Like characters from one of those fantasy novels, whose cover features a busty woman wearing armour and riding a flying horse, we have become Guardians of the Ringstone.
In the beginning it was just a stone; a boulder of granite, hard but fine-grained, spat out by some volcanic surge long before people walked the earth. Millions of years passed and then came the ice, which scoured one face of the stone flat and left it exposed on the side of an Irish hill. Perhaps 5,000 years ago, there came a neolithic mason, a craftsman who knew the stone’s qualities at a glance; it could be worked: on the flat face a story, a map, a gateway to another world could be carved with precise blows of an obsidian hammer. And he made it so.
About 200 years ago, as the press of population pushed families into the marginal uplands, our valley was settled by hardy farmers – Hickeys, Crowes, Shannons, Wards – intending to scrabble a living from the peaty soil between the rocks. By the time of the first Ordnance Survey in the 1840s, the map of the landscape had become gridded with lines to show the boundaries of 2 and 3 acre fields. The material for these demarcating dry-stone walls had been cleared, by quite super-human exertion, from the meagre fields to expose more top-soil and make cattle-proof barriers to manage stock and crop rotation. These men knew the qualities of stone quite as well as their Neolithic forebears: this fine-grained granite with a flattish face could, with a stone-pick, lump hammer and steel wedges, be cleaved into manageable right-angled chunks to make a gateway in the wall with neat verticals. And this they did.
Five winters ago we decided to widen the gap between two fields, so that an opening previously suitable for an ass-and-cart could be made accessible to modern industrial-sized machinery. Not being super-human, I asked my neighbour Liam and his valiant mechanical digger to break down one side of the gateway, which consisted of three roughly squared off steamer-trunk-sized granite boulders back-filled with rubble, and rebuild it 2 meters wider. When the middle stone tumbled out into the field my jaw went slack on seeing the mason’s ancient design, intricate with the decoration known as cup-and-ring marks, exposed to light for the first time in 6 or 7 generations. These characteristically Neolithic carvings consist of a central circular indentation – the cup - surrounded by concentric circles – the rings – and can be seen at Newgrange and thousands of prehistoric sites across Western Europe. This message from the distant past was too evocative to be returned to the gloom so, when Liam reassembled the widened gateway, I asked him to put the carved stone back so that the interesting side was vertical and faced outwards. Two weeks later, my neighbour Martin, who as a geologist also knows the qualities of stone, came to marvel at what we were already calling ‘The Ringstone’. From the regular indentations on one edge, he realised it had been split from a larger rock. Taking the measure of one cloven surface with his fore-arm, he hunted up along the wall until he found its complement.
In the Summer of 2010, we assembled a team of enthusiasts, experts, and another resolute digger. We dismantled the other side of the 19th century gateway and found the rest of the four (and only four! which was a relief) pieces of the jigsaw. It reveals a complex design of cup & rings, gutters, chevrons and lines. Following a lot of discussion and a little hard-work, the team reassembled the mystic, wonderful symbols of the Neolithic mason to their cosmic whole. At pains also to respect the imperatives of the 19th century farmers, the decorated face of the stone now doubles as a vertical sheep-proof gateway. My neighbour Brian, artist and fell-runner, pointed out that the original design, perhaps a homage to the Earthmother, has been broken by that quintessentially male symbol of the cross. Layers of function, layers of meaning, all jostling for attention.
As the current Guardians, we’ve done what we think is right; respecting the several traditions which have worked the stone, it now works for us as it worked for them. Who knows but that, in these mythic and turbulent times, one day soon a winged horse might deposit its rider in the field beside the Ringstone of Knockroe.
Update Fall 2013: more recent (1850!) Ringstone News