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On the trail of Ancient Ireland through stone...



Ireland's Stone - A portal to the past...


Ireland has changed unrecognisably from what it once was thousands of years ago when hunters and gatherers roamed the land. There is something however that hasn't changed much throughout time, and that is the stone. The carvings and construction of these ancient stone monuments offer a portal to the past and provide a glimpse into ancient Ireland, its landscape and it's people. The samples of stone monuments below, both natural and handmade, highlight the imagination, ingenuity, strength and hard work of our ancestors.


The Giants Causeway - Where Mythology & Geology Combine...


The Giants Causeway
The Giants Causeway on a stormy day.

‘When the world was moulded and fashioned out of formless chaos, this must have been the bit left over – a remnant of chaos!’

- W.M. Thackeray in 1842

You could say The Giant’s Causeway in Co Antrim is just a bunch of rocks, but in other ways it’s one of the most dramatic sights on the island of Ireland. It’s no ordinary cluster of rocks; these are all hexagonal in shape and there are about 45,000 of them. It all began about 60 million years ago, give or take a couple of millennia.


The Giants Causeway
A basalt causeway to the wild Atlantic Ocean

There was a huge continent at that time known as Pangaea, which then divided to form the Atlantic Ocean. When this big event took place, lava escaped through fissures and poured out in a series of eruptions, thousands of years apart and over millions of years. When the lava cooled it formed a rock known as basalt. Over time this built up into a plateau that covers a large part of the north east coast of Ireland. It was in the process of the lava cooling that the hexagonal shaped rocks were formed. (The process also occurred in the Azores, Canary Islands and other places. This ancient footprint got its name from mythology: Finn McCool, the Ancient Irish heroic figure, laid down the stones so he could challenge a Scottish rival, Benandonner, according to legend. So the Causeway was known to local people long before it was ‘discovered’ in the late 17th century. It was studied by many scholars over the next hundred and fifty years, one of the most famous of these was Thomas Molyneux. It wasn’t until in the mid 19th century that this place became a celebrated tourist attraction, with hotels and a railway line. In 1886 the Giant’s Causeway became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The organisation proclaims that, ‘World Heritage sites belong to the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they’re located.


Other areas of Geological Interest in Ireland...





Footsteps to prehistory - Tetrapod Footprints


Tetrapod Footprints on rock
Tetrapod footprints on Valencia Island, Co Kerry

If you travel to the west of Co Kerry, to the north of Valentia Island, you’ll see this ancient footprints, from pre-human times. The Tetrapod Trackway fossilised footprints are recognised as the oldest record of vertebrate life on land, the amazing beginning of the human evolutionary story. About 385 million years ago, a primitive amphibian-like creature known as a tetrapod, left its footprints on the muddy shoreline. They became fossilised. Valentia Island was then near the equator. It was a very different place to the one we know today. The tracks record when vertebrates first moved onto land, started breathing air and walking on four limbs. This who process took many, many thousands of years; it was still a very long time before even the first dinosaur appeared. So this place and these marks are a reminder of how short a time, relatively speaking, human life has been on the planet.


Tetrapod footrints. Photo: National Geographic


Stone Circles - A ring of mystery...


Stone Circle in County Wicklow, Ireland
The Piper Stones in County Wicklow

The many stone circles around the country are the visual marks of Ireland thousands of years ago. What kind of people were the ancient Irish? We know their beliefs and devotions were a lot different to the 21st century’s. Archaeologists can only speculate as to the full story of why these circles were constructed, why the ancient Irish were motivated to go to such trouble for their construction. Analysis of these ancient structure show alignments to the pathways of the sun and the moon. Perhaps these ancient astronomers and builders had insights into the cosmos that even modern humans cannot comprehend.


Stone Circle in County Cork
Drombeg Stone Circle, County Cork

Drombeg, near Roscarberry in west Cork, is one of the most visited stone circles. It has a great setting and a well-maintained pathway. (Viewing some of these monuments can involve walking to boggy farmland). Drombeg’s ancient Irish builders, like others, had enough know-how and dedication to make sure that their engineering feat had an alignment with the setting sun of the winter solstice, 21 December.


Other Stone Circles to visit in Ireland...

  • Beltany Stone Circle, County Donegal

  • Carrowmore, County Sligo

  • Ballynoe, County Down


Dolmen Tombs - Portals to the past


A dolmen tomb in Ireland
The Poulnabrone Dolmen Tomb in County Clare

Poulnabrone is probably the most well-known of a Ireland’s dolmens. It’s situated deep in the distinctive karst limestone region known as the Burren, an area with its own world renowned micro climate. Seventy five percent of all the flora found in Ireland and Britain grows here. Poulnabrone is a portal tomb, constructed from large slabs of limestone by inhabitants of the country, about 5000 years ago, in the era when farming was being established. This was no small feat at that time, and required much effort. Archaeologists believe these tombs suggest a strong attachment to their ancestors by the ancient Irish. Excavations by archaeologist Anne Lynch in the 1980’s turned up the remains of 21 people and radiocarbon dating of their bones indicates that the tomb was in continual use for a period of 600 years between 5,200 and 5,800 years ago. The bones show signs of wear that suggests hard physical labour was normal for the people of the time and while one hip bone had the tip of an arrow head embedded in it indicating conflict, there is also evidence of creativity and craftsmanship shown in the discovery of a decorated neck pendant.


Other Dolmen Tombs to visit...