There are theories about the legendary Atlantis being located in all sorts of locations around the world, some underwater, some above the waves. Here we take a look at the idea that Plato’s Atlantis may have been based on the island of Ireland.
The Atlantic culture
Classical Greek philosopher Plato wrote in his dialogue Timaeus of a “great power” that advanced from its base in the Atlantic Ocean, to attack the cities of Europe and Asia. Plato’s text makes reference to an island “bigger than Libya and Asia combined” that lay in the Atlantic Ocean opposite the strait called the “Pillars of Hercules” (generally considered to be the mouth of the Mediterranean at Gibraltar).
Whilst many view Plato’s Atlantis as a fictional place, there is actually evidence of an Atlantic culture that spread along the north-western shores of Europe. This culture is best known for the megalithic architecture that it left in its wake. Anthony Roberts, writing over 40 years ago, stated the following about this culture…
“stone circles, standing stones, mounds and tumuli were erected with fantastic skill to form patterns, alignments and astronomical measurements that could only have come form knowledge inherited from a high civilization. This civilization may have been founded in Atlantis and then transmitted throughout its colonies where, even after the destruction, traces of it lingered on… Over all the British Isles and Ireland in particular, the faint shadow of Atlantis can still be seen” [emphasis added]
The map below shows the distribution of megalithic architecture, including stone circles and standing stones, in Europe in the Neolithic period. There appears to be an early focus in north-west France, south-west Britain and southern Ireland. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on Ireland, and leave the island of Britain (and north-west France) for another article.
The distribution of megalithic architecture in Europe (map by Cromwell)
Ireland – the geographer’s Atlantis
A geographer, Dr Ulf Erlingsson, noted that this distribution of megalithic monuments “pretty well coincides” with Plato’s description of an Atlantic culture, which came to dominate parts of Europe. Against the advice of his colleagues at the time, Erlingsson wrote a book on what he referred to as the “controversial” subject of Atlantis, called Atlantis from a Geographer’s Perspective – Mapping the Fairy Land.
In his book, Erlingsson theorised that “beyond reasonable doubt Plato based the geographic description of Atlantis on Ireland”. He suggested that the story of Atlantis as conveyed by Plato was partly fictional, but could have partly been based on a real place. His calculations indicated that the measurements given for Atlantis are a close match to the size of Ireland. He also noted that Atlantis was said to have a fertile plain in the centre of the island, and that Ireland has a central plain, surrounded by mountains that slope to the sea.
There is of course an obvious flaw in this Ireland = Atlantis idea, in that Plato’s Atlantis sank into the sea in a single day and night, leaving the sea in that location impassable with shoals of mud. Erlingsson acknowledged this, and proposed that the sinking part of the story comes from the inundation of Dogger Land in the North Sea, which he believed succumbed to a tsunami and rapidly rising global sea levels around 6100 BC. Some of the survivors made their way to Ireland, bringing their tales of this destruction with them.
Erlingsson is not the first to link sunken lands in the North Sea with Atlantis – Dr Jurgen Spanuth proposed something similar. And people who migrate to new lands will generally bring their oral traditions with them. However, Erlingsson goes further to suggest that the Atlantean temples of Poseidon can be linked to the archaeology of Ireland – in particular the Boyne Valley passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth.
Many people – including archaeologists – will struggle to jump on board the suggestion that the Boyne Valley passage tombs are Atlantean temples. Nonetheless, Erlingsson is not the first person – and possibly won’t be the last – to link the ancient stone structures of Ireland with Atlantis.
Ireland’s round towers
There are 65 stone round towers – or the remains thereof – in Ireland (with another two in Scotland, and one on the Isle of Man).
The towers reach up to 34 metres in height, and are said to date from the early medieval period (7th to 10th centuries), when they are thought to have been used as bell towers, watch towers or places of refuge. And they have been associated over the years with Atlantis.
In 1934 a book on The Round Towers of Ireland was published, authored by Henry O’Brien. In the 1970s this was re-published as Atlantis in Ireland: Round Towers of Ireland, despite the book not actually referring to Atlantis at all. No doubt anything with Atlantis in its title was flying off the bookshelves at the time.
Even though the round towers appear to be a lot more recent than Plato’s Atlantis, they retain their intrigue. For example, American scientist Philip Callahan proposed that they were originally built as huge resonant collectors of paramagnetic energy, in order to improve soil fertility – for more on round towers see the links further below.
The fort’s of Aran
The giant stone forts (or dúns) of the Aran islands – off Ireland’s west coast – have also been linked with Atlantis. They are thought to date from the Bronze or Iron Ages, and have very thick external walls, suggesting a defensive function.
The American linguist, Charles Berlitz, wrote in his book Atlantis: The Eighth Continent that the Aran islands and their forts are associated with the lost continent of Atlantis, possibly as outposts of the mid-Atlantic empire. This claim was later incorporated into an official tourist guide book.
For the Aran forts to be Atlantean outposts, Atlantis itself would have to be elsewhere, possibly submerged in the ocean to the west. Indeed, one alternative theory is that the forts were originally built as ancient tsunami shelters… “the last record of a people trying to survive amidst a cataclysm caused by the inundation and destruction of another land”. Could that other land have been Atlantis, or at least contributed to the Atlantean legend?
Mysterious lost lands
There is actually evidence of mysterious lands to the west of Ireland, that once existed but are no more.
Firstly there is Hy-Brasil, a phantom island said to be located in the Atlantis Ocean west of Ireland. According to Irish myths, it was cloaked in mists with the exception of one day every seven years, when it becomes visible, but it still cannot be reached. The name Hy-Brasil, or its many variants, appear on early charts of the Atlantic. It may have derived from Braesail, a demi-god like Chronos, who ruled the Atlantic Ocean. The Irish Uí Breasail means ‘descendants of Bresail’, Bresail being an ancient clan from north-eastern Ireland.
Another lost land is that of Tir n n’Og, which is a land of eternal youth in Irish mythology. There is a legend that on a misty day when the light is just right, an observer can see the towers of Tir n n’Og under the sea from the southern cliffs of Inisheer, the smallest of the Aran islands. With its description as a glorious land beneath the sea where the souls of the departed journeyed in the afterlife, it starts sounding like that other mysterious place, the Celtic Otherworld.
Mysterious arrivees in Ireland
Irish mythology is full of tribes and peoples arriving in Ireland, including two apparently supernatural races, the Tuatha de Danaan and the Fomorians.
The Tuatha de Danaan, usually translated as the ‘people of the goddess Dana or Danu’, came from the Celtic Otherworld. The Fomorians, usually portrayed as hostile beings that opposed the Tuatha de Danaan, were considered to be underworld demons; and later they were portrayed as giants and sea raiders. The progenitress of the Fomorians was the goddess Domnu, a name meaning ‘abyss’ or ‘marine abyss’.
The link between the Fomorians (in particular) and Atlantis is two-fold: it has been proposed that the Fomorians actually came from Atlantis; and their apparent association with undersea worlds chimes with the inundation and sinking of Plato’s Atlantis.
To conclude, Ireland probably wasn’t the island continent described by Plato, but the more the evidence is considered (some of it admittedly mythological), the more support there is for Anthony Roberts’ suggestion that in Ireland the faint shadow of Atlantis can be seen – however you wish to interpret that…
Childress, D.H., Lost Cities of Atlantis, Ancient Europe and the Mediterranean, Adventures Unlimited Press, 2002
Brennan, H., The Atlantis Enigma, Berkeley, 2000
Erlingsson, U., Atlantis from a Geographer’s Perspective – Mapping the Fairy Isle, Lindorm Publishing, 2004
Roberts, A., Atlantean Traditions in Ancient Britain, Rider, 1977
Online biography of Ulf Erlingsson
Round tower links…
Places of Peace and Power – the Round Towers of Ireland
The Enigma of the Irish Round Towers – by Bernd Biege
The Enigma of the Irish Round Towers – Part 1 by Brian Freeston
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