Rocks have always been a source of intrigue and mystery to me. Not long ago, while traveling in Ireland, I was drawn to its megalithic tombs -- those strange man-made rock monuments throughout the countryside. Often hidden along the lanes and byroads, fields and rivers of Ireland, these are its treasures of prehistory and history.
My father was born in Ireland, and I fell in love with its stark beauty on a first visit when I was 19. Now, years later, the misty island and its rock structures still hold sway on my imagination.
The names of these rocks sound like a strange lost language: portal dolmens, rock cairns, megalithic tombs, rock forts, beehive huts. Even the myriad snaking rock walls have a tale to tell: of the plenitude of rock, certainly, but also of the dearth of good soil and the centuries-long division of the land.
Many of these natural formations and the remains of man-made stone structures will attract a traveler's interest, though their meaning may remain a puzzle. Among the most impressive I found throughout Ireland were:
* The limestone pavements of the Burren in County Clare, a moonscape of dazzling bright rock whose deep crevasses geometrically angle out toward the horizon. Rare species of alpine and Mediterranean flowers are found here, as are many portal dolmens -- immense standing stones with covering capstones.
* The magnificent entrance stone at Newgrange in the Boyne valley, County Meath, with its intricately carved art work. It is a sentinel both guarding the sacred grave within and beckoning visitors to enter. No one has deciphered the exact meaning of these symbols -- the chevrons, spirals, lines and circles.
* The strange energy of the standing stone circle in Grange townland in County Limerick. This Bronze Age circle is 150 feet in diameter and is built of huge standing stones that are backed by an earthen wall. The circle is believed to have had a ritualistic or ceremonial function.
* The granitic rock base that forms Carnsore Point in County Wexford, the southeastern tip of Ireland, which has its own history. Each year in ancient times the Druids came from all over the Celtic world to meet at this spot. Now only bathers and the occasional jogger can be seen while the birds fly overhead to their haunts on the Saltee Islands.
In each area, the rock formations give a special character to that landscape. They are a part of Ireland's legacy and well worth seeing.
Some of the areas rich in prehistory, such as Newgrange and Lough Gur, offer local tours of the monuments, giving tourists an invaluable overview of what's known about the sites. But many of the other monuments that are scattered along hill and dale are given short shrift.
For these, you need a comprehensive guidebook that provides such information. I recommend "Guide to the Monuments of Ireland," by Peter Harbison; "Antiquities of the Irish Countryside," by Sean O Riordain; "The Irish Landscape," by Frank Mitchell; and a book that links contemporary art and prehistory, "Overlay," by Lucy Lippard.
With a little preparation, you can give yourself the equivalent of a mini-archeology tour of Ireland.
A driving tour of these monuments might begin in the Dingle Peninsula (west of Cork city), and continue along the following route: north from Cork to Limerick city to Lough Gur (just south of Limerick city) and the Craggaunowen Project (just north of Limerick city); and west (after leaving Ennis) to the Cliffs of Moher, Doolin and the Burren in northwest County Clare.
This tour will take from four to six days, allowing about a half-day's travel to get to a new area and about a day's touring in each locale.
There are lovely teahouses, authentic pubs and fine restaurants that make stopping as much a pleasure as the touring. You will drive along some rugged bits of coastline and beautiful solitary beaches that are among Ireland's real visual treasures. Durty Nelly's, a pub where you can have a fine pint and a bite to eat, draws crowds at midday. It's a must stop on the Limerick-to-Shannon road, and a good half-way stop between Lough Gur and the Cragganouwen Project, which do not have restaurants nearby.
Along the way, you will find:
* The Dingle Peninsula. The seascape on the Dingle Peninsula is rugged. If you begin the tour in Inch -- a jewel of a beach -- then travel west and around the peninsula, you will enjoy some of Dingle's spectacular sights, among them Connor Pass with its majestic views of Brandon and Tralee Bays.
This area is noted as a Gaeltacht, an area set aside as Irish-speaking. Considering that Gaelic is the oldest living vernacular in the West, this is a tradition worth encountering. When you hear the soft melodious tones of Gaelic, you feel that old traditions are stronger here, that the people of the area retain the true Celtic character.
The Dingle Peninsula has the largest number of clocha'ns, or beehive huts, in Ireland. These huts, so named because they are generally round and shaped like beehives, use corbelling in their construction. This technique of building consists of placing layers of flat stones so that as the building progresses upward each layer projects further than the preceding one. The sides tend to meet at the top and the roof is generally a continuation of the walls, but may be completed by spanning the opening at the summit by a single large flatstone.
There are a number of beehive huts just off the main road, from the tiny village of Fan to Slea Head, where the movie "Ryan's Daughter" was filmed. Clusters of these strange, round buildings are an unusual sight, particularly in a gray, overcast mist. The area seems so desolate that you can't help but wonder what life was like for its early inhabitants.
Dunbeg, an ancient fort rising high above the sea on the southwest coast of the peninsula, is a good example of a promontory fort. For defensive purposes, it was sited on a headland surrounded on three sides by the sea. Because it is slowly slipping into the sea, it is dangerous to visit. No accurate age can be assigned to the fort, although similar structures in Cornwall in England were built between 400 B.C. and 50 B.C. Its latter-day souterrain (an underground passageway, often used for storage) disappears off into a faraway hillside, a likely escape route for the fort's inhabitants during the early Christian era.
Along the northwest coast of the peninsula, brilliant hedges of red-violet fuchsia line the roadway on the approach to Gallarus Oratory. Emerging from the hedge-lined pathway leading directly to this primitive church, you see its symmetrical gray form silhouetted against the far hillside. Gallarus was built with a developed form of corbelling, based on a rectangular ground plan, in the late 7th or 8th century. Each of its stones is placed without mortar, one on top of the other, in an impressive display of the craftsmanship of stone masonry.
* Lough Gur. A half-day's drive from Dingle is Lough Gur, a horseshoe-shaped lake after which this prehistoric area takes its name. A number of prehistoric dwellings were found in the area. When excavated, many of these house sites proved to be Stone Age dwelling places.
Although knowledge of the way of life of the people living around 2,000 B.C. is derived from these excavated sites, they are unprepossessing to the modern-day viewer. Only a subtle change in the texture of the grass is visible on the slope where these houses once stood, barely distinguishable rectangular shapes.
When I drove through the valley approaching Lough Gur, the day brightened and what had been a hazy afternoon sky turned to blue with billowing white clouds. There seemed to be a special energy in this place where man had been 5,000 years ago -- the basin of Ireland's beginnings. Although Limerick city is just a few miles to the north, it feels as if it could be centuries away.
The visitor's center at Lough Gur has exhibits of various archeological finds (many artifacts, however, are in the National Museum, Dublin) and offers a slide show about the area. I advise taking the guided tour of Lough Gur, since many of the sites are spread out and can be difficult to find; most are not sign-posted.
Our tour began at 7:30 p.m. at an imposing stone circle at Grange townland, County Limerick. Stone circles, such as this one, date predominantly from the Bronze Age, which lasted in Ireland until around 700 B.C. The circle, 150 feet in diameter and surrounded by a large earthen bank, was exactly situated so that on the summer solstice the light enters between the two large entrance stones.
Our guide, a woman of 20 who recounted the history of the area in a lilting voice, told the story of a local woman who came each day during the excavation of the stone circle to watch its progress. One day, she dismounted her horse and then stood, apparently transfixed, for more than 20 minutes in the same position. When she emerged from her trance-like state, she described what she had seen: white-robed figures in procession, entering the stone circle and escorting a young girl, whom they then sacrificed in a ritual ceremony.
It was a story to raise a few goose bumps, and I had an uneasy feeling that perhaps such things had taken place there.
Although not authenticated, the story agrees in one important respect with what most scholars say: that the circle would have been the site of religious and ritual occasions.
* The Craggaunowen Project. A handsomely restored castle, a reconstructed crannog -- an early lake dwelling -- and a reconstructed ring fort are all part of the Craggaunowen Project, which seeks to bring the past alive. Since most examples of crannogs have been destroyed, this is an excellent opportunity to see what they looked like. The turn-off to the Craggaunowen Project, in Quin, County Clare, is on the road just north of Shannon Airport.
A crannog (from the Irish word crann, a tree), as O Riordain defines it, was an ancient Irish habitation site, usually built on an artificial island in a lake or bog. Timber, the most important material used in its construction, was used in the laying down of the platform that formed the base of the site and in the palisade that surrounded it. One or more houses might be built within this palisade, but generally the crannog was a single homestead, inhabited by one family. Access to it was normally by boat, although causeways or bridges were probably used when times became more settled.
The next part of the project is a huge dome-shaped structure that houses the Brendan Boat, the subject of a great adventure story told in "The Brendan Voyage" by Tim Severin.
Irish legend has it that in 500 A.D. the medieval monk St. Brendan sailed across the Atlantic in a small curragh, or skin-covered boat. In the mid-1970s, Severin built a replica of that boat and sailed with a small crew from Brandon Creek, County Cork, along a route that replicated St. Brendan's journey. They traveled to the Hebrides, Iceland, Greenland and on to make landfall in Newfoundland.
This small boat -- constructed of 40 ox-hides tanned in oak bark, hand-stitched (by awl) and stretched over an ash frame -- is an impressive piece of craftsmanship. All materials are those that would have been available more than 1,500 years ago when the original Brendan voyage is said to have taken place.
* The Burren. The Burren (boireann is Irish for "rocky land") is a plateau occupying more than 100 square miles in northwest Clare, just an hour's drive beyond the project. Its limestone escarpment stretches among four villages: from Corofin north to Bealaclugga west to Black Head, which juts into Galway Bay, and down to Doolin, just on the edge of the Burren, where it dies away. It is a parched land with a limitless vista of gray rock, moonscaped into the surroundings hills and plains, which was once described by one of Cromwell's generals: "Not a tree whereon to hang a man; no water in which to drown him; no soil in which to bury him."
After you have seen the Burren, County Clare is one of the most hospitable counties in which to relax and enjoy yourself. There are fine restaurants in Doolin and Ballyvaughan and plenty of traditional Irish music in the pubs in Doolin. County Clare well repays any visit (from Limerick, drive north to Ennis, through Ennistymon to Lahinch and Liscannor). Lahinch is a seaside town with a good swimming beach. Just beyond Lahinch is Liscannor, where one of the best pints of Guinness in the country can be had at Joe McHugh's, an old-time Irish pub with a small grocery in front.
Just beyond are the Cliffs of Moher. These dramatic cliffs are the most visited spot in all Ireland. Cars, buses and vans are in and out of the two car-parks all day. On my first visit to the cliffs I was lucky enough to be one of only a handful of people. Although it was well past 7 p.m., there was plenty of startlingly bright light in the mid-July sky. The three Aran islands -- Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer -- could be seen in the distance, and from the 668-foot height, a cow on a neighboring cliff looked like a child's toy.
Beyond the cliffs lies the village of Doolin, home of Irish traditional music. In the summer months seisuns (sessions with musicians playing) of fiddle, flute, concertina, bazooka, uilleann pipes and bodhran can be heard in Doolin's three pubs, O'Connors, McGann's and McDermott's. An international scene prevails: German, French, Dutch and American tourists fill the pubs to overflow capacity. It's a must to stop for a pint and some of "the crack" (an Irish term that means "what's happening" or "a good time").
From Doolin Pier, where there is a good campground and a car-park, day and overnight trips to the smallest of the Aran Islands, Inisheer (some five miles across the south sound), are available.
A lovely walk, provided you are nimble of foot, follows the limestone pavements by the sea. When you peer closely between the crevices, there are many tiny flowers -- drifts of sea campion and thrift (sea pink) interspersed with the little white flowers of Irish saxifrage.
Take the drive from Doolin to Fanore and then to Ballyvaughan, which takes about 45 minutes, but can be longer if you stop to admire the fine sea views. There is something peaceful about these terraced hills of limestone and the vistas of the sea that emerge at each new bend of the road (and there are many). I once read that the area near the Cliffs of Moher were thought to be the gateway to the afterworld of the ancient Celts. Traveling these hills, it's easy to believe.
Ballyvaughan has good views of Galway Bay and a lovely teahouse-garden in the center of town, which is open during the summer months.
One local sightseeing stop is the Ailwee Caves, where guided tours take you though the central cave deep in the center of the mountain. During my tour, the one really exciting moment was when the lights went out -- only for a second, but long enough for us to realize there was not an iota of light in the dark recess of the cave. It's worth a visit. And you can have tea and scones in the gift shop-restaurant when you emerge.
Traveling from Ballyvaughan back through the Burren, take the road to Formoyle, Killeany and Lisdoonvarna. Along the way, you can see a number of wedge tombs (consisting of a single main chamber with walls and ceiling formed of stone slabs in a rectangular shape, narrowed at one end to produce a wedge-like effect), a rock cairn (a long, straight-sided stone gallery with a stone slab roof covered with earth, incorporating an open court) and a portal dolmen (a single-chamber tomb, with standing stones acting as a support for a large capstone, which was then covered with earth to form a mound). The tombs are well sign-posted.
Continue beyond Lisdoonvarna (scene of the annual September Matchmaking Festival, which draws would-be wedding prospects from the surrounding farm locales, as well as a more recent influx of Americans) on the road past Kilshanny with its lovely abbey church to the sign-posted rock cairn.
This site is Conn Connachtach. It requires a bit of a hike up across a rocky field to get there, but it's worth it. The rock cairn is immense -- about 25 feet high and more than l00 yards in base diameter.
As I stood at the topmost point of the cairn, twilight fell. I was able to look 360 degrees around to the distant hills seemingly encircling this mound. I wondered what ancient chieftain lay buried in this spot. Certainly some of the grandeur of his life was felt in the siting of his final resting place.
Ireland has much to offer the modern-day traveler. It is a respite for the city dweller and a rare opportunity to experience some of Celtic culture firsthand. And its rugged west coast allows the visitor to experience the mystery and the magic of an ancient history.