The above is a ringfort. There are two types of ringforts in Ireland, those made from stone and those made from earth. There are over 45,000 of them spread across the country and they do not all look like this. This example is in immaculate condition. In fact, for the vast, vast majority, you could have walked through it without ever realising it was there. It’s said that you can’t go more than 2-5km without passing one in the country.
These structures are so old that in most cases they have been swallowed up by the earth. The main way they are found today is through aerial sightings when shadows highlight the small bumps in circular shapes as seen below.
We have barely scratched the surface in terms of studying these structures. Between the 70’s and 00’s we excavated and studied under 200 of the 45,000 in the country. Needless to say, we’ve gleaned some information from our studies, all the same. So, what are they?
What are they?
The term “fort” is misleading, as these structures were not for defending against attacks. That is, the huge majority of them weren’t. Those that were are exceptions and there are incredibly few. Look at those walls. A child could climb over those walls.
The ringforts of Ireland were used as livestock pens. This is from a time before barbed wire and electric fences, people needed to be able to keep their animals safe and secure. In fact, these were being built from as early as the Iron Age (over 2,500 years ago) right up until the 1200s. The largest explosion of these, though, is between the 7th and 9th Centuries. The high middle ages while Ireland was made of seven provinces and ruled by countless kings. Cows were incredibly important back then. Well, they still are, the Irish love their cows. But even more so back then because they were a form of currency. A measure of wealth. Cattle raids were very popular.
So people would ride in, raid and drive the cattle away and to their own land. How to stop this? Put the cows in a pen. Circular enclosures are the most labour effective means of building a wall and they would make them out of stone, earth or both. Now when someone came riding up, they would have to enter the ringfort and face the owner if they wanted the cattle. Suddenly not so appealing as you’re way more likely to have to fight. So, besides keeping their herds safe from the elements and animals, and keeping them from wandering off, it is believed to have driven down opportunistic cattle raiding. So why did they fall out of use? Why did they slowly taper off until they stopped being built in the 12oos?
That’s right. It was around the year 794 that we had our first visits from the Vikings. So, when you consider that the ringforts were livestock pens, you see the problem? The poor farmers might as well have put out a beacon for them saying “We have stuff worth robbing.” Now they had to contend with bands of warriors landing into an enclosed space with them and suddenly ringforts weren’t the best thing to be living in anymore, out in the open. One of the adaptations made to a lot of the structures was the addition of a souterrain. These were small tunnels built into the ringforts that led out to a safe field or wood so they could flee in the event of a raid.
Needless to say, it wasn’t ideal. And so, the decline in building ringforts began, it is believed. But did people stop living in them completely?
Did people stop living in them completely?
Though they were built all the way up until the 1200s, people were still living in them as late as the 1800s. Within the last 200 years, some people were still living in ringforts. We can tell this for a number of reasons, mainly by all the technological and architectural advancements that appear in some forts. These are:
- Gatehouses being build over the entrances to the forts – these likely would have been introduced after the Norman Invasion in the 12th Century.
- Tower Houses inside the foundations. This practise looks to have lasted up until the 17th Century. Tower houses are a form of castle that was very popular in Ireland after the Norman invasion. Usually 3-4 stories high and housing a few generations of a family.
- Mortar in the walls – A particular type of mortar that was invented in 1794.
Why did they keep living in them? We don’t know. It is speculated that, after each section of our invasion history (the Normans, the Tudors, Cromwell etc) that the locals of the areas would simply be trying to get back in touch with their Gaelic roots and heritage. There certainly seems to be no defensive or immediately apparent practical reason to reside in them. At the very least, it could have afforded them a certain amount of privacy and protection from the wind.
Why are they called Ringforts?
One thing to note is that the term “Ringfort” is only a recent term, no older than 60 years. There are Irish names for ringforts that are still used today, even if we don’t realise. For example, the Irish name for an earthen ringfort is “Ráth” or “Lios”. These are found in place names all over Ireland – Rathmines, Rathfarnham, Rathmuc, Rathnew, An Ráth etc. Any place name with Rath in the name is referring to an earthen fort in the area. The same with “Lios” only it normally appears today as “Lis” in our place names – Lisballyhea, Liscarroll, Lisgriffin, Lisdoonvarna etc.
The Irish names for stone forts are “Caiseal” and “Caher”. The two most obvious examples of this are both in Tipperary with Cashel and Cahir. Both named after stone forts. Any town name you come across with those words are referring to stone forts that are or were in the area. The most common of all these names is Ráth, so keep a look out for it next time you’re looking at a map or driving through the country. You’ll see it everywhere.