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The Mystery of Ancient, Celtic Ringforts, Part II

Ancient, Celtic Ringforts — Why Did They Exist?

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher concludes his look at ancient, Celtic ringforts in Ireland—Part II. (Click here to view Part I.)

We’ve seen how the remains of ringforts dot the land of Ireland, with nearly 40,000 sites still in existence. In ancient times, you’d find one ringfort every two square kilometers. So why did the ancient Irish build so many of these massive stone or earthen structures? And for what purpose? Here are the theories:

  1. As a dwelling place and status symbol for the clan’s king.

    A Wooden Palisade Ringfort

A king ruled each of the many tuatha, or clans, of ancient Ireland. A ringfort was large enough to hold several dwellings. The hillforts of Tara and Emain Macha could each contain a village. (Hillforts are distinguished from ringforts by their larger size and later construction.) So some suggest that ringforts were the abode of the tuatha kings, and the larger their size and depth, the greater the king’s status and importance. This is plausible, although it doesn’t rule out a secondary defensive purpose.

  1. As a ceremonial structure for druids.

Another theory is that ringforts were essentially ceremonial, that within their walls the druids would perform their sacred rites. This, to me, overlooks the obvious defensive nature of a fort. And then what was the purpose of the rings of standing stones that the druids built outside the forts?

  1. Smaller ringforts were simply farmsteads.

How would a farmer protect himself from the frequent raiders and the attacks of neighboring clans, if he lived far from the others of his tuath (clan)? He might construct a small fort of stones where he could defend his family and his livestock. This theory, I like. It makes eminent sense for some of the smaller ringforts.

  1. Ringforts were merely cattle enclosures.

How would members of a tuath protect their cattle from the frequent raids of their enemies? They might band together and build a large stone enclosure. When the alarm sounded and the cattle raiders came—and cattle-raiding was a common problem—they would herd their livestock inside. Once their cattle, which was their wealth, was safely within, they could go out and meet the enemy in battle.

Perhaps each night they also herded their cattle inside the fort to keep them safe from wolves. Then they could sleep easily in their roundhouses. I find merit to this theory as well.

  1. Ringforts were used for industry.

Some sites provide little evidence of habitation, but instead show remains of pottery making. On the coast in County Cork. one such ringfort suggests a center for trading with the continent. This may simply be a later use for a ringfort during the Christian era.

  1. Ringforts were mainly for defense.

    Remains of Stone Ringfort, with Reconstructed Palisade

We’ve seen many uses suggested for ringforts. I can accept most of them, except for the ceremonial venue. It seems obvious these are defensive structures, little different from the early motte and bailey castles that came after. (Motte—a circular defense of earth, often topped by spikes and surrounded by a moat. Within the motte is a bailey or courtyard. A keep, or small tower, sits inside the courtyard as a last line of defense against attack.)

Most ringforts were large enough to hold one or more roundhouses, each of which held a fine, or extended family group. In case of attack, the fines might also herd their cattle, sheep, and pigs inside. At all times they might stock the fort with animal feed. When the cattle raiders came, the tuath could either throw spears and shoot arrows from the walls. Or the men—and the fighting women—could leave the children and the other women inside and go out to do battle with the enemy. Most raids would have been short, temporary affairs, not long sieges.

Ringforts Served Multiple Purposes

That the ringforts served more than one purpose seems clear. When not used for defense, the fort could also be the home of the king. Another tuath might fit the roundhouses of several fines inside.

But that so many ringforts dotted the ancient land bespeaks a time of great danger, turmoil, and constant raids.

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

Next time, we’ll look at lifespans, and its enemies, in ancient, Celtic Ireland.