VIEW POINT The Boheh Stone, from where the twice-yearly phenomenon of the Rolling Sun can be seen, bears intricate neolithic carvings.
On April 18 and again on August 24 each year a plethora of archaeologists, historians, folklorists and other interested folk gather at the site of the Boheh Stone to witness an age-old phenomenon and watch as the setting sun appears to roll down the northern slope of Croagh Patrick some ten kilometers distant.
The Boheh Stone, which is intricately carved with both interlinking and single ‘cup and ring’ and spiral motifs, has been in place for thousands of years. It is, in fact, a naturally formed rocky outcrop measuring 4.8m by 5.2m that gives a commanding view of the broad, boggy plain to the west.
Perhaps it was this situation that allowed our Neolithic or so-called New Stone Age ancestors to keep on the watch for unfriendly neighbours and wild animals, either of which might threaten their settlements and agriculture and possibly their families. There would inevitably come one of the aforementioned dates when those in attendance would observe the sun sliding down the slope of the mountain. It is then understandable that in that age of sun worship special significance be attached to the vantage point provided by this rocky platform, and that some kind of ceremony or ritual surrounding the event would be developed.
The widely accepted proposal that the dates of April 18 and August 24 would coincide with the annual planting and harvest of crops sounds appealing, although there are few, if any reliable plants even of modern, early-ripening varieties, that would reach maturity that early in the season in the northwest of Ireland. In the locally produced book ‘Croagh Patrick, archaeology, landscape and people’, Leo Morahan comments: “This theory connecting the Boheh stone with crop production certainly appears most plausible but more striking still is the pagan triangle formed by the mountain top, the midday sun and this mass of rock which became so decorated.”
The decoration, regarded as some of the finest rock art to be found in Britain and Ireland, is certainly interesting.
While the true significance of all those 250 separate circles and spirals has given rise to many hypotheses, what purpose they really served might never be known. Similar rock art can be found throughout much of Europe, where it is often better ornamented and, in a kinder climate, well preserved.
Even further afield at Atlit-Yam, a much older and now submerged ancient Canaanite settlement one kilometer off the coast of Israel, more cup and ring carvings have been discovered, proving a link to the Fertile Crescent, the seat of human civilization and giving an indication as to where such carvings originated. Yet even there, where much investment has been made in exploration and research, there remains no conclusive evidence as to how these engravings might be interpreted.
The so-called Rolling Sun seems to have slipped from public view for hundreds or even thousands of years until the late Gerry Bracken, a keen local historian, rediscovered it in 1991 and brought it back into the public eye. When Clifden based archaeologist Michael Gibbons took an interest further carvings were found nearby. This site, he asserts, could yet prove to be much more extensive than is currently known. “I’m convinced there remains a lot more to discover around this hugely important site,” he says, and is quick to commend Mayo County Council for their continued deployment of an archaeological team while other local authorities focus their resources elsewhere.
The Boheh stone is located within an ancient monastic setting, which would appear to be an example of the Christianisation of an older religious site. Indeed, Tom Burnell, in ‘The Anglicized Words of Irish Placenames’, translates Boheh as ‘a cozy hut’, no doubt of the type used by monks as a dwelling place.
The Boheh Stone is just one of a number of historical and archaeological gems along the Tóchar Phádraig, the ancient chariot route used by the kings of Connacht as they travelled from the royal seat of Rathcrogan in County Roscommon to Cruachán Aigle (Eagle Mountain), as Croagh Patrick, the site of much pagan ceremony, was then known.
Gibbons sees the landscape of south Mayo as an area potentially rich in further archaeological discoveries, but stresses the need to take care of what we already have. “We have a duty of care,” he says. “More management is needed. The climate is already eroding the Boheh stone. It’s becoming degraded. The last thing we need is to have people clambering over it.”
To enjoy the Spectacle of the Rolling Sun or to see Ireland’s finest example of prehistoric rock art, take the N59 Leenaun road south from Westport. After 7km you will see the filling station at Knappagh on your left. About 1km further along the same road, watch out for a sign pointing up a lane to the left, and at the top of the rise you will find the Boheh Stone adjacent to farm buildings.
In order to maintain social distancing, should you find others already present at the Boheh stone, remember that the same spectacle can be enjoyed from anywhere up to a mile distant along the same ridge.