Christine Zucchelli. Sacred Stones of Ireland. Collins Press, Ireland. Paperback Ed., 2016.

This newly published paperback edition is a most attractive and interesting piece of work. The first impression I had when opening the book at random in various places, as one usually does with a new book, is the abundance and quality of the colour photographs and the paper on which they are printed. In this modern age of advanced technology it is easy to take such things for granted. Quite simply the technical quality of this book is stunning. At almost every opening one finds vibrant colour photographs of ultra-high definition that show every tiny detail.

Patches of lichen and moss come to life on images of ancient stones, some of which have been in place for many thousands of years. Shining blades of grass, ferns and ivy leaves beautifully adorn the surroundings. Many of the photographs have background scenes which could only be Ireland, misty mountain ranges, wild open fields and rugged countryside, jagged rocky coastline, and everywhere the many shades of green for which the Emerald Isle is so famous. In short, this is a book which will delight anyone who delves into it, whether they be armchair travellers who have never been to Ireland or those who know and love Ireland well and would wish to know more of her ancient history and heritage.

A great feature of Sacred Stones of Ireland, for which the author and publishers deserve praise, is that almost every picture carries with it enough self-explanatory text to make it complete in itself. There is no need to go searching in the main body of text for the story behind the images, as often happens with some illustrated books. It would therefore be perfectly possible to gain great pleasure and a good deal of knowledge from browsing and surveying only the pictures with their own text. In addition to the vivid colour photographs there are many superb line drawings which add even greater interest and variation. Where further information is required, it can be accessed in the main text. At the end of the book there are further notes and references, an index, and an extensive bibliography, to research any particular topic or location. Whether one comes to the main text indirectly, from the pictures, or directly by reading straight through from the introduction to the end, it is all arranged in a methodical and very readable style.

This book has appeared at a time of growing interest in traditional folklore, natural remedies for ailments, and alternative spiritual practices. Sacred stones provide a tangible link with the ancient past of magic and miracles. Here are stones that were reputed to have the gift of speech to answer questions, to give justice, to proclaim a king, to give healing, or to enable transformation. As the author says, "some stone monuments are considered the abodes of deities or otherworld ladies, some are memorials to mythical heroes and historical kings, others reminders of the miracles of early saints."

Some of these monuments containing human remains are very ancient indeed, dating from as far back as 3800 BC. They became centres of ceremonial ritual and celebration. Fertility rites and veneration of the earth goddess are strongly associated with such sites. This tradition continued with stone carvings of 'Sheela-na-Gigs', which appear all over Ireland. They represent the duality of the goddess, the combination of venerable old age and regeneration from within herself.

One of the most fascinating and mysterious stones of all is the 'Stone Navel of Ireland' on the Hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath. This stone is said to be the centre of Ireland, as it were, placed right in the middle of the land. It is truly massive, 20 feet high and estimated to weigh over 30 tons. A sixth-century poem suggests that it dates back to the earliest human activity in Ireland. Another history says that it marked the meeting point of the five ancient provinces of Ireland. The principle of a navel stone predates the arrival of the Celtic peoples in Ireland, and harks back to the 'omphalos' or 'Navel of the World' at Delphi.

Of all the stones in Ireland the most famous by far, known to people all over the world, is the Blarney Stone, found at Blarney Castle, Cork, and visited by literally hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. It is one of Ireland's major tourist attractions. The author places this stone in the category of "wishing stones". Difficult or daring tasks are often essential parts of the wishing ritual. Kissing the Blarney Stone is certainly not achieved easily, as I and millions of others know from experience. The stone is located in the outside wall at the top of the castle, and to touch it with one's lips involves leaning backwards over the parapet. It would be almost impossible to achieve without the assistance of a helper holding the ankles, and wrought iron guide rails to grasp with the hands. To fall from that height would result in certain death, so protective metal crossbars prevent that possibility. However, it can still be a scary experience, so the reward is greater for those who overcome their fear to accomplish the feat. The sought-for reward is, of course, to acquire the gift of eloquence and a touch of the renowned 'luck of the Irish'. Whether or not the Blarney Stone has any intrinsic magical properties is impossible to prove. The author spends little time on it, pointing out that the whole idea of kissing the stone for the gift of eloquence was created by the castle's owner in the late eighteenth century. It all smacks of tall tales and entertaining exaggeration, but that is the very nature of 'Blarney', is it not?

I suspect that some of the most sacred stones are off the beaten track and may be difficult to reach. Clearly the author spent a great deal of time, effort and care in researching and preparing the material for this fine book. In her opening acknowledgements, she says: "During my years of fieldwork, I have knocked on uncountable doors and asked for directions, information and permission to access stones that lie on private lands. I was overwhelmed by the kindness and helpfulness that I met throughout the country, and by the willingness of people to give their time and their stories."

As the son of a man born and raised on a farm in County Kerry, I went across to Ireland from England with my family every year for our summer holidays, and since then have been there many times to explore different parts of this beloved country. For that reason I was greatly interested to read and research the material presented in Sacred Stones of Ireland. But I have to admit that I was not aware of there being so many of these extraordinary stones, and of so many different kinds and purposes. This book has been a revelation of a most important yet little known aspect of Irish heritage. -- Kevin Murphy

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