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Dublin: 6 °C Thursday 21 November, 2019
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"A place of sacrifice": Tour the stone circle that freaked out a 1930s psychic

Archaeologist Neil Jackman explores one of the country’s finest stone circles and the quiet final resting place of a remarkable penal times priest.

IN THE LATEST edition of the Hidden Heritage series, we take a trip to the beautifully picturesque Drombeg Stone Circle in Co Cork, and the medieval ruins of Creevelea Friary in Co Leitrim.

As ever, I’m hoping to feature sites from all over the island of Ireland, and I’d love to hear your suggestions – if you have a favourite heritage site please do leave a comment below.

Drombeg Stone Circle, Co Cork

Drombeg is one of the finest of Ireland’s stone circles and certainly the most popular, attracting large numbers of tourists due to its picturesque setting. Like most of Ireland’s stone circles, the construction of Drombeg is thought to date to the middle and later period of the Bronze Age, approximately 3,000 years ago.

Stone circles are often considered to be places of ritual and ceremony. Drombeg is aligned with the setting sun of the midwinter solstice (on 21 December), a hugely important time in the ancient calendar as it marked the shortest day and longest night of the year. A time of rebirth and renewal as from that point on the days begin to grow.

Drombeg’s celestial alignment was first noted by Boyle Somerville in 1923, who saw that when observed from the entrance to the circle, the sun is aligned with the position of the large recumbent (horizontal) stone.

The site has long been imbued with folklore and mythology, with the large recumbent stone being called ‘The Druid’s Altar’. In his book A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany, archaeologist Aubrey Burl records the story of Boyle Somerville who returned to the site in September 1935, accompanied by a psychic, Miss Geraldine Cummings:

She did not like the place. She felt it was…a place where animals, if not small children, were sacrificed at each winter solstice. She ‘saw’ a priest in blue and saffron robes standing at the altar of the recumbent about to kill his human offering… Drombeg was cursed. It was ‘guarded by spirits of darkness’.

I didn’t notice anything overly sinister myself during our visit on Wednesday – instead of blue robed druids we just saw a number of camera-wielding tourists enjoying a lovely sunny day in west Cork. If you’re interested in more of the folklore associated with the site do visit the excellent Voices of the Dawn website.

The site was excavated in 1957 by EM Fahy. He discovered that there was a compact gravelly surface within the circle, with a central pit containing the cremated remains of an adolescent and a broken, coarse pot dating to 1124–794 BC, perhaps as Aubrey Burl hints, this young person was an offering to the ancient gods.

Nearby the stone circle you can discover the stone foundations of Bronze Age huts and a well-preserved fulacht fiadh, these are a typical Bronze Age monument and fulacht fiadh are found across Ireland. Like this fine example at Drombeg, fulacht fiadh generally consisted of a stone-lined pit or trough, filled with water.

Stones were heated on a fire, and when the stones were red hot they were dropped into the water, eventually causing the water to boil. Their function has been long debated in archaeology, from the traditional view of cooking places, to dying clothes, bathing pools or saunas and even as a brewery.

Back in 2007, I was fortunate to attend a reconstruction of a fulacht used to brew beer in County Galway by archaeologists Declan Moore and Billy Quinn. The simple process worked a treat, and produced very drinkable (and pretty strong!) ale. Just the kind of thing you’d want for a long cold mid-winter evening waiting for the solstice!

Drombeg is a lovely site to visit, and on a bright sunny day there are few better places to be in the world than west Cork. You’ll find the site less than 10 mins drive from Rosscarbery, off the R597 road to Glandore at co-ordinates: 51.564561, -9.086998.

Creevelea Friary, Co Leitrim

Creevelea 1

Dating to 1508, this stunning medieval friary was one of the last major monasteries founded in Ireland prior to the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII in the mid-16th century. Creevelea was founded as a Franciscan friary by Owen O’Rourke and his wife Margaret O’Brien. These wealthy benefactors were said to have been buried in a magnificent tomb close to the altar of the church, but unfortunately nothing remains of their burial place today.

After its foundation, the friary thrived until it was accidentally burned down in 1536. Attempts were made to restore the friary, though the Dissolution ended hopes of a renewal, and in 1539 the friary was suppressed. By the end of the 1500s, Sir Richard Bingham had converted the church into a stable for his soldiers horses, however records suggest that a small community of friars continued to live and worship in part of the friary until the end of the close of the 17th century.

Despite its relatively short life, Creevelea is a beautiful and evocative place to explore, with many fine architectural details to discover. In the cloisters, you can find some interesting and unusual carvings, like that of St Francis marked with stigmata, and another of St Francis standing in a pulpit with birds perched in a tree, a reference to the story of him learning the language of birds. Also amongst the cloisters you can find a number of fine masons’ marks delicately chiselled into the stonework.

Creevelea 2

Eventually the site became a graveyard, one of the more interesting burials is that of Fr Bernard Peter Magauran. He was born in Ballintogher, Co Sligo in around 1772 and is considered to have been the last friar of Dromohair. The penal laws restricted Catholic education from the late 17th to the mid 19th centuries so Peter travelled to Louvain in Belgium for his education. He returned to Ireland, ordained as a Fransican Friar and worked for a time in Dublin, preaching to the poor Catholics from the Fransican Church called Adam and Eve, located on Merchant’s Quay.

As freedom to worship was banned for Catholics, the Adam and Eve chapel was hidden behind a tavern of the same name on Cook Street. In 1826, Fr Magauran was transferred to Leitrim and became a parish priest.

He was said to have been a very devout man and extremely generous to the poor of the parish. He was often to be found praying by the small carving of St Francis in the cloister at Creevelea. He died in 1837 at the age of 65 and was buried in the cloisters of the friary.

His grave then became a site of veneration for people who knew or had heard of his good works. To this day, people still leave offerings and the soil from his grave is still believed by some to have curative properties.

Creevelea is a lovely place to visit, and certainly worth a trip. You’ll find it located close to Dromahair on the banks of the Bonet River at co-ordinates: 54.231140, -8.309626.

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Fancy exploring some of Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites this weekend? Please visit my blog, Time Travel Ireland, where I have more suggestions for great places to visit.

You can also download audioguides from my website abartaheritage.ie, where we have 25 guides that tell the story of Irish heritage and the majority are absolutely free to download.

If you’d like to keep up with daily images and information about Ireland’s fantastic heritage sites please consider following Abarta Audioguides on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

All photographs © Neil Jackman /abartaaudioguides.com

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