County Cork’s Ancient Past: The Drombeg Stone Circle

Drombeg Stone Circle - The Irish Place
The Drombeg Stone Circle near Rosscarbery, Co. Cork. Known locally as 'The Druid's Altar'.

Ireland’s green and verdant landscape is dotted with many types of megalithic monument, with the stone circle being amongst the most impressive.

While they may not be as striking in terms of size as their British cousins, these ancient circles are almost always located in stunning locations. They complement the natural landscape in an altogether pleasing manner.

This is certainly true of Cork’s Drombeg circle, with its beautiful setting and ageless mythology. Much of which weaves round its biggest stone – otherwise known as “The Druids Altar”.

Timelessness

It’s worth noting that circles were being constructed in Ireland centuries before the arguably more dramatic Stone Henge in Britain.

The very earliest, rough rings of boulders that began at the passage tombs, were constructed in high numbers across the country.

Circles and other types of megalithic monument dating from the middle Bronze Age in Ireland are generally small-scale affairs. Which are probably erected by a small group of people or even a single local family group.

They didn’t require the huge manpower it would have taken to erect a circle such as Stonehenge.

Visitors often comment on the distinctive atmosphere experienced when visiting these sorts of ancient circle sites in Ireland.

A noted sense of timelessness and eeriness is reported around with these mysterious installations.

It is not really surprising when you consider the folklore connected with them, such as the Druids Altar at the stone circle at Drombeg.

Heavens Above

The design of many of these circles indicates that they were used as a kind of early observatory to study key solar events such as an equinox or solstice.

However, whatever inspired our forefathers to build them must have been compelling, as the effort required to do so would have been considerable.

Circle Types

There are essentially two types of ancient circle in Ireland.

A continuous circle is distinguished by stones that touch each other or are at least set closely together.

A non-contiguous circle can be recognized by its two orthostats set side by side. Both of which are taller than other stones in the arrangement, with a recumbent stone opposite them.

Tantalising Stones

As with most megaliths (in Ireland and beyond), what we see now is often only a very small part of what once existed.

Many stone rows and circles have been badly damaged over the course of the centuries by cattle, land-clearing and the elements.

Many of the single stones seen in Ireland may well have once been part of a significant circle or constructed for some ancient purpose which we can now only guess at.

Others came from lost portal tombs.

Of course, some solitary stones were erected purposely – to mark a burial site, to commemorate an event or an individual, to mark a ritual place, as a sign post or even as a rubbing post for livestock.

Bronze Age Wonder

This is arguably one of the very finest examples of a megalithic circle and is an extremely popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

The circle is described as a recumbent circle. This is because of the single long recumbent (horizontal) stone measuring 2.1metres that lies at its western edge.

In common with most of the circles of this type in Ireland, it dates to sometime in the middle-late Bronze age and is around three thousand years old.

Mid-Winter Solstice

Stone installations of this type are often regarded as places of ceremony and ritual.

The largest stone in this particular circle was built to align with the sun as it set on the eve of the mid-winter solstice (21st December).

This was a deeply significant date in the ancient calendar, marking as it does the longest night (and therefore the shortest day).

Once the solstice passed, and the days started to lengthen, it was time to look forward to spring with its themes of renewal and rebirth.

A diagram of the Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle showing the location of the stones and the pits located as a result of the excavation in 1958 by EH Fahy. Pit A contained cremated human remains and pottery fragments. The diagram also shows the suns alignment with the Axial Stone (Druid's Altar) and the Portal Stones at the Winter Solstice - The Irish Place
A diagram of the Drombeg Recumbent Stone Circle showing the location of the stones and the pits located as a result of the excavation in 1957 by EH Fahy. Pit A contained cremated human remains and pottery fragments. The diagram also shows the suns alignment with the Axial Stone (Druid’s Altar) and the Portal Stones at the Winter Solstice.

Mythology and Folklore

The site is positively permeated with mythology and folklore.

The largest horizontal stone is often called ‘The Druid’s Altar’.

An oft-repeated story connected with this is about the time the noted psychic, Geraldine Cummings, visited the circle in 1935.

She sensed that it was a place of ritual sacrifice of animals and maybe infants and young people.

She intuited a priest garbed in saffron and blue robes, standing by the ‘altar’ and preparing to sacrifice a human.

Once she had recovered from her trance, she declared that the site was cursed.

Excavation of Drombeg Stone Circle

The excavation of the site was carried out in 1957 by E.M. Fahy.

During the course of the dig, he found that the circle contained a compact gritty surface with a centrally placed pit.

The pit contained human remains belonging to an adolescent.

Also in situ was a broken pot dating to c.1124-794 B.C.

Some experts believe this is evidence that the unfortunate young person was offered as a sacrifice to an ancient god or gods. Perhaps Geraldine Cumming’s earlier vision was accurate.

Drombeg’s Notable Features

The remains of the joined stone huts with the Drombeg Stone Circle upper right - The Irish Place
The remains of the joined stone huts with the Drombeg Stone Circle upper right.
A diagram showing the layout and basic structure of the two joined stone huts and the cooking pit (Fulacht Fiadh) at the Drombeg Stone Circle - The Irish Place
A diagram showing the layout and basic structure of the two joined stone huts and the cooking pit (Fulacht Fiadh) at the Drombeg Stone Circle.

As well as this megalithic monument stone circle with its solstice connections and Druids Altar, there are a number of the Bronze Age hut foundations on the Drombeg site.

There is also an excellent example of a ‘fulacht fiadh’.

This structure is highly characteristic of Bronze Age and are found right across Ireland.

A fulacht fiadh typically consists of a trough or pit lined with stones and designed to be filled with water.

The stones would be placed in a fire to heat them thoroughly, and once they were red hot they were put into the water, which would eventually bring it to the boil.

The primary function of these installations has long been a source of controversy among archaeologists.

Some believe that they were essentially a huge saucepan in which to cook meat; others that they were used to dye garments.

Other theories suggest they were utilised as a sauna or as a pool in which to bathe. There is also a school of thought which says that they were used to brew beer.

The Fulacht Fiadh at the Drombeg Stone Circle - The Irish Place
The Fulacht Fiadh at the Drombeg Stone Circle.

Directions to the Drombeg Stone Circle

  • To get to the Drombeg Stone Circle from Clonakilty, head west on the N71 towards Rosscarbery.
  • Just after you pass the causeway, bear left on to the R597.
  • Follow this road for approximately four kilometres, then turn left again (the megalithic monument is clearly signposted).
  • You will find a free car park just to your right.
  • The circle, with its mysterious ‘Druids Altar’, can be found just a short stroll along a rough path from the car park.
  • The site is open year round, and there is no entrance fee.

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