Predating the Great Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge by over a thousand years, the stone complexes of ancient Ireland have been extensively excavated and researched and suggest our prehistoric Irish ancestors were passionate astronomers.
From around 300 chambered cairns, 400 court cairns, and 190 dolmens or portal tombs, as well as a number of smaller less significant structures, there are similarities and differences between each type of monument in Ireland, though the true intent of many is still unknown. Unfortunately, as time would have it, many of the ancient structures have been destroyed where they made convenient building materials or stood on good farming land. Others are simply so ruined that there is little left to see of the original monument, but the landscape settings are still quite dramatic and the mystery behind the stones imbues the land forever.
Chambered cairns, also known as Passage Tombs or Passage Graves, are the most intriguing of the Irish megaliths, and by far the most complex.
These large tombs of stone contain internal chambers, varying in size from the tiny spaces at Carrowmore to the massive, arched vaults of Newgrange and Knowth. Aside from the popularity of the sites at Carrowmore, Carrowkeel, Loughcrew and the Boyne Valley, there are probably another 200 totally unopened mounds and cairns, such as the sites around Cong, Knockma, and all through the summits of the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. Many of these sites demonstrate a notable interest in astronomy; chambers are often oriented toward the sun, moon, or another celestial body, and some capture solar and lunar events through impressive architectural planning.
The Loughcrew Cairns in County Meath, Ireland, is one of the most famous of the chambered cairns in Ireland. The 5,000-year-old Loughcrew structures are believed to have served as burial sites for some of the region’s inhabitants during the Neolithic era, but also contain fabulous art and, curiously, distinctive astronomical alignments and diagrams. A number of large stones with intricate carvings of spirals, circles, diamonds, and stars have been found within the Cairns. Archaeoastronomers from Ireland believe that the placement of the stones and drawings suggests that the structures were built to reflect various astronomical and celestial events, such as solstices and equinoxes.
One of the carvings features overlapping concentric circles and has been the focal point of the artwork for many researchers. The larger circle to the left represents the moon, while the partially occluded circle immediately adjacent represents the sun. These circles do indeed display a striking resemblance to a partial solar eclipse, and calculations of solar eclipse cycles suggest that a near-total eclipse occurred at the site around 3340 B.C., around the time it was built, further adding evidence to this theory.
The ancient cairn features many other unexplained stones, one of which is a thin limestone pillar known as ‘The Whispering Stone’. It stands at about seven feet tall and features some impressive carvings as well as a serving distinct purpose. When the sun rises, the rays hit the top of “The Whispering Stone” and gradually illuminates the carvings at the back of the chamber, which contains the drawing of the eclipse. With no modern technology available, the ancient Irish constructed these complex structures with such detail and accuracy that not only have they endured since ancient times, but they continue to perform their astronomical functions today.
We’re no Archaeoastronomers, but it certainly seems more than plausible that the Irish have had a long and distinguished history of studying astronomy and eclipses, and are highly likely to be one of the very first to have recorded one over 5,000 years ago.