Commemorating a site with thousands of years of Ballon history
John O'Neill explains the provenance of sherds of neolithic pottery and bone held by the National Museum: ‘In the winter of 1940 myself (11) and my brother Tom (19) (Thomas P. O’Neill, later Professor of history at UCG) were home from school and college respectively. Tom had developed a keen interest in the Ballon ‘Druid stone,’ near the enclosure known as the old churchyard. He was already of the view that the old story about ceremonial rituals (then becoming regarded as nothing more than ‘pisrógs’) might have substance. The stone was becoming overgrown he wanted to get it professionally assessed. To that end, one evening he and I dug through some rabbit burrows that were under it. We came on a vertical pillar. From there, we sifted through a little of the soil around the burrows in search of anything that he could take to the experts in UCD more in hope than expectation. To our surprise, we came on a fragment of pottery, bone and charcoal. Tom thought that would be enough to call attention and we did not disturb the site further. As Tom progressed through university he sounded out experts in the UCD archaeology department and in the National Museum. ...
The nearby old churchyard had been used as a burial site for unbaptised children. People presumed
that the ancient beliefs would create protection for their
children. I did not know at the time
that two of my own sisters were buried in that plot. Extract from statement provided in 2022 to the National Museum, where plans are currently afoot to assess the sherds and bone using modern methods.
On June 19, 1947, the site was visited by Seán P. O’Riordan, Professor of Archaeology at U.C.D. and Mr. Anthony T. Lucas of the National Museum (subsequently, Director thereof.) They were accompanied by local man Thomas P. O’Neill. Prior to the visit, the experts had assessed a piece of urn and charred bones found at the site and submitted by the O’Neill brothers earlier in the 1940’s. At the site visit, they were interviewed by a reporter from The Carlow Nationalist. The following is an extract from that report:
.. ‘They pronounced the incomplete burial urn discovered to be unmistakably belonging to the Neolithic Age and so incomparably more ancient than any of the Lecky-Smyth discoveries (refers to the famous Ballon Hill Bronze Age burial urns). Some charred bones were undoubtedly human, but some fragments of charcoal and ashes were too meagre to allow of the timber from which they were made to be identified. The stone itself, under expert examination for the first time, claimed most attention. Our reporter was told that it was certainly a burial stone of the cromlech group, resting on four supports sunk to foundation depth. Its great interest, however, lay in the fact that it indicated a hitherto undiscovered link in the process of gradation from the cromlech to the dolmenic structure, of which they cited the stone in the Phoenix Park as a perfect example. The roughly hexagonal shape and the general crude attempts at symmetry were, they said, points of similarity. About the markings on the top surface of the stone they were non-committal. These, simply stated, may be said to consist of a hollow, dish-like depression in the centre of the stone, with deeply grooved lines or channels radiating in every directions to the outer edges.’ Nationalist and Leinster Times 21.06.1947, page 5
Article by S O’ Riordáin where he states “sherds of Neolithic A Ware have been found at Ballon, Co. Carlow’ (PPS, N>S 12, 1946, 149)
Historian and author Father Peadar Mac Suibhne was a native of Ballon and so his book on the subject of the parish of Ballon and Rathoe can be considered particularly authoritative. In it he refers to the site. ‘The old church down there was never called anything but the old church. There is a remarkable stone there; hollow in the centre and streams going from it. There are stones under it like legs under a stool.’ Mac Suibhne, Peadar, ‘Ballon and Rathoe,’ Carlow Nationalist and Leinster Times, 1980, NLI
Assessment by Anna Brindley and Annaba Kilfeather 'Reported locally as having consisted of circular area (Diam. 16m) enclosed by low earthen bank. Large granite boulder with channels (possibly natural) on upper surface formerly stood eccentric of centre of barrow. Bank now levelled and stone moved to adjacent field boundary. During cultivation, trench L cm) filled with ashes or cremated bone uncovered to N of enclosed area. Reports of objects, possibly urns, having been found here. Referred to locally as the “Old Church Yard” and used a burial place for unbaptised children.' (JKAS 1933,225). Archaeological Inventory of County Carlow: OPW 1993. No 46; page 8
‘In Ballon there is the old Druid stone. It is an
inscribed stone, originally on legs. It long predates Christianity, but still
commanded some respect and awe until recent times. Early Christians clearly
thought it better to adapt to previous beliefs rather than try to eradicate
them and in this vein, the first church in this area was built around the druid
stone. In fact, even in more recent times, the local clergy were not averse to
using the people’s respect for this ancient Pagan monument to help raise funds.
At sports days organised by Father Lawlor P.P. here at one time, Ned Doyle (our
first TD) acted as guide to the druid stone and charged six pence for the view!
All over the country there are areas which have been traditionally held in respect, the veneration has been kept alive in the search for a patch of holy ground within which to give some dignity to the burial of a little morsel of humanity and some consolation to a distraught mother. In this area it was the old churchyard. In an era of more compassion it would be a disgrace if we forgot these ‘holy places’, to allow them to sink into oblivion and compound the hurt of so many mothers. The very least we can do is to give recognition to the enormity of that hurt, to recognise the basic sanctity of those resting places and to give to them, at least, a collective marking place and monument.
In many cases the actual bounds or markers of such areas are disappearing and it would be to our shame if the older people were not to pass on the history of such sites and in particular to create a lasting memorial to the thousands of such burials made in the depth of night with only a lantern as a witness to the tears of mothers and the unseen mourners. We cannot allow the collective memories to be lost in a fog of silence.’O’Neill Maurice, ‘A Social History, Reflections on Changing Times,’ Leinster Leader Ltd., 2006.
The sentiment behind this site is not indignation or recrimination. When we feel like shaking a fist at the wrongs of this part of our past, here are some important things to remember:
The institutional church that callously excluded the little people buried in the reserve plot, was also the church of the mothers and fathers who buried those children. And it was a great comfort and support to them in other respects. They would not be with us in condemning the church in its entirety for such errors, so to do so on that basis would be to disrespect them.
The Irish Catholic Church was not alone in what everyone now realises was cruel. Though it's hardly much better to know it, the exclusion of the unbaptized and people who had died by suicide was common to the Christian Churches. Until 1968, for example, the Church of England officially denied normal religious burial services to the unbaptised, the excommunicated and those ‘of sound mind who died by suicide’.
It’s also worth remembering that until quite recently, families suffering the tragedy of ‘still births’ have had to do so alone. While they were no longer barred from using family burial grounds, our communities continued to fall short on recognizing and supporting them in their grief and loss.
Ballon has the great fortune to once again have the uniting presence of Jim O'Connell - a kindly guiding light to Pagans and Christians alike! There are fewer dark shadows in the memories of anyone who grew up in Ballon in the era when Fr. Jim was first tearing around in his Mini in a rush to do good for everyone he could get to. What more suitable person to now preside over the blessing of the old churchyard and the bringing of the lost children back into the fold.
Times have changed and the people of Ballon, like many others around the country, are re-connecting with their history and remembering those who were lost under the misapprehensions of the past. We hope to remember our immediately lost relatives and to recognise the sadness of the parents who had to bury children in such an ignominious fashion.
We hope to take lessons from it about those who we would make outcasts today.
We have no better guide in how to sustain such an outlook than the way Father O'Connell goes about his life.
Just the beginning
Much has still to be written on the importance of the concentrated archaeological features at this small Ballon garden. Already it seems likely that the stone resting in the hedge may represent a very important monument. We’ll watch the experts unfold the story as they carbon date the artefacts found there. Meanwhile, the owners of the site have been considering how to create a suitable memorial on the site itself. Though direct access to the public across the school grounds is not currently feasible, perhaps with everyone working together, a way will emerge.
Venturing into speculation: what we have on this site may be a part of a bigger story. Remember, just a kilometre West, on Ballon Hill, was the largest urn burial site ever uncovered in Ireland. There are great resources available on this subject and we’d recommend anyone to look at the comprehensive review done by the Carlow Archaeological and Historical Society on the Ballon Hill site just a few years ago. Burials at the Ballon Hill site were during the Bronze Age from about 4,200 years ago. The cromlech site is Neolithic, pre-dating the Ballon Hill site. Both sites were in continuous use for periods, we don’t know how long. But this leaves us with the possibility that the one period ran into the other and that area more generally was considered an important ceremonial site for thousands of years. It's conceivable that there may have been other features between the two locations. Ballon Hill being an unusual geological feature, visible from far in every direction in the good lands of Idrone, it is possible that its ceremonial significance was extensive and continuous, physically as well as across time. The decision by early Christians to locate a church near the ‘druid stone’ indicates that they recognized the deep and ancient significance of the site, in the minds of people.
Maybe when some of today's children of Ballon go on to be archaeologists and take up the story, they'll discover that we need a Ballon interpretive centre!
what's in a name
Perhaps the cromlech unlocks the riddle of the village’s name. The origin of the name of our village has long been considered lost. There has also been debate about the correct Irish version of the name. The latter is not easy to be conclusive about with most Irish placenames. What you’re really doing is taking a name that in itself represents a gradual Anglicization of an old name, rather than an English name per se. So you’re really just trying to take a step back on that chain. Some years ago, Ballán was the official Irish name for Ballon. The cromlech suggests that this is closest to the original – notwithstanding the credibility given to ‘Balana’ by having appeared on one map.
Remember, every early description of the cromlech capstone mentioned a bowl-shaped indent with rivulet like grooves flowing from it. And consider the likelihood that for over 3,000 years this monument was known, revered and probably feared far beyond the locality. That is, that the stone and the ceremonial site is what this place was actually known for. The old belief was that this was for ritual sacrifices. We don’t know. But increasingly in archaeology, and in ancient history, more credit is now being given to mythology and local oral histories. Furthermore, around the country, other stones with bowl-shaped indentations for ritual or religious purposes were called Bullán stones. So the ceremonial cromlech capstone may have given Ballon its name. After all, it’s a short step from bullán to Ballán, the old name we grew up knowing the village as.
There’s an interesting taster on bullán stones in the Roaring Water journal.