By Garreth Byrne
We tend to take raths or fairy forts for granted around Ireland. Many of us have grown up in sight of round mounds in nearby fields, some of them wonderfully decorated with fully grown hawthorn bushes and mature species of beech or oak.
I certainly remember my Kildare childhood days playing with relatives and friends in a big rath on the crest of a hill that from the rear offered a panoramic view of distant landscape swinging from the Curragh and the Bog of Allen on the left, around to Newbridge and farmland fading away to unseen Naas on the right.
Tall beech trees grew on the grassy circle inside the hedged mound and the remains of a stone hut with a strange keyhole entrance lay at one end. This structure dated back a hundred years or more, local adults thought, and may have been a shelter for farm labourers minding sheep and cattle. Adults had also told us that the fairies danced merrily around raths late at night when nobody was looking.
Some estimates say that there are about 60,000 raths or remains of raths dotted around the island. Mathew Stout in his book Irish Ringforts (Four Courts Press) thinks that 45,000 raths were constructed – this is scary – about 37% of them have been ploughed away since the first Ordnance Survey was done in the early 19th century. The author makes a passionate appeal for the public to respect and protect these archaeological remains.
Raths have other names, including ‘lios’, ‘cashel’, ‘caher’ and ‘dun’. Many place names indicate the presence of Ireland’s most common field monument. Rathfriland, Rathcormack, Rathangan and Rathmines (Rath Maoinis) are a few examples.
Lissan in Down, Lismore (Lios Mor – the big rath) in Waterford and Lisbellaw in Fermanagh begin with the word ‘lis’, also spelled ‘lios’ in original Gaelic. 10Laragh in the beautiful Wicklow valleys is Leath Raith in Gaelic, i.e. a half rath.
Then there are place names beginning with the word ‘dun’, which in Gaelic can mean a fortress or a smaller rath. Dundrum, Dundalk (Dun Dealgan or Dalgan’s fort/rath) and Dunmore are well known destinations.
Raths were made of two basic materials, (a) earth mounds on which hawthorn and other plants took root, and (b) dry stone walls, which derived from the word ‘caiseal’. The enormous and mysterious Dun Aenghus on Inis Mor, the largest of the Aran Islands, is an awe inspiring example of the caiseal structure, attesting to advanced building skills among our ancestors.
What Were They For?
Most of these structures were defensive in a non-military sense. The Celts of two thousand years ago were pastoral warrior herdsmen, who also hunted and gathered in the deep forests. The mounds were for securing people and animals, possible milking cows and sheep, against night attacks by wolves, foxes and wild hogs.
In times when marauding, raiding groups roamed the primordial ancient forests, the human inhabitants feared for their lives. That is why some raths have underground passages or ‘souterrains’ with round caverns and alcoves for sleeping and the storage of grain and other food.
Archaeologists have dated the majority of raths to between 400 AD and 900 AD, although in some cases, they surmise that some stone remains may go back to the Bronze and Iron ages. One example I know is the fascinating Deerpark in Carbury near Sligo. Within a planted forest is a stone ‘passage grave’ dating from about 3,000 BC (i.e. it is more than five thousand years old); but on hilly farm land near this protected site are interesting stone circular mounds with remains of souterrains that may have been built and inhabited a long time later.
Some Ulster raths have been meticulously excavated by archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast and elsewhere. I once attended a slide-illustrated lecture in Sligo by a researcher, and I asked him if the traces of animal bones indicated that the inhabitants of a rath in Antrim were farmers or hunter-gatherers. He frankly answered that the evidence hitherto gathered is not sufficient to give a definite answer.
The Ceide Fields in North Mayo suggest that some sort of farming started much earlier than 400 AD in that region, but only when forest clearance happened elsewhere did inhabitants begin to cultivate and domesticate cattle and sheep. Gaps in our information about our ancient ancestors will, for a long time to come, await the findings of archaeology, geology and folklore.
Meanwhile, raths with their vegetation are a vital part of the ecology of the countryside and towns. We should keep them safe.