Emerald Isle

The Stonemen of Ireland

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

On the Lifting and Throwing of Stones

The Stonemen of Ireland were once a great tradition throughout the country, a tradition that reached back to the earliest antiquity of the nation. And yet if you ask what a Stoneman might be today, very few if any will be able to give you the answer! It might be found yet in the Aran Islands in the furthest west, but not many other places.

Millennia ago during the Tailteann games, the “Irish Olympics” which were originally held as funeral games for a great queen, lifting and throwing stones was considered a mark of strength in Ireland. And not just strength, but martial power as well.

A man who could put the wind under a lifting-stone was considered a local hero and given great respect for his strength, for the clearing of stones was an important matter in a rocky land like Ireland, a feat for which the Queen Tailitú herself was famed.

While the tradition persists yet in Scotland, in Ireland it has all but faded away along with many other wonderful cultural embers, although you can still find places named after lifting stones and even the stones themselves, if you look hard enough. Close to Monaghan there is a village called Cloghnart which means “the stone of strength” and was named after a lifting-stone from a nearby fortress.

Throughout folklore and mythology we can find great stones being lifted and thrown – Fionn Mac Cumhaill is said to have created the Giant’s Causeway in Count Antrim by throwing a great boulder, and Oisín was said to have perished when he tried to lift a great rock from the road when he returned from Tír na nÓg and fell from his horse. The Fianna had a Testing Stone which prospective members had to lift if they wanted to join.

A mighty stone about eight feet on a side can be found on Hog Island near Kilrush - it is said that Diarmuid and Gráinne had a stone throwing contest from the shore and Gráinne won by casting this rock.

When Lugh first came to Tara, he was tested, and Ogma challenged him to throw a great flagstone, which Lugh threw back and landed it perfectly on its original spot.

Two great giants lived opposite one another in Connemara, with one on the glittering mountain known as The Diamond, which sparkles because it is made of quartz, and the other on the mountain called Dúchruach, which means Black Stack. They didn’t like one another very much and would often get into heated arguments.

One day a giant picked up an enormous stone and threw it at the other, which missed and planted itself at a strange angle near to Kylemore Abbey. Today it is called the ironing stone, and it is said that if you stand with your back against the stone, make a wish and throw a small pebble back over the stone three times, that wish will be granted.

In Ros Nuala in Donegal a giant stone lies near the village. This was another missile hurled by giants during another argument, and the stone has proven itself unliftable to the many locals who sought to try their thews against it.

The flagstones of Denn were ponderous stones to be found on Carrickaboy hill, overlooking Denn's old graveyard, near to three blessed wells. Under those three flags were supposed to lie the remains of three saints. In times past sick people used to pray at these flags and a cure was always obtained - but later on, some evildoers set a charm to turn the tones so as to bring misfortune on their neighbours!

This naturally enough caused a lot of trouble, and the landlord of that time being one Mr Percival, a protestant minister, ordered his son to go and shatter these flags, which he did. However in a short time, the young man shot himself in his own room, in his father's house, and to this day his bloodstains remain on the wall in the present Denn Rectory!

After this one of the wells moved about half a mile, and the bush that was over it went also. It is at present in a field in Leggan Denn where several people go for water, and still some come to it for cures.

In the old graveyard in lower Denn, next to Drumavaddy Chapel, there lies a forty stones weight block. In former years it was supposed to have formed a table or substitute for an altar on which the priests celebrated Mass during the Penal Days. It was a great festival in former years, for the strongest men attending a funeral to try their skill to lift this stone.

On one occasion a man named Mr Michael Clarke of Crimlin made a bet he would carry the stone as far as the local public house, a distance of about thirty perches. He took the stone on his back and gallantly carried it to the public house where his spectators purchsed for him a glass of whiskey, which he drank, still bearing the heavy burden on his back!

To their amazement he retraced his footsteps and laid the brute of a stone back in the graveyard, where he received his well-deserved winnings and the pride of his village.

The flinging of stones with strength and accuracy was one of the great warrior-skills of ancient Ireland, persisting even to more modern times, as attested by Stanihurst in his 1584 publication, De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis, meaning Great Deeds Done in Ireland, where he said of the Irish that “they are notable stone-throwers”, an oddity indeed in the age of gunpowder! And yet certainly a skill that proved very useful against many invaders.

There have been found in Ireland many curious stones, shaped like axe heads and chisels and other things, which have a hole drilled in one end of them. It is now believed these are Lia Miledh, or warriors' stones, the mightiest of which were called Lia Lámha Laich, or Champion's hand-stones. A cord was bound through the hole in the stone and it was either used to pull the stone back after being thrown, or used to spin and throw it to begin with.

This could well have been used in a similar manner to the Asian “meteor hammer”, a heavy weight attached to a cord slung around the body until it was released towards a target at high speed. Closer to home, it may have also borne much resemblance to the Scots-Gaelic sport of stone-putting, the Clach Neart or Stone of Strength, the stones for which would have weighed about ten or twelve kilos.

Indeed, hammer-throwing in the Scottish Highland games can be traced back thousands of year to the Tailteann Games in Ireland. These games included an event where a competitor lifted a chariot wheel by its axle and threw it as far as they could. This was replaced by a boulder, then a boulder with a cord through it where it saw use in war, and then a heavy rock with a wooden handle in the Games. It would have made a formidable weapon, weighing as much as seven kilos and with a throwing distance of over eighty meters.

The throwing of the hammer continued in Ireland in the farthest west, on the Aran Islands, until well into the 1970s.

"Once each year, people from Inishmore, Inishmaan, and Doolin (in County Clare) travel by boat or currach to Inisheer, to watch or take part in games of athletic skill and strength. It is a festive outing for all a day of merriment.

I watched the crowd move like the sea from one place on the field to another, to where a hammer-throw contest was to take place. They left just a little room for the contestants, and one man lost his stride as he stepped up to heave the thirty-four-pound hammer. The heavy iron went sailing toward the crowd, scattering them like sparks struck from molten steel. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but there was much oohing and aahing before the throng returned to their very same places and revived the danger." (photo credit to Bill Power, RIP)

Smaller examples of such corded stones could could also have been used as flails, although I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of a larger one either! They would have been devastating in battle, allowing the stone to be swung over the tops of shields or around the sides of them, catching enemies on all angles of their heads without warning, being very difficulty to parry, and serving a similar purpose to medieval warhammers or maces.

Stone balls, perhaps used for the same ends, have often been found under Irish dolmens, made of marble, ironstone, limestone, porphyry and syenite, with sizes recorded up to three inches.

The Irish used such stones for throwing, which they carried in a strap inside their shields, sometimes in the hollow or central part of the shield. Each side of the stones was crossed by an array of scorings or carved lines, admirably suited for the purpose of affording a firm grip to a champion who wanted to hurl the stone with force. Around the hole can often be found two engraved circles.

While the largest such stones found to date is around ten centimeters or so in length, the stories tell of much bigger ones being thrown in war! In the record of the battle of the Ford of Comar, Westmeath, the use of this instrument is so described...

“There came not a man of Lohar's people without a broad green [bronze] spear, nor without a dazzling shield, nor without a Liagh-lamha-laich (a champion's hand stone), stowed away in the hollow cavity of his shield.... And Lohar carried his stone like each of his men; and seeing the monarch his father standing in the ford with Ceat, son of Magach, at one side, and Connall Cearnach at the other, to guard him, he grasped his battle-stone quickly and dexterously, and threw it with all his strength, and with unerring aim, at the king his father; and the massive stone passed with a swift rotatory motion towards the king, and despite the efforts of his two brave guardians, it struck him on the breast, and laid him prostrate in the ford. The king, however, recovered from the shock, arose, and placing his foot upon the formidable stone, pressed it into the earth, where it remains to this day, with a third part of it over ground, and the print of the king's foot visible upon it.”

There may be another survival in the childhood games of "conkers" played by Irish people, where horse chestnuts are pierced by a string and used against one another. They would have been very useful for hunting, too. As a boy Cú Chulainn defended his fortress with hand-stones:

"Twenty-seven men came to us from the Isles of Faiche. While we were suffering the debility they climbed over into our backcourt. The women in the fort cried out in warning. The boys who were in the playing-field came on hearing the cries, but when they saw the dark gloomy men, they all fled except Cú Chulainn alone. He cast hand-stones at them and belaboured them with his hurley. He killed nine of them but they dealt him fifty wounds, and then they went off."

Stones were also used as armour, which would have taken great strength to carry, let along fight in. The Táin tells us about the duel between Cú Chulainn and Ferdiad:

“And it was then he put on his battle-suit of combat, before the coming of Cú Chulainn. And that suit of combat was [as follows]: He put on his apron of striped silk, with its border of spangled gold, next his white skin. He put on his apron of brown leather, well sewn, over that, on the lower part [of his body]. He put on a flat stone outside over this apron; and again, outside this, a deep apron of purified iron, through fear of the gae-bolg (the belly-dart), on that day”

“When Ferdiad heard the gae-bolg mentioned, he made a stroke of the spear downward to protect his lower body. Cú Chulainn thrust his spear over Ferdiad's shield and wounded him, and then quickly setting the gae-bolg between the toes of his feet, he cast it at Ferdiad. It pierced the wrought-iron apron, broke the stone beneath, and entered his body, 'so that every cavity of him was filled with barbs.'”

The Irish word for throwing stones or sods of turf by hand is croosting, from the Gaelic crústa, meaning a missile or a clod.

Even the Druids made use of hand-stones in their craft, as we see in the Siege of Knocklong:

Then Mogh Roith said to Ceann Mór,

“Bring me my poison-stone, my hand-stone, my hundred-fighter, my destruction of my enemies.”
This was brought to him and he began to praise it, and he proceeded to put a venomous spell on it, and he recited the following rhetoric:

“I beseech my Hand-Stone –
That it be not a flying shadow;
Be it a brand to rout the foes
In brave battle.
My fiery hard stone –
Be it a red water-snake –
Woe to him around whom it coils,
Betwixt the swelling waves.
Be it a sea eel –
Be it a vulture among vultures,
Which shall separate body from soul.
Be it an adder of nine coils,
Around the body of gigantic Colpa,
from the ground to his head,
The smooth spear-headed reptile.”

Of a less mystical character but still very important to local people, the strength-stones or feat-stones dotted around the country were sometimes used as a trial of manhood for young men. If he could raise the stone from the ground, he was respected. If he lifted it to his knees, he was a champion, among the best. And if it went all the way to his chest, he was a hero, a marvel of physical power and the men spoke of him with awe.

These stones are naturally very heavy, ranging from a hundred kilos or so to more than two hundred, often found in graveyards, which speaks of their connection to funeral games, and are irregular in shape, making them difficult to easily grasp. They stay where they were first lifted and rarely if ever move from that spot, heavy not only in their weight but with legends and tales of their history and the heroes and fairy-folk who had lifted them in the past.

Whenever there was a wedding, a social event, a funeral, or locals just felt like it, men would gather from all corners and try their hand in competition against one another and against the local stone. In one story, many men tried and failed to lift it to chest height, but one old man succeeded and even kissing it three times for good measure. Because of this, he was cheered for his strength and prowess, and spoken of with respect for years to come, the subject of local legend and storytelling.

At Drummond in County Carlow, stories speak of the mighty Andrew Neill who managed to lift a large stone onto a nearby embankment. “It is said that as many as four hundred people used to come every Sunday to try and lift the stone. But it was never stirred from where Andrew Neill put it.” Only one man in two hundred could move the Prevago Stone in County Leitrim.

Peig Sayers told of her brother Seán, saying there was no limit to his strength, and that he not only lifted the local stone but lifted another stone on top of it during a trial at the local crossroads! For this he was crowned with the title “Pounder” and marked as a man of might for the rest of his life. Stone lifting was a serious business and carried with it a lot of respect.

That’s not to say every occasion was so solemn, since at some funerals the games included “lifting the corpse”!

In olden times the people in country districts were very proud of a strong man amongst them. Kilchreest could boast of one such man, Peadar Miskell was his name, who lived about a quarter of a mile below the village. He was a mountain of a man and a terror in fair and market. On one occasion he beat three policemen and ripped the uniforms off them! They took him down to the Magistrate Dudby Perse and he had the policemen dismissed for allowing one man to be be able to get the better of them.

He was a great weight thrower, at that time in Loughnea at the oats market there was always a test of strength for the best man for lifting bags of oats. He could take a two cut bag of oats with one hand and swing it over his head without any trouble.The weights he used to throw may still be seen outside his home.

There is a revival in Irish stone lifting taking place at the moment, and the man most responsible is called David Keohan, multiple national, European and world champion in the kettlebell sport. He has been travelling up and down the country, reading old stories and finding old stones, lifting them and sparking fresh interest in this most ancient of Irish traditions. If you’d like to find out more about what he’s doing, he may be contacted here:


The Stonemen of Ireland return!

Aughagower County Mayo, home to the first ever “Giant's stone festival” where many will try their hand at lifting the Cloughundra, the famous giant’s throwing stone, can be found on the map below!

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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