An Irish Dolmen and a Magical Dog

Places I find most magical are in countries with either a very ancient history or where people have a different sense of time—where a day is measured by afternoons rather than nanoseconds.

So in 2004, I made a pilgrimage to Ireland, a nation of storytellers, where you can still hear tales about encounters with fairy folk, where upscale housing developments might still be named for an ancient queen or saint, where you fetch the gate key to a 6,000-year old stone passage tomb at the espresso shop down the hill.

My first view of the Kilclooney Dolmen, which sits on a rise in the land.

I’m a bit obsessed with standing stones, you see, and Ireland has so many!

One morning, I clomped in vain through thigh-high grasses searching for a sacred well along Donegal’s cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. (Wells like these were used in pagan and early Christian times for healing.) Frustrated, I decided to skip my next itinerary stop and head to my B&B for an afternoon nap.

Searching for Stones

As I drove past the road sign pointing to Kilclooney, just 15 miles away, I made a U-turn (not so easy on Ireland’s narrow rural roads!), and took the route leading to Kilclooney’s dolmen, which is a huge stone table built over a tomb entrance.

At the village of Kilclooney, I pulled into a church parking lot and walked to the farm gate across the street—following my trusty guidebook, The Traveller’s Guide to Sacred Ireland by Cary Meehan (I can’t recommend this one enough!).

The rough farmhouse road/path lay behind the gate—where two large red cows stood sentry, menacingly chewing their cud (or the remains of the last pilgrim they had thwarted!). I followed the guidebook’s instructions and knocked on the stone farmhouse door.

“Is this the path to the dolmen?” I inquired of the elderly lady with a cane who opened it.

“Yes, yes,” she answered with a welcoming smile. “Go through the gate and up the hill a way,” she said.

“There are cows?” I stammered.

The woman must have read my mind: “Ah,” she said with a wave of her hand, “Don’t worry about the cows; they won’t touch you.”

Guardian at the Gate

So I set out, opened the gate, and sidled toward the bovine guards, eyeing their horns. I had come all this way, and I couldn’t stand the thought of losing both the sacred well and the dolmen in one day.

At that moment, a black lab bounded through the fence, barking and nipping at the cows, who grudgingly yielded the path. I petted the wagging dog, my hero, then she began bouncing up the trail toward the dolmen.

So I had a four-footed guide, who soon presented me with a reddish rock, dropped it at my feet and stared pointedly at it. On Ireland’s farmland, trees and sticks are scarce, so I picked up the rock and hurled it along the path. So began our game of “fetch,” which lasted the entire half-mile walk to the dolmen: The dog got the rock (always the same one), carried it in her mouth back to the spot in the trail where I had advanced, and dropped it slobber-covered at my feet. I picked it up, threw it ahead and walked some more.

Rocks with a View

When we came up a hill, I gasped when I caught sight of giant rocks like three legs supporting a massive horizontal rock that nonetheless was elegantly stacked so that it looked like a bird taking flight. As we drew nearer, my dog friend guided me safely off the path and across the soggy bog until I arrived at the foot of the dolmen.

I could see for miles over the countryside; there wasn’t a soul around except my canine companion. I explored the stone monument, touching the cool rocks, crouching inside the hollow beneath its “legs,” which once (millennia ago) led into a subterranean chamber.

Kilclooney Dolmen is located in County Donegal, just a few miles from the town of Ardara. You can see my canine guide in the shadow of the dolmen.

I wanted to write in my journal, so I sat on a nearby rock where I had a lovely view of the dolmen against the dramatic sky with storm clouds brewing on the horizon. Minutes later, my reverie was destroyed by an army of buzzing midges. I had to keep moving to escape their bites, so I ambled, assessing the dolmen from many angles and picking a few wildflowers.

Finally, I tied my bundle with a stem, placed the flowers at the dolmen’s feet, made a wish and kissed the bird-like capstone. It’s part of the dolmen lore that a kiss on the ancient rocks will make your wishes come true.

Laurel Kallenbach, writer and editor

Read more about my travels in Ireland:

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

Originally posted in March 2011.

More about megaliths I’ve visited:

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:

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

More about megaliths: