Wednesday, October 24, 2012


I think I have a new hobby. I’m averaging a visit to a different Stonehenge every couple of decades or so.

Maryhill Stonehenge in Klickitat County, Washington, USA
(taken with my first digital camera)

My first Stonehenge was a site familiar to people in America’s Pacific Northwest. Any time I found myself driving near Goldendale, Washington, I would make a point to stop at Maryhill, especially if I had someone with me who hadn’t been there before. On the property of the Maryhill Museum, there is a replica (built to a smaller scale) of Stonehenge overlooking the Columbia River. Completed in 1929, it was built by the entrepreneur Sam Hill and named for his wife and daughter (both called Mary) and was dedicated as a memorial to the World War I dead of Klickitat County.

The real Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England
(taken with my first digital camera)

The original Stonehenge’s exact purpose is more obscure than Sam Hill’s replica. It wasn’t until 1996 that I actually got to see the real Stonehenge. My wife and I attended a wedding in Northamptonshire and the next day found ourselves with several hours to fill before it was time to catch our flight back to Dublin. I had always wanted to see Stonehenge but had never managed it. I calculated that we could actually drive to the Salisbury Plain and then back to the airport in time to make our flight. So that’s what we did. It was exciting to see such an iconic structure, although the milling crowds of tourists distracted from the aesthetics. And I did wonder why it was more famous than, say, the Ogham stones I had seen in County Kerry or the dolmens I had seen in County Clare.

Last November another Stonehenge came into existence and not too far from where I live. Over a weekend, a property developer named Joe McNamara put together his own circle of columns on a hilltop on County Mayo’s Achill Island. It was dubbed Achill-Henge and, as with the original, its purpose is somewhat mysterious. What is crystal clear, though, is the colorful personality of Joe McNamara, who lives in Galway. Two years ago he drove a cement mixer to the gates of Leinster House (where the Irish parliament, or Oireachtas, sits) as a protest against Anglo Irish Bank, to which he owed 7.5 million euro. Anglo Irish was the financial poster child of the dramatic crash of the Celtic Tiger economy. The stunt earned McNamara the sobriquet “the Anglo Avenger.” He was subsequently charged with criminal damage and dangerous driving, but the case wound up being dismissed by the Dublin District Court. In another incident, he parked a cherry picker truck outside Leinster House.

Achill-Henge in County Mayo, Ireland
(taken with my mobile phone)

It’s not clear (to me, anyway) whether Achill-Henge is also a form of protest against the Ireland’s financial mismanagement. The structure is built on commonage, and he was ordered to remove it by the Mayo County Council because he did not have planning permission. He insisted that he didn’t need planning permission because the structure (30 meters in diameter and nearly 4.5 meters high) is a piece of “ornamental garden” artwork. The courts have gone against McNamara on this one, and he is currently under order to take Achill-Henge down.

But as of Saturday evening it was still standing. I figured I better go have a gawk while it was still there and add a third notch to my Stonehenge belt. We went up and down a lot of narrow unpaved roads above Dooagh and Pollagh before we found it, but we finally stumbled upon it, almost in spite of ourselves. I have to say that there was no air of ancient spirituality about it. It looked to me like one of those round concrete visitor centers that you see at various historical locations—but with no roof or glass in the windows. The land around it clearly bore the scars of heavy machinery, and the structure itself was decorated with all manner of graffiti. One of the more coherent and printable messages read simply, “Viva Joe!”

At the end of it, there was something bizarrely impressive about this makeshift monument to crushed economic dreams. People have speculated for years whether the original Stonehenge was a burial site or some sort of celestial observatory or something else entirely. Standing at Achill-Henge, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was at all possible that its more-than-four-thousand-year-old cousin across the Irish Sea could have been thrown up by disgruntled individuals, who were fed up with the people who were supposed to in charge.

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