Ringforts are by far and away the most common archaeological fort structure found dotted around the Irish countryside. Up to 40,000 sites have been identified and it is believed there may have been as many as 50,000 in all. Unfortunately, over time and through events such as farming and abandonment, many of these structures are nothing more than a dilapidated structure at best, or an odd concentric outline in the ground at worst. Ok, not worst – the worst have disappeared entirely.
Scholarly types can’t quite decide whether or not these are Iron Age structures or are more modern and from early Medieval periods. Given the vast number of forts, I’d say both – and from every other period in between.
It’s been debated that they were used as homesteads, farmsteads of the free man, defence structures and/or seats of nobility. Some are perhaps more obviously elaborate than others – so again I’d say they were probably used for all sorts of purposes, just like they were used over a very long period of time.
The fact that no one singular use has been identified as the purpose of these structures – it would seem to me that “round” was the architectural style choice of the day/year/century. Functional, safe and private: they were well-built even if no cement or mortar was used. If it keeps out the wind and rain, as is the prevalent weather-type of Ireland, why change it? Heck, you can even keep your cattle in there with you too!
Just like the Romans had their atriums – maybe the Irish just liked things in the round… But it wasn’t just the Irish, there are any number of European countries that have remnant round forts too. Maybe building round structures was like “flipping the bird” to those pesky Romans and their fancy classical straight walls and perfect right-angled corners.
Note – I am aware that the Romans never actually invaded Ireland. Perhaps those other Celts in Scotland had taught them well enough to stay out!
It has occurred to me that in many an African village the “traditional” huts are all round too, with square buildings only coming along with the arrival of the breeze-block.
Now that I’ve demonstrated my extremely loose grip on all things historical and archaeological, here’s a wee tour of a grand total of four forts. Well, at least three up close – the fourth was viewed from afar. A pitiful 0.01% of all known forts – not bad going, I thought.
Grianan of Ailigh (also spelt Grianan of Aileach) is located in County Donegal, the closest town being Burt. (I wonder if there is an “Urnie”? How very droll, I know. I just couldn’t help myself!)
Constructed sometime between the 6th-7th centuries, this ringfort is a collection of historical monuments centred about a main structure.
Recorded in the Irish Annals as having been destroyed in 1101, it was restored 1874-1878. Further restoration to the site was carried out in 2001.
The other three forts that we visited are located in the south-west of Ireland. We were based in Killarney (County Kerry) for a few days and stopped by the forts as part of both the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula self-drive tours.
Lohar Fort can be viewed from the car park at Coomatloukane on the route that is the Ring of Kerry.
This is the only structure we never got to scramble around, but you can see that within the larger circular wall there are two smaller circular enclosures.
Staigue Fort is located 3 miles west of Sneem in County Kerry. Also on the Ring of Kerry (I’ll be doing a separate post on that sometime in the near future) this fort is believed to have been built during the 1st century BC and is surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills. Single track lanes lead up to this beautiful site.
The final fort of the trip is Dunbeg Fort, a promontory fort found on the southern coastline of the Dingle Peninsular, County Kerry.
The only fort we had to pay to see (there is a collection box for donations at Staigue Fort); a paltry few Euros will get you into the site and includes a 10-minute audio-visual presentation on its history. It is also the only fort that we visited that has straight walls…hmmm…
There is also a conveniently located restaurant next to the car park for a spot of lunch…
The prefix Dun- would have signified that this fort would have been of some importance. Given its location atop a cliff – it is clear to see that it would have been a superbly located look-out post.
It is thought to have covered a much larger area, but the fort was constructed along a fault-line. The cliff eventually broke off along this plane of weakness and collapsed into the sea – taking much of the structure with it (token geology for this post ;) ).