Read CHAPTER III - THE CROMLECH BUILDERS of Ireland‚ Historic and Picturesque, free online book, by Charles Johnston, on

In every district of Ireland, therefore, there remain these tremendous and solemn survivors of a mighty past. The cromlechs, with their enormous masses upheld in the air, rising among the fertile fields or daisy-dotted pastures; the great circles of standing stones, starred everywhere, in the valleys or upon the uplands, along the rough sides of heather-covered hills. They have everywhere the same aspect of august mystery, the same brooding presence, like sentinels of another world. It is impossible not to feel their overshadowing majesty. Everywhere they follow the same designs in large simplicity; inspired by the same purpose, and with the same tireless might overcoming the tremendous obstacles of their erection; they are devoted everywhere not to material and earthly ends, but to the ideal purposes of the invisible and everlasting, linked with the hidden life of those who pass away from us through the gates of death.

Can we find any clue to the builders of these grand and enduring memorials, the conditions of their building, the age of our land to which they belong? If we wisely use the abundant knowledge of the past already in our possession, there is good reason to believe we can, establishing much with entire certainty and divining more.

The standing stones and cromlechs, as we know, are everywhere spread over Ireland, so that it is probable that throughout the whole country one is never out of sight of one of these solemn monuments. Their uniform and universal presence shows, therefore, a uniform race dwelling everywhere within the four seas, a universal stability and order, allowing such great and enduring works to be undertaken and completed. We must believe, too, that the builders of these giant stone monuments were dominant throughout the land, possessing entire power over the labor of thousands everywhere; and even then the raising of these titanic masses is almost miraculous.

But the history of the standing stones and cromlechs is not a page of Irish history only, nor can we limit to our own isle the presence of their builders, the conditions of dominion and order under which alone they could have been raised. We shall gain our first trustworthy clue by tracing the limits of the larger territory, beyond our island, where these same gray memorials are found.

The limits of the region in which alone we find these piles and circles of enormous stones are clearly and sharply defined, though this region itself is of immense and imposing extent. It is divided naturally into two provinces, both starting from a point somewhere in the neighborhood of Gibraltar or Mount Atlas, and spreading thence over a territory of hundreds of miles.

The southern cromlech province, beginning at the Strait of Gibraltar, extends eastward along the African coast past Algiers to the headland of Tunis, where Carthage stood, at a date far later than the age of cromlechs. Were it not for the flaming southern sun, the scorched sands, the palms, the shimmering torrid air, we might believe these Algerian megaliths belonged to our own land, so perfect is the resemblance, so uniform the design, so identical the inspiration. The same huge boulders, oblong or egg-shaped, formidable, impressive, are raised aloft on massive supporting stones; there are the same circles of stones hardly less gigantic, with the same mysterious faces, the same silent solemnity. Following this line, we find them again in Minorca, Sardinia and Malta; everywhere under warm blue skies, in lands of olives and trailing vines, with the peacock-blue of the Mediterranean waves twinkling beneath them. Northward from Minorca, but still in our southern cromlech province, we find them in southeastern Spain, in the region of New Carthage, but far older than the oldest trace of that ancient city. In lesser numbers they follow the Spanish coast up towards the Ebro, through vinelands and lands of figs, everywhere under summer skies. This province, therefore, our southern cromlech province, covers most of the western Mediterranean; it does not cover, nor even approach, Italy or Greece or Egypt, the historic Mediterranean lands. We must look for its origin in the opposite direction-towards Gibraltar, the Pillars of Hercules.

From the same point, the Pillars of Hercules, begins our second or northern cromlech region, even larger and more extensive than the first, though hardly richer in titanic memorials. From Gibraltar, the cromlech region passes northward, covering Portugal and western Spain; indeed, it probably merges in the other province to the eastward, the two including all Spain between them. From northern Spain, turning the flank of the giant Pyrénées at Fontarrabia, the cromlech region goes northward and ever northward, along the Atlantic coast of France, spreading eastward also through the central provinces, covering the mountains of the Cote d’Or and the Cevennes, but nowhere entering north Italy or Germany, which limit France to the east. There is a tremendous culmination of the huge stone monuments on the capes and headlands of Brittany, where France thrusts herself forward against the Atlantic, centring in Carnac, the metropolis of a bygone world. Nowhere are there greater riches of titanic stone, in circles, in cromlechs, in ranged avenues like huge frozen armies or ordered hosts of sleeping elephants. From Brittany we pass to Ireland, whose wealth, inherited from dead ages, we have already inventoried, and Britain, where the same monuments reappear. More numerous to the south and west, they yet spread all over Britain, including remote northern Scotland and the Western Isles. Finally, there is a streamer stretching still northeastward, to Norway and some of the Baltic Islands.

We are, therefore, confronted with the visible and enduring evidence of a mighty people, spreading in two main directions from the Pillars of Hercules-eastward through Gibraltar Strait to sunny Algeria, to southern Spain and the Mediterranean isles; and northward, along the stormy shores of the Atlantic, from within sight of Africa almost to the Arctic Circle, across Spain, Portugal, France, Ireland, Britain, and the lands of the Baltic and the North Sea. Throughout this vast territory there must have been a common people, a common purpose and inspiration, a common striving towards the hidden world; there must have been long ages of order, of power, of peace, during which men’s hearts could conceive and their hands execute memorials so vast, so evidently meant to endure to a far distant future, so clearly destined to ideal ends. There must have been a great spiritual purpose, a living belief in the invisible world, and a large practical power over natural forces, before these huge monuments could be erected. Some of the stones upheld in the air in the Irish cromlechs weigh eighty or ninety or a hundred tons. If we estimate that a well-built man can lift two hundred pounds, it would demand the simultaneous work of a thousand men to erect them; and it is at least difficult to see how the effort of a thousand men could be applied.

We are led, therefore, by evidence of the solidest material reality to see this great empire on the Atlantic and along the western Mediterranean; this Atlantean land of the cromlech-builders, as we may call it, for want of a better name. As the thought and purpose of its inhabitants are uniform throughout its whole vast extent, we are led to see in them a single homogeneous race, working without rivals, without obstacles, without contests, for they seem everywhere to have been free to choose what sites they would for their gigantic structures. And we are irresistibly led to believe that these conditions must have endured throughout a vast extent of time, for no nation which does not look back to a distant past will plan for a distant future. The spiritual sweep and view of the cromlech-builders are, therefore, as great as the extent of their territory. This mysterious people must have had a life as wonderful as that of Greece or Rome or Egypt, whose territories we find them everywhere approaching, but nowhere invading.

What we now know of the past history of our race is so vast, so incredibly enormous, that we have ample space for such a territory, so widespread, so enduring, as we have seen demanded by the position of the cromlechs and standing stones; more than that, so overwhelming are the distances in the dark backward and abysm of time, to which we must now carry the dawn of human history, that the time needed for the building of the cromlechs may seem quite recent and insignificant, in view of the mightier past, stretching back through geologic ages. The nineteenth century may well be called the age of resurrection, when long-forgotten epochs of man were born again into our knowledge. We can carry back that knowledge now to the early Miocene period, to which belong the human relics found by the Abbe Bourgeois on the uplands of Thenay, in central France; and no one believes that the early Miocene age can be as recent as a million years ago. A vast space separates the Thenay relics from the later traces of man found in Pliocene sands with the bones of the archaic meridional elephant,-at a date when the German ocean was a forest, full of southern trees and huge beasts now long since departed from the earth. A period hardly less vast must separate these from the close of the glacial age, when man roamed the plains of Europe, and sketched the herds of mammoths as they cropped the leaves. That huge beast, too, has long since departed into the abyss; but man the artist, who recorded the massive outline, the huge bossed forehead, the formidable bulk of the shaggy arctic elephant, engraved in firm lines on a fragment of its tusk,-man still remains. Man was present when rhinoceros and elephant were as common in Britain as they are to-day in Southern India or Bornéo; when the hippopotamus was as much at home in the waters of the Thames as in the Nile and Niger; when huge bears like the grizzly of the Rockies, cave-lions and sabre-toothed tigers lurked in Devon caverns or chased the bison over the hills of Kent. Yet this epoch of huge and ferocious monsters, following upon the Age of Ice, is a recent chapter of the great epic of man; there lies far more behind it, beyond the Age of Ice to the immensely distant Pliocene; beyond this as far as the early Miocene; beyond this, again, how much further we know not, towards the beginningless beginning, the infinite.

We are, therefore, face to face with an ordered series of almost boundless ages, geologic epochs of human history succeeding each other in majestic procession, as the face of our island was now tropical, now arctic; as the seas swelled up and covered the hills, or the bottom of the deep drove back the ocean and became dry land, an unbroken continent. The wild dreams of romance never approached the splendid outlines of this certain history.

There are dim outlines of man throughout all these ages, but only at a comparatively recent date have we traditions and evidence pointing to still surviving races. At a period of only a few thousand years ago, we begin to catch glimpses of a northern race whom the old Greeks and Romans called Hyperboreans or Far-Northerners; a race wild and little skilled in the arts of life; a race of small stature, slight, dusky, with piercing eyes, low brows, and of forbidding face. This race was scattered over lands far north of the Mediterranean, dwelling in caves and dens of the earth, and lingering on unchanged from the days of mammoth and cave-bear. We have slight but definite knowledge of this very ancient race-enough to show us that its peculiar type lingers to this day in a few remote islands on the Galway and Kerry coast, mingled with many later races. This type we find described in old Gaelic records as the Firbolgs, a race weak and furtive, dusky and keen-eyed, subjected by later races of greater force. Yet from this race, as if to show the inherent and equal power of the soul, came holy saints and mighty warriors; to the old race of the Firbolgs belong Saint Mansuy, apostle of Belgium, and Roderick O’Conor, the last king of united Ireland. In gloomy mountain glens and lonely ocean islands still it lingers, unvanquished, tenacious, obscurely working out its secret destiny.

This slight and low-browed race, of dark or sallow visage, and with black crisp hair, this Hyperborean people, is the oldest we can gain a clear view of in our island’s history; but we know nothing of its extension or powers which would warrant us in believing that this was the race which built the cromlechs. Greek and Roman tradition, in this only corroborating the actual traces we ourselves possess of these old races, tells us of another people many thousand years ago overrunning and dominating the Firbolgs; a race of taller stature, of handsome features, though also dark, but with softer black hair, not crisp and tufted like the hair of the dwarfish earlier race. Of this second conquering race, tall and handsome, we have abundant traces, gathered from many lands where they dwelt; bodies preserved by art or nature, in caverns or sepulchres of stone; ornaments, pottery, works decorative and useful, and covering several thousand years in succession. But better than this, we have present, through nearly every land where we know of them in the past, a living remnant of this ancient race, like it in every particular of stature, form, complexion and visage, identical in character and temper, tendency and type of mind.

In Ireland we find this tall, dark race over all the west of the island, but most numerous in Kerry, Clare, Galway and Mayo; in those regions where, we know, the older population was least disturbed. In remote villages among the mountains, reached by bridle-paths between heath-covered hills; in the settlements of fishermen, under some cliff or in the sheltered nook of one of our great western bays; or among the lonely, little visited Atlantic islands, this dark, handsome race, with its black hair, dark-brown eyes, sallow skin and high forehead, still holds its own, as a second layer above the remnant of the far more ancient Firbolg Hyperboreans. We find the same race also among the Donegal highlands, here and there in the central plain or in the south, and nowhere entirely missing among the varied races towards the eastern sea.

But it is by no means in Ireland only that this tall, dark, western race is found. It is numerously represented in the nearest extension of the continent, among the headlands and bays and isles of Brittany-a land so like our own western seaboard, with its wild Atlantic storms. Following the ocean southward, we find the same race extending to the Loire, the Garonne, the Pyrénées; stretching somewhat inland also, but clinging everywhere to the Atlantic, as we also saw it cling in Ireland. In earlier centuries, long before our era opened, we find this same race spread far to the east,-as far, almost, as the German and Italian frontier,-so that at one time it held almost complete possession of France. South of the Pyrénées we find it once more; dominant in Portugal, less strongly represented in Spain, yet still supplying a considerable part of the population of the whole peninsula, as it does in Ireland at the present day. But it does not stop with Spain, or even Europe. We find the same race again in the Guanches of the Canary islands, off the African coast; and, stranger still, we find mummies of this race, of great antiquity, in the cave-tombs of Teneriffe. Further, we have ample evidence of its presence, until displaced by Moorish invaders, all along northern Africa as far as Tunis; and we come across it again amongst the living races in the Mediterranean isles, in Sardinia, Sicily and Southern Italy. Finally, the Tuaregs of the Central Sahara belong to the same type. Everywhere the same tall, dark race, handsome, imaginative; with a quite definite form of head, of brow, of eyes; a well-marked character of visage, complexion, and texture of hair.

Thus far the southern extension of this, our second Irish race; we may look for a moment at its distribution in the north. Across the shallow sea which separates us from Britain we find the same race, clinging always to the Atlantic seaboard. It dominates south Wales, where its presence was remarked and commented on by the invading Romans. It is present elsewhere through the Welsh mountains, and much more sparsely over the east of England; but we have ample evidence that at one time this tall, dark race held the whole of England in undisputed possession, except, perhaps, for a remnant of the Hyperborean dwarfs. In the west of Scotland, and especially in the Western Isles, it is once more numerous; and we find offshoots of the same race in the dark-haired Norwegians,-still holding to the seaboard of the Atlantic.

Such is the distribution of this once dominant but now dwindled race, which has gradually descended from the summit of power as ancient Rome descended, as Greece descended, or Assyria or Egypt. But we can look back with certainty to a time when this race, and this race only, held complete possession of all the lands we have mentioned, in north or south, in Europe or northern Africa; holding everywhere to the Atlantic coast, or, as in the Mediterranean isles, evidently pressing inward from the Atlantic, past the Pillars of Hercules, through the Strait of Gibraltar.

It is evident at once that the territory of this race corresponds exactly, throughout many countries, with the territory of the cromlechs and standing stones; where we find the one, as in Ireland, Brittany, Spain, we find the other; where the one is absent, as in Germany, or northern Italy or Greece, the other is likewise absent. The identity is complete. We are justified, therefore, in giving the same provisional name to both, and calling them Atlantean, from their evident origin not far from Atlas, and their everywhere clinging to the Atlantic coast. We can find traces of no other race which at all closely fulfills the necessary conditions of uniform and undisputed extension, through a long epoch, over the whole cromlech region-the only conditions under which we can conceive of the erection of these gigantic monuments, or of the long established and universally extended spiritual conditions which make possible such vast ideal enterprises.

In this race, therefore, which we have called Atlantean, we find the conditions fulfilled; of this race, and of no other, we still find a lingering remnant in each of the cromlech countries; and we hardly find a trace of this race, either now or in the past, in the lands which have no cromlechs or standing stones.

We have already seen that the standing stones of Cavancarragh, four miles from Fermanagh, were, within the memory of men still living or of their fathers, buried under ten or twelve feet of peat, which had evidently formed there after their erection. We have here a natural chronometer; for we know the rate at which peat forms, and we can, therefore, assign a certain age to a given depth. We have given one mode of reckoning already; we find it corroborated by another. In the Somme valley, in northern France, we have a Nature’s timepiece; in the peat, at different levels, are relics of the Roman age; of the Gaulish age which preceded it; and, far deeper, of pre-historic races, like our Atlanteans, who preceded the Gauls. The date of the Roman remains we know accurately; and from this standard we find that the peat grows regularly some three centimeters a century, or a foot in a thousand years.

On the mountain side, as at Cavancarragh, the growth is likely to be slower than in a river valley; yet we may take the same rate, a foot a thousand years, and we shall have, for this great stone circle, an antiquity of ten or twelve thousand years at least. This assumes that the peat began to form as soon as the monument was completed; but the contrary may be the case; centuries may have intervened.

We may, however, take this as a provisional date, and say that our cromlech epoch, the epoch of the Atlantean builders, from Algeria to Ireland, from Ireland to the Baltic, is ten or twelve thousand years ago; extending, perhaps, much further back in the past, and in certain regions coming much further down towards the present, but having a period of twelve thousand years ago as its central date. It happens that we have traditions of a great dispersion from the very centre we have been led to fix, the neighborhood of Atlas or Gibraltar, and that to this dispersion tradition has given a date over eleven thousand years ago; but to this side of the subject we cannot more fully allude; it would take us too far afield.

We have gone far enough to make it tolerably certain, first, that these great and wonderful monuments were built when uniform conditions of order, uniform religious beliefs and aspirations, and a uniform mastery over natural forces extended throughout a vast region spreading northward and eastward from Mount Atlas or Gibraltar; we have seen, next, that these conditions were furnished when a well-defined race, whom we have called Atlantean, was spread as the dominant element over this whole region; and, finally, we have seen reason to fix on a period some eleven or twelve thousand years ago as the central period of that domination, though it may have begun, and probably did begin, many centuries earlier. The distribution of the cromlechs is certain; the distribution of the race is certain; the age of one characteristic group of the monuments is certain. Further than this we need not go.

When we try to form a clearer image of the life of this tall archaic race of cromlech-builders, we can divine very much to fill the picture. We note, to begin with, that not only do they always hold to the Atlantic ocean as something kindred and familiar, but that they are found everywhere in islands at such distances from the nearest coasts as would demand a certain seamanship for their arrival. This is true of their presence in Malta, Minorca, Sardinia; it is even more true of Ireland, the Western Isles of Scotland, the Norwegian Isles; all of which are surrounded by stormy and treacherous seas, where wrecks are very common even in our day. We must believe that our tail, dark invaders were a race of seamen, thoroughly skilled in the dangerous navigation of these dark seas; Cæsar marveled at, and imitated, the ship-building of the natives of Brittany in his day; we equally admire the prowess of their sons, the Breton fishermen, in our own times. We find, too, that in the western districts and ocean islands of our own Ireland the tall, dark race often follows the sea, showing the same hereditary skill and daring; a skill which certainly marked the first invaders of that race, or they would never have reached our island at all. We are the more justified in seeing, in these dark cromlech-builders, the Fomorians of old Gaelic tradition, who came up out of the sea and subjugated the Firbolgs.

Even to those familiar with the geological record of man it is sufficiently startling to find that the Firbolgs, the early dwarfish race of Hyperboreans, in all probability were ignorant of boats; that they almost certainly came to our island dry-shod, as they had come earlier to Britain, migrating over unbroken spaces of land to what afterwards became the isle of Erin; for this race we find everywhere associated with the mammoth-on the continent, in Britain, in our own island-and the mammoths certainly never came over in ships. Needless to say, there is abundant geological evidence as well, to show our former union with continental Europe,-though of course at a time immensely more remote than ten or twelve thousand years ago.

We are, therefore, led to identify our Atlantean race of hardy seamen with the Fomorians who came up out of the sea and found the furtive Firbolgs in possession of our island; and to this race, the Fomorians of the sea, we credit the building of cromlechs and standing stones, not only among ourselves, but in Norway, in Britain, in Brittany, in Spain, in Africa.

We shall presently pick up the thread of tradition, as we find it in Ireland, and try to follow the doings and life of the Fomorian invaders; but in the meantime we may try to gain some insight into the most mysterious and enduring of their works. The cromlechs which have been excavated in many cases are found to contain the funereal urns of a people who burned their dead. It does not follow that their first and only use was as tombs; but if we think of them as tombs only, we must the more marvel at the faith of the builders, and their firm belief in the reality and overwhelming import of the other world which we enter at death. For of dwellings for the living, of fortresses or storehouses, of defences against the foes who later invaded them, we find few traces; nothing at all to compare with their massive mausoleums. The other world, for them, was a far weightier concern than this, and to the purposes of that world, as they conceived it, all their energies were directed. We can hardly doubt that, like other races who pay extreme reverence to the dead, their inner vision beheld these departed ones still around them and among them, forming with them a single race, a single family, a single life. This world was for them only the threshold of the other, the place of preparation. To that other their thoughts all turned, for that other they raised these titanic buildings. The solemn masses and simple grandeur of the cromlechs fitly symbolize the mood of reverence in which they drew near to the sublime world of the hidden; the awe with which their handiwork affirmed how greatly that world outweighs this. At these houses of the dead they were joined in spirit and communion with those who had passed away; once more united with their fathers and their fathers’ fathers, from the dim beginning of their race. The air, for them, was full of spirits. Only the dead truly lived.

The circles of standing stones are also devoted to ideal ends. Though the men who set them up could have built not less wonderful forts or dwellings of stone, we find none of these; nor has any worldly purpose ever been assigned to the stone circles. Yet there seems to be a very simple interpretation of their symbology; the circle, through all antiquity, stood for the circling year, which ever returns to its point of departure, spring repeating spring, summer answering to summer, winter with its icy winds only the return of former winters: the circling year and its landmarks, whether four seasons, or twelve months, or twenty-seven lunar mansions, through one of which the wandering moon passes in a day. We should thus have circles of twelve or twenty-seven stones, or four outlying stones at equal distances, for the four seasons, the regents of the year. By counting the stones in each circle we can tell to which division of the year they belonged, whether the solar months or the lunar mansions.

But with all ancient nations the cycle of the year was only the symbol of the spiritual cycle of the soul, the path of birth and death. We must remember that even for ourselves the same symbolism holds: in the winter we celebrate the Incarnation; in spring, the Crucifixion; in summer, the birth of the beloved disciple; in autumn, the day of All Souls, the feast of the dead. Thus for us, too, the succeeding seasons only symbolize the stages of a spiritual life, the august procession of the soul.

We cannot think it was otherwise with a people who lived and built so majestically for the hidden world; these great stone circles symbolized for them, we must believe, the circling life of the soul, the cycle of necessity, with the door of liberation to the home of the blest, who have reached perfect freedom and go no more out. We may picture in imagination their solemn celebrations; priests robed, perhaps, in the mingled green and purple of their hills, passing within the circle, chanting some archaic hymn of the Divine.