Summer Solstice Alignments & Petrified Pipers – Athgreany Stone Circle, Co. Wicklow

stephenMonuments, Mythology, News

Summer Solstice Alignments & Petrified Pipers – Athgreany Stone Circle, Co. Wicklow

Athgreany Stone Circle is definitely one of my favourite circles. Better known as the Pipers Stones, it is one of 5 Irish stone circles that are called by that name. However, Athgreany is thought to be the original of the ‘Pipers Stones’ as it is the only one to actually have a ‘piper’

Athgreany Stone Circle is situated at the summit of a small ridge, a few miles southwest of the town of Blessington in Co. Wicklow. The circle is about 23 metres in diameter and has thirteen granite stones remaining (of a ‘possible’ 29 recorded in 1927) which vary in height from 1.3m to 1.92m. There are 2 more small stones that are not confirmed as being part of the original circle.

The entrance to the circle is at the north-northeast and although – unusual for entrance stones – they are not the tallest in the circle; their position, facing the outlier (‘The Piper’) 40m outside the circle suggests that they do mark the entrance. A large whitethorn tree sits slightly west of the centre of the circle which appears to have fallen some time ago and reseeded itself, creating a tree with 2 trunks.

The actual Piper Stone (the outlier) is a large domed granite boulder (H 1.95m; diam. c. 2.9m), which sits about 40m north-northwest of the circle. Although it is thought to be a natural feature – a glacial erratic – there is no doubt that it forms an integral part of the site. The upper surface of the outlier features a cross-shaped groove, with one groove aligned North-South and the other East-West, along with 6 visible cup marks.

Two of the other stones within the circle also contain rock-art. A curved groove and a cup-mark can be found on a stone in the south-east of the circle. Interestingly, the 1927 description of the circle maintains that “On one (stone) was visible the form of a face till it was for the most part effaced.” I think it is possibly this stone that is being described – see the pic of what may be an ancient smiley-face? The square-shaped, easterly entrance stone also has a number of bore-holes running east to west across its upper surface.

Petrified Piper

The legend of the Athgreany Pipers Stones is a typical tale that attempts to christianise an ancient site. It tells of a piper (the outlier stone) and a group of maidens (the circle) that were turned to stone for the sin of playing music and dancing on the Sabbath.

Townland names can sometimes provide clues to the associations between places and traditions. There are 2 possible sources for the anglicised name Athgreany, One is the modern Irish name, Áth Gréine, meaning ‘ford of the sun’, though it is thought the name actually comes from ‘Achadh Gréine’ meaning ‘field of the sun’. Probably due to the name of the townland, it is thought that in ancient times this monument was associated with the sun goddess Áine/Gráinne who is celebrated across different parts of the country at Midsummer.

Stone Circles like this one were built in the later Bronze-Age (1500-500 BC). We do not know their exact purpose, but most likely they were used for rituals and ceremonies associated with sun worship.

Solstice Alignment

On the morning of the Summer Solstice, 2018, I made my way to Athgreany before dawn to catch, what I thought would be, the sun rising above the Piper Stone, as viewed through the entrance stones. Most descriptions I had read of the site, mentioned this alignment and even the onsite information sign shows a pic of the event. However, as you can see from the main pic, the sun clearly does NOT rise over the Piper Stone. . . but here’s the strange bit…

From the centre of the circle, the Piper Stone is at a heading/direction of roughly 45° north-northeast, but by the time it clears the mountain (nearly an hour after sunrise) the sun is at 58° (13° further south than the alignment of the Piper Stone). However, if the mountain wasn’t there and there was a clear view of the horizon, the first rays of the sun would be visible an hour earlier at a heading of between 46 & 47°.

Now, if we take into account the fact that the earth has moved slightly on its axis since the time the circle was constructed in c. 1500 BCE; back then the sun would have been visible nearly 1° further north than it is now, at a heading of between 45 & 46°.

So, maybe it’s just a strange coincidence but the Piper Stone actually would have been aligned with the rising sun of the Summer Solstice, but just not visible from the circle… How mad is that?