Beltany Stone Circle – Co. Donegal Megalith Trail, Part 1

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Stop one in Co. Donegal. I read that this place was linked with Ballynoe before arriving. There are many similarities, but this place is hugely different.

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Like Ballynoe, there is a tunnel on the way in. This time wider and with more variety of trees along with the hawthorn and gorse.

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The ruins of a round, stone structure sits off the main path. From there, there are two parallel paths to take; one to the stones, another into a forest. My curiosity, of course, took me into the forest.

It had been a long drive from Co. Down, it had given me a lot of time to relax, listen to music and to think. On entering the pathway, all my thoughts faded. It was as if I was entering a different world.

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The forest was made up of fir and pine trees. It was a beautiful place to wander around in. Natural pathways sloped downhill. I was surprised by the amount of quartz-like stone around. With Newgrange fresh in my head, I wondered if they had got there naturally. There were many other rocks. Thin, slate-like pieces leaned against the bases of trees, presumably washed up there.
The forest was guarded by a stone wall, hawthorn trees, sycamore trees and elm trees. An oak grove could be seen in a field nearby.

There was something quirky and unnatural about the place. On many occasions I felt like I was being watched. There was evidence of humans everywhere. I found horseshoe prints in the dirt. Why would horses be in such a crowded forest? I followed out of the trees into a field. There was a stone in the field that looked like a gravestone from the back.

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When I re-entered the forest, I found a deposit of strangely shiny rocks. They were slim and light. They looked as if they had been sprayed with silver paint. I turned one over and the other side was burnt. This forest was giving me more than I had the expertise for.

I walked back through towards the exit. Sheep’s wool was on many of the lower branches and the feathers of wood pigeons were on the ground. I found a few smashed bird eggs too.

Towards the exit a fire had been built. Two wheels and some pine sticks had been used as fuel. The word “DIVER” had been sprayed on two of the trees with silver paint, as well as a silver cock (of course!). I wondered if that was how the stones got their colour. Blue rope was tied about two and a half metres up one of the trees.

I left the forest and headed through the gate to the circle. I sat at one of the rocks, gathered my thoughts, and wrote some notes.

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The circle is huge. It sits on top of a hill in an open field. The views around it are spectacular. I can see mountains in the distance, but I don’t know what they are. Compared to Down and Louth, this place feels foreign to me.

Further investigation revealed one of the hills nearby is Croaghan Hill, thought to be the resting place of  the warrior Itha of the followers of Parthanón. Itha died at the battle of Mag Itha, a magical battle between the followers of Parthanón and the Fomorians.

The Fomorians came to Ireland following the flood and the followers of Parthanón came after. The Fomorians seem to represent chaotic forces, where the followers of Parthanón represent civilisation and agriculture.

Parthanón and his followers all died of plague in a single week after the battle. The Fomorians survived and continued to be represented throughout Irish mythology. They are closely linked with the Tuatha Dé Dannan, with whom they fight regularly.

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The sign at the entrance says there are 64 stones. It also describes a stone head that was found at the circles. The head reminded me of the Tandragee Man, an idol to Nuada, a king of the Tuatha Dé Dannan.

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Most of the stones are tilted outwards from the circle. My initial thought was that they would be easy to lean against to see a ceremony taking place in the centre. Two huge stones sit at the entrance. They are slightly off so as to create a clear entry for something.

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There is evidence of a fire having been burnt in the centre of the circle recently, probably in celebration of Bealtaine, the festival the stones are named after. Bealtaine (meaning bright fire) is a celebration of the summer. A cup-marked stone is supposed to line up with the sun in early May, when the festival is celebrated. One of the rituals involved in the festival of Bealtaine is to walk your livestock around a fire, or between two fires, to protect them from disease.

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Return of the Fairies – Co. Louth Megalith Tour Part 3

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A few miles outside Carlingford is a brown sign that points to a “Deserted Village” and “Court Tomb”.  To describe it as a village seems inaccurate. It is more like a collection of homesteads, eight to nine buildings in total.

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The entrance way reminds me of Ballynoe. A trail through the gorse opens up onto a huge hillside with a mound on the top.  Sheep roam between the abandoned buildings. Hawthorn trees grow at random points. Gifts left on the trees link the site with the fairies.

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The fairly folk, or Síde (from which the term Banshee comes), were known to live in mounds and to defend them ferociously. The hawthorn and blackthorn trees are signs of their presence.

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There is a chamber towards the highest homestead on the hill. A stone, clearly different from the stones of the buildings, is placed at the entrance. The tone of the rock and the deliberate placement played in my imagination. Perhaps the stone was there to prevent evil spirits from entering or leaving the chamber, as is done with quartz.

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The court tomb sits in a field of its own nearby.

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I stopped at a rock nearby to make some notes. It is a distinctive rock, with views over Carlingford Lough to the Mournes and across the Irish Sea. Scotland is just about visible. Geocachers should look out for this stone. A horse slept among the gorse in the distance.

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It was a steep ascent from here to the top. I found a throne made of stones along the way. This had by far the best view over the land itself. And, of course, show me a throne, and I’ll sit on it!

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Not far from the throne was a family of horses. Two black and white adults and two younger horses; one black and brown male and one smaller, white female. I stopped and talked to them. I let them sniff my hand and they let me stroke their noses. The two adults were very friendly, the younger horses were a bit more timid. The small, white horse would not come near at all. The young brown and white one stood near and chewed on a gate post. A group of hill climbers were approaching in the distance, so I said my goodbyes and left.

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The ridge was only a short climb from this point. There was a triangulation station and a view onto the next mountain. It was eerie. A cloud passed along the top making it look like a pathway to Mordor. To the other direction were more stunning views across the lough and the Mournes.

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The homesteads were mostly hidden by gorse at this height. I walked back down the hills reflecting on the gorse. This really is the time of year for it. It crops up all over these sites. At the Kempe Stones near Ards the gorse has almost covered the stones completely. It’s lovely to look at and gives off a beautiful scent, but it’s spiky to touch and easily ignitable. When we were children, we would pick the yellow flowers. My granny would use them to dye eggs. We’d then throw the eggs down the hill until they were all smashed up to celebrate Easter.

A few days after my visit I got a call from a man who works at the visitors’ centre in Carlingford. I wanted to talk to him about the souterrains found at King John’s Castle. He said the souterrains were found in 2008, but, until recently, there had been trouble sourcing funding to properly excavate. The souterrains are expected to open to the public in 2018.

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We talk about the “Deserted Village”.  He agreed it was more like a collection of homesteads. He told me he had been visiting that area for years and only within the last couple of years had he seen people leaving gifts on the tree.

Perhaps it is not a site linked with the Síde, or perhaps it had been forgotten. Perhaps the pre-Christian ways of Ireland are returning. People are rebelling against destructive foreign churches, and against the religion of the state which offers little meaning to life. The fairies are reemerging.

Saints and Demons at Brigid’s Shrine – Co. Louth Megalith Tour Part 2

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The main reason I was in Co. Louth was for Tommy McGovern’s gig at the Spirit Store in Dundalk. I’ll wait until Tommy hits the big time and sell the story to NME. The plan was to see the gig, then find somewhere to park up and sleep in the van. Earlier that day I had decided to sleep at St. Brigid’s Shrine.

After the gig a few of us went back to Tommy’s. It took me well out of the way of the shrine, so I settled on staying somewhere closer to Carlingford.

Tommy’s friend asked me to take him home, thinking I was heading back up north. When he found out that wasn’t the way I was going he couldn’t apologise enough. I didn’t care. I like to drive strange roads at night. I dropped him off and he pointed me in the direction of Carlingford.

At the bottom of his road was an archway that I hadn’t noticed on the drive in. Across the road from that was some sort of visitors’ centre. I turned my car towards the archway and the words ‘St Brigid’s Shrine’ were illuminated by the headlights. I knew it wasn’t chance me finding this place. I drove through the archway and saw various statues dedicated to Jesus and Mary.

There was a car park across the way by the visitors’ centre. I parked there and jumped in the back of the van. It was pitch black. I was feeling anxious. The statues had creeped me out. I put my head down and tried to sleep. An abandoned house was on the other side of the road. I kept imagining someone looking through the windows of my van at me. There was a light and a small weapon hidden near me in the van just in case. It made little difference to the feeling I had of being watched.

I reminded myself why I came here. This was an ancient pre-Christian site of healing, a place of good energy, and sleeping nearby would not be a danger to me. I settled quickly after that thought and got some sleep.

Sunrise and the cold woke me up. I got out for an explore. There was another car in the car park. It had a northern registration. In the daylight I saw stations of the cross on a green next to the visitors’ centre. A woman was at them. I went to the other side of the road where I had seen the statues the night before.

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The shrine was beautiful in the daylight. A small stream flowed through it. On one side of the stream were some trees and fallen leaves. On the other was a path and manicured green grass. It was a contrast between nature and the creations of man. There were shrines and statues on the man made side. The remaining stations of the cross had been set on nature’s side. Song birds were all over the place in large variety. Variety in plant and animal life is common at these sites. I threw some seeds down for the birds. I appreciated the tranquillity of the place for a little longer then headed back.

The stones were on the car park end, and this was my destination. I followed the stream past the stations of the cross. The woman I had seen earlier was at a shrine to Jesus. I did not want to disturb her worship. The stream led to the shrine she was at. A plaque sat at the turning of the stream outlining which stones were which and what prayers should be said at each of them.

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The stones were easily recognisable. The horseshoe stone is quite small with a horseshoe clearly marked in it. Next is the headstone, marked out with white paint, then the knee stone.

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As I approached the other stones, the woman came down from the shrine. We started talking. It was Good Friday, and she told me she was fasting and doing the stations of the cross. We talked about religion and faith. I tried to hide that my faith wasn’t rooted in Catholicism, but I’m sure she knew.

She lived locally, around four miles away on the other side of the border. I told her I wasn’t from the area and had slept here the night before in my van. She was shocked. “Were you not scared?” she asked. I told her I was a bit anxious at first, then I reminded myself what this place was and that had calmed me. She was still shocked. She told me there had been incidents here.

Then she said something that really resonated with me: “The devil is attracted to these sorts of places.”

When I had tried to sleep the night before, the entity watching me through the window felt demonic. In my mind’s eye it had long, greasy hair with faded green skin. It looked like the girl from the exorcist, only bloodier and with the flesh coming off its face so badly that its features were no longer recognisable. It wasn’t knocking, but it had its hand on the window. I did not open the door. The front doors were locked and the back door had the padlock on. I was armed. I allowed the healing properties from the stones outside to seep in and the demon left.

At many similar sites I have visited, there have been broken bottles, empty cans, pill packets and underwear. There have been the remains of scenes that I would rather not write about, things that have left me very unsettled. Demonic entities vary in strength and harmfulness.

The woman and I chatted some more. She told me about the stones. She showed me the hip stone, the eye stone and the back stone and told me the legends behind them.

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Brigid had been dragged away by her hips to be married against her will. To make herself less attractive, she plucked out her eye. She used water from the stream to heal her eye and it was restored.

The woman told me how she too had used water from the eye stone to heal ailments in her own eye.

Brigid was around at the time Patrick was Christianising Ireland. No doubt many of these practices were druidic in their origins, along with many other practices and customs associated with her. This was not the time to challenge this woman’s beliefs though. She was very generous with her information and knowledge, and had been a pleasure to talk to.

She gave me books and pamphlets. She was clearly trying to convert me. I took them out of a general interest in religion. She also gave me a St Brigid’s Cross pin. She told me she had been waiting for someone like me who she could help. We spoke about her sons, who had left home and grown away from the church. They had gone into other areas of society. She was grateful that two of them had found good Catholic girls in other parts of the world at least.

She invited me back for breakfast, but I politely declined. It was Good Friday and I wanted meat. I gave her my phone number and told her she could call any time. I then left for Carlingford with much to reflect on.