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The Mystery of Ancient, Irish Ringforts — Part I

The Mystery of Ancient, Celtic Ringforts and Hillforts — Part I

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at the mystery of ringforts and hillforts in ancient, Celtic Ireland—Part I.

Fifty Thousand Ringforts?

Ringforts. Circular stone fortresses from a hundred feet to three hundred yards in diameter, with towering, twenty- and thirty-foot walls. In Ireland today, nearly 40,000 sites have been identified as ringforts, with an estimated 10,000 more still undiscovered. They were built as early as 1100 B.C. and as late as A.D. 1000. Ireland can claim one ringfort for every two square kilometers. If made of earth it’s called a ráth. A more impressive fortress, not always circular, is called a dún. What were these impressive structures? And why so many? This post will examine both a hillfort and a ringfort.


Hill of Tara

Tara, Hill of Legend—The Ráth na Ríogh

When I visited Tara in present-day county Meath, the place filled me with awe. (The ancient borders kept shifting; Leinster used to claim it.) The Ráth na Ríogh is essentially a giant hillfort, an earthwork defense encircling the top a high hill. Not much is left of the original, but it was once a hilltop fortress nearly 300 meters in diameter. The palace of the king of Tara sat here. As did a druid temple. Barry Raftery, the preeminent archaeologist, distinguishes the larger hillforts like Tara from the smaller ringforts. For our purposes we’ll look at both kinds of structures.

Within Tara’s borders also lies the Mound of the Hostages, a megalithic “passage tomb” dated to about 2,500 B.C. Why so named? Because of the ancient custom of holding important personages hostage from subject kingdoms to ensure their continued allegiance. On two days of the year, aligning with the Celtic festivals of Samhain and Imbolc, the sun shines directly to the back of the short, thirteen-foot passage.

Also present is the Stone of Destiny, the Lia Fáil. This stone was said to be a gift of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the legendary god-like people who were said to have originally populated Ireland. And when the true king of Tara struck it, the stone was said to sing. (In my upcoming novel, The Bonfires of Beltane, the doomed king Lóeghaire, after Patrick lights the Beltane fire before him, bemoans his fate when he strikes the stone and it no longer sings.)

06/18/14: Inishmore. Dun Aengus Fort

Dún Aengus Fort on Inishmore

Dún Aengus on Inis Mór—For Defense or Ceremony?

Most of the Emerald Isle’s ringforts were made of the all-too-abundant stone. Dún Aengus on Inis Mór, part of the Aran Islands in County Galway, was just such a fort. It was built possibly in the 2nd Century B.C. at the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. In some locations, its walls are four meters wide. The outermost walls enclose fourteen acres.

Some now suggest a religious or ceremonial purpose for Dún Aengus. And surely, a bonfire on the hilltop, set alight on Beltane eve—when the druids said the spirits of the Otherworld were closest—could be seen for miles from the mainland. But why such a massive structure only for ceremony, and not for defense?

Mystery Upon Mystery

What went on inside these huge stone enclosures? Were they the abode of kings? Did the druids build them to hold their dark ceremonies? Were they merely cattle enclosures? Or was their purpose mainly for defense?

Sources for this post: Wikipedia, http://www.mythicalireland.com/ancientsites/, and Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery.

Next time we’ll conclude our look at the mystery of ancient Irish ringforts, with Part II.