|Re-constructed Ringfort at Craggaunowen, Co. Clare|
Ringforts are Ireland’s most common field monument, with about 45,000 recorded examples. There are approximately 60 ringforts in the area around Lough Gara most of which are located on the eastern side of the lake. The short distance between some of these ringforts suggests a connection and the possible existence of a small village in medieval times.
Ringforts are circular areas, measuring c.24-60m in diameter, usually enclosed with one or more earthen banks, often topped with a timber palisade. While the term ‘ringfort’ dominates, other terms are also used such as rath, lios, caiseal and dun. Rath and lios are normally used to describe monuments with earthen banks while caiseal (cashel) and dun are more generally used in relation to sites with stone-built enclosures.
Most ringforts have only one surrounding wall, while some have two, and a smaller number have three. It is generally accepted that the more banks and ditches the monument has, the higher the social status of its owner.
There has been some debate among archaeologists as to when Irish ringforts were built and used. In his work ‘The Irish Ringfort’, Matthew Stout has used the radiocarbon and dendrochronological dates from 114 ringforts and associated sites to find an overall date pattern for the use of ringforts. This work has placed over half of all ringforts in the period 540 AD to 884 AD with two-thirds of these falling within the 600 AD to 900 AD period.
Souterrains or underground passages are often found within ringforts and also date to the Early Medieval period. The term souterrain stems from the French words sous, meaning under and terre, meaning ground. They have been interpreted as places of refuge or storage areas and generally date to the later phase of the Early Medieval period.
Ringforts were traditionally thought to represent farmsteads. More recent archaeological evidence suggests that they may have fulfilled a variety of other functions as well. A number of these sites are thought to have been permanent centres of craftsmanship and manufacture, as evidenced by the presence of furnaces.
It has been argued that the purpose of the ringfort was to provide protection to a small community and their livestock during a 'hit and run' raid for cattle. Archaeologists believe that all ringforts in a region were probably occupied at the same time. Should one ringfort be attacked, help would possibly come from a neighbouring one.
Some scholars believe that ringforts may owe their origin to changes in the environment. It is possible that periods of poor weather may have led to poor harvests, shortages of food, famine, lowering of resistance to disease and vulnerability to widespread pestilences.
The first historic plague (the Justinian, named after the emperor who was infected by it) was an outbreak of bubonic plague, which came to Ireland in AD 544 and decimated the people over several years. Several other pestilences are recorded from the mid-500s. Another severe outbreak of plague hit Ireland in 664.These may have played a part in the sudden desire of those who survived and could afford to do so, to secure themselves in ringforts. (Lynne, C., Archaeology Ireland, Winter 2005). Experience of the first plague may have shown that small isolated communities had a better chance of avoiding infection.
It has been suggested that the fairies have been largely responsible for the survival of so many ringforts in Ireland. While few people in Ireland today would own up to believing in the existence of fairies it would be a brave individual who would tamper with a ringfort and risk upsetting the little people.
Despite the best efforts of the fairies to protect and preserve our ringforts, many have been lost over the years. Although such sites are protected monuments, some unscrupulous individuals have destroyed such sites in order to gain just a few hundred square meters of land. It is estimated that 37 per cent of such structures nation-wide have disappeared since the first Ordnance Survey was published in 1837.
Recently, a farmer was ordered to pay a €25,000 fine for demolishing a ring fort on his land or face two years in prison. Landowners are required to notify the Department of the Environment of their intention to carry out works near a national monument two months in advance and have to obtain written permission from the minister before they can proceed.
Ringforts are an important part of our Irish heritage and we need to care about them and preserve them for future generations.