By Connie Duffy

Whether its curiosity, something you’ve always promised yourself you would do, a gesture of respect to our ancestors or a search for something more spiritual then the Beltany Stone Circle is the place to be this Saturday morning.

This Neolithic stone circle (800 – 1400BC) just a mile from Raphoe attracts all sorts of people to mark the Summer Solstice and 2014 is expected to be no different

The solstice heralds the beginning of summer in the Northern Hemisphere and people are expected there just before daybreak.

After driving the winding road and finding Beltany Hill you walk through a country lane beside a forest to the summit of Beltany Hill, where you find of the finest stone circles in Ireland.

For thousands of years the landscape around Raphoe has been an important centre of ritual practice, a place of worship to where pre Christian ancestors came to pay homage to their spiritual rulers - the Sun and the Moon. 

Reputedly older than Stonehenge, this stone circle comprises of 64 standing stones but it is thought that there may have been originally 80 stones. One of the stones which is about two metres in height stands to the southeast of the circle. It probably had some function related to the pagan ceremonies held in the circle.  

The stones range in height from 4ft to 9 ft (1.2-2.7 metres) while the diameter of the circle is 145 ft (44.2 metres).

To the S E of the circle is a standing stone 6ft (2 metres) high. Beltany is a corruption of Baal tine, the fire of Baal; this suggests that the inhabitants of this area worshipped Baal, the sun god, and ruler of nature. Tradition tells us that the principal ceremonies were performed at the summer solstice; a sacred fire was lit in the centre of the circle of stones, which represented the stars and fire of the sun god Baal.

Others believe that this arrangement of stones as well as other features of the adjacent horizon were used by these ancient peoples to determine astronomical alignments; various alignments have been pointed out including the winter and summer solstices, the spring and autumn equinox and the early November sunrise marking the beginning of the Celtic festival of Samhain. However the most persuasive alignment must be from the tallest stone at the S W to the triangular stone decorated with cup marks at E N E.

This alignment points to a small hill about five miles away known as Tullyrap, where the sun rises over its small summit in the first day of May, the Celtic festival of Bealtine from which this stone circle gets its name.

A number of years ago the Raphoe Community in Action group, with funding from the Heritage Council of Ireland was involved in an archaeological research project at the Beltany Stone Circle. The aim was to ascertain if this enigmatic monument was a great passage tomb, a ritual site for the celebration of the changing seasons, or an astronomical calendar for neolithic farmers. The group also hosted a weekend conference: ‘Beltany – rediscovering an ancient landscape’ in which leading archaeologists and historians presented their views in a journey of discovery from the earliest times to the early Christian period.

The name Beltany is derived from the word Beltane which is linked to the Celtic festival of fertility.  This festival was usually held in May the Irish for which is Bealtaine.  It is said that on the first day of Bealtaine two fires were lit and the animals were driven between the fires.  This was done to protect the animals from diseases, to promote regeneration and also to pay homage to sun god Baal for the following season.

The surrounding landscape is dotted with standing stones, and the ruins of passage tombs where the cremated dead were placed. 

The area is dominated by Croaghan Hill where it is said the Milesian warrior Magh Itha is buried on the summit in a passage tomb.

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