a bend in the road and is clearly signposted. There's no car park: pull in your car as much as possible off the road.
Derreenataggart, Castletownbere, County Cork
Location: [51.653727, -9.929025]
This circle originally had 15 stones, but some have fallen and some have been removed over the years. There are now only 9 stones, but it is still quite an impressive circle. The view down to the sea is blocked by a line of conifers but the setting is still good. The recumbent is about 1.4m high while the one remaining portal stone is 2.4m high.
From Castletownbere, at the west end of the town, turn right at the Ocean Wild wine bar, keep going for just over a kilometre, then turn left. After another 480m the entrance to the Stone Circle is on the right.
Circles with Lots of Tiny Stones
These are common in Northern Ireland, particularly in Tyrone and southern Londonderry. The stones can be as small as 30cm (1 foot) high and there are a lot of them. These circles are often in large groups, almost touching, with straight lines of stones ('stone rows') as well.
Beaghmore, County Tyrone
Location: [54.701512, -6.938127]
Beaghmore, near Cookstown in County Tyrone, is situated in the Sperrin Mountains. It has seven stone circles, ten stone rows (lines of standing stones) and a dozen cairns (piles of stones). In all, there are more than 1,200 stones in the megalithic features, although most of the stones are very small. Six of the circles are grouped in pairs. The seventh circle is very unusual. The entire space inside it is filled with small stones known as the Dragon's Teeth. There are about 800 of them.
The stone rows are all parallel and go in a southwest to northeast direction3. They are clearly linked with the circles: five of the rows start at a circle and are tangent to it. Some of the others are made from smaller stones and run along beside these tangent rows.
The cairns were originally covered in soil and probably grass and were burial mounds - cremated remains have been found in four of them. They are also clearly associated with the circles in that each group of cairns is beside one of the pairs of circles.
Most stone circles in Ireland have stood untouched for millennia since they were built. Beaghmore is different: most of the stones are so small that they were easily covered up by rising ground levels due to the growth of blanket bog4. They were forgotten about, and only rediscovered relatively recently in the late 1930s. The present site was excavated in 1945–49 and 1965 and the circles were uncovered, but there may be other circles still hidden in the surrounding hillside. The circles and monuments are thought to date from the period 2000–1200 BC of the Bronze Age.
From Cookstown, take the A505 towards Omagh. After 11.4km (7.1 miles), turn right onto Dunnamore Road - all junctions from here on are signposted for Beaghmore Stone Circles. After 790m (860 yards), turn left at Stop sign. After 630m (690 yards), turn right onto Blackrock Road. After 3.9km (2.4 miles) there is a small car park on the left. The stone circles are a short walk of about 90m (100 yards) from here. The site is always open and free entry.
The West Wicklow and Kildare Group
These circles are often known locally as 'The Piper's Stones'. They have a plain ring of stones with no particular entrance, and a single isolated stone standing outside the ring. The legend is that these are dancers and the isolated stone is the piper playing the music. In some versions of the legend the dancers have been turned to stone as punishment for the act of dancing on a Sunday, although this seems suspiciously like an imported puritanical English tradition - Irish Christianity didn't particularly discourage enjoyment on a Sunday.
There are about 15 such rings in West Wicklow and Kildare.
Athgreaney, County Wicklow
One of the best and easiest to access is Athgreaney Stone Circle, which is typical of the West Wicklow / Kildare group. It is a plain circle of large boulders. Some of these are vaguely rectangular while others are more spherical. While there is a general alternation between these two shapes, this pattern is not strictly adhered to. There is a large outlying stone at some distance from the circle.
There's a 'fairy' thorn tree at the circle, to which people have tied many ribbons6.
Athgreaney Stone Circle lies on the N81 national route, between Blessington and Baltinglass. It is about 13km south of Blessington, and is 2.3km south of the turn for Hollywood. It is marked by a brown sign. Park at the side of the road, cross the stile and walk 230m up through the field to the circle.
Other Stone Circles
The rest of the stone circles in Ireland fall into no particular category. There are about 40 of them. Some are particularly striking:
Grange Stone Circle, Lough Gur, County Limerick
Location: [52.514275, -8.542014]
The circle is one of the biggest in Ireland, a perfect circle 45m in diameter. It is clear that the builders measured it out with a rope from a temporary central post - the hole they used for the central post has been found by archaeologists. The stones are flat slabs which are placed touching each other to form a continuous wall. They are up to 2.8m in height. Outside of the ring of stones is an earthbank positioned so that the outer sides of the stones are set into the bank. This is really a stone-lined henge-like7 structure rather than a traditional stone circle. On the east side there is an entrance through a gap in the earthbank and stone circle. This is paved with flat slabs.
There's a Visitor Centre at Lough Gur, but strangely, it's not located at Lough Gur's most spectacular sight - the Grange Stone Circle. This lies to the west of the lake.
To find the stone circle, take the R512 from Limerick towards Kilmallock. Measure distance from where the road goes under the M7 motorway. After 12km, the road crosses the River Camoge and then there are some bends. At 13.2km you'll come out of the bends onto a long straight stretch which goes all the way to the circle. At 15.7km, you'll see a small pull-in area on the left with brown signs pointing to the stone circle, which is in the field just behind this, about 20m from the road.
Alternatively, exiting from the Lough Gur Visitor Centre, drive back along the road you came. Turn right at the first junction, where you must give way to traffic. Drive for about 900m, then follow the main road around to the right at a crossroads (towards Croom and Holycross). After another 2.5km at the next crossroads, turn right onto the main road towards Limerick. The parking spot for the stone circle is after another 800m on the right hand side.
Newgrange Partial Circle, County Meath
Location: [53.694640, -6.475801]
The stone circle at Newgrange is the biggest in Ireland, but is usually overlooked because the far more interesting Newgrange Passage Tomb is in the middle of it.
This is only a partial circle, with twelve standing stones forming an approximate half circle around the tomb. Of these, many have been broken off near ground level, but there are still four stones that are 2 to 2.5m tall. Assuming that the circle once went the whole way around the tomb, then there would have been about 35 stones, but there is in fact no trace of the missing stones and no evidence that they were ever erected. The stone semicircle has a diameter of 103.6m making it the largest in Ireland.
It is different from other circles in that it is built around a central tomb. Other stone circles have a flat, empty space in the middle. It is also likely to be much older - most stone circles in Ireland appear to have been built by the Bronze Age people in the period 2000–800 BC. It seems likely that the Newgrange stone (semi)circle was built at the same time as the passage tomb, which puts its construction at about 3200 BC in the New Stone Age.
Newgrange can only be visited as part of a guided tour from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre. Pre-booking is advisable. This is signposted from Exit 9 of the M1 Motorway.
Carrowmore Boulder Circles, County Sligo
Carrowmore, four kilometres southwest of Sligo town in the northwest of Ireland, appears to have a huge collection of stone circles - there are more than 30 circles recorded in the area. On closer inspection, however, these turn out to be a different sort of megalithic monument entirely. The circles are not of standing stones, but of large boulders which are only roughly laid out in a circle.
They are in fact the remains of burial cairns - mounds made of small stones. The ring of boulders acted as a base for the mound. The rest of the mound could then be built with smaller stones which were stopped from sliding outward by the boulders. Most of these boulder rings have a tomb of some sort in the middle, which would originally have been buried under the mound. Over the six millennia, the smaller stones have all been removed - such cairns were considered a good source of building stone. Only the massive boulders remain. They presumably were too much trouble to move.
The Carrowmore mounds are thought to be among the oldest large constructions in Ireland, probably built by the first farmers soon after they arrived in Ireland8. Most of them date from between 4000 BC and 3000 BC.