Of Druid's Altar's & Giant's Graves
The Megalithic Tombs of Ireland
by Philip I Powell
Prehistory in Ireland begins around
the 8th-7th millennia BC, a few centuries after the last great Ice Age, when Mesolithic
hunter-gatherers arrived on the ancient shores of this island. Our earliest known
evidence of human activity in Ireland is from around 8,000 BC, where archaeologists
discovered shell middens along the coast of County Antrim.
Shortly before 4,000 BC, farming was introduced into Ireland and this move from
the Mesolithic hunter gatherer culture to a Neolithic farming society, was the
single greatest social revolution there has ever been. The most prominent
remains of this early prehistoric period are the megalithic tombs, the majority
of which were constructed in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC (4000-2000 BC).
These are the 'Giant's Grave' & 'Druid's Altar' of the Victorian Antiquarians,
the 'Leaba Dhiarmada agus Ghrainne' of popular folklore and the 'Cromlech' and
'Dolmen' of earlier writers.
They were not of course 'Druid's Altars' or 'Giants Graves'
and nor are they the remains of the nightly beds of the lovers 'Diarmuid & Grainne' but
are in fact what remains of sophisticated burial chambers, built by ordinary people, from
a highly cultured society, to honour their loved ones and guide them on their way, on
their final journey to the next world.
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Introduction - Of Druid's Altar's & Giant's Graves
Prehistory in Ireland, from the archaeological evidence thus far discovered, begins
around the 8th-7th millennia BC, a few centuries after the last great Ice Age, when
Mesolithic hunter-gatherers arrived on the ancient shores of this island. Our earliest
known evidence of human activity in Ireland is from around 8,000 BC, where
archaeologists discovered shell middens along the coast of County Antrim. Where
these first inhabitants came from is still the subject of much controversy but it is
most likely that they came from what is now present day Britain & Western Europe,
most likely France and northern Spain. The earliest known Mesolithic site of
settlement in Ireland is located in Mount Sandel, Coleraine in County Derry.
It is the oldest archaeological site in Ireland where radiocarbon dating has placed
occupation at the site to around 7,010 - 6,490 BC. Excavations uncovered the
remains of circular huts, middens, food storage pits and areas of flint knapping,
with over 44,000 pieces of flint being found, a small portion of which were unused.
They lived in family groupings of about 20 individuals, hunting game, fishing and
collecting wild berries & nuts and were relatively successful. However, the
population never expanded much beyond a few thousand individuals and much, if
not all of the landscape that existed before their arrival, was still relatively
untouched and unchanged. Their burial rites and rituals are unknown to us, as no
burial site has as yet been discovered in Ireland from this period.
Shortly before 4,000 BC, farming was introduced into Ireland and this move from
the Mesolithic hunter gatherer culture to a Neolithic farming society was the single
greatest social revolution there has ever been. For our ancient ancestors gradually
left behind a life style that was not only in tune with nature but was part of nature
and moved forward to a time where human beings began to shape the landscape,
adapt it for their needs and get it to work for them. The old Mesolithic life style of
the hunter-gatherer did not end immediately, in fact it continued on for many more
centuries, subsidizing the food produced from the farming but was gradually
replaced by the more settled life style of farming and with it the beginnings of
communities and ownership of the land began to emerge. Thus, then the 3rd period
of the Stone Age had begun, the Neolithic or New Stone Age, and with it the dawn of
a new age that would totally transform the world and human society and its
consequences are still felt to this day in the way we feed ourselves and the type of
communal society we live in.
The most prominent remains of this early prehistoric period are the megalithic
tombs, 'Tuama Meigiliteach', the majority of which were constructed in the 4th & 3rd
millennia BC (4000-2000 BC). These are the 'Giant's Grave' & 'Druid's Altar' of the
Victorian Antiquarians, the 'Leaba Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne' of popular folklore
and the 'Cromlech' and 'Dolmen' of earlier writers. From the archaeological
evidence and the radiocarbon dating carried out to date, these megalithic tombs first
started to be constructed several centuries after the introduction of farming to
Ireland. Indeed, these early farmers felt no compelling need to constructed these
sometimes enormous megalithic monuments but certain factors such as a rising
population and pressure on land resources may well have compelled some
agricultural communities to construct communal tombs, particularly if these tombs
also served as territorial boundary markers which demonstrated & reinforced their
ownership of the land & acted as a public expression of the group identity as well as
demonstrating the wealth and status of the community. If this was so then the
architectural features of these monuments would most likely depend on a range of
factors such as quality of land, local availability of materials & regional
modifications. The artefacts discovered so far in and around these tombs give us a
small insight into the economy and day to day life of these megalithic builders.
The flint arrowheads suggest hunting
was still a very important part of everyday
Neolithic life and the animal bones tell us
something of the livestock domesticated
and hunted by these early farmers. The
polished axes & flint axes, reflect one of the
primerary needs of life in Neolithic times
and that is the felling of timber for land
clearance to cater for the expanding
agricultural needs of the community and also for house building or perhaps even for
fuel. The impressions of grain in pottery not only tell us something of the type of
grain grown by these early farmers & their diet but these pieces of pottery also tell
us something about their artistic expression in the form of decoration on these
vessels. On rare occasions small pieces of personal jewellery, such as shell-necklaces
or simple beads, are discovered and these important artefacts bring us a little closer
to understanding the actual people who were our ancient ancestors and have only
these monuments and objects to tell their life stories.
Indeed, it is these very same monuments & artefacts, sometimes found by pure
chance, which sowed the seeds of curiosity and intrigue amongst the learned
scholars of 19th century Victorian Ireland. This interest in Irish Prehistory had in
fact begun much earlier, for in the late 17th century, John Aubrey, published his
book 'Monumenta Britannica' (1685) and in it he included a sketch and description
of Labbacallee wedge tomb in County Cork. Some of these early antiquarians,
however, believed that these tombs were ascribed to the Vikings or Romans or even
the Egyptians and that these architecturally, sophisticated structures could in no
way have been built by the ignorant & barbarous Irish peasants. Fortunately, at the
beginning of the 19th century this attitude began to change with the first systematic,
countrywide recording of archaeological sites in Ireland & was carried out after the
establishment of the Ordnance Survey in 1824. In 1830 a section was created within
the Ordnance Survey called 'Place Names and Antiquities' and it was staffed by
three very highly educated scholars, John O'Donovan (1806-1861), Eugene O'Curry
(1794-1862), (who later became the first Irish Professor to have 'archaeology' in his
title) & George Petrie, (1790-1866), who to this day, is regarded as the 'the father of
It is Petrie's writings on early Irish archaeology and
architecture, that were of the greatest significance, especially
his essay on the Round Towers of Ireland, which appeared in
his book 'The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland' (1845).
His meticulous survey & numbering system of the megalithic
tombs at Carrowmore, County Sligo in 1837, is still used & referenced in archaeological studies of the site to this day.
Towards the end of the 19th century many attempts were made to classify these
monuments. Most notably of these was William Copeland Borlase (1848-1899), an
antiquarian, born in Cornwall, who was much influenced in his early life by the
archaeological work of his great-great-grandfather, Dr William Borlase. As a young
man, Borlase visited many of the ancient sites in Cornwall and supervised the
excavations of the re-discovered prehistoric settlement at Carn Euny in 1863. It was
the publishing of his mammoth work in 1897, 'The Dolmens of Ireland' in 3
volumes, that Borlase is best remembered for.
It contains almost 900 monuments, giving descriptions, local folklore and structural
characteristics, along with hundreds of sketches from Wakeman, Du Noyer &
Windele and some from Borlase himself. There was also the later publication by
W.F. Wakeman called
Handbook of Irish Antiquities
(1903), which contained
many sketches of field antiquities. Of course none of these aforementioned
publications, and many others concerning Irish Archaeology, would have been
possible without the extensive work done by the likes of Thomas Johnson Westropp
(1860-1922), an Irish antiquarian, who conducted extensive surveys of the field
monuments of counties Clare, Limerick & Mayo. He also drew accurate sketches of
buildings, the remains of antiquities and grave slabs throughout Ireland. W.G.
Wood-Martin recorded many of the megalithic structures in County Sligo and the
Rev. James Graves (1815-1886), who devoted his life towards the preservation of the
antiquities of his country and in particular that of his native County, Kilkenny.
Although dominated by men, the Victorian, antiquarian society of 19th century
Ireland still had its own woman's champion in Miss Margaret Stokes. Miss Stokes
(1832-1900), was the daughter of Sir William Stokes, sister of Whitley Stokes and
was an Irish Antiquarian noted for her illustrations such as 'The Cromlech at
Howth'. Her Early Christian Art in Ireland (1887) was well regarded and she
produced two works on early medieval Irish saints in Europe in 1892 & 1895. She
was elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1876 & of the Royal
Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. We are also forever indebted to the artists of those
early days before photography, who used their impressive artistic talents to
accurately record for future generations, these magnificent monuments and the
artefacts associated with them.
Artists such as William F. Wakeman (1822-1900), a
student of Petrie's & an Irish archaeologist, who produced beautiful sketches in pen
& pencil of land features and antiquities while he was employed by the Ordnance
Survey. Another great artist & antiquarian was George Victor Du Noyer. Du Noyer
(1817-1869), was an artist, geologist & antiquarian who combined art and science in
recording natural features & archaeological sites around the Irish countryside and
his richly embellished small paintings are regarded as veritable works of art. He
spent 22 years walking the Irish countryside, surveying all of counties Waterford,
Wexford, Cork & Kerry, and much of counties Antrim, Down & Armagh. These
early pioneering antiquarians, and many more besides, were at the forefront of what
in modern times we now refer to as 'The Science of Archaeology'. Archaeology,
(from the Greek archaios, 'ancient', & logos, 'logy'), enables us to reconstruct, from
the pottery & tools, much of the story of prehistoric man.
It tells us how they lived and, in death, how they treated their loved ones. It reveals
the food they ate and how they procured that food and the art that beautified their
lives. It also gives us information about their dwellings and the clothing they wore
but this still only represents, a relatively small faction of information, over a period
of perhaps four or five thousand years, from which archaeologists can gain some
insight into the lives of our ancient ancestors. Most of the megalithic monuments,
(from the Greek, megas, 'great', & lithos, 'stone'), are today assigned to four major
classes and each are named after an important distinguishing feature. They are
Passage Tombs, Court Tombs, Portal Tombs and Wedge Tombs, with minor
categories such as Linkardstown Graves, Cists and Boulder Burial monuments.
However, in earlier times, other fantastic notions abounded about the origins and
the builders of these great structures. Names such as 'DRUID'S ALTAR' were
frequently used to describe portal tombs. It was a name given by pagan-altar
theorists, who saw in the covering-stone, the channels cut to carry off the victim's
blood. It was this romantic theory, which was enough for the 18th century
unscientific antiquarians and historians to condemn it with this name. Another view
was that they were altars on which sacrifice was offered around certain times of the
Another fantastic notion conjured up by these early antiquarians, was their
explanation for the size and shape of wedge tombs & court tombs. They believed
that they were built by giants to bury their dead and that this would account for
their enormous size, and so to them the name 'GIANTS GRAVE' seemed well suited.
Picard's representation of Giants and Dwarfs building the Dolmens.
Legends of Giants
Legends of Giants, who undertake extraordinary feats, are very common in Irish
mythology. There is the well known myth of the great warrior & giant
and his battle with his Scottish rival, Cuhullin. The legend recalls that
during this battle, Fionn has built the Giant's Causeway, 'Clochan na
bhFomharach', as stepping-stones to Scotland, so as not to get his feet wet. He
scoops up part of Ireland to fling it at his rival, but it missed and landed in the Irish
Sea; the clump becoming the Isle of Man, a pebble becoming the island of Rockall,
'Rocal', and the void becoming Lough Neagh, 'Loch nEathach', the largest,
freshwater lake in the British Isles.
Probably the most mystical name given to some tombs is that, that comes from
popular Irish folklore. Many wedge tombs around the Irish countryside, and indeed
marked on the OS maps as such, are commonly referred to as 'Leaba' or 'Labba',
meaning 'bed' in Irish, but a bed in the sense of a grave and it is most likely because
of their sepulchral character, that these megalithic tombs were so called. Some
tombs are popularly known by various names such as 'Leaba Dhiarmuda agus
Grainne' & 'Leaba na bhFiann', in reference to a tale from the Fenian Cycle in Irish
Mythology which concerns a love triangle between the great warrior Fionn mac
Cumhaill, his bride to be, Grainne, daughter of the High King, Cormac mac Airt,
and her lover Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. The eloping lovers were said to have slept each
night under a different bed of stones, fleeing to avoid capture and popular folklore
assigns these tombs to those beds.
They were not of course 'Druid's Altars' or 'Giants
Graves' and nor are they the remains of the nightly beds of the lovers 'Diarmuid &
Grainne' but are in fact what remains of sophisticated burial chambers, built by
ordinary people, from a highly cultured society, to honour their loved ones and
guide them on their way, on their final journey to the next world. For it is these very
same special names for our megalithic tombs that help bring our ancient ancestors
and their untold day to day life stories closer to us and remind us that they are part
of our shared past and of who we are. Despite the archaeological evidence, it is with
these names in mind, from the early antiquarians & from popular folklore, that I
have named this book so and in recognition of those pioneering archaeologists, I
have included, where possible, their own accounts, descriptions and drawings of
these extraordinary monuments, a durable testament to their ingenious builders.
Philip I. Powell.
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