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.
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 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 itno 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”!
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!
We now have an amazing Patreon page as well, where you can listen to the many myths and legends on the Emerald Isle! Exclusive to our Patreon, you can now hear stories of ancient Ireland, folklore and fairy tales and more, all professionally narrated. It's at times like these that it's most important to support artists and creative people whose income might be reduced, so if you'd like to support the work that goes into Emerald Isle, the Patreon can be found here: https://www.patreon.com/emeraldisle
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On the road going down to Cork there's an old set of four walls that used to once be called Ronayne's Court. Although there's little enough to see of it nowadays still the stack of the chimneys stands proud, and on it can be seen the coat of arms of the family that built it and used to live there. They were a fine couple and had one ... [more]
It was known in times past in Ireland that there were men and women who could talk to the fairies, ask favours from them, and even live among them, and some used this acquaintance to work their will on the world, for good or for ill. Most famous, perhaps, among these people were the fairy healers of old. Biddy Early is the best known of their ki ... [more]
James Mac Neill was as strapping a young fellow as you could hope to meet, and likely with it. Never did he walk away from a tussle or a drink, and never far from his hand was his shillelagh. He had no fears save the lacking of a pint, no cares except for who would pay for it, and not a thought in his head but how to have fun after it. One cold ... [more]
Maurice Mulreaney was well known for travelling about the countryside without fear of anything living or otherwise, as quick to cross a graveyard or fairy mound as you or I would be to cross the street, for he didn't believe in that which he couldn't see with his own two eyes or touch with his own two hands, and he didn't bother with ol ... [more]
It wasn't a bad life for Fergus O'Hara in Owenmore, for all that himself and his wife Rose had little, the little they had was enough for them. Some goats, pigs and poultry ranged far and wide about their few acres, and a field of oats and potatoes kept them busy for the harvest and brought in a few pennies. It so happened that there lay ... [more]
In many cultures those that used to be called insane held a special place of reverence, and were treated almost as envoys from another place, or as though they could see something nobody else could, or were dancing to music only they could hear and the rest of us were deaf to. From far-off India and China to more familiar shores people would doff t ... [more]
The children of De Danann once ruled the island of Ireland, before they departed back to their own lands in the farthest west or went below the earth in their fairy mounds to dance and sing forevermore, but if you're lucky – or unlucky! – you might still come across them in the wild places and those deep forests yet untouched. An ... [more]
Some of the Sidhe in times of old would take a fondness for one particular family, protecting it and helping it rise in the world, and so it was with the O'Briens, who were known as the Dál gCais, or the Dalcassians. Their fairy guardian was called Aoibhell, whose name means burning ardour or beauty, depending on who you ask. She had ... [more]
Irish legends from time immemorial have a great deal to say about the land of the fairies, the home of the Tuatha De Danann, or the world of the Sidhe. There are those who claim it lies beneath fairy mounds or on the other side of deep caves where Druids once held tryst and shared magical secrets, while other tales tell of heroes and adventurers, e ... [more]
While most people nowadays believe fairies to be gentle creatures, prone to mischief perhaps and capricious by their natures yet well intended for all that, in Ireland they have a more sinister reputation. Some say, and some still believe, that the fairies will take small children and young people, leaving in their place creatures known as changeli ... [more]
It's well known among those who know of such things that fairies love to dance more than anything else, and they take it ill should anything interfere with their merriment. And if someone wanted to spoil a dance, they could come up with few better ways of doing so than to send a herd of cattle wandering through! The hill atop Knockshegowna w ... [more]
The cheerful Leprechaun is about as well known an emblem of Ireland as you could want, but what truth lies behind the stories? Well the truth is nobody really knows the truth, for leprechauns are are a cagey bunch at the best of times, not prone to gossip or holding forth on the important events of the day or the local hurling results, even after a ... [more]
After the Tuatha De Dannan were defeated in battle by the great race of Milesians, who held sway in Ireland long after, some of the Tuatha decided to leave and go elsewhere while some chose to stay in Ireland. Those that stayed agreed that they must live beneath the earth, and they were led by a great King in the west, Finnbhear son of Dagda, who i ... [more]
The Pooka or Puca is one of the most ancient fairy creatures of Ireland, and is known further abroad as well, called Puck or Pook. In some places he is feared and in others respected. He can take many shapes, most commonly that of a wild horse wrapped in chains with sulfurous or blazing crimson eyes - the night mare - a huge dog, a raging bull, a h ... [more]
Old Jack Doherty was a kindly and good natured sort of fellow, as well he might be for he had chosen to live in a strange and desolate part of the country, by a coast of jagged rocks and sucking tides. And why might that be cause for merriment, you may ask? Well, it was many's the night and many's the storm that blew an unfortunate ship too ... [more]
Some might wonder, who or what are the fairy folk? There are stories upon stories of them and their doings in many places, but most of all in Ireland, where it was said they lived longest and if they still walk the earth, where they can yet be found! The country folk claim they are fallen angels lacking the merit to stay in heaven while being kindl ... [more]