Wednesday, 19 June 2013

On the quest for the Cailleach of Clogherhead

When you stand at the giant amphitheatre-like henge monument near Dowth - the one archaeologists have ingloriously named 'Site Q' - on the morning of summer solstice, the longest day of the year, you will see the sun rising out of the landscape towards the northeast near Castlecoo Hill, at Clogherhead. Site Q has two large openings, one at its south western end, and one at the north east, which both appear to line up towards the solstice sunrise position.

Site Q, the giant henge of Dowth.
The name Castlecoo comes from Caisleáin Có, meaning the "stone fort of the hound", a possible explanation for which is given in 'Island of the Setting Sun' (2006, 2008 by Richard Moore and I). But another townland name on the hill of Castlecoo has long piqued my interest.

That townland is Callystown, which has generally been translated as Baile na gCailleach, the "town of the nuns". Tradition says that there was once a nunnery at Callystown, hence the name. But the issue is not as straightforward as that. The Cailleach was an ancient goddess, revered in prehistoric Ireland in places far and wide. She was known in some places as the Cailleach Bheara / Cally Vera, and although long since reduced to the paltry stature of a "hag" or "crone", it seems that at one time she was a female deity held in very high esteem. Indeed I would draw comparisons between the great Cailleach and goddesses such as Bóann and maybe Brigid, but I will save that for another day.

We know that the Cailleach was revered in this region in ancient times. The hills of Loughcrew, upon which sit ancient passage-cairns that are older than Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, are called Sliabh na Caillighe - the hills of the witch/hag/crone/old woman. She is said to have formed the cairns upon Carnbane East and Carnbane West as she jumped from peak to peak, carrying an apron full of stones, some of which she dropped as she jumped. Curiously, the same story describes the construction of the round tower at Monasterboice in County Louth. According to folk tradition, gathered in the Schools Folklore Collection, the round tower was formed by the Cailleach dropping stones from her apron. In one version of the tale, the Cailleach becomes the Virgin Mary. In another version, she slips from the top of the tower and is killed in the fall to the ground. Not too far away is a stone age wedge tomb called the "Cailleach Bhirra's House". Monasterboice is only six or seven miles west of Clogherhead.

I've long wondered if the Callystown area of Clogherhead was perhaps named more anciently than the arrival of the nuns. Richard and I made a strong case in Island of the Setting Sun for a link between the goddess Bóann and the Moon and Milky Way. Similar connections could be made with the Cailleach, who was venerated all over Ireland and whose name survives in many townlands and even on the Beara Peninsula in Cork, along Ireland's southern extremity.

Thanks to the widespread availability of historical sources on the internet, it now seems as though I've been able to answer that question, or at the very least to throw some doubt and intrigue on the matter. According to an article on the history of the 'Ancient Parish of Clogher and Kilclogher' on the Clogherhead Development Group website, the nuns arrived in Callystown at the turn of the Sixteenth Century.

Writing in 2003, Liam Mac Raghnaill said: "In 1508, a small community of nuns, known as the Black Nuns, arrived at Callystown, where they held 128-acres, a cottage and possibly a small church. They are believed to have moved from Termonfeckin to Callystown as a result of a dispute with the Lord Primate of the time. The convent buildings were thought to have been situated near to the site where Callystown House was later built, but no trace remains."

The case would appear to be closed. Clogherhead's Callystown is so called because the Black Nuns lived there from the Sixteenth Century. However, I decided to reference the Online Placename Database of Ireland ( to see what further information, if any was available, could be gleaned about this place name.

Callystown and Castlecoe Hill on Google Maps.
Imagine my surprise then, upon browsing the archival records about Callystown, to see that it appears to have been called Callystown before the nuns ever arrived there! In fact, the earliest record, going back all the way to 1301, suggests it had that name a whole two centuries before the nuns came along. As with most place names, the spelling varied throughout history, but it seems that it was known in some form as Callystown in the years and centuries before the nunnery existed there. Here are the various spellings of the place name down through history:

1301 Balykellath
1416 Calyaghtoun
1426 Kylkloghir
1431 Kaillaghton
1431 Cayllaghton
1440 Caalaghton
1471 Kallyaghtown

This last spelling, the one immediately preceding the arrival of the nuns, is almost definitely a rendition 'Cailleach' or 'Cailliagh' and 'town'. So there was a nun in Callystown before the nuns! Or, at least, a hag/crone/ancient goddess - call her what you will.

Because of the prominent position of Callystown/Castlecoo Hill as a horizon "marker" for summer sunrise from the great Boyne Valley monuments, and because of the very strong association of those monuments and their river valley with the goddess Bóann, it should be possible to at least re-consider the origin of  Callystown, and to acknowledge the possibility of another inception for its name.

It is, of course, still possible that there was some sort of nunnery or convent at Callystown before the arrival of the Black Nuns. Interestingly, there is a place at nearby Termonfeckin called 'Nunneryland', and we were told the old Irish name for that place was 'Cailleach Dubh', possibly meaning 'Black Nun'. Because Cailleach also means "veiled one", there is a tendency to associate the word with nuns. But as previously stated, the Cailleach is one of Ireland's most ancient divinities.  Cailleach Dubh can also refer to the cormorant (a bird), but in her guise as a goddess, the Cailleach Dubh is found even in Scotland.

Local tradition in Termonkfecin suggested that there was once an old laneway that ran all the way from Nunneryland to Callystown. Declan Quaile, writing about the old townlands and placenames of the area, said that: "Callystown was always pronounced ‘Calliaghstown’ by the old people, harking back to the original Irish word."  Wikipedia has some interesting information about the Cailleach.

What might be even more fascinating about the apparent connection between Callystown and the Brú na Bóinne monuments is that the hill doesn't precisely mark sunrise on summer solstice, but is probably a more comfortable fit with the rising of the full moon at the time of its northern extreme. Did the ancient monument builders of the Boyne once upon a time see the full moon rising out of Castlecoo Hill at a significant astronomical moment, and did they then name that sacred hill in honour of the great goddess of creation? We might never know, but we can speculate . . .

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Interview about a giant fireball with Dundalk Democrat

I was recently interviewed by the Dundalk Democrat (a newspaper of which I used to be Editor) about a giant fireball which had been seen in the night sky over Louth.

Although fireballs, which are very bright meteors or shooting stars, are very common, much less common is the occurrence of fragments of a fireball hitting the ground.

Astronomy Ireland chief David Moore regularly calls upon the public to help provide information about fireball sightings. He is hoping that a precise path of a fireball witnessed over Ireland can be triangulated in the hope that perhaps some fragments did hit the ground and can be recovered.

Most fireballs don't make it to the ground, burning up instead in the atmosphere. However, in 1999 fragments of a fireball were recovered in County Carlow after an extensive search. Here is the text of the article:

ASTRONOMY Ireland has called on Louth astronomers, requesting information regarding a giant fireball that tore across the night sky this week.
What was described as a massive fireball was spotted blazing across the Irish sky on Wednesday night by thousands of people and Astronomy Ireland subsequently received reports via its website ( from people from all corners of the country.
The fireball is likely to be a piece of a comet or asteroid that passed near Earth’s orbit sometime in the past, or the result of debris floating in space left over from when the Solar System and the planets formed billions of years ago.
Louth-based astronomy expert and author Anthony Murphy spoke to the Dundalk Democrat about the event and its significance.
“While sightings of bright meteors, known as fireballs, are quite common in Ireland, very few of these meteors ever make it to earth. This makes the finding of meteorites such a valuable pursuit. Lumps of space rock can fetch huge prices - tens of thousands of euro.
“I have seen several major fireball events, including the huge fireball break-up event seen over  Britain and Ireland last September.
“These can be stunning visual displays of cosmic power, but usually the rock (meteor) burns up before ever hitting the ground. Meteors can travel at up to 100 kilometres per second.
“In February this year a huge daylight fireball over Russia was descibed as the largest meteor blast in 100 years. Shockwaves from the meteor caused many windows to blow in and several hundred people were injured.

“The chances of finding pieces of a fireball are remote, but in certain cases where enough eyewitness accounts are provided, an accurate trajectory can be worked out and, in rare cases, such as Carlow 1999, the meteor fragments are discovered.”

Positive review of Newgrange book in Archaeology Ireland

Archaeology Ireland magazine has featured a very positive review of my latest book, 'Newgrange: Monument to Immortality. Here is the text of their review:

Newgrange – Monument to Immortality (The Liffey Press, pb, €24.95) is the title of a new book by journalist, writer, photographer and amateur astronomer Anthony Murphy. Inspired by the scale and symbolism of Newgrange, Murphy expresses his Newgrange story in an engaging text throughout the book. He states, ‘As long as we have questions about Newgrange, we will continue to explore it, and we will carry on trying to quench our thirst for knowledge’.

Readable and interesting, this publication on Newgrange takes us beyond archaeology into some of the more interesting characteristics of the mound that provoke a whole range of reactions from those who get caught in its web of mystique.

Murphy examines the background to the construction of the great mound and passage tomb, with particular emphasis on the community effort and technical skills that would have been required in its construction.

The importance of the celestial movements and the annual cycle of the sun are of particular significance, and several chapters are devoted to this aspect of the tomb’s construction. In subsequent chapters the author explores the ‘womb or tomb?’ theme, drawing attention to the questions concerning the function of such tombs that go beyond burial and disposal of the dead.

Newgrange is still a meaningful place for modern people, who are attracted to its sense of spirituality. Murphy develops this theme further in discussing the accounts of people who have described their own ‘near death experiences’, where lights at the end of tunnels are commonly reported (the metaphor for death is a strong one when seen in this context!).

Subsequent chapters on cave myths and the author’s own experience in the tomb at solstice provide an intriguing juxtaposition of ancient accounts from the past and the modern-day reality of visiting the interior of Newgrange. The book itself is beautifully produced and illustrated throughout with high-quality colour images.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Venus and Mercury over misty Newgrange & Knowth

Click on the image to see a larger version.
This is tonight's shot of Venus and Mercury over Newgrange and Knowth in the Boyne Valley, taken June 6th. There was a low band of cloud on the northern horizon and you can see Venus is about to set behind it. There was also quite a bit of mist and haze in the valley. Mercury is near the upper left of the shot.
Below is a version of the shot with labels, in case you are not able to pick out Mercury or to differentiate the monuments.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Evening Star setting at Newgrange, Ireland

The Evening Star, Venus, setting behind Newgrange. Click image to see larger version.
More than 5,000 years ago, the people who built Newgrange peered out into the heavens and watched the movements of the sun, moon, planets and stars. They recorded some of these apparently complex movements on the giant stones which make up their enormous passage-mounds. A folk tale about Newgrange says that once in eight years, the morning star (Venus) shines into its chamber on the morning of the winter solstice. The above photo was taken coming up to summer solstice, with Venus on the opposite side of the sky to the winter solstice position. Mercury is also in this picture, higher up, above Newgrange, but is very difficult to see.
An eerie mist surrounds the cattle on the fields in front of Newgrange, with Venus to upper right.
Newgrange and Mound B with mist forming on the Boyne in the afterglow.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Mercury and Venus in the twilight above Newgrange

Venus and Mercury in the twilight over Newgrange. Click image to see larger version.
I spent a nice time this evening on Redmountain, across the Boyne Valley from Newgrange, watching for a rare sight. Both Venus and Mercury were visible in the twilight, but with Venus lower to the horizon and Mercury higher up. It was a beautiful June evening, following a glorious warm sunny day here in Ireland. I caught a glimpse of both planets from my home at around 10.30pm and decided to head out into the valley with the camera. It was a fruitful exercise. I first spotted Mercury with the naked eye at 10.55pm, although it had been visible in pictures for at least ten minutes previously. I watched Venus all the way to the horizon, where it set at 11.15pm. 

I love this time of year, when the twilight stretches right into the night, and the sky doesn't get fully dark. It's such a beautiful time, and reminds us that, despite the short cold days of winter, the long days always come eventually. Summer Solstice is only 17 days away now. Seventeen days and the sun will begin to change its course southward again.

One important fact to note about tonight's observation is that I was located on Redmountain, at roughly the point where the sun appears over the hill when it shines into Newgrange on Winter Solstice. With Venus setting behind Newgrange at this time, roughly opposite the Winter Solstice sunrise position, we are reminded that Boyne Valley folklore suggests that Venus shone into Newgrange once in eight years on the morning of Winter Solstice.