Stone circles are enchanted places. Across the British Isles are numerous groups of ancient standing stones associated with colorful legends, many of which involve fairies and magic. At several circles it is said to be impossible to count the number of standing stones. For example, of the Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire, legend says: The man will never live who shall count the stones three times and find the number the same each time.
I recently tried to find out just how many stone circles there are in Ireland and had the same trouble. The easy answer is that there are too many to count. According to the database at megalithic.co.uk, there are well over 100 stone rings in the Republic of Ireland alone, and that does not include many more in Northern Ireland.
One reason why there are so many megalithic sites remaining in Ireland may be the belief that it is unlucky to disturb them. Will Millar, one of the founding members of the Irish Rovers folk music group, once told me stories about the sacred places of his homeland. He said it used to be common knowledge that ancient sites in Ireland had power that protected them from damage. Will recalled that, when a modern roadway was being built through the area near the ‘fairy fort’ in Ballymena, the highway planners carefully went around, rather than cutting straight through the mound. “If anybody disturbed what we used to call ‘fairy places,’ great harm was likely to come to them,” he said.
Will went on to tell me at least one recorded instance of a man who didn’t believe in the power of sacred places and died as a result. Mr. James McInerney, who owned land near Ballycastle, wanted to plow one of his fields on which a dolmen was standing. When he ordered his farmhands to tear down the ancient stone arrangement, they refused, so McInerney decided to do the deed himself. A few days later, when he was driving his cart on a cliff near to where the dolmen had been, his horses spooked. The cart tipped over the cliff and McInerney was killed on the rocks below.
When I asked him about the sacred places in Ireland he liked best, Will Millar confessed that he felt more connected to the lesser-known sites rather than those that have become popular stops for tourist buses.
The same idea was echoed by Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, author of Crossing to Avalon and Goddesses in Everywoman. She told me “When there is a lot of commercial stuff in the way, and crowds of people, it prevents you from being still in yourself and having an experience within yourself.” Perhaps that is why one of Dr. Bolen’s favorite sites is the Grange Stone Circle at Lough Gur in Ireland’s County Limerick.
“It has drawn me back to Ireland five or six times,” she said of the huge site. “You walk into the circle through the pillar stones, and you are in this timeless, beautiful place, aligned to the summer solstice.” Dr. Bolen said that she was taken by both its natural beauty and its energy. “It has the kind of heart energy that invites intuitive imagery,” she said. “The place lends itself to a kind of mystical experience for me.”
Grange Stone Circle (Rannach Croim Duibh) is the largest ring of stones in Ireland. Archaeologists tell us it was built around 2100 BC. Amantha Murphy, a Celtic shaman who often begins her Irish group tours with an opening ceremony at Grange Stone Circle, says it is dedicated to Ainé, the Sun Goddess and Fairy Queen. Ainé, according to legend, created the lake, Lough Gur, which is behind the circle. Amantha enjoys telling stories about a sacred tree that magically arises out of the lake every seven years. “It holds the fabric of Ireland together upon her branches,” she said.
Another local legend says there is a cave near Lough Gur that contains the secret entrance to Tir Na Nog, the land of eternal youth, where leaves never fall from trees and flowers bloom all year long.