Stone monuments: amongst the sheep, pheasants, and the mud

Since coming to Ireland, we've been trying to visit as many places of historical interest as possible. The idea is, since the trip is educational for the kids, we need to pack in as much history as possible.

Raphoe, Ireland

Since coming to Ireland, we’ve been trying to visit as many places of historical interest as possible. The idea is, since the trip is educational for the kids, we need to pack in as much history as possible.

We’ve visited many castles, ancient stone forts, monuments and pagan stone circles. We spent the summer stopping at every brown sign that denotes historical interest and now, every weekend, we try to get out to see something new. Or rather, old.

The Irish are so casual about the way these incredibly impressive ancient stone monuments are presented.

One of our first explorations was to visit the Beltany Stone Circle across into Donegal in the Republic near Raphoe.

Raphoe has a castle in the centre of the town that has fallen into complete disrepair, and looks like a party site for local teenagers, with lots of potato crisp bags and broken beer bottles to carefully avoid.

As a result, we didn’t spend much time at the castle, but followed a collection of brown signs that sent us deeper into the rural landscape until we stopped abruptly at the bottom of a bridle path.

There was no sign, but clearly the path was the only place to go, so we climbed up the oak-lined hill, fence-hedges on either side, and emerged from the trees in a sheep pasture.

We could see a collection of stones in the middle of the field, so, entering through the turnstile gate, we followed a path through the pasture, pushing aside the many, many sheep.

The view of the Donegal hills was spectacular, rolling in all directions away from the top of the hill, where the stone circle had been set hundreds of years ago.

However, we did have to watch out for fresh sheep manure and the many ewes and lambs nibbling around the stone circle.

This monument was not a museum where you are not allowed to touch; it was a working sheep pasture, where the farmer had to accept the right-of-way to the stone circle. There was an official plaque that described the Beltany Stone Circle as dating back to pre-Christian times.

It is one of the best-preserved circles in the country, consisting of approximately 60 stones, varying in height between 30 centimetres to more than one metre.

However, I had to arrest my contemplation of the ancient pagan Irish, dancing around the circle at Beltane (May), to rescue my four-year-old from a grumpy ram with impressive horns who decided that we had invaded his pasture for long enough.

On another weekend we headed south towards Boa Island in County Fermanagh, exploring lakes, hills and rivers in the wild and gentle setting of the large Lough Erne.

There is a local joke: for half the year, Lough Erne is in County Fermanagh, and for the other half, County Fermanagh is in Lough Erne, which speaks to the county’s propensity for flooding (this fall higher than ever recorded). But, the day we travelled around Lough Erne was lovely and took us to Boa Island, in the middle of Lough Erne.

The island no longer has the feel of a remote island, as bridges connect it to the local highway.

It takes its name from Badhbh, a Celtic war-goddess. Once again, we were on the lookout for the ubiquitous brown signs, and grabbed an abrupt turn down another farmer’s lane. We followed a collection of pheasants down the lane, which stopped at a gate.

We arrived at a graveyard, an ancient Celtic burial site of broken moss-covered tombs still in use in the community, with some graves from as recent as the 1980s.

Here we found the Janus figure, a two-sided idol with a phallus on one side and a belt and crossed limbs on the other.

The figure was probably an invocation of fertility and a depiction of the god-hero; we found her/him to be powerful and peaceful set amongst the low hazel trees. We walked the graves alongside the pheasants, which wandered in and out of the graveyard and the whin-bushes oblivious to the tourists in their pasture.

A tent/cover, shielding the ancient figure from the rain was a disconcertingly modern sight, but outside the graveyard was a notice from the national historic trust explaining it was a temporary protection to keep the figure from decaying while a more permanent solution was decided upon.

One wonders how long the tent would stay; it didn’t look new.

One particularly rainy Sunday we decided we couldn’t let the rain keep us in; if cold is no hindrance to Yukoners, then rain can’t be to Irish tourists (although it does seems to be to the Irish).

We set off for Clougherny Wedge Tomb, out our back door into the Sperrin Mountains of County Tyrone.

We have enjoyed exploring the Sperrins, a beautiful and wild set of rolling hills, lakes and river, with very few people living in the wild and boggy uplands. We were heading into these boggy uplands, with all our rain gear and the children well-footed in “wellies” (rubber boots). We followed the brown signs until they stopped abruptly, at the top of a hill. There was a plaque, explaining the ancient Clougherny Wedge Tomb history, pointing off across the pasture, with a note scrawled below: Wear Stout Boots! We set off across the rain/wind swept bog, following a line of white picket posts.

The trail was muddy, with pot holes of sheep tracks.

After half an hour, the children began to question the “fun” factor of this expedition; luckily we could finally see the wedge tomb on the hillside above us.

We clambered up to the stones and, once again, tried to imagine the ancient pagan Irish, burying their important kings on the hillside under the Dolmen-like stones.

The wind picked up, and we decided we had seen enough history, and began the trek back, on the lookout for elves and pixies and sheep.

Our nine-year old was trying to sprint through the mud, and stepped right out of his boot into the deepest manure-filled bog hole, up past his knees.

As we reached the car, stripping everyone into dry clothes, the rain finally caught up with us.

We had wisely parked on a gravel bar, and headed off to another Irish tradition, the Sunday lunch in a warm pub, peat fire smouldering, Irish stew and the adults to their Guinness.

Carolyn Moore is Whitehorse resident and freelance writer who currently lives in Strabane, Northern Ireland.

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