Whether it started out as a Neolithic passage tomb or a Bronze Age stone circle, it is undoubtable that Beltany has been a place for significance for millennia. A number of artefacts have been found in the vicinity of the monument, such as Neolithic polished stone axes, and the so-called Beltany Stone Head. This is one of a several found in the area of Raphoe. The stone carved idol has features very similar to that of the figures on Boa Island. Like those enigmatic idols, the Beltany Stone Head is also believed to be from the pre-Christian Iron Age, but the dating is uncertain and so it may be even older or perhaps later than the Iron Age.
The place name Beltany is also of interest. It appears to derive from the Irish An Bhealtaine. The ‘Celtic Year’ in Ireland is divided into four parts that broadly overlap with our modern seasons, Imbolg (1st February), Beltaine (1st May), Lughnasa (1st August) and Samhain (1st November). For the early farmers of prehistoric Ireland, such landmarks were vital to divide up the year agriculturally as well as culturally. Though we don’t have firm evidence about what exactly transpired at such occasions, the name Beltaine is thought to derive from ‘bright fire’, perhaps indicating there were great fires lit to mark the beginning of the growing season. An event that is still sometimes seen on May Day in cultures around the world. Unfortunately however there have been recent cases of people seeking to rekindle this presumed practice, by lighting great fires in the monument itself, causing damage to the archaeology.
Located in a beautiful part of Donegal, near to the historic town of Raphoe, there is much to enjoy about a trip to Beltany Stone Circle – that it still holds a mystery or two just makes it all the more intriguing.