Gossan Stones Equinox Sunrise Alignment
The Equinox Sunrise is framed by the Gossan Stones in the Wicklow Mountains,
Ireland's Ancient East
The Gossan Stones, Paddock Hill by Chris Corlett
High above Laragh and the Glenmacnass valley in the Wicklow Mountains
, on a North-South ridge between
Paddock Hill and Scarr mountain are two of the most unassuming standing
stones you would expect to see. The stones are set 1.75m apart (on a North-South
axis), and stand little more than 1m high. I have seen more monumental
gateposts in some of the nearby fields. They are commonly known as the Gossan Stones,
a name that may derive from the Hiberno-English slang word
'gossoon' commonly used around the country to describe young boys or
lads, a term that quite well describes the two stones. However, the
burning question when I first saw them was what on earth were these doing
all the way up here, in an area not known for prehistoric monuments.
When I was first brought by a colleague to look at these stones some
years ago I noticed on our approach a U-shaped defile of the Devil's Glen
in the distance. On arrival, and as we pondered the purpose of these
stones I noticed that we were now looking out to sea straight through the
Devil's Glen, due east. This glen is the East-West valley of the Vartry River
as it drops dramatically from the Roundwood Plateau down to the coastal
plain and the sea at Wicklow town. The Gossan Stones themselves are not
aligned on the Glen. The stones are aligned North-South, whereas the Glen is due
east. However, I was convinced that they must have been in some way
marking the position of the sun as it would rise in the east through the
Devil's Glen. Given that the Glen is due east of the stones, it seemed
most likely that the alignment must occur on the equinox (i.e. 20th March
or 22 September when the sun is midway between the winter and summer solstices).
A few failed attempts later, and finally on the 24th September, 2005 I
was able to put my theory to the test. As I left the car at 5.50am the
night sky above was an uninterrupted chorus of stars. By 6.30am I was at
the site, and began setting up the cameras. However, by now my earlier
spirits had faded and my heart was beginning to sink, for while the sky
above me was clear, the horizon to the east was dominated by a bank of
dark grey clouds which seemed to merge with the dark moody sea. As the
minutes passed the sky became a blaze of different burning colours, but I
became increasingly resigned to the likelihood that the clouds would
sabotage any view of the rising sun.
Then, at 7.10am, almost without warning, I could make out an orange glow on the horizon, and very soon I
could clearly make out the crown of the sun peeking above the sea. My
heart began to race as I fumbled for my cameras, anxious that after all
this effort I wasn't going to forget to capture my proof. Within three
minutes the full disc of the sun became visible, sitting directly above
the Devil's Glen as I stood between the Gossan Stones. No sooner had it
appeared the sun now began to disappear quite quickly under the bank of
clouds that hovered above the sea and which earlier I thought had
scuppered my chances for another year. Then the sun was gone completely
hidden by the cloud, bringing a definite closure to the spectacle.
The Gossan Stones are situated in an upland landscape, some 364m above
sea level. Furthermore, because the sun rises on the sea, and allowing
for the curvature of the earth's surface, from the Gossan Stones the sun
can be seen rising slightly earlier than it would from more low-lying
locations. The alignment in this instance is of course somewhat different
from conventional standing stone monuments aligned on the rising or
setting sun, in that the axis of the Gossan Stones is not aligned, but is
rather perpendicular to the point where the sun appears on the morning of the equinox.
Therefore, rather than acting as an alignment with the
rising sun, the Gossan Stones act as portals framing the sun as it rises
in the east within the U-shaped profile of the Devil's Glen. The
architects of the Gossan Stones could also have been achieved by placing
them some 50m to the east, from where there are panoramic views of the
Irish Sea. Instead, the Gossan Stones were set back to a location where a
slight rise of ground level blocks a view of a v-shaped profile to the
east-north-east, as if to prevent any confusion as to which profile, i.e.
the Devil's Glen, the alignment is set.
This discovery that the Gossan Stones are marking a viewing point for
observing the rising sun on the equinox is very significant, not least
because it is the first discovery of this kind in Wicklow, but also
because it adds to a small, but growing, number of prehistoric sites
known to have equine solar alignments. As with all good stories, there is
a twist. Some 3km to the NW of the Gossan Stones the Bellanagrana Brook
rises on the slopes of Scarr Mountain and falls steeply down the
Glenmacnass Valley to the west. The name in this case could not be the
original name of the stream, and it is most likely that the stream took
its name from a name that originally would have applied to a larger geographical area.
Given the clear evidence for a solar alignment at the Gossan Stones the second element of the name, i.e. 'grana', immediately
jumps out as being significant. In 1945 Liam Price suggested that the
name Bellanagrana derived from the Irish buaile na gréine (i.e. booley
of the sun or sunny booley), though he also suggested that the first
element of the name, based on the local pronunciation of the name, may
have derived from the Irish word balla, a wall. Price would not have been
familiar with the new evidence for a solar alignment at the Gossan
Stones. In light of this it is now tempting to suggest an alternative
explanation for this name that is directly related to the solar alignment
itself. It is possible that the name derives from the Irish bealach na gréine,
i.e. way of the sun, which may reflect the path of sun from sunrise to
sunset as seen from the Gossan Stones. Alternatively, the name may derive
from beal na gréine, the mouth of the sun, which of course could be seen
to be an appropriate description of the sun as it is seen to rise up from Devil's Glen.
- Autumn 2006.
Boyne Valley Private Day Tour
Immerse yourself in the rich heritage and culture of the Boyne Valley with our full-day private tours.
World Heritage site, explore the Hill of Slane, where Saint Patrick famously lit the Paschal fire.
Discover the Hill of Tara, the ancient seat of power for the High Kings of Ireland.