The Giants Ring, (Ballynahatty) – Maria Doyle looks into the impact the site has on local artists – Part 1

An Aesthetic/Functional History

Although not much is known of the Victorian travel writer, J.B. Doyle, his book, ‘Tours in Ulster’ (readily downloadable), is billed as a “hand-book to the antiquities and scenery of the north of Ireland.”

Tours in Ulster: by Doyle, J. B. Published: (1854) Illustrated summer tour in the north of Ireland

His description of the Giant’s Ring conjures an evocative picture of the probable function of this impressive arena incorporating 7 acres, spanning 180m in diameter, and predating the Pyramids:

“In the centre of this space there is a Druid altar…Few things were more calculated to awe the mind and to affect the imagination than this scene, when we contemplate it as a vast heathen temple, within the circuit of which many thousands may have assembled to witness the awful rites of their sanguinary religion; and where no objects could attract their attention from the priest, the huge altar stone, the human sacrifices and the glorious luminary that formed the principal object of their adoration…[the sun].”

Artist’s impression

It would seem Humanity has always had need to exercise power over the chaotic nature of its seemingly random existence, the perils inflicted by nature, as well as harnessing its resources.

Cultural artefacts like the Giant’s Ring also seem to offer up questions; how foundational and intrinsic are different roles and parts in society, is inequality inevitable and is it possibe that the existence of these historical monuments impact our society culturally and artistically?

In the following article I would seek to examine:

  1. The significance of the Giant’s Ring as an example of a ‘hengiform’ monument.
  2. Themes that are common to the Stone Age and Now.
  3. The work of some NI artists touching on these anthropological themes.
  4. The blurring, and usefulness, or otherwise, of Mythology in depicting narratives in contemporary Art.

1) The significance of the Giant’s Ring as an example of a ‘hengiform’ monument.

The Giant’s Ring dates from the Neolithic period and was built around 2700 BC during the Neolithic (also known as the new Stone Age) and early Bronze Age. It is a beautiful example of a ‘henge’ monument meaning simply, a prehistoric circular or oval earthen enclosure. It is the largest such enclosed ceremonial space, in Ireland.

It was possible it was built surrounding an earlier Neolithic passage tomb from the same or an ancestral cultural tradition. The banks of the henge, composed of gravel and boulders, rise to a height of 3.6 m (12 ft) in places.The henge was created from a wide excavation in the interior of the circle, making the enclosed space somewhat resemble an upturned saucer. The five gaps in the bank are an enigma, as it is unclear which (if any) are original, and which may have been created for the convenience of land cultivation before the monument came under state care. The top of the bank is flat, perhaps due to the original builder’s intention to create an audience platform for the rituals enacted within.

In 1917 a partial re-enactment of the effort it took to build was attempted by a Henry Lawlor and some local landowners. It lasted one week but revealed little in terms of excavation and the standard of recording was poor. It did conclude that it must have taken 70 000 hours to construct the Giant’s Ring; that is practically 1,800 full working weeks, or over 34 years.

The name “Giant’s” Ring led to a colloquial rumour machine that there had been a long since departed race of giants there. A 1715 report of an amateur excavation of a burial containing “large teeth” drew such a conclusion:

“The curiosity I have send your Lordship, is so far beyond anything that I have ever had the honour to communicate…It may be well worth consideration what sort of creature this might be, whether human or animal…If human, it must be larger than any giant we read of…” [The skeletal remains in question were later assumed to be those of an elephant!]

A strange cultural quirk in the site’s history is that in the 18th century it was used for horse racing:-

“The Ground about it is often used as a Race Course, round which the Horses run six times in each heat which makes two miles, and it is consequently judged to be a third of a Mile in circumference.”
(Petrie and O’Malley)

A ritual site adjacent to the henge was excavated in the early 1990s by Barrie Hartwell of Queen’s University in Belfast. Aerial photography during the dry summer of 1989 revealed evidence from the air of two palisaded enclosures just north of the Giant’s Ring.

Hartwell, discovered there the burnt evidence of a large oval enclosure, with a smaller circular timber structure within it. He interpreted this site to be a part of the funerary ritual, where the bodies of the dead were left to decay—or be ‘defleshed’—prior to their entombment.

All in all, this magnificent structure still stands after 5 000 years. It has, and still is, used and abused, but it challenges us in its lineage, and defiantly mystifies some of us.

2) Prehistoric Art and Contemporary Art: the Overlapping of Themes, Tides and ‘Circles’

The history of visual arts in Ireland begins with the placing and decoration of the first Neolithic stone. More than a few commentators assert that humanity is defined by our instinct to make art, an instinct that archaeologists and art historians have dated all the way back to 30,000 BC in the darkest caves of the far corners of the world.

Hand Stencils from Argentina, c.11,000 – 7,500 BC

The circle is a basic choice by artists everywhere through time. It is used to represent unity, commitment, love, or community. The Giant’s Ring earth sculpture is a place of death, but at the same time nourishes life.

Curves in general when used in shapes tend to be viewed as feminine in nature while straight lines are more masculine. Circles have no beginning or end, they represent life and the lifecycle, representing both fullness and emptiness. Even today, we find our thought processes can be annoyingly circular, even our experience of life itself, sometimes tempered by fate and thrown into that ‘history repeating itself’ shape.

Neolithic Art is such a distinct standard, that it has been divided into three periods; Upper Paleolithic (further subdivided into Aurignacian, Gravettian, Epigravettian, Magdalenian and Australasia), Mesolithic and Neolithic.

Lion-Man, Germany, 40-35,000 years old

It might be useful to contrast Neolithic art with a movement or wave in 20th century art known as ‘Primitivism.’ The latter was a name given to certain artists, usually self-taught, whose paintings are usually simplistic in form and colour, and lacking in conventional motifs like chiaroscuro, linear perspective, and other types of proportionalities. It might be an artistic movement or simply a cultural attitude.

Looking to the past, is not a retrograde, but creative, practice. By reflecting on history, we can find common threads, components, and dynamics of situations that we can use to create ideas for the future. The beauty of this ‘intellectual dig’ is that it is possible to visit time and time again, to different eras and contexts. We may find we ‘generalise out’ the lessons, but we can still apply and redraw them again and again.

Henri Matisse – Music, 1910

Part two of this article is here

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