With a legacy that dates back thousands of years, the emerald isles of Ireland hide more than just mythical leprechauns. Tucked into the rolling Irish countryside are historical gems that whisper tales of ancient civilization and chivalry.
Irish ringforts are neither mere structures of olden times but circular fortified settlements. These are spaces enclosed by a defined circular boundary, the earth for which was dug out from surrounding ditches. Some fortifications, especially in Western Ireland, ditched the traditional earth bank, instead fortifying their ring forts with robust stone walls.
These forts weren’t just military establishments. They were places of residence, often hosting timber houses and occasionally, stone structures. The remains of which are still visible at some sites. Many of these forts had souterrains – underground chambers which served as refuge during invasions or as storage areas.
Quick Summary of Ring Forts in Ireland
|1||Grianan of Aileach||County Donegal||Ancient stone fort, once the royal citadel of the Uí Néill.|
|2||Cahergall||County Kerry||Stone fort with massive walls, represents Iron Age architecture.|
|3||Staigue Fort||County Kerry||Well-preserved stone fort, known for its intricate masonry.|
|4||Dún Aonghasa||Aran Islands, Co. Galway||Cliff-side fort, iconic for its dramatic location.|
|5||Dunbeg Fort||County Kerry||Positioned on a cliff, offers breathtaking ocean views.|
|6||Mooghaun Hill Fort||County Clare||Large hill fort, associated with a rich trove of gold artifacts discovered nearby.|
|7||Rathgall Hillfort||County Wicklow||Extensive and multi-phase hill fort, with evidence of Bronze and Iron Age occupation.|
|8||Dún Eochla||Aran Islands, Co. Galway||Less visited compared to Dún Aonghasa, but well-preserved.|
|9||Knockdrum Stone Fort||County Cork||Hilltop stone fort with commanding views of the countryside.|
|10||Craggaunowen Castle||County Clare||A reconstructed ring fort showing Iron Age life.|
|11||Lios-na-gCon||County Cork||Restored ring fort with surrounding fosse and bank.|
|12||Grange Stone Circle||County Limerick||Largest stone circle in Ireland, sometimes termed a “ring fort” though its primary function was likely ceremonial.|
|13||Ring of Rath||County Louth||Ancient site with multiple enclosures.|
|14||Caherconnell Stone Fort||County Clare||Large, well-preserved medieval stone fort.|
|15||Doon Fort||County Donegal||Island fort, known for its unique oval shape.|
|16||An Grianán of Inber Scéne||County Kerry||Mythical ring fort connected to tales of Cú Chulainn.|
|17||Leacanabuile||County Kerry||Stone fort dating back to 9th or 10th century.|
|18||Dún Beag||County Kerry||Cliff-side promontory fort offering panoramic views.|
|19||The Burren Forts||County Clare||Series of forts within the Burren landscape.|
|20||Shee Mor||County Leitrim||Ancient hill fort connected with many local legends.|
Understanding the Basics of Ring Forts
A ring fort, also known as a rath or a fairy fort, is a circular fortified settlement found in Ireland. It is typically surrounded by one or more earthen banks and ditches, forming a defensive boundary.
The construction of these forts can vary, but they often consist of earthworks, timber palisades, and sometimes stone walls. Ring forts can range in size from a few meters to several hectares and were built during the Iron Age, with some still visible today.
Ring forts hold great archaeological significance due to the insights they provide into ancient Irish society and its history. These structures offer valuable information about the daily lives, social structures, and cultural practices of the people who inhabited them.
Archaeological excavations at ring forts have resulted in the discovery of artifacts, tools, and pottery, shedding light on ancient craftsmanship, trade, and agricultural practices.
Historical Background of Ring Forts in Ireland
Ring forts began to appear in Ireland around 500 BCE, during the later part of the Iron Age. They were built by various Celtic tribes inhabiting the region at the time, such as the Gaelic Celts and the La Tène Celts. The construction of these forts continued until the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century CE.
Ring forts served multiple purposes in ancient Ireland. They were primarily defensive structures, providing protection for the community against potential raiders or threats. These forts also served as homesteads for families and were centers of agricultural activities.
The circular layout of the forts allowed for communal living, with houses, storage areas, and animal enclosures within the fortified boundary.
Ring forts held great societal significance in ancient Ireland. They were symbols of status and nobility, representing the wealth and power of the families who owned them. The possession of a ring fort signified a family’s prominence within the community, and they were often passed down through generations.
The forts also played a vital role in social gatherings, religious ceremonies, and trade activities, acting as hubs of community life.
Ring Forts to Visit in Ireland
The Hill of Tara:
Positioned in the heart of Ireland, the Hill of Tara carries with it an aura of ancient majesty. Once the ceremonial seat for over 140 Irish kings, this sacred site showcases the Royal Enclosure, a sprawling Iron Age fort covering 1000 meters. At its core, the fabled Stone of Destiny reverberates with tales of kings who, upon its touch, were deemed worthy of leadership.
Rathgall Hillfort, Wicklow:
Located in the picturesque County Wicklow, Rathgall Hillfort stands as a testament to ancient craftsmanship. Enclosed by four robust stone walls, its 18-acre grounds have been a treasure trove for archaeologists.
Excavations have brought to light remnants of domestic life, metal workshops, and artifacts like gold beads and bronze objects, painting a vibrant picture of its past inhabitants.
Nestled in County Clare, Cahercommaun is a striking triple stone ringfort rich with Iron Age heritage. Its most dominant feature, an inner wall constructed from a staggering 16,500 tons of stone, speaks volumes of the architectural prowess of its builders. This massive fort remains a key site for researchers and history aficionados alike
Grianán of Aileach, Donegal:
Perched atop a hill in County Donegal, the Grianán of Aileach offers vistas that are as captivating as its history. Dating back to 1700BC, this stone fort carries with it tales of St. Patrick, who is said to have baptized a local chieftain within its walls, further deepening its historical roots.
Doonconor Carrownlisheen, Galway:
Dún Conor in Galway is an emblem of ancient fortification. Its formidable stone walls create an enclosure spanning approximately 69 meters north to south and 35 meters east to west. Believed to have been constructed in the first or second millennium BC, it serves as a silent sentinel to centuries gone by.
Knockdrum Stone Fort, Cork:
This ancient fort in Cork is a bridge to Ireland’s pre-Christian era. Encompassing a 29-meter diameter, Knockdrum’s thick walls stand resilient to time. The entrance beckons visitors, evoking a sense of wonder about the secrets and mysteries the fort has witnessed.
Staigue Ring Fort:
Situated amidst a picturesque backdrop, the Staigue Fort is renowned for its massive walls, some of which soar up to 18 feet. The remnants of ancient homes within its confines offer visitors a tangible connection to the lives once led there, making it a journey both through nature and time.
This fort in Kerry offers a panoramic view of the iconic Ring of Kerry. Its walls encircle a space of about 70 feet in diameter. Recent excavations have unearthed artifacts from both the Iron and Bronze Ages, shedding light on its storied past.
Cahergall Ring Fort, Kerry:
This impressive stone fort, thought to have been constructed around 600 AD, boasts massive, meticulously crafted dry-stone walls that showcase the architectural expertise of its builders and is one of the best early medieval stone fort examples to be found.
The fort’s circular design, common among Irish ring forts, was strategically chosen for defense, allowing inhabitants to have a 360-degree view of their surroundings. Its thick walls, which reach remarkable heights in certain sections, would have been a formidable barrier against potential invaders.
Inside the fort, one can find evidence of ancient living quarters, offering a glimpse into the daily lives of the people who once called this fort home. The internal layout speaks to a well-organized community, adept at fortification and communal living.
Positioned close to the Atlantic coast, Cahergall offers not only historical insights but also panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes, from rolling green hills to the distant shimmer of the ocean.
Its proximity to other historical sites, like the nearby Leacanabuile Fort, makes it a significant point of interest for those tracing the footsteps of ancient Irish civilization.
Leacanabuaile Stone Fort, Kerry
Nestled atop a hill near Cahersiveen in County Kerry, Leacanabuile Stone Fort transports visitors back to an ancient time in Irish history. Believed to have been constructed around the 9th or 10th century AD, this well-preserved stone fort serves as an excellent example of the early medieval farmsteads that once dotted the Irish landscape in these stone forts.
Built with meticulous precision, the dry-stone construction of Leacanabuile showcases the architectural prowess of its builders. Its circular walls, characteristic of Irish ring forts, are strategically designed to provide a defensive advantage, protecting its inhabitants from potential threats.
Inside the fort, one can discern remnants of stone buildings, hinting at a once-thriving community. These internal structures, consisting of houses (including a square dwelling house) and other communal areas, provide a captivating glimpse into the daily lives and routines of its ancient residents.
The name “Leacanabuile” translates to “Hillside of the Dairy,” suggesting that the site was used for pastoral farming, an integral aspect of early Irish society.
Its elevated position offers not only strategic defense but also panoramic views of the lush surrounding countryside and the distant Skellig Islands, and the two stone forts of Cahergall stone fort and Leacanabuile are well worth a visit.
Mountsandel Fort, Derry:
Mountsandel Fort is a window into prehistoric times, with a legacy tracing back an astonishing 7000 years. Located in Derry, archaeological digs on the site have revealed valuable finds such as animal bones and carved flints, narrating tales of ancient civilizations.
Dún Aonghasa, Galway:
Strikingly positioned on the Aran Islands, Dún Aonghasa seems to defy gravity, with half of its structure almost cascading into the sea. While myths link its origins to the 2nd century, tangible archaeological proof signifies its roots in the Bronze Age.
Loughcrew Cairns, Meath:
Loughcrew, often referred to as the ‘Hills of the Witch’, is a complex of Neolithic passage tombs in County Meath. Spread over four peaks, these tombs are adorned with some of Ireland’s most diverse megalithic art, offering profound insights into the ancient inhabitants’ ideologies and worldviews.
A vantage point, the hill offers panoramic views of the surrounding landscape, making it not just historically significant but also visually captivating. It’s believed that the cairns align with the equinox sunrise, showcasing the ancient people’s celestial knowledge.
Moygara Castle, Sligo:
Located in County Sligo, Moygara Castle stands as an emblem of the O’Gara Clan’s historical prominence. Originally erected in the 13th century, the castle has witnessed numerous battles, intrigues, and events that shaped the region’s history.
While time has reduced it to ruins, its towering presence and the encompassing water-filled moat give visitors a vivid image of its past grandeur. Stories of battles, clan rivalries, and medieval politics come alive when one treads its ancient grounds.
Dunamase Castle, Laois:
The Rock of Dunamase, set on a rocky outcrop in County Laois, offers a dramatic view of the surrounding plains. The ruins of Dunamase Castle, which adorn the rock, have tales dating back to the 9th century when it was a Viking stronghold.
Over the centuries, it has been the stage for many pivotal moments in Irish history, from Norman invaders to Cromwellian assaults. Today, while the walls might be weathered, they echo stories of power, ambition, and resilience, making it a must-visit for anyone keen on Irish medieval history.
Architectural Features of Ring Forts
Ring forts typically consist of a circular rampart, which is a raised earthen bank encircling the central area of the fort. This is often accompanied by one or more concentric ditches. Some forts may have additional features, such as timber or stone structures within the enclosure. The construction of the forts utilized local materials, such as earth, wood, and stones.
There are various types of ring forts found in Ireland, each with its own distinct architectural features. One common type is the cashel, which has a stone wall enclosing the central area. Another type is known as a lios, which features an earthen bank with a wooden palisade or fence.
The bawns are ring forts with multiple defensive enclosures, while the crannógs are artificial islands in lakes or marshes, often constructed to provide additional security.
Each ring fort has its own unique design elements that set it apart from others. Some forts have elaborate entranceways, featuring narrow passages or impressive gateways. Others may have underground structures known as souterrains, which were used for storage or as escape routes.
The positioning of the forts within the landscape also played a role in their design, taking advantage of natural features for defense.
The Decline and Abandonment of Ring Forts
Ring forts began to decline and were abandoned during the early medieval period, around the 6th to 12th centuries CE, and during the later medieval period they moved to a more rectangle shaped dwelling. Various factors contributed to this decline, including changes in societal structures, political shifts, and the arrival of Christianity.
As the Irish people shifted towards more centralized settlements under church or feudal control, ring forts lost their significance and fell into disuse.
The decline and abandonment of ring forts had a lasting impact on the Irish landscape and communities. The forts gradually deteriorated and became covered in vegetation, blending into the natural surroundings.
These abandoned structures also had ecological significance, providing habitats for wildlife and influencing local biodiversity. The communities that once relied on the forts for protection and support had to adapt to new social and political structures.
Connecting Ring Forts and Irish Folklore
Ring forts have long been associated with Irish folklore and mythology. Numerous folktales speak of these forts as dwelling places of fairies (being known as fairy forts) or the sidhe, supernatural beings in Irish mythology.
Stories of encountering fairies, curses, and magical occurrences are often linked to ring forts. The lore surrounding these forts adds an air of mystique and enchantment to their already captivating history.
While folklore adds intrigue to the ring forts, it is essential to separate myth from reality. The stories told about the forts are passed down generationally and often undergo significant changes over time.
While they may not be historically accurate, these tales offer a glimpse into the beliefs, traditions, and oral storytelling traditions of the Irish people throughout history.
Common Questions on Ring Forts Ireland
What is the famous Ring fort in Ireland?
One of the most famous ring forts in Ireland is the Grianán of Aileach (also known as the Greenan Fort). Located in County Donegal, it offers panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and has a rich history associated with it.
What is the best irish ringfort?
“Best” can be subjective based on criteria like preservation, historical significance, or even scenic beauty. While the Grianán of Aileach is one of the most renowned, there are several other important and well-preserved ring forts like Cahergall and Leacanabuile in County Kerry. However, there are thousands of ring forts scattered throughout Ireland (and Northern Europe), each with its own unique characteristics and importance dating back to medieval ireland and the early christian period and many are now a national monument.
Who lived in the ring forts in Ireland?
Ring forts were primarily occupied by the Gaelic Irish, encompassing a range of societal classes from farmers to local chieftains. The size, construction, and location of a ring fort can offer clues about the social status and wealth of its inhabitants.
What were ring forts used for?
Ring forts were mainly residential settlements, serving as homes for families and sometimes communities. The enclosing banks and ditches provided a defensive structure, protecting the inhabitants and their livestock from raiders and wild animals. Some ring forts might have also had ceremonial or religious significance.