Where the Fairies Dwell: Irish Ringforts in Our World and Theirs
A cloud of mystery looms over the ringforts that speckle the countryside of Ireland. More than 45,000 ringforts have been documented throughout Northern Europe and yet little is known about the date, occupancy, and function of these structures. Perhaps this mystery persists due to the mythology surrounding them; that they exist as the gate way to the realm of the fairies and are protected pieces of Irish history that few dare to disturb. Accounts of missing livestock, trances, death, and other misfortune have kept the fairy forts protected for many years. However, a few brave historians and archaeologists are beginning to peel back the curtain and search for answers regarding these ancient structures.
A ringfort is a general term for a circular space, which could sometimes be raised above the surrounding ground, and in other cases could be surrounded by a shallow ditch as a demarcation. The “ring” of the ringforts was a boundary which encompassed the dwelling or group of dwelling within. The ditch that surrounded the fort would have been fortified by a palisade of timber, a hedge, or a thick growth or trees and shrubs. While the average ringfort tends to be around 27-30 meters in diameter internally, they have been found to be as large as 75 meters in diameter externally. The size of the ringfort, some have claimed, is directly linked to the occupancy of the dwelling. The large ringforts would have housed those in a higher class of society while a cluster of smaller forts would have grown around the larger fort.
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In Irish sources ringforts are referred to as “rath” or “lios.” A “rath” refers to a ringfort made from the earth, whereas a “caiseal” or “cathair” refers to one made from stone. The latter typically did not have an outer ditch and tended to be smaller than its earthen counterpart. A “lios” refers to the interior of the fort, and “urlann” to the surrounding area; anything that is not the “lios.” Some ringforts have been found to have a “souterain” or an underground passage that was typically carved out of the natural rock or clay underneath the fort, but could also be made of stone. It is posited that the “souterain” was used as a refuge by the inhabitants of the fort, as well as storage in safer times.
Lisnagade ringfort. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Ringforts can be found across Northern Europe, especially in Ireland and South Wales. There was been over 45,000 documented examples of ringforts across this geographical area. They tend to be found on the slopes of the lowland areas, presumably for the well-drained soil. While there are thousands of these forts speckling the Irish countryside, few have embarked on a detailed study of the structures. The historian, Dr. Matthew Stout, has begun to fill this void with his study of the Irish ringforts. He suggests that the majority of these structures were constructed in a three-hundred-year period from the beginning of the seventh century to the end of the ninth. He has based this theory on radiocarbon and tree-ring dating from 47 excavated ringfort sites. As such, there is an insufficient amount of data to support this claim, leaving room for other theories. Other ideas have surfaced suggesting that the ringforts date back much earlier, into the Iron Age (c. 800 BCE -100 CE), as well as lasting much later, into the later medieval period, and even into the modern period. However, a vast majority of scholars have agreed that the majority of the ringforts were built and occupied within the timeframe suggested by Stout.
The Grianán Ailigh in Co. Donegal, Ireland ( Public Domain )
Just as the periods of occupancy have been debated, the functions of the ringforts are debated as well. Traditionally it was understood that the fort was owned by a free man, and his family, and was tended as a farmstead typically raising cattle. However, there is new evidence to suggest that this was not the only function of a ringfort. As the name would suggest, the forts had a defensive aspect as well. The palisades and shallow moats suggest that the ringforts were used for protection in agrarian communities. While they would not protect from full-scale war, the forts were enough protection from so-called “hit-and-run” raids on the cattle housed within the ring.
Remains of a small earthen ringfort, now used to raise cattle. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Aside from their practical purposes and archaeology, the ringforts have a more tradition-heavy and mythological aspect to them. “Raths” in Ireland are also known as “fairy forts,” as they were said to be the homes of mythological creatures such as fairies, leprechauns, and giants. It was said that the forts were imbued with Druids’ magic and as such the fairies were protected within them. The very early inhabitants of Ireland, known as the “Tuatha De Danann” and “Fir Bolg” and supposed architects of the forts, came to be known as the “Good People” and associated with myths and stories about fairies. As such, the forts themselves were seen as gateways into the world of the fairies. It is also said that leprechauns may know of gold which has been hidden within the structure.
A portrait of a fairy, by Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1869). ( Public Domain )
In the Labor Gabala, or Irish “book of invasions” the “Tuatha De Danann” were defeated by the ancestors of the present day Irish and subsequently sent to the underworld. As the victors took over the countryside once belonging to the “good people” or fairies, the ringforts became the only trace of the fairies left in our world. It is because of this that the fairies guard the structures vehemently. From this legend comes accounts of people having seen or heard lights and music coming from the raths at night. As such many refused to go near the sites, let alone disturb them. When the sites are disturbed there have been reports of missing livestock, people going into trances or deep sleeps, and even death. It is perhaps this superstition that prevents the ringforts from being studied in more depth.
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Folio 53 from the Book of Leinster. Lebor Gabála Érenn is recorded in more than a dozen medieval manuscripts and the Book of Leinster is just one of the primary sources of text. Image: Dublin, TCD, MS 1339 ( Public Domain )
Since the forts were protected by magic, legend has it that death will come to anyone who so much as cuts the brush surrounding the fort. There are numerous myths surrounding the forts, that range from the distant past into our own day. In 1992, Sean Quinn ran into The Aughrim Wedge Tomb, and Irish ringfort in County Cavan, Ireland, while undergoing a massive quarry expansion. The site was relocated despite warnings of the “wrath of the fairies.” Since then Quinn has lost his cement works, hotel, and other business ventures, plunging him into bankruptcy. While many refuses to believe that this is the doing of the fairies, others believe that Quinn came upon his misfortune because he did not heed the warnings to respect the fairies dwelling within the fort.
Top image: The ringfort at Rathrar in County Roscommon, Ireland ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp. Clare County Library. Available at: http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/folklore/folklore_survey/chapter4.htm
RINGFORTS (Medieval Ireland). Available at: http://what-when-how.com/medieval-ireland/ringforts-medieval-ireland/
Sean Quinn’s downfall is fairies’ revenge say locals in Cavan. Available at:
Fairy Cows (told by William Keating). Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/tfgw/tfgw20.htm
Excavations.ie - summary accounts of archaeological excavations in Ireland. Available at: http://www.excavations.ie/
Irish Lore Keeper gives Dire Warning: US Company will be Cursed if Ancient Fairy Fort is Destroyed. Available at: http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-mysterious-phenomena/irish-lore-keeper-gives-dire-warning-us-company-will-be-cursed-if-ancient-020515