The townland of Boheh, Co. Mayo contains one of my favourite examples of outdoor prehistoric rock art in Ireland. Along a narrow side road, hidden away behind derelict housing and high hedgerows, lies a large natural outcrop of rock flecked with quartz strains, known as ‘St. Patrick’s Chair’. Upon its surface (spread out over 4 m2 ) over 250 individual petroglyphs are carved. They take the form of isolated ‘cup’, ‘cup and rings’ and ‘keyhole’ motifs (archaeological designations); and altogether form quite an impressive sight when viewed in the right seasonal and lighting conditions.
Both April 18th and August 24th are two such occasions.
Should you ever chance to find yourself at the site on either the above dates (weather permitting) you may be treated to the prehistoric equivalent of a ‘light show’. Standing at Boheh Rock/St. Patrick’s Chair on the dates above, looking west, the sun appears to set right on the peak of Croagh Patrick itself. Not only that, but it then subsequently appears, to an observer standing at Boheh ‘rock’, that the sun ‘rolls’ down the north side of the conical peak itself.
‘It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled’
Although only a relatively recent discovery in modern times, the phenomenon suggests that not only was it known by locals in prehistory (Early Bronze Age, if not the late Neolithic), but also that it is very likely to have been one of the prime reasons why this particular rock, at this particular location, was found to be a suitable canvass for such beautiful rock art. Indeed, the carvings are mostly located on the horizontal and southern facing sloping surfaces of the rock itself, with a distinct lack of any on its western side facing the mountain. The ideal direction to view the art is therefore from the opposite side, looking west; with Croagh Patrick (along with the rolling sun) framed in the background.
Who says prehistoric people didn’t have a sense of theatre?
‘A complete unknown, like a rolling stone’
The meaning of such rock art has long been debated. One can find many different interpretations ranging from the plausible to the bizarre and onwards to the outright ridiculous. Sadly, its inherent meaning and cosmological significance are forever lost to us. The people who carved out such art did so under a vastly different cognitive framework than ours; and most likely, over a vastly longer time period than many of us care to comprehend. Similar prehistoric sites have shown a continuity of prehistoric presence and repeated visitation and augmentation over centuries.
The ‘presence’ of prehistory
The concept of a ‘long prehistory’ is a pertinent one. It is likely that, even within prehistory itself, such locations held changing meaning and significance for successive generations. What appears to be a key attribute is a certain continuity of phenomenology. Regardless of whether or not the original meaning and interpretation behind such art was maintained or understood; successive prehistoric generations seem to have continued to assemble and carve at such locations. As such, it is perhaps the location itself that was of prime importance; a focal point in the landscape containing not only a view or background imbued with some sort of ritual importance, but also a point in space that acted as an intermediary between prehistoric people and those who came before them.
It seems to me that, standing at such a location, at any time, even in the absence of any other signs of human life or activity surrounding them, an individual could never have been under any impression of being completely alone. There is something innately humbling about recognising the presence of countless others before you, expressed and articulated in sheer rock. Even to the most casual observer with no concept or interest in how old such carvings may have been; such art communicates a very basic message. ‘People have been here and have left their mark’. A mark that is uniformly human in origin by virtue of its geometric artificiality. One doesn’t need to know the underlying meaning in order to ‘get the message’. At many times in prehistory, then, the Boheh Stone would seem to have operated as such a ‘canvas’. A prehistoric locus with a ritual focus.
A Christian Past for a Christian Present
Of course, for me, the really interesting aspect of Boheh is its use and interpretation from an early medieval perspective. The ritual aspect and significance of the location certainly seems to have continued on into the early Christian period. Even if such people had not known of the celestial light show on certain days; there was a certain level of continuity regarding its prime focus, that of Croagh Patrick. Hence the stones erstwhile name in local folklore, ‘St. Patrick’s Chair’; an appropriate name for such a prominent site situated right on one of Irelands most famous medieval pilgrimage route dedicated to the national saint (see below). The association of Patrick with the mountain, along with the earliest suggestion of a proto-pilgrimage route that mirrors the later medieval one is to be found in Tírechán’s seventh century Collectanea, one of the earliest hagiographical and textual witnesses to the Cult of St. Patrick.
The rock itself, over 2m high at a point, does take the form of a flat ‘step-like’ feature at its highest point. The subsequent interpretation as a ‘saintly seat’ is a common motif found at similar pilgrimage sites elsewhere and should be taken in conjunction with parallel folklore interpretations of some of the rock art depressions representing ‘knee-marks’ of the saint. Such folklore is likely to be a residual echo of medieval Christianization and its later manifestations in popular belief.
The medieval pilgrim road, the Tóchar Phádraig (‘Patrick’s passage/way’), which nowadays runs from Ballintubber Abbey to Croagh Patrick, passes right through the site of Boheh Stone/St. Patrick’s Chair. Just a short distance to the south, within a copse of trees are the moss-covered remains of a pilgrim station which include the partial remains of a stone Altar/Leacht and several cross inscribed stones, now located within an overgrown Cillín (‘children’s burial ground’). These features are likely related to the use of Boheh rock in conjunction with medieval (and later) pilgrimage and serve to remind us of the continuity of the ‘outdoor’ nature of the site. Coupled with the folklore image of the ‘saintly seat’ and ‘knee-prints’, one gets an impression of devotional Christian ritual out in the open, beneath the skies.
‘And it stoned me to my soul’
Indeed, a picture of modern-day Christian ritual at the site illustrates a likely use of the flat horizontal surfaces of the rock ‘chair’ as an altar itself. Interestingly, there is a small cross carved into the rock, near its top on its eastern side. Such folklore interpretations, as above, alongside the surviving pilgrim archaeology nearby, suggest a continuity of prescribed patterns and ritual processions in and around the site. A interesting aspect of such folklore, is its occasional derivation from earlier hagiography and dindsenchas (‘placename/landscape lore’).
The concept of communing with a saint in a holy locus (‘place’) associated with their past ‘presence’ is long attested in medieval Irish literature. Archaeological features such as ‘seats’ and ‘kneemarks’ were portrayed as physical ‘witnesses’ to past saintly activities in the landscape, from the early development of the cult of saints onwards into the later medieval period when many of our major pilgrimage sites were ‘archaeologically’ and historically codified with both physical features and textual lives that can still be seen & read today.
I would imagine that being able to kneel and pray in the ‘knee-prints’ of Patrick himself would have been a highly auspicious and potent experience for Christian pilgrims, in any period, but especially within that of the medieval. At a time when many people in insular Irish society would not have been allowed to partake of rituals within the inner precincts of Irish monastic sites; locations such as Boheh, out in the wider landscape, would have surely provided an alternative avenue for popular religious engagement and personal interaction with, and devotion to, the saint.
(Above is the site in Google Streetview. St. Patrick’s Chair/Boheh stone is located just behind the bush on the left; and Croagh Patrick can be clearly seen to the west)
The outdoor nature of activity at the site is perhaps further emphasized by the placename itself. An interpretive sign at the modern location today gives Boheh as Bhoth Sheithe: ‘The Skinhide Hut’. The first element is derived from Old Irish Both which has attested primary meanings of ‘hut’, ‘cot’, ‘cabin’, ‘cow-shed’ and ‘hunting-bothy’, as well as, interestingly from an early Christian perspective: ‘oratories’ and ‘cells’. Yet the second element, Sheithe, gives me pause for thought. I’m not sure if it is the right derivation from the perspective of aural anglicised corruption.
The earliest ordnance survey of the area in the nineteenth century recorded the name as ‘Both The’, which O’Donovan rendered as Both Theith, ‘the cosy booth/hut/tent’; viewing the second element as being likely derived from Irish teith/téith meaning ‘hot’, ‘warm’, ‘comfortable’ or ‘sheltered’. This seems to me a more likely contender, especially when one compares it with other sheithe placenames elsewhere in the country. Where Sheith occurs in such examples, it is more usually anglicised as ‘She’, Sheh’ or ‘Shea’; such as at Shevry, Co. Tipperary; Sheheree, Co. Kerry; Shehymore, Co. Cork, and Lettershea, Co. Galway. Given its usual form then, one would expect an original Both Sheithe to have perhaps been anglicised as Boshehy, Boshee or Boshea. In a purely aural context, Boheh, to my mind anyway, seems more likely to have come from something like O’Donovans Both Theith, than the former.
Either way, the primary vernacular component in the placename seems clear. Both, an Irish word that carries conceptions and underlying cognitive understandings of ‘temporary dwellings/huts/rough cabins or tents’, suggests a conception/memory of a location deemed appropriate for such features to be erected or maintained. While Sheithe would certainly fit with such a meaning (especially huts covered with hides/skins); so too would Theith, in the sense of ‘comfortable’ and ‘sheltered’. Yet what was it about the location that may have caused such an association with temporary dwellings? The answer may lie in its wider landscape setting within the Tóchar Pádraig pilgrimage route.
If one takes a wider view of the location, St. Patrick’s Chair/Boheh stone is one of the last places one could expect to ‘stop’ or ‘halt’ on the pilgrimage trail before coming to Croagh Patrick. Only about 6 or 7 km from the mountain, it is the last ‘sheltered’ place between two hills before the pilgrimage route enters a more exposed river plain that gradually rises towards the foothills of Croagh Patrick itself. Such a location would perhaps have been an ideal venue for a seasonal halting station, complete with ritual foci such as Patrick’s Chair/Boheh stone, prior to making a final ascent up the mountain.
A Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘station’
Of course, medieval tradition involved pilgrims making a nocturnal ascent in order to be at the summit for sunrise. Viewed against such a practice, the idea of Boheh as a halting/staging point whilst waiting for the appropriate time to leave for the summit is perhaps even more attractive. If so, then Boheh’s landscape setting, proximity to, and its vista of Croagh Patrick, alongside the natural magnificence of its pre-existing rock art, must have surely been primary factors in its relative preservation and continuing importance within the medieval pilgrimage experience and beyond.
‘Any old way you choose it, any old time you use it’
Despite being separated by thousands of years and radically different cosmologies, the site of Boheh stone seems to have operated as a ritual ‘locus’ and focus point for both prehistoric and medieval peoples. Undoubtedly different in meaning and interpretation; the very act of looking towards a sacred mountain from the stone represents a shared phenomenological experience between successive generations on a staggeringly long time scale. In some ways, the Boheh Stone exists as an archaeological palimpsest; a feature in a landscape imbued with medieval and modern Christian belief and ritual, superimposed over that of its prehistoric predecessors.
At its heart, is human cognition of the centrality of ‘place’, whatever that may have meant to different generations in different millennia. The carvings etched across its face are visual declarations, individuals articulating their presence within a communal canvass; one inhabited as much through time, as in physical location. As a ‘locus’ then, it was, and is, a meeting place between prehistoric, medieval and modern people; regardless of whether they are seeking a saint, a sunset or something else entirely.
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Post Script: See an evocative short video (speeded up) of the rolling sun effect, as seen from Boheh Stone. Recorded April 18th, 2013 by Dr. Oliver Snr. Whyte
Bracken, G.G.& Wayman, P.A. (1992) A Neolithic or Bronze-age Alignment for Croagh Patrick, Cathair Na Mart, 12, 1-11
Corlett, C. (1997) ‘Prehistoric Pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick’, Archaeology Ireland , Vol. 11, No. 2, 8-11.
Corlett, C. (1998) ‘The Prehistoric Ritual Landscape of Croagh Patrick, Co. Mayo’, Journal of Irish Archaeology, Vol. 9, 9-26.
eDIL – Electronic Dictionary Irish Language, available at: http://www.dil.ie/
Herity, M, Kelly, D, Mattenberger, U. (1997) ‘List of Early Christian Cross Slabs in Seven North-Western Counties’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland , Vol. 127, 80-124.
Nugent, L. (2012) ‘An overview of the history of pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick’, Pilgrimage In Medieval Ireland Blog, available at: http://pilgrimagemedievalireland.com/2012/07/29/an-overview-of-the-history-of-pilgrimage-to-croagh-patrick/
Placenames Database of Ireland, available at: http://www.logainm.ie/