RINGFORTS (Medieval Ireland)

Ringforts are the most ubiquitous, abundant and, ironically, among the less-studied monuments on the Irish landscape. Over 45,000 have been identified, the densest concentrations occurring in north Connacht, north Munster, part of south Leinster, and in a band extending from south Antrim, through Monaghan and Cavan in Ulster, southwest into the Leinster county of Longford. They tend to be located on sloping ground in the well-drained soils of lowland areas.

A ringfort is essentially a circular or near circular space, which in some instances is raised above ground rounded in turn by a ditch. The interior was reached via a causeway across the ditch and a gate entrance in the bank. In the manner of a property boundary, the "ring" generally defined the perimeter of a homestead and encompassed and protected a dwelling or group of dwellings. Where the surrounding bank or banks of a ringfort are built of earth the term rath is given to the construction, while the words caiseal and cathair are generally used to describe ringforts made of stone. Unlike their earthen counterparts, stone forts tend not to have an external ditch. The word lios, which is frequently embraced in Irish place names, refers to the interior of a ringfort, while urlann is the term given to an open space in front of a ringfort. Most ringforts have one bank, but there are some with two or three banks and intervening ditches. The bank would have been augmented by a timber palisade, a quick-set hedge (hawthorn), or a sturdy growth of bushes and trees. Ringforts vary greatly in size from approximately 27 meters to 75 meters in diameter internally, but the average rath tends to be 27-30 meters and, in general, stone forts tend to have smaller diameters. It is argued that the size of ringforts and the complexity of their enclosing banks suggest something about the status of their occupants. Larger ringforts appear to have accommodated the highest grades of society and to have attracted a clustering of smaller ringforts around them. A feature often found in ringforts is a souterrain, or underground passage, generally constructed of stone but also created by tunneling into natural rock or compact clay. Souterrains provided refuge for the inhabitants of ringforts and were also possibly used as storage facilities.

Ballyconran Ringfort, Co. Wexford.

Ballyconran Ringfort, Co. Wexford. 

Ringforts constructed in the early medieval period essentially enclosed single farmsteads engaged in pastoral farming. This interpretation of their primary function is especially borne out by the results of Lynn’s excavations at Deer Park Farms, County Antrim, where a rath was found to enclose a group of five contemporary wicker houses dating to approximately 700 c.e. The layout of this farmstead, the design of its houses, and the artifacts recovered are considered consistent with the material attributes of lower grade ringfort occupants noted in the seventh-century Irish law tract called Crith Gabhlach. Typical early medieval finds from ringforts include bronze, iron, and bone pins; glass beads; crude handmade pottery called souterrain ware; and wheel-thrown pottery termed E ware. Cattle bones are also particularly numerous, showing the dominance of cattle meat in the diet of ringfort inhabitants and an emphasis on dairying.

Stout’s seminal study of ringforts proposes that the majority were constructed in a three hundred-year period from the beginning of the seventh century to the end of the ninth century c.e. This conclusion is based on the predominantly early medieval radiocarbon and tree-ring dates obtained from just forty-seven excavated ringforts. At present there is insufficient evidence from archaeological excavations to support any claim that ringforts continued to be constructed after 1200. However, structural features in the fabric of some upstanding stone forts, significant information derived from a few excavations, depictions of ringforts as "living sites" on Tudor maps of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and historical references and analysis of distribution patterns combine to suggest that ringfort settlement did not become obsolete at the end of the early medieval period. The well-known map picture of Tulach Og in Tyrone drawn by Richard Bartlett in 1602 shows the dwelling of the Ui Again family as a single-banked ringfort containing a large house and a cabin. As late as 1619, the Lindsey family who had received the lands at Tulach Og during the Plantation of Ulster occupied the ringfort.

Some ringforts appear to have enjoyed a measure of continuity of use from the early into the later medieval period. Excavations by Jope at the rath of Bally-macash, County Antrim, revealed that the ringfort had been built in two phases. A radiocarbon date of 1020-1250 was obtained from the remains of an oak post positioned in the clay floor of one of three houses associated with the second phase of occupation of the ringfort, and stratified shards of everted-rim ware dating to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century were found in association with another of the three houses. Excavations by Raftery at Rathgall, County Wicklow, have proved that the caiseal enjoyed substantial occupation in the late thirteenth and fourteenth century, probably as the caput of the Gaelic sept of Ui Bhroin. Over two thousand shards of medieval pottery including locally produced glazed ware and Leinster cooking ware were found within the caiseal in association with coins of late thirteenth-and fourteenth-century date.

Some of the well-preserved stone forts of the Bur-ren, County Clare, contain structural features indicative of modification and occupation by leading Gaelic families in the later medieval period. Cathair Mhor and Cathair Mhic Neachtain both retain the remains of late medieval two-story gate-tower entrances. Within Cathair Mhor there is a large masonry dwelling with rounded quoins and a stout batter of the same period. Cathair Mhic Neachtain, which was the residence of the Ui Dhubhdabhoireann legal family, contains the foundations of several buildings, among them a large dwelling and a kitchen house, described in a seventeenth-century document. Stone forts occupied in the later medieval period served much the same purpose as the bawn wall of tower houses—they afforded a measure of defense and defined a courtyard in which domestic buildings were situated.

The longevity of ringforts and the modifications made to them over time are not yet fully appreciated and are likely to dominate future scholarly investigations of this most commonplace, versatile, and complex of Irish medieval monuments.

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