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Established 16/3/2000

Island of the Setting Sun first review

REVIEWED BY DAVID FOX, page 16, Astronomy and Space magazine, May 2007
Astronomy and Space magazine review
The full page review of Island of the Setting Sun in Astronomy and Space magazine.

(In Search of Ireland’s Ancient Astronomers)
By Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore.
Liffey Press 2006,
ISBN – 1-905785-05-4
326 pages, Soft copy,
24 x 18cm,

Having an interest in Astronomy I have become a little acquainted with some of the feats of the Babylonians and Chinese as regards early astronomy and how it formed an important part of their lives. What though of our own ancestors? What part did they play in our understanding of the cosmos and what legacy have they left us?

In ‘Island Of The Setting Sun’ Anthony Murphy and Richard Moore set out on an intriguing journey through the Boyne Valley weaving tales involving ancient folklore (Tain), monuments and standing stones as in Baltray, the Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth structures, the hill of Tara, and of course St Patrick. mportantly it traces their relationship with the cosmos through astronomy, mythology and archaeology and brings the
sky down to Earth through for example stone structures, some of which, still function five thousand years on. The depth and quality of research is impressive and the book is well illustrated with a writing style that caters for the casual as well as academic reader.

The journey starts at Baltray and its two ancient standing stones. This is also thought to be the setting of the Tain Bo Cuailnge mythological epic. This linking of such ancient folklore and constellation observations is key throughout the book and one example from a later chapter that struck a chord with me relates to the killing of Culann’s hound from the Tain. An astronomical sky picture is painted of Orion (Cuchulainn) and Leo (Hound), the stick above Orion’s head and the ball (Moon) as it goes through its nodal cycle ‘enters the animal from the front and out its underbelly’. Does this famous story emanate from the heavens? Similar folklore involves the Brown Bull of Cooley. Does this mythical tale come from our Stone Age times when the sun was ‘housed’ in the bull constellation (Taurus) at the vernal equinox (the vernal point being where the sun’s path crosses the celestial equator)? Back in Neolithic times this vernal point was in Taurus, which as the authors suggest could account for the persistence of bull mythology in our folklore.

Moving on through the Boyne Estuary we visit Inbher Colpa and the Milesians and on to Millmount and to the hill of Tara. It is clear from reading this book that the Sun and the Moon were important in the megalithic
culture and that Neolithic stone architects grouped the stars above them in patterns and give those patterns names such as ‘Pleasant Plain of the sky’ their mythic otherworld or‘the destiny of the Neolithic soul’.

Not everything has survived the ages though. Chapter five brings us to what was once a giant astronomical observatory at Ballynahattin just northwest of Dundalk. By all accounts this stone circle was much larger than the famous Stonehenge (Salisbury Plain UK). The disappointment is that it is not gone long, being recorded as recent as 1748. The erection of these menhirs and earthen structures by our ancient astronomers such as at Ballynahattin show a construction feat‘on such a scale that would be considered impressive even with today’s machinery and methods of construction’.

Chapters seven and eight concern Newgrange. This is a precisely tuned astronomical apparatus, according to the authors, where stones were positioned with such proficiency and expertise that the light of the sunrise on the shortest day of the year is captured with meticulous accuracy. The Newgrange construction was intentional and not mere chance. The remarkable similarity between the Newgrange passage and the
Cygnus constellation is also intriguing. Like Dowth they describe a portal of sorts designed to ‘forge a bridge between the Earth and this otherworld, which lay among the stars’.

Chapter nine turns to Knowth and included is an intriguing piece on the Calendar stone showing its lunar phases. The stone carvings show that our ancient astronomers knew that lunar cycle did not fit the sun’s year and that indeed the latter did not contain an exact number of full synodic months. This calendar
stone outlines a competent knowledge of the lunar movements.

The sheer amount of information contained within the book is mind-boggling. It’s not just a few coincidences put together. It is well thought out and structured if sometimes a little hard to keep up with. It weaves its way through landmarks, town-lands, stones and monuments all connected like a spider’s web. The book concludes with an Fear Ard or the High Man where a 12-mile human like figure is outlined on the landscape that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Orion constellation.

Fact or fiction – who knows but Murphy and Moore have gathered much evidence to suggest that our ancestors were skilled astronomers who studied the night sky. Indeed page 216 shows a fascinating grid map of known and suspected astronomical alignments around the Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange areas.

The myths and legends that we have become accustomed to from the tales of ancient Ireland in fact do contain both knowledge and understanding of the stars and indeed can be, as the authors say, ‘interpreted in the light of the night sky and the bodies of the heavens’. This is more than superficial observation by
our forefathers. The more you read the evidence the more convinced you become – I know I did.

During our stone age past our ancestors were making links between the heavens and the earth, could tell the time from the sun and the moon and formulated an efficient calendar - have we lost some of the ability to do this at a time when ‘Orion has grasped the Sun on summer solstice’ again?

Reviewed by David Fox.

And another quick review . . .

They saw the sky, and realized there was something to it, and they wanted it. Although they were capable of generating tales as tall as that sky they know they could not simply scale their words and bring it to earth without something to pin it, so they used what was at hand, namely stones. The result, according to journalist/photographer Murphy and painter Moore, is a systematic way of understanding vast quantities of time and space and humans' place in it. Murphy and Moore find those who created such places as Newgrange and Dowth were doing much more than telling time; apparently these people, who began their work over 5,000 years ago, had a cosmic consciousness and also a great curiosity about what we were to make of their stones, myths and artifacts and found a way to speak to us through them. Distributed by Dufour. Found on

All information and photos, except where otherwise stated, copyright, © Anthony Murphy, 1999-2015
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