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Sunbeam entering Cairn G at Carrowkeel, on Summer Solstice sunset

Stone circle aligned to Winter Solstice
Drombeg, Co. Cork

Lía Fáil (Stone of Destiny), Tara, Co. Meath
2000 Cynthia Austin

(25k GIF)

Dagda's Cauldron, Knowth. Martin Byrne

Maeve's Cairn, Knocknarea. Martin Byrne


Ireland's ancient megalithic sacred sites, their interpretation by the Irish Government, and the innappropriate way the Knowth cairn at the Boyne Valley UNESCO World Heritage Site has been "restored" need to be seen in the context of history in order to safeguard them for future generations.

We shall approach our subject, as proper Celts, in spiral fashion.


Irish mythology refers to four distinct peoples migrating to Ireland before the arrival of the Milesian Celts in the first millennium BCE: the Parthalonians, the Nemedians, the Fir Bolg, and the Tuatha Dé Danaan (People of the Goddess Danu). The latter are the Neolithic pre-Indo-European people who are said to have built the megalithic monuments. They are described as the "Lords of Light", a race of wizards who descended from the sky in magical ships, carrying great astronomical knowledge, love of music, and the secret of immortality. As Martin Byrne explains on his Sacred Island website:

"They are said to have arrived from the North and West in flying ships, bearing four great treasures –" The Sword of Núada; The Dagda's Cauldron; The Stone of Destiny; and The Spear of Lugh. They landed at Lough Corrib in Co. Galway and on the mountain of Sliabh an Iarann in Co. Leitrim. The First Battle of Maigh Tuireadh (Moytura), which took place on the plain of Cong at the north shore of Lough Corrib, was fought between the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danaan. Two large monuments, Ballymacgibbon Cairn and Eochy's Cairn, remain here and several others are said to have been destroyed. Connacht's four stone circles are to be found here, as well as several cashels, ringforts, caves, standing stones, and a strange modern stepped pyramid and inscribed stone known as The Gods of Neale."

"The Second Battle of Moytura took place on the hill above the eastern shore of Lough Arrow, near the Bricklieve Mountains. This battle was fought between the Tuatha Dé Danaan and the Formorians, a complex affair which deserves a lengthy page of its own. Lugh of the Long Arm led the Tuatha Dé Danaan to victory over their opponents and oppressors, and killed his grandfather Balor of the Evil Eye who was in charge of the Formorian army. The place where he put out Balor's Eye is today marked by the eerie lake of Lough na Súil (the Lake of the Eye). Balor's destructive eye burned a great hole in the ground and disappeared, and a lake was formed on the spot. In a regular cycle, the length of which I am not sure, the water vanishes for a few days leaving a crater with a large, deep hole at the bottom."

"Notable members of the Túatha Dé Danann are: the Dagda, described as a Father God and possessor of the magic cauldron; Bóann, the Boyne River Goddess; Nuada, the High King of the tribe who had the Sword of Light; The Morrigan, War Goddess and one of the three Badb sisters along with Macha and Nemain; Manannan Mac Lir, God of the Sea whom the Isle of Man is named for; Lugh of the Long Arm, the Sun God; Dain Ceacht, the healer who made the Well of Slane; Corran the Harper; Óengus Óg, the Celtic God of Love; and many others. In general they are associated with many ancient sites, and the Dagda in particular was known as a builder of monuments. He resided at Newgrange for a long time until his son Aongus won the mound from him."

The Celtic account of their disappearance is worth retelling.

The Hosting Of The Sídhe

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.
The host is rushing 'twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

   – William Butler Yeats

Engraved stone at Knowth
from "The Stars and the Stones"
Martin Brennan

Liberty cap or Púca mushrooms

Dolmen at Poulnabrone, County Donegal
2000 Cynthia Austin


According to this myth, the first group of Celts to set foot in Ireland were the Druid, Amergin, accompanied by Eremon and Eber, the sons of King Míles. They sailed from Galicia in Spain and made landfall at the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. Finding the island already inhabited by the People of the Goddess, the Celts challenged them to battle for its possession. Although this concept was probably alien to the People of the Goddess, and their flint arrowheads and stone axes were no match for the Celts' superior bronze swords, they had no choice but to accept the challenge, agreeing that the losing party would leave the island.. When battle was duly joined at Slieve Mísh (where stone age arrowheads may still be found today), the Celts won. And true to their word, the People of the Goddess departed, but instead of leaving in ships across the sea, they "left their bodies" and disappeared underground into the Land of the Sídhe (the Sídhe, also known as the "good people" or "little people", is the Irish name for the fairies). Their abode is conceived as a kind of Buddha-realm outside of time where, according to Irish folklore, the Tuatha Dé Danaan still exist – invisible to mortal eyes – beneath the old cairns and stone circles.

The motif of the relativity of time appears throughout Irish mythology. The account of the creation of the mound at Dowth involves the story of the wizard Breasail who contracted the men of Erin to work on the building for a single day. Quoting from the Dindshenchas, a collection of lore that explains the place names of Ireland, Brennan notes that his sister Englec, who is the lover of Óengus, works a Druidic spell so that the sun might not set until the mound is built. Breasail commits incest with her, breaking the spell and causing the sun to set. "'Night came upon them then' and Breasail's sister declares 'Dubad [i.e. darkness] shall be the name of that place forever'. And so it is today, but stranger still, one of the two chambers inside Dowth is illuminated by the setting sun at Winter Solstice, marking the longest night of the year. This association of light and darkness with the actual structure of the mound is still reflected in the place-name."

Similarly, the story of Newgrange tells of the Dagda or "Lord of Great Knowledge" who wins Bóann as his lover – and her mound as his residence – by sending her husband Elcmar on a one-day journey which he experiences as lasting for nine months. During this single day of magically-expanded time, she makes love to the Dagda, conceives, and gives birth to their son Óengus, the God of Love. As Brennan points out, "it is curious that his birth takes place during a magical lengthening of the day at Newgrange, because the entrance of the sun's rays into the chamber there occurs at winter solstice and therefore marks the beginning of the actual lengthening of the days in the sun's yearly cycle." Later on, Óengus, wins the mound from his father by a similar twist of time. The Land of the Sídhe, sometimes called Tír na nÓg (the Land of Youth), is also located outside of time. Various myths retell the fate of mortals who travelled there, often as lovers of their beautiful women: always warned never to return to this world, those who did always found that centuries had elapsed here during their brief stay there. This motif of travel between the two worlds is the universal shaman's journey, in this case very likely involving the ingestion of the psychoactive Liberty Cap mushrooms (Psilocybe semilanceata) which abound in Ireland, and which are colloquially known in Gaelic as the "Púca", i.e. fairies.

In his book The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, written after field trips to Ireland in 1909 and 1910, the American anthropologist W.Y. Evans-Wentz noted that the traditional Irish belief in the existence of the "good people" and their otherworldly realm was still so strong that country folk considered it extremely bad luck to disturb the fairies' places of habitation by ploughing or digging of any kind – a taboo which helped conserve the megalithic monuments through the long millennia.

This archaic myth of the People of the Goddess Danu is one of the few surviving folk-memories from that remote time when Europe's Neolithic matriarchal culture was first overwhelmed by waves of patriarchal Indo-European warrior tribes coming from the East. The parable of the Good People's continued existence in a hidden world under the ground is an apt metaphor for the multi-layered structure of the modern European psyche.


I am the wind on the ocean
I am the rolling wave
I am the murmur of the billows
I am the bull of seven battles
I am the falcon on the rock
I am the dewdrop in the Sun
I am the lovely flower
I am the wild boar
I am the salmon in the pool
I am the lake in the plain
I am the power of art
I am the point of a lance in battle
I am the God who creates the fire in the head.

Who casts the light
into the gathering on the mountain?
Who announces the ages of the moon?
Who points to the Sun?

18th. Century illustration
of stone circle near Lough Corrib

Round tower used to defend Christian monks from Vikings, Glendalough
Martin Gray

Céide fields Neolithic site in County Mayo
2000 Cynthia Austin

The Song Of Wandering Aengus

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread; And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lads and hilly lands.
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

   – William Butler Yeats

"History is the nightmare
from which I am trying to awake!"

    – James Joyce


In the first millennium BCE, when the megalithic monuments were already ancient, Ireland was invaded by the Celts. As already mentioned, these patriarchal Indo-European people expanded out of central Asia to settle most of Europe during the Bronze Age. The Celts produced a considerable body of poetry, myth and music which has survived in Ireland because unlike most of Britain and Europe, this island was never conquered by the Roman Empire. Many of these myths and poems mention that place was inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Danaan when the Celts arrived. The earliest surviving poem in the Irish language (see left) is a magical incantation said to have been sung by Amergin the Druid as he first set foot upon the Irish shore. Although the Celts may have suppressed the People of the Goddess, DNA evidence now proves that they also intermarried with them, appropriating some of their culture and continuing to use their sacred megalithic sites for astronomical observation and their own Druidic ritual.

Although Ireland was lucky to escape the Roman conquest of Europe, by the time that empire collapsed, the Middle Eastern sect of Christianity had already become the State Religion. Whereas the old Celtic spiritual tradition of animism and pantheism survived in the European countryside, this newfangled cult was mostly that of the city folk who thus used the term "pagan" (from the Latin "pagano" meaning "peasant") to describe the old beliefs and practices. .A peculiar aspect of the imperial version of Christianity was its exclusive claim of absolute monopoly on the truth. After the fall of Rome (sacked by Celts in 411 CE), the imperial policy of cultural assimilation which Julius Caesar had begun was henceforth carried out by the Church of Rome. So it was that when Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland around 432 CE, he and his missionary associates were at pains to denigrate the far more ancient Druidic spiritual traditions of the native Irish. From then on, standing stone circles might be disparaged as "Devil's stones", and not a few early Irish churches and monasteries were built on top of far older Neolithic sacred sites. A case in point is the Catholic pilgrimage site at Lough Derg, where the builders of the monastery are said to have walled up the entrance to a cave believed to have been the centre of a very ancient pre-Christian mystery cult, akin to the Orphic and Eleusynian mysteries, visited by kings from Mediterranean lands in classical times.

Since the monks also introduced the Latin alphabet, Ireland's ancient oral history and mythology were, as is so often the case, put down on paper according to the cultural prejudice of the colonial scribes. Martin Brennan points out that several poems written by Christian scribes refute the notion that the Tuatha Dé Danann were immortal,. describing the death of each of their Gods and presenting the mounds as their burial places. One of these, written by Flann Mainistrech in 1056, which claims that Óengus drowned in the Boyne, contradicts an entry in Tigernach's Annals from 1084 which assures us that the God is still alive and well in his Brú . Much of the traditional Tuatha Dé Danaan and Celtic culture thus began to be systematically distorted, suppressed, or forgotten.

The Vikings briefly visited Ireland around 1,000 CE, introducing the first towns into what had previously been a completely decentralised and ecologically sustainable rural society, but they were soon kicked out by King Brian Boru. When the first Anglo-Norman and Anglo-Saxon colonists arrived from Britain around 1,2000 CE, these new landlords, having already been conquered by the Roman Empire a thousand years earlier, had long-since lost their Celtic culture and were totally ignorant of the Indigenous People who had built the monuments. Upon enquiring from the native Irish as to the origin of the cairns and stone circles in their new estates, they were invariably and accurately informed that these monuments were built by the Tuatha Dé Danaan. This was interpreted to mean the Danes, i.e. the Vikings who had left a couple of centuries earlier! The literate Anglo-Irish ascendancy was thus prone to interpret the ancient megalithic sites as primitive Viking forts or "rude stone monuments" of no significance or value.

The ancient Celtic Brehon Law – related to the Brahmin Law of the other Indo-Europeans who went East and founded the Vedic civilisation in Northern India – was still in practice throughout most of the Irish countryside until the Flight of the Earls in 1602. After this demise of the old Celtic aristocracy, British Roman law was firmly established, and Ireland's great oak forests were finally clear cut to build the British Navy. Land was stolen by colonial plantation, horses were confiscated, schools were closed, and the Irish language suppressed by Act of Parliament. By the 18th century, Anglo-Irish antiquarians realised that the megalithic monuments were not of Viking origin, and "discovered" them to be Celtic fortifications. The Catholic Church acquired extraordinary psychological influence at the time of the Great Famine in the mid 19th century. Faced with mass starvation or mass emigration while huge quantities of food were being exported to Britain, political impotence and general despair drove the survivors to embrace a fundamentalist version of Catholic belief which projected absolute authority onto the Church. After the Irish Revolution of 1916 and Independence from 800 years of British colonial rule in 1921, the related fervour of Irish Nationalism led to widespread assumption of this false view that the monuments were built by Gaelic ancestors. It was not until the latter half of the 20th century that radio-carbon dating confirmed their Mesolithic and Neolithic age, and only in 1982 that their long-forgotten astronomical function began to dawn on the Irish people.


Sacred Island: Extensive astroarchaeological details, photos, and guided tours of Irish megalithic sites by Martin Byrne.

Mythical Ireland: New Light on the Ancient Past, by Anthony Murphy.

Irish Stones: Includes a mailing list for discussion of latest discoveries.

Irish Archaeology on the Internet: a comprehensive list of related websites.

There is More Between Heaven and Earth: lots of substantive archaeological and astroarchaeological data, excellent bibliography, numerous related links, by Victor Reijs.

Archaeoastronomy: Lots of detailed astronomical observations at Knowth, Carrowkeel and Loughcrew, by Paul Griffin. includes a digital clock to calculate the precise local time of Solstices, Equinoxes and Cross Quarter days.

On A Mountain By The Sea: An artist's account of a Mid Summer Night's field trip to a cairn overlooking Dublin.

Swedish research underway
Carrowmore, Co. Sligo


In 1909, the astronomer Sir Norman Lockyer pointed out that Newgrange is aligned to the Winter Solstice sunrise. As Martin Brennan said, "Archaeologists don't seem to be aware of the fact that at the beginning of this century, the only real protection the mounds had was the belief in the minds of ordinary people that vandalism would be swiftly revenged by spirits known as fairies." During his anthropological field research in Ireland in 1909 and 1920, Evans-Wentz noted that popular belief in the fairies was still very strong because they had been commonly seen in living memory, up to the time of their grandparents' generation. However, his respondents informed him that while their parents' generation had seen them less often, very few of the present generation had ever seen one. It goes without saying that although such perception of the "good people' may not have been "real" in any external or objective sense, the psychological experience of their perception was a real fact. In any event, when Evans-Wentz asked why the fairies were disappearing, he was told that they are generally shy and not unduly fond of the new breed of noisy humans with their armies, roads, railways and steam engines – no doubt expressing a similar inner apprehension in the minds of the country people themselves. But as Brennan points out, "The disappearance of the fairies opened the way to large scale destruction. The results are disastrous. We have already destroyed an estimated 60 percent of the archaeological monuments in Cork, 44 percent in Kerry, 40 percent in Antrim, 31 percent in Tipperary and 29 percent in Donegal. At this rate there will be very few possible astronomical alignments left to argue a war of ideas."

In recent decades, as Ireland has finally emerged from its post-colonial withdrawal symptoms, there is growing interest in and research about the origin and function of our megalithic monuments. When Martin Brennan was carrying out the field research for his book The Stars and the Stones, many astronomers around the word took notice and became involved.

The Swedish archaeological excavations at Carrowmore in County Sligo, conducted from 1977 to 1982 by Professor Göran Burenhult of Stockholm, produced surprising radiocarbon dates which suggest that agriculture and megalithic tombs in Ireland are far older than conventionally believed, placing Carrowmore among the earliest megalithic cemeteries in Europe, and thereby in the world. This discovery emphasised the need to re-evaluate received beliefs about the Irish megalithic tradition. In recent years, a growing number of very informative and richly illustrated websites have served as clearinghouses for new discoveries and as fora for discussion.

Sunbeam striking backstone at dawn
Samhain cross-quarter day (November 4)
Cairn L, Loughcrew
2000 Martin Byrne


As we have outlined in the Introduction page, a number of prominent archaeologists funded by the Irish government still adhere to the outdated mindset which usually tends to ignore, deny, and suppress any research or evidence that some of our megalithic monuments were not only used for burial and other ritual purposes, but were also and perhaps primarily designed as astronomical observatories. Catholic prejudice, professional jealousy, the timidity of junior archaeologists to challenge their superiors, possible attempts to conceal a botched restoration job, and the scientific establishment's psychological resistance to a new paradigm all play their part in this situation, with disastrous consequences for the monuments themselves.

As Martin Brennan pointed out: "Megalithic studies have been described as a war of ideas, but it is not understood that there are real casualties, and many structures are being totally destroyed while researchers debate whether or not the light entering Newgrange is intentional."

The Sacred Island website


Sunbeam on solar petroglyph, Cairn T, Loughcrew. Martin Byrne

The astroarchaeologist and megalithic tour guide Martin Byrne has done the world a great service by publishing the results of his extensive on-going field research on his Sacred Island website. As Byrne points out in a recent article, "Professor George Eogan, [the Irish government-funded archaeologist in charge of Knowth], published the definitive work on his excavations there, entitled Knowth and the Passage-Tombs of Ireland (sic) in 1986. Throughout this thorough and admirable work, the author leaves you in no doubt that he considers these monuments to be primarily tombs, and that any other function is of a secondary nature. He notes on p. 178 that the passages of Knowth, since they are aligned East-West, are 'probably aligned to the equinoxes' – and there he leaves the subject. There is no reference to the previously published work of Brennan, a trend which has since been continued in other archaeological texts."

This close-minded attitude reminds one of Pope Urban VIII who, when invited by Galileo in 1632 to look through his telescope – and see with his own eyes the evidence of Copernicus' 1543 discovery that the Earth is not the centre of our solar system – was unwilling to deal with the cosmological implications of the emergent paradigm. Rather than admit the limitations of his own worldview, he simply refused to look through the telescope, and had Galileo accused of heresy and condemned to life imprisonment.

How much longer will Irish government-funded archaeologists persist in the outdated claim that the megalithic observatories were primarily or exclusively designed as tombs? No-one disagrees that buried remains were found inside the cairns, but denying their astronomical function and purpose is no longer acceptable, especially if it means more disastrous reconstructions like that of Knowth which has blocked access to a major megalithic passages with a slab of concrete. This vandalism has got to stop! As Martin Brennan wrote of Knowth in 1982, "No-one, not even a group of specialists, has the right to alter this mound in any way other than to restore it to its original form, and certainly no-one is justified in hiding or darkening its light."

It took more than 350 years for Galileo to be "rehabilitated" by Pope John Paul II in 1992, when the Vatican announced that 13 years of study by the Commission for the Study of the Ptolemaic-Copernican Controversy had finally reached the conclusion that the church was wrong.

Let's hope the Irish authorities will accept the emerging astroarchaeological paradigm sooner than that!


Please sign the Ancient Monuments of Ireland Appeal to protect our heritage.


Please email your comments to Michael O'Callaghan at or contact him at this address.


This page updated 25 October 2001. The URL is:
For more information contact Michael O'Callaghan at



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