First medicine wheel on the Claddagh beach in Galway, September 1993. Me wearing a Lord of the Rings t-shirt.
1995 Galway Arts Festival poster, which used our Jupiter design.
The enigmatic stone engravings, carved by our Neolithic ancestors over 5,500 years ago provided the inspiration for an organic environmental sculpture project based in Galway in 1993 and 1994. Solas Atlantis was the name given to this project which resulted in the creation of a number of Medicine Wheels on the Claddagh beach. The project was based on the solar system of which we are a part, the environment in which we live, and on our heritage and culture.
To put it simply, a couple of art students, disillusioned with what we were learning in college, took to the beach and began experimenting with ancient designs and symbols, chiefly of Irish and Native American origin.
For many years, Galway City had lacked any sewage treatment scheme, and raw sewage - many tons of it was being pumped into the bay each day, the results of which could often be seen on the beach. We hoped that, by making these sculptures we might draw attention to to this problem.
Initial inspiration came from the Irish Stone Age. Myself and fellow student Padraig Conway had become interested in the culture and symbolsim of our ancestors, mainly through the work of American researcher Martin Brennan.
We began to experiment with Irish symbols, laying them out on the ground in a similar fashion to medicine wheels. Other influences were pictures of the Nazca Lines, Owl Man, and Great Serpent Mound.
These ancient works of art are known as geoglyphs - earth drawings. They have a sense of power, majesty and mystery which we felt to be largely lacking in a lot of modern works of art.
Galway Bay was a perfect loaction - apart from the raw sewage. Several Stone Age cairns can be seen on the Burren hill-tops to the south. The River Corrib flows south from Lough Corrib through the City and empties into Galway Bay. The Túatha Dé Danann, the ancestors of the Irish Faries, passed through here on their way to Cong to do battle with the Firbolg in the mythical First Battle of Moytura.
Me on the beach with the second design in 1993. Tide is out, Galway City in the background. Cathedral spire, left and St Nicholas Church, right.
The ancient high road which crosses the country ends at Clarinbridge on the east side of the Bay. The mouth of Galway Bay is guarded by the three Aran Islands with their spectacular stone forts and plentiful early Christian remains.
We were attracted to the Claddagh beach because it is the closest natural location to Galway City, a place which has become very built up in recent years.
Our idea to make sculptures on the beach was partly inspired by the monuments at Carnac in Brittany. There, rising sea levels mean that some of the monuments have been engulfed by the sea, being covered and uncovered by the tides. We liked the idea of our works being washed clean by nature each day. There was also the added bonus of the herons, swans and seals which we often saw while at work.
Our first medicine wheel took four of us about 2 hours to complete. Our tools consisted of a piece of string and a bucket. In the spirit of the ancients and modern artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, our materials were all found on the shoreline.
The design consists of a circle, representing the year, which we roughly oriented to the cardinal directions. The inside was filled with a double spiral, the signature of Newgrange, the best known Irish Stone Age site. Around the outside of the circle we placed 12 spirals to represent 12 moons, starsigns, tribes, totems, and whatever else 12 expresses.
Experemental comet (designs from Loughcrew I) on the lawn in Oughterard, 1994. After 2 weeks the stones are lifted leaving a yellow colour in the grass.
Our next design was a replica of an engraving from a Knowth kerbstone, which looked quite nice, but disappeared within a few weeks due to the size of the stones we used.
We were ready for something bigger now. For the autumn equinox of 1993 we decided to build a big medicine wheel, a larger version of our first experiment. The slightly blurry picture below shows the wheel when it was just finished. It took 10 people four days to build, and during construction, Padraig was injured when a small piece of stone entered his eye.
The finished design marked the autumn equinox and a neap tide, and on the Sunday some 200 people walked out to Mutton Island, the site where Galway's sewage treatment plant was destined to be constructed.
After that, we were on the lookout for an excuse to make some more designs. The following pages are some stuff Padraig and I wrote at the time about our ideas.
The stone age cairns/temples that cover Ireland were built by the Tuatha de Danann, a magikal race of light beings who inhabited this island until the coming of the Celts.
Legend says that the Tuatha de Danann came in great ships that flew through the air, bringing with them the stone of destiny (Lia Fáil), the sword of light (Claimh Solais), the cauldron of Dagda and the spear of Lugh, whose point must be kept in a vat of blood, so hot and battle lusty was it. (It sounds not-unlike some of today's nastier military hardware weapons).
They fought two great battles for the possession of the country, the first at Moytura near present day Cong where they fought the Firbolgs and won the day. The second was on the high plain of Kilmactranny, east of Lough Arrow in Co. Sligo, where they defeated the Formorian army and slew Balor of the Evil Eye.
On their way to the first battle of Moytura, the Tuatha de must have passed through Galway, for Gaillimh was the name of one of their young maidens. Maigh Cuilinn (the plain of Cuilinn) is named for the navigator of the fleet who was first to fall, and, the original name of Lough Corrib was Lough Oirbsean which means the lake of Manannan.
Nearby, Knockma (Hill of the Forehead) is the home of Fionnbharr, the King of the Fairies of Connaught and his castle is on the Mountain; close by is Cairn Ceasar, a stone age cairn said to be the grave of Noah's granddaughter, who is said to have come here to escape the Biblical flood.
The Claddagh, the oldest part of Galway and in full view of the Burren with its cairns and Aran Islands with their ancient stone forts seemed a perfect place to experiment with new forms of art and stone age design.
One day between summer and autumn in 1993, four of us built a small stone design inspired by the Native American Medicine Wheel, and the symbols and spirals of ancient Irish art. We soon made another one, a symbol of the moon, a rock carving from the Great Cairn of Knowth in the Boyne Valley. We then decided to build a large Medicine Wheel to mark the Autumn Equinox of 1993.
The Mutton Island debate was raging in Galway at the time, and a walk to the island had been arranged by the Claddagh residents. We thought we could do our bit for community awareness by building a sculpture to commemorate the event, and so the first stone circle appeared on Galway's beaches between 15 - 22 September '93.
About 200 people from all age groups walked out to Mutton Island at the low tide on a beautiful sunny Sunday afternoon. The people who built the Medicine Wheels are a group of individuals working on various projects such as tree planting, recycling, environmental awareness and cultural research. The inspiration for the project was found in ancient art, astrology and Native American traditions.
The art form we were experimenting with is called a geoglyph, a large drawing on the Earth, and they are to be found in England as the Cerne Giant, and the Uffington Horse, and are related to corn circles. The Americas are covered with geoglyphs that are thousands of years old, mounds, cairns, Medicine Wheels and pictures of giant men and animals, such as the Great Serpent mound of Ohio. There are also legends that these structures were built by a race of little people not unlike our own fairies.
We found ourselves going deeper into our own culture, to the times when the Tuatha de Danann raised the great stone cairns in Ireland. There are four great centres of stone age culture in Ireland: the oldest at Knocknarea and Carrowmore by Sligo Bay, with Keshcorran and Carrowkeel in southeast Sligo; Loughcrew (Sliabh na Cailligh), The Witches Mountains, and the Boyne Valley area of Co. Meath are the two great centres of the eastward expansion from Sligo.
These cairns were constructed and oriented to project beams of light of the rising or setting sun, moon, planets, and certain stars at the solstices, equinoxes, cross-quarter days and other important points in the natural cycles.
Sliabh na Cailligh - the Loughcrew Mountains - is the site of the first great blossoming of stone age art, where symbols carved on the rocks are illuminated by the sunbeam at the sunrise or sunset of the day of alignment. A group of us began to travel to Loughcrew to observe and experience the sunbeams and to record the symbols on the rocks with rubbings.
The Cosmic Event
Armed with all this information about our cosmic ancestors, we were thinking about a new project which could incorporate all our research, when we learned of the impending explosions on Jupiter - 'Shoemaker - Levy 9', a large comet that had broken into 21 pieces was hurtling towards a fiery end on the largest planet in the solar system.
Unprecedented explosions the likes of which mankind had never witnessed before were projected by scientists and astronomers, and this was all due to take place from 16 to 22 July, the middle of that year's Arts Festival. The time, the place, the event, the people - everything was there.
We began a project to mark this great cosmic explosion, which came to be called Solas Atlantis, or Light of Atlantis. Since the main character was Jupiter it seemed logical to find out where the rest of the planets were and what they were up to, so we consulted Bill Sheeran who drew up an astrological chart for the event. The chart was timed for the rising of the Lamas full moon at 9.15 p.m. on Friday 22 July, and marked the positions of the planets as seen from Galway and signalled the last comet exploding on Jupiter.
We set to work to recreate this astrological chart over the six weeks prior to the event using a large Medicine Wheel to mark the position of each planet. The outer planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were built on the shore near the Southpark pumping station. The Medicine Wheel from the previous autumn became Uranus, touched up and cleaned up; Pluto was to be built on Mutton Island, but we never got time, and so the lighthouse and the island symbolise the planet Pluto in the chart. The designs/symbols used to represent the planets came from the stone carvings at Loughcrew and the Boyne Valley and their origins are listed below.
The Earth - is based on the traditional Native American Medicine Wheel mandala, the meeting place of Heaven and Earth, the four elements, eight directions, and twelve lunar totems and the astrological star signs.
The Moon - this design comes from a kerbstone at Knowth.
Jupiter - This is the largest design we built, and comes from cairn L at Loughcrew. Cairn L has a standing stone known as the Whispering Stone, which is struck by a beam of sunlight on the cross quarter day sunrises of early November and early February. The reflected light flashes onto a large carved stone and lights the symbol that we used to represent Jupiter, a truly amazing sight.
Uranus - the spiral design from the autumn of 1993.
comes from the entrance of Cairn
L at Loughcrew,
the same cairn as the Jupiter design, and as mentioned above was never
The symbolic astrological chart in the Claddagh was built over a six week period by 15 - 20 people with the aid of two wheelbarrows. The four large outer planets were built with stone from the beaches; working between the tides, the amount of time we spent working dictated by the moon and the environment.
When most of the bigger designs were finished, and the comet impact was drawing near we began building the Sun and the inner planets between the pitches on the Swamp. These designs were made with seaweed, clay, shells, grass, hay, feathers, and red and blue coloured rocks.
Spurred on by a beautiful vision we worked together to create our solar system, and in doing so we learned a lot about ourselves and our environment, and best of all we got to meet all the people who go down Southpark for a walk every day. The question that was on everybody lips was naturally enough ' What are you doing?' followed by 'Who do you work for?', to which we would answer that we were making pictures of the planets, and that we were not working for anyone.
It was quite a strange situation to be in at the time because although it was hard work, we were doing it and enjoying it and it seemed to be the best thing that we could be doing; this is a hard thing to explain to your friends and parents, let alone to tourists from all over the world.
Summer Solstice 1995
What more is there to say? The twenty one comets hit Jupiter, and were seen and photographed all the world over. At 9.15 p.m. as the full moon rose and the last comet exploded, we lit a bonfire in the centre of the Earth design and had a party to celebrate the beginning of a new era for Jupiter. Two days later a large group of people walked out to Mutton Island at the low tide and with that our Solas Atlantis project was finished. The inner planet designs were taken from the Swamp and returned to the beach; the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are still there today, somewhat battered and overgrown since they were built 12 months ago.
And then the Jupiter symbol appeared on the 1995 Arts Festival poster, as photographed by Ted Turton at the end of last summer. So we come to the end of this article which has hopefully explained what the design on the poster is, how it came to be there and who put it there. The primary aim of this project was to raise awareness of the beauty of Mutton Island and Galway Bay, and the local sewage problem that threatens the area - and our ancient heritage and culture. And also to remind ourselves that we are a part of our environment, not separate from it, and we must take more responsibility in taking care of our environment - this all begins with education, and education begins with setting a good example.
We are planning another Solas Atlantis project in Sligo at the end of the summer, Fu/Return, which is based on the entrance stone at Newgrange, and an exhibition of hand coloured rubbings of stone age art from Co. Meath. There is a low tide walk out to Mutton Island at 1.00 p.m. on Saturday 15 July, and all are invited to attend and see for themselves the proposed sewage plant site.
Solas Atlantis was devised by Martin Byrne and Paraig Conway, with John Crossan, Aiden King, Brendan Farren, Conor Doherty, Sarah Doherty, Mick Mc Hugh, Ferg Mc Grath, Brian Crossan, Eanna Dowling, Brian Loughran, Sean Lynch, Kevin Byrne, Niall Ó Floinn, Eoin O Grady, Phil Malone, Cathal Ó Floinn, Mark Kennedy, Niamh O'Connor, Mary Rees, Jenny, Enda, Robbie Cadman, the Claddagh Residents, Sundial Astrology, and all who gave their help, support, and encouragement.