Few outside of the north of Ireland will have heard of Glencolumbkille, but I believe it is perhaps the most important meeting-place on the long path down which the symbolism associated with the ancient veneration of the sun has been preserved until the modern age.
The place gets its name from Saint Columba, patron saint of Derry, who had a religious foundation there in the 6th Century. The sites associated with his foundation are dotted around a very remote valley at the westernmost reaches of County Donegal. The name of the place comes from the Gaelic for the glen of the church of Columba, and every year on the 9th of June pilgrims gather for the pilgrimage in his honour.
It takes the form of a night’s walking through the valley, stopping for prayer at each of the 15 stations of the pilgrimage. The stations take various forms, some being decorated standing stones like the one above, and others holy wells or cairns of stones. In my research I seek to find earlier echoes of the symbolism of Christianity, and the curiosity of the ancient pilgrimage sites in the valley lured me there a few years ago. I was amazed by what I found, because the standing stones, which are thought to be Christian rather than much earlier as most upright stones in Ireland are, have very extraordinary decorations on them indeed.
The decorations are generally described as being the Christian Cross, but even a cursory glance at the shapes depicted on the stone in the picture above leaves one wondering in what way it depicts the Christian Cross?What had drawn me to the valley in the first place was the fact that at the particular line of latitude on which the valley is situated the sunrise and sunset positions on the summer solstice give a perfect right angle on the horizon. Not only do I suggest in my book that this right angle of the sun lies behind the square in the Square & Compasses of Freemasonry, but made the sign of the true cross sacred, in Ireland at least, long before Christianity took the symbol for its own. When I saw the right-angled squares on the above stone, which is station two on the pilgrimage, I could not avoid coming to the conclusion that it was the veneration of the right-angled square that was the purpose behind the decoration. But that was not to say that the depiction of the Christian Cross was not also intended, for it undoubtedly was.
When the Celtic Church, or the Culdees as they were later known, arose in the 5th and 6th centuries, I believe it did so from a background of ancient druidic practices. One aspect of those practices was the veneration of the true cross of the sun, and on being presented with a new faith that had as its central icon a true cross, the two were simply married together by the developing church.
And the place that marriage took place was the remote and ruggedly beautiful valley of Glencolumbkille, at the westernmost edge of Co. Donegal.