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Staigue Fort — for a Celtic World Under Attack

Staigue Fort — for a Celtic World Under Attack

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher looks at Staigue Fort, the builders who built it, and the ancient Celtic world that required such massive defensive structures. We’ll also look at spectacular Dun Aengus fort on Inishmore.

They Needed How Many Forts?

What kind of world was it that possessed the ancient Irish to build some thirty to forty thousand ringforts across their land? What were they defending against? Who were their enemies? And what were the forts like?

A ringfort, for those unfamiliar with the landscape of ancient Ireland, was a fort constructed of overlapping stones, laid one on top of another, rising to heights of over 15 feet (5 meters). Some archaeologists have postulated they existed for ceremonial purposes. But clearly, most existed for defense.

Staigue Fort in County Kerry

Staigue Fort, County Kerry

Staigue Fort still stands today in County Kerry. (Had I not lost my camera somewhere on the Ring of Kerry, I could show you my picture of the place, taken after sacrificing my shoes crossing a field of sheep dip to get there. Alas, we must resort to a stock photo.) The fort was built around AD 300 – 400. It’s 90 feet in diameter, probably big enough to house a local king, his tuath (clan), and animals. A countryside replete with stones provided the builders with plenty of material. Large stones were laid one upon another, without mortar, until the defensive walls rose nearly 18 feet high (5.5 m) and 13 feet thick (4 m) at the bottom. A tapered doorway supported by timbers or stone admitted entrance. Inside, stone stairways led up to terraces on the high walls.

What kind of danger would possess a king to gather his tuath and animals into such a fort? Most likely an attack by a rival clan. Or news of cattle raiders in the area. Cattle, of course, was the basis on which the ancient Celtic economy was built. The clan must have stocked enough to feed the animals for days. Of beef for themselves, they would have had plenty among the sheltered herd.

We can only imagine the king (Rí Tuath) and his people standing on the balustrade, looking down at his enemies, mocking them, perhaps hurling a spear or two, followed by a shower of stones. Then walking down the stone staircase to grab a bowl of steaming pottage from a cauldron simmering over a fire in the inner yard.

The Ollamh Builders

The position of builder, itself, was an honored one. A “master builder” or Ollamh builder (ollamh is now the word for professor) oversaw his under-craftsmen while constructing the forts. For their services, kings, both big and small, paid such men a yearly fee equal to twenty-one cows. The Brehon Laws gave later honor to the position, classifying nineteen different tasks and specifying the payments for each. For instance, if the king wanted a new kitchen, the price paid to the Ollamh builder was equivalent to six milk cows.

Dun Aengus, a Ringfort by the Sea

Dun Aengus Fort, the author’s picture

Another impressive structure is Dun Aengus on Inishmore of the Aran Islands in County Galway on Ireland’s western coast. The first stones may have been laid as early as 1000 BC, with the current ruins dating to 200 AD. With walls 12 feet thick (4 meters) and rising to a reconstructed height of 18 feet (6 meters), and commanding a promontory overlooking the sea, it would have presented a formidable defensive posture. Its walls protected an inner area of 14 acres (6 hectares).

Mysteries Aplenty

What mystery such forts present us with. What kind of world required so many forts with such high walls and grand depths? Surely, the reason must have been constant danger of attack or theft. Did they always have time to usher everyone inside?—all their cattle, sheep, and goats? What happened when they didn’t? Was the tuath then in danger of starvation during the long winter ahead? Did their enemies presume to lay siege or to climb the battlements? How many died in the defense on both sides? Or did the attackers simply give up on the fort and ravage the countryside?

These are questions about whose answers we can only guess. Or perhaps a story will find your author, revealing what might have happened so long ago.

Keywords: Staigue Fort, ringforts, Celtic, ancient Ireland, Dun Aengus

Mark is the author of The Bonfires of Beltane, a novel of ancient Celtic Ireland set in the time of St. Patrick. To learn more about his book, click on the link above.

Sources for this post were Wikipedia and The Celts by Peter Beresford Ellis.

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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.

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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.