MEGALITHS, SHEELAS AND SWEATHOUSES ON YOUR SCREEN

a guide to monuments, in CD format


Illustrated Field Guide to Megalithic Ireland, and other Stones pages from www.IrishGenius.org by Anthony Weir. Published in 2001 by Dissident Editions, Downpatrick BT30 7BD, Northern Ireland. ISBN 0 9520451 7 6. 15/$25/€25, available direct from the author, or can be bought online by credit card: for either method, click here for details.

 

Reviewed by Thaddeus C. Breen, 22.6.02

Subtitled 'and other Stones pages', this CD-ROM is more than just a field guide to megaliths. The field guide itself is very good, a gazetteer with a clickable map and lots of photographs. While it lists megaliths in the usual sense of the word, with examples of the different types of megalithic tomb, the author's interest extends to other types of monumental stones or groups of stones: stone circles, standing stones, rock art, cross slabs and more. As a bonus, there is a sizeable section on French megaliths, again fully illustrated.

Anthony Weir is the author of Early Ireland: A Field Guide, a guide to the stone monuments which the author had been studying and photographing for some years. It has long been out-of-print, but digital technology, which makes publishing affordable for everyone, enabled the author to reach a new and wider audience via the Internet. The CD-ROM is based on the website (www.IrishGenius.org). One advantage of digital publication is that it is possible to incorporate hundreds of full-colour illustrations at little extra cost. Mr. Weir has used over 800 photographs to illustrate this CD. Most of them are excellent, both in technical quality and in composition. He has chosen the photographs and, indeed, the monuments, on aesthetic grounds:

 

I think that the value of megaliths lies in their sculptural beauty and ambience rather than their antiquity: after all, none is older - or more beautiful - than the stone of which it is composed.

 

The layout is pleasant, with a restful olive green predominating. There are also some quirky features like a bat which comes flapping down the side of the opening screen. For getting round, there are plenty of clear navigation instructions. It runs well on Internet Explorer and Netscape, but on Opera the opening screen does nothing and an attempt to access the Megalithic Tombs section causes the computer to crash.

One of the advantages of do-it-yourself publishing is that you can state your opinions freely, where a publisher might fret about upsetting certain sections of his market. Anthony Weir makes a spirited defence of pagan freedoms lost to Christianity and capitalism. Another of his books, Images of Lust, was a guide to Sheela-na-gigs in Ireland. These are erotic carvings of women, often found in churches, which seem extraordinarily out-of-character for Ireland as we know it. In fact, our mediaeval ancestors saw nothing strange in using such carvings to warn of the dangers of sin, just as they had other carvings representing gluttony and avarice. It has become possible in recent years to admit that 'Sheelas' exist, but as Mr. Weir reveals in an essay called Satan in the Groin, on this CD, there are male versions too. This proved too much for Irish sensibilities, even in the 21st century: Archaeology Ireland refused to review it on grounds of obscenity! Ireland hasn't changed as much as people like to believe. Another essay, Ireland and the Phallic Continuum, looks at standing stones and gate pillars, and points out that holed stones generally have their opening at groin height, with ceremonial implications which would give the average RTE-viewer apoplexy. However, I think the suggestion that Victorian pepper-pots and Ulster gateposts were phallic is pushing the argument too far: both date from a fiercely Christian age when most people would have been horrified at the suggestion (and probably would have changed the shapes drastically as a result).

Another essay deals with Irish Sweathouses and the Great Forgetting. Sweathouses have certainly been forgotten in the sense that few people are now aware that in sauna-type structures were quite common in the past in Ireland, as in much of Europe. They are recorded as having been used for curing rheumatism, but in view of their undoubted antiquity Mr. Weir suggests that they may originally have had a ritual purpose, perhaps involving inhaling the vapour of 'magic mushrooms'. There is no evidence of this, but ethnographic parallels show that it is not as far-fetched as it sounds.

The guide to French megaliths is based on monuments seen and photographed by the author as he searched for Sheela-na-gigs and related carvings. You won't find the well-known monuments of Brittany here: these are little-known and little-visited sites but judging from the photographs, they are worth looking for. They are mostly simple dolmens and chambered tombs with elegant porthole slabs. Humourless purists who regard every monument as a scientific specimen to be swathed in cotton wool (sorry, acid-free tissue) will be horrified by the pictures of the dolmen of Confolens, moved to the town's churchyard as support for an antiquarian's sarcophagus, and the enormous Grand Dolmen of Bagneux East which is part of a café-bar: dances and banquets have been held inside it.

The pictures alone would make this worth having. With the gazetteer, the essays and the hints for your next French holiday it's definitely a must for your collection.