Ancient Stones & Modern Fears

A photojournalist takes a deeper look at Ireland’s ancient stones and finds that old beliefs about them abound

By Robert Sullivan

Legananny Dolmen, Ireland
Legananny Dolmen, Ireland

Go ahead and joke about the rain, the drinking or the funny accents – but don’t kid the Irish about fairies. That’s a lesson Tom Quinn Kumpf learned when he spent five years (traveling back and forth from the US) photographing ring forts, dolmen and other ancient monuments all across the country for his book Ireland: Standing Stones to Stormont (Devenish Press). As he befriended farmers to get permission to shoot pictures of monuments on their properties, Mr. Kumpf gradually came to the realization that quite a few well-educated, modern Irish people view fairies and other denizens of their native mythology as real and, in some cases, even frightening things.

Ballenskellig Cemetery, Ireland
Ballenskellig Cemetery, Ireland

“They don’t really talk about this stuff at first,” he says, “but after spending some time drinking tea with them in their kitchens, they start to open up.” The more than 30,000 ring forts (old defensive sites surrounded by earth or stone embankments) scattered across Ireland bring up strong superstitions. “They’re seen as vents to another world, where fairies exist. When you’re walking out to a ring fort, you’ll often get warned that there are holes in them that will suck you up. Now, there may be chambers underground in a few of these places you could actually fall into, but that’s not what people are talking about,” Kumpf says.

The sacred tree

Mr. Kumpf recalls a strange afternoon on a farm in Cork, where he took pictures of a monument, and then added some shots of an ancient tree nearby. “Afterwards, I mentioned this to the farmer who owns the land – keep in mind this guy has a masters degree from Trinity – and he became extremely agitated about me photographing this sacred tree. He was convinced his cattle would all go lame. It was only after I told him that I placed some silver coins under the roots of the tree as an offering that he calmed down.”

In his book, the photographer describes what he calls a typical conversation with a young Irish farm wife. Asked if she and her husband believe in fairies, she replied:

“Oh no, not at all. That’s the old folks talking in the old ways, and neither me nor my Michael believe in any of that.“

“But if you had a ring fort on your place,” I began, “and you needed more land to run your cattle, would you consider getting a bulldozer and dozing it flat?”

“A ring fort! No, not on your life,” she said. “We’d never – and thank God we’ve not got one of those anywhere near our place – we’d never be the cause of four generations of bad luck.”

Several people in Clare told him a story of four men who’d received permission to explore an old ring fort between Ennis and Shannon Airport in 1999. They’d cut down several ancient oaks on the site and dug up the structure with a backhoe when they ran out of money, and were forced to abandon the fort in a state of near total disrepair. Within a year, all four were said to have died in separate accidents along the road near the site.

Vietnam to Ireland

Photographer Tom Kumpf, Ireland
Photographer Tom Kumpf, Ireland

Tom Kumpf doesn’t fit the soft, “new age” image one might have for a visitor to Ireland’s spirit world. A Vietnam veteran, he spent many years doing photo assignments for press agencies, including a stint in war-torn Somalia. He published a book in 2000 called Children of Belfast, which examined the effect the Northern Ireland conflict was having on children. While in Northern Ireland, he was taken by how frequently myths and history seemed to influence the modern political process. He was repeatedly told, for example, that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams “carries the blood of Tuatha De Danann (the fairy folk) in his veins.”

He saw that Catholics in the north had a different sense of attachment to the land than Protestants. “I think it came, partly, from the fact that Catholics are surrounded by dolmen (ancient tombs) of their own ancestors.” He decided his next project would cover the whole of Ireland, and the relationship people have to its historical landscape. The project, which became Stones to Stormont, he says, “put me in touch with how spiritual – not religious, but spiritual – Irish people are. When you look into it, you begin to understand that it revolves around their recognition of another world.”

Mr. Kumpf’s coffee table-sized book offers lavish photos, some in color and some in black and white, of an unusually wide variety of Irish sites of mythological or spiritual importance. Well-known places like Knocknarea and Newgrange are represented, along with less famous spots like Quin Abbey near Ennis and the haunting abandoned monastery on Ballenskellig Island, off Kerry’s coast. Perhaps most interesting, however, are the photos of countless megalithic tombs, ring forts and standing stones that stand on private properties, which are not marked on any maps. Readers get a sense of just how many of these historical structures haunt the Irish countryside. It seems as though it’s hard to walk too far across the farm fields anywhere without tripping over some kind of ancient, pre-Celtic monument.

“Irish kids are taught mythology as real history. It’s different that the way Americans learn about Paul Bunnion” says Kumpf. “The myths have never been wiped out there because, unlike the rest of Europe, Ireland never came under the control of Rome.” And while he’s quick to point out that the Irish certainly don’t blame all accidents and ill-luck on fairies, he adds, “People get a bit angry at the way Americans are constantly joking about Leprechauns.” Fairies, he points out, are not the cute, flirtatious things tourists envision. “Yeats would say they’re angels cast out of heaven and put on earth because their sin was not so grave as to land them in hell” Mr. Kumpf explains, adding that true fairies “spend their time fighting, feasting and making love.”

Tom Quinn Kumpf’s book: “Ireland, Standing Stones to Stormont,” is available on or directly from the publisher at

All photos used by permission of Tom Quinn Kumpf.