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Drawings by Rory O'Shaughnessy. Texts by Christy Cunniffe and John Joe Conwel

The ringfort is by far the most common archaeological monument found on the Irish landscape with over 45,000 examples recorded. 

Settlement Features

TheMankind has inhabited the island of Ireland for c.10, 000 years now. Throughout this period of time it has been necessary to construct structures to live in and to protect the inhabitants from the weather and marauding animals. The first settlers who arrived here during the Mesolithic Period were hunter gatherers and lived in temporary easy to construct huts built from timber saplings covered by animal hides and such like. These were followed by the early farmers of the Neolithic Period who by and large built rectangular houses from stout oak posts and roofed with thatch. They in turn gave way to the Bronze Age people who once again used round houses. The tradition of building round houses carried on through the Iron Age and survived well into the early medieval or Early Christian Period. During the later medieval period we began to build rectangular houses once again. As time went by stone replaced timber making houses a more durable structure on the landscape.

The Ringfort

The ringfort is by far the most common archaeological monument found on the Irish landscape with over 45,000 examples recorded. It is given a general occupation date of between AD400 and AD1100 but was arguably still in use in the western Gaelic regions of Ireland as late as the seventeenth century. They are known at local community level under a variety of names such as, rath, lios, dan, caher and cashel. Though officially referred to as ringforts these monuments are not military forts but instead should be seen as enclosed farmsteads with some functioning as animal stockades. When one encounters a ringfort in the landscape it is useful to see it in the light of a modern farmyard enclosing its various components. The domestic dwelling, the principle structure found within the ringfort, and consisted of a round house of timber construction with wattle and daub walls and a thatched roof. This was accompanied by a suite of other structures that included sheds, workshops, corn drying kilns and animal shelters.

Archaeologists and geographers use specific language to describe the various features of the ringfort. The enclosing bank generally has a deep ditch or fosse on its outside. The bank when newly built would have had either a palisade of timber posts on top, a post and wattle fence, or a strong blackthorn or whitethorn hedge to make it difficult to breach. This was necessary to keep marauding animals such as wolves from attacking the family livestock. It also provided protection against cattle raiders. In regions with abundant stone a variant of the ringfort known as a cashel was built. It differs from the conventional ringfort in that it has a stone built enclosure instead of the more common earthen bank. They were usually sited on a rise on free draining soil. Often they have an underground chamber, referred to as a souterrain, located within the monument. These features are thought to have functioned as places of refuge as suggested by the various obstacles they have built into them in the form of drop holes and twists and bends within the monument. However, the majority were probably used as storage areas for perishable foods, functioning as cold rooms.

Ringforts are classified under a number of headings, mainly based on the number of enclosing banks present. A ringfort with one bank and ditch is described as univallate, one with two banks and ditches as bivallate, one with three elements trivallate or multivallate. It is generally accepted that the more banks and ditches the monument has, the higher its status and is thus linked to the social status of its owner. The chief of the tuath is thought to have resided in the multivallate examples while the lower grades lived in the univallate.

Further Reading

Aalen, F.H.A. Whelan, K. & Stout, M. (eds) 1997 Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape. Cork University Press, Cork.

O'Keeffe, T. 2000 Medieval Ireland  an Archaeology. Tempus.

O'Riordain, S.P. 1979 Antiquities of the Irish Countryside. (fifth edition revised by R. de Valera), London.

Stout, M. 1997 The Irish Ringfort. Four Courts Press, Dublin.

Stout, M. 1991 "Ringforts in the South-West Midlands of Ireland". RIA Proc., xci. 245-84.


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