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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.