Mayo megalithic complex marks winter solstice

Living


Michael Kingdon


The coast road from Westport to Murrisk and beyond always makes a pleasant drive. About five kilometers from Westport Town the observant will notice a low-lying area of salt marsh between road and sea; it is easy to pass this by, but in doing so you miss one of Mayo’s more important archaeological sites.
This is Killadangan, a megalithic complex (mega means big, lithic means ‘of stone’) attributed to the Bronze Age. If you take the time to explore, you will find evidence of human settlement going back several thousand years. Imagine, who might have walked here 4,000 years before you. Whose arms rolled those rocks and boulders into place? And for what purpose?
The expanded site at Killadangan includes the remnants of an earthen enclosure and three pairs of standing stones together with what would appear to be the remains of a stone circle and an example of a ‘fulacht fia’, a trough cut into the ground, which is thought by many to have been a cooking site but may also have been used for ceremonial or communal bathing.
By far the most interesting feature on this expanse of salt marsh is a short stone alignment. This consists of just four stones graduated in height from the 0.45m of the northernmost stone to 1.2m at the southern end.
The reasons why many stone alignments such as this were built are purely conjectural – there are no written records from the time of their construction and many appear to have no special significance. However, here at Killadangan this ancient monument aligns with the setting sun on December  21, the widely accepted date of the winter solstice and shortest day of the year. (The actual time of the solstice varies by a few hours from year to year.) At approximately 1.45pm tomorrow (Monday) the sun will dip beyond the shoulder of Croagh Patrick to mark this turning of the season.
It would seem reasonable to assume that this particular stone row is a calendar feature. When the shadow cast by the sun falls on one side of the stones the days are getting shorter; when it  falls on the other side, the sun is on its annual track back to the north, bringing life-sustaining heat and light.
While the word ‘solstice’ conjures images of druids and pagan ritual it is actually a scientific term.
Still, the Romans celebrated their festival of Saturnalia in the days immediately preceding the solstice and later ‘Sol Invictus’, the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun, on December 25, which happens to be the day there is a discernible increase in length of daylight. In the year 325 the first ‘Christian’ Roman Emperor Constantine attempted to unite old and new religionists by incorporating pagan festivals into his new faith, and cemented December 25 into the Christian calendar as an unmovable feast. Eleven years later, in 336, the Roman church finally embraced this new festival.
And there it remains. Long before that, or this, our forebears stood on the shore of Clew Bay, watched the sun dip beyond that distant hill, and went home secure in the knowledge that spring was once more on its way.