Full Circle: Standing Stones & Driving in Ireland

Visiting my first-ever Neolithic circle of standing stones—Beltany Circle—is inextricably linked in my memory with another far more terrifying first: driving alone on the left-hand side of the road.

Sheep graze around beautiful Beltany Stone Circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Sheep graze around beautiful Beltany Stone Circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As I planned my trip to Ireland, I realized that my pilgrimage to prehistoric stones and countryside spas and B&Bs required a rental car. However, I was traveling alone on this trip—there would be no brave companion to volunteer to take the dreaded right-sided wheel or navigate clockwise roundabouts.

So, I reserved an automatic car—no shifting gears with my left hand, thanks very much!—and then spent weeks anticipating the horror of making right turns in heavy traffic. My one consolation: My first week in Ireland was at a weeklong Patchwork Farms‘ creative writing and yoga retreat in Downings, Donegal, which I reached from Dublin via bus and taxi.

Driving to Beltany

While relaxing with other writers, I prepped myself mentally: I sat directly behind drivers and pretended I was piloting the bus through crowded streets and across one-vehicle-at-a-time bridges. Except for the ultra-narrow byways requiring that you back up if you meet oncoming traffic, country roads felt far more relaxing.

And so, after swallowing a capsule of herbal anti-anxiety valerian, I loaded my suitcase into the “boot” of my little Ford, buckled my seatbelt, and pleaded with the ancient Irish warrior goddesses to give me courage and a clear shot on the road.

Luckily, I had minimal town driving before I hit the highway, then I was off on smaller country roads toward the village of Raphoe, where I followed signs pointing me to Beltany Circle. The whole trip lasted less than an hour, but it felt like a lifetime.

My guidebook, The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan, mentioned that this circle sat amongst farmland, but until I got there, it was hard to imagine. Even with the signs, I was sure I was trespassing down someone’s private farm road—and technically I was—but in Ireland, megaliths are public property, even if they’re in your back yard.

Here, I parked close to a large farm, peeled my fingers off the steering wheel, took a deep breath of the damp country air, and walked up the hill through an eerie, dark passageway of trees.

At one spot, there was a break in the trees, and I peeked through to see it: Beltany, my first stone circle! Its name refers to Beltaine, the pagan celebration of the first day of summer, celebrated on May Day (May 1). Beltany Circle’s largest slab is aligned with the sunrise on Beltaine.

I picked up my pace and emerged from the thick trees into a field of calf-high grass with a splendid long view of the circle. Just then, it began to rain, so I hiked back to the car and pulled on my hiking boots and rain pants: better gear for the field, which was muddy, wet, and strewn with sheep dung.

Beltany Circle is at the top of a hill that overlooks miles of patchwork farmland. I was alone there except for a flock of sheep who looked up from their grazing when I arrived, but then ignored me. Being on the hilltop, I was also exposed to harsh, wind-driven rain coming over the valley, so I sat down in the lee of one of the stones and ate my lunch. (I sat outside the stones, because you’re not supposed to eat inside a sacred circle.)

Rocks with Character

What a fabulous variety of stones there were: I counted 62 of them arranged fairly close together in a large circle. Some are six feet tall; others are just one or two feet. The stones look a lot like snaggly, crooked teeth: a few jutting out almost horizontally. They’re covered with blotches of white-, grey-, green- and mustard-colored lichen and rusty stains, giving each rock a personality, like markings on a leopard. Most of the stones are guarded by clumps of stinging nettles: nature’s do-not-disturb signs.

And indeed, I am beautifully alone during the three hours I write at and explore the circle, except for the visit of a pair of moms, their kids, and two dogs. I don’t mind the company, except the kids climb on the stones. There’s nothing posted against not climbing, but still, the circle is at least 3,500 years old.

In the circle’s center is a fireplace filled with newly charred logs, so obviously this place is still important to people around here. This is one of the things I love most about Ireland: the past is just so, well, present.

I wanted to stay at Beltany Circle forever, but my departure was urgent: I needed to reach my B&B in the Donegal town before dinner. (My one promise to help allay my fears was no driving after dark—which wasn’t hard considering that in August it’s dusky in Ireland until 10 p.m.)

Getting into the car again wasn’t that bad, especially now that I knew what treasures were in store throughout rural Ireland if I just continued to conquer my fear of driving on the left side of the road.

P.S. What’s your best (or worst) tale of driving in on the “wrong” side of the road? Was it worth the drive to reach your destination?

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland and to Neolithic sites in Britain:

P.S. For more tips on places to visit in Ireland, visit Discover Ireland.