Ringforts (Raths) and Townlands in West Cork
Ringforts - otherwise known as Raths or Lioses - are the most abundant archaeological monument in the Irish landscape. As of July 2022 taking a count from the archaeological survey of Ireland there are a total of about 33,000 on the island of Ireland - 3523 cashels, 25,912 raths, 499 unclassified and about 3000 in Northern Ireland. Although mostly preserved and largely untouched, there are estimated to have been over 60,000 in the past. Agricultural improvement resulted in some being ploughed out, but this came to an end (except in a couple of cases) when the preservation of Ireland's archaeological heritage was enacted in law.
The name Ringfort is a misnomer, having been bestowed in a time when archaeological and historical knowledge was more limited, and likely influenced by popular ideas that these were 'Dane's Forts'; which is how they often appear on the early maps of the 19th century, and some before. They were of course also known as 'Fairy Forts' and this probably helped to preserve them, since the disturbing of a Fairy Fort would inevitably bring bad luck of some sort.
It is widely accepted now that these Raths - the other regional name for them in Ireland, Lios, or Liss, actually refers to the area inside the bank - were farmsteads, possibly of the more wealthy farmers. However, they exist in some different configurations that appear to relate to the status of the occupiers, and the location of some suggests some other uses rather than a farmstead.
The general plan of a Rath is circular, a bank inside a ditch, with an internal diameter of something like 20 to 30 m. A second bank, or even a third enclosing bank, is thought to represent a site of higher status, their overall diameters invariably quite a bit larger than other raths. Quite detailed specifications for such a high-status Rath are provided in the ancient Laws of Ireland, specifically the Críth Gablach which dates from about 700AD.
Relatively few Raths have been excavated and little information has been yield by those that have. In most cases there is an absence of artefacts or other remains, and little within the interior to suggest usage. What artefacts which have been recovered as well as radiocarbon dating of organic remains found in particular contexts, all point to a date of occupation / usage within the Early Medieval period - between about 400 AD and 1169 AD. The material used for dating the Raths largely comes from ditch infill, and is relied upon on the premise that a usage date can be construed from the organic remains that started accumulating within the ditch. However, dating Raths on the basis of infill material can be problematic. Having constructed the ditch, it is to be expected that the occupiers of the rath would have kept it clear. Any infill would date from the last time the ditch was cleared and not necessarily to the date of construction nor to the date of occupation. Some sites do have post holes the location of which suggest the occurrence of gateposts at each side of the entrance to the rath, and in a few cases inside the rath. Some of these have yielded material that has been dated.
There is however the surprising issue of so many Raths springing into being within the relatively short period of assumed usage, and in most cases seemingly being abandoned just as rapidly. Even more surprising when the complete dearth of habitation prior to the Early Medieval period, i.e. in the Iron Age, is considered. Could it be that Raths had a longer period of usage than currently accepted, and originated in the Iron Age? Archaeological evidence at present does not support this
As would be expected, Raths are generally located within the landscape on hillslopes, away from valley bottoms, possibly because of the dampness of these areas. Most Raths are also located below the crest of a hill, possibly to escape the strongest weather. Having said that, it would appear that the majority of ringforts are positioned to give a good view of the surrounding countryside. Moreover, studies have suggested that intervisibilty between two or several raths was possible, and may even have been a factor in deciding where to site them. Whether raths at some distance were actually intervisible is unknown as we do not know how extensive the views over the landscape were at that time. There are suggestions that woodland in Early Medieval Ireland was sparse and fragmented, but as well as this being a rather sweeping generalisation, this is unlikely, given the large amount of wood that would have been required on an ongoing basis for a broad range of uses. Wood was most probably a highly valued and carefully managed resource. For further thoughts on the use of wood and the value of trees, see here.
The map illustrates some interesting aspects of the siting of Raths but cannot substitute actually visiting a site to appreciate how the Rath sits in the landscape. A collection of half a dozen Raths on the southern shore of Bantry Bay make use of the drumlin topography, with each Rath being positioned on the peak of a hillock. Their proximity to one other means that as farmsteads they either had to share the intervening land, or were of smaller areas of land than other Raths elsewhere. Were they summer residences, holiday homes, country villas? If the wealth and prosperity of a farmstead and landholder were determined by the amount of land and thus produce, were these smaller and less wealthy farmers? Were these farmsteads even? A monument classed as a Rath (it is in fact a Cashel as it is constructed of stone) at Knockdrum just west of Castletownshend is situated on a ridge top overlooking the sea, in an area of rocky and relatively poor land. A water source does not appear to be within easy reach. Was this a lookout post, or some sort of security or military site, rather than a farmstead? Another rath at Kilnahera West, just a few kilometres east of Drimoleague, is similarly situated on the crest of a north-facing steep slope, giving extensive views across the valley and river. An exposed and cold situation possibly, was this likewise a guard post or lookout? The Rath at Tooreen has extensive views across the countryside in every direction, and is potentially intervisible with at least five other Raths. Vegetation permitting, it also has a good view of the ford across the river Saivnose.
The description of Rath sizes and configurations that occur in the ancient writings are accompanied by the sizes of habitations and landholding for other lower grades of person, making it quite clear that Raths were not the only places of habitation in the landscape. It is tempting to see them as high-status residences in what was essentially an agricultural and rural society. Whether they were all farmsteads, or whether they had different uses depending on location, ownership etc., is open for debate.
Associated with ringforts, in many cases, are the underground chambers known as souterrains, a French term meaning 'under ground'. Not all raths have a souterrain; not all souterrains are inside, or associated with, a rath. These likewise have yielded little in the way of either artefacts that can be used to date them by context, or organic remains that can be used for radiocarbon dating. Souterrains are largely thought to have been for one, or both, of two purposes - hideaways for vulnerable people in times of aggression, or cool and dry storage locations, rather like cellars. The awkwardness of access of a lot of soutterains suggests the former use in preference to the latter, as does the fact that the entrances to the souterrains appear to have often been hidden, or at least placed in non obvious places. Soutterains may consist of a series of chambers, joined by short passages. A recent discovery of a souterrain in Tooreen townland in West Cork had three chambers with short joining passages and was earth cut. The mode of construction also appeared to be quite clear from the visible evidence. See the article in the JCHAS 2020 issue (see below).
This particular souterrain is of especial interest in that it is situated near to a substantial rath, but at a lower elevation, on a subsidiary slope. On inspection of the first edition ordnance survey map, it would appear that a small enclosure was situated where the souterrain now is, but was overwritten on the map, by the printing of the townland name. The souterrain is not marked - they were designated 'cave' - but it is possible that the enclosure was a relic of an associated monument.
A school of thought exists that relates the rise of dairy farming - based on numbers and types of bones found in archaeological contexts - to the same period as raths and souterrains; thereby providing a basis for increased dairy production requiring cold storage in souterrains; and high value cows requiring protection in raths. It is fairly clear that most raths - even though some may well have been 'pounds' rather than farmsteads - were not large enough to contain herds of cows of substantial size. In addition to which a dairy based economy presupposes an ability to either store foodstuffs and produce that is very perishable, or to transport and market it on a regular basis. These ideas raise some interesting questions as to the rural and agricultural way of life, as also the system of economy. Additionally we must bear in mind that many cultures both past and present consumed dairy products that we nowadays would consider unpalatable, sour, 'gone off', or rancid.
Townlands are the smallest division of land area to be found in Ireland, but they are still of great relevance and use - most rural addresses nowadays consist of the name of the person, followed by the townland, even though there may be numerous houses in that townland. (Of course we have the eircode now.) It is not known from when the townland boundaries date, but there is evidence to suggest they represent the land area that the higher stauts family in the rath owned, or farmed. Kelly suggests that the townlands were based on the original lands of individual tuatha ruled over by minor kings. Thus it may be that the rath and the townland are part of the same construction of the landscape and date from the same time. Many townlands have just one rath. However, many have more than one, and many have none. Refer to the map on the ringforts map page (opens in a new tab). A townland has been referred to as ..."Each bally or ballybetagh contained 12 sesreachs or ploughlands, and each ploughland 120 large Irish acres. A bally or townland was of a size sufficient to sustain four herds of cows of 75 each, i.e. 300 cows in all, 'without one cow touching another': and a ploughland was as much as a single plough could turn up in a year" (P.W. Joyce, A social History of Ancient Ireland, page 40). However, it is clear from the size and location of townlands that this was not always the case. Possibly townlands were, over time, divided as a result of inheritance, change of ownership or for some other reason.
If it is indeed the case that townlands date from this early period of Ireland's history, then the course of the boundaries can be used in some cases to derive historical context from the landscape. They often follow the course of rivers - so a change in the course of a river may be apparent if the river and boundary part company; the same applies to roads and tracks, thus enabling us to see which are the older routes. Townland boundaries also appear to make use of outcrops of bedrock, which is understandable in that these represent the most immovable, and thus reliable over time, features in the landscape. It is also noticeable that where townlands meet at lakes, they meet in the middle of the lake - presumably allowing the inhabitants of the various townlands equal rights to the lake as a resource.
As an example, the course of an outflow channel from Driminidy Lough, which was followed by the townland boundary, illustrates how later action can be adduced. What was probably the old outflow channel - because the townland boundary follows the dry low lying channel of land - has been replaced by a new straighter channel, probably as a result of a road being constructed between c1840 (the road does not appear on the first edition OS map) and c1880 when the road does appear on the map See here.
One of the problems in trying to ascertain where boundaries occur on features is the accuracy of mapping. With digital mapping the absolute accuracy of location is emphasised, whereas folk memory of boundaries would be determined by the coincidence of features and boundaries. If in a digital map of high accuracy a road runs alongside a townland boundary, can we interpret the two as being coincident? Possibly they should be, but not necessarily.
As regards digital mapping, I am just about to embark on a study of the occurrence of townlands and ringforts - and maybe souterrains - to discover what statistics might tell us. Results will of course be published here.
Maps of Raths and Townlands in West Cork
For an interactive map of Townlands, Ringforts, Souterrains, and Crannogs in West Cork go to the ringforts map page (opens in a new tab). I am also working on publishing interactive maps of rath landscapes of particular curiosity.
References and Further Reading
Ringforts by M. Stout (1997)
A Social History of Ancient Ireland by P W Joyce (1920)
A History of Settlement in Ireland ed. by Terry Barry (2000)
Early Irish farming, a study based on the law-texts of the 7th and 8th centuries AD by F. Kelly (2000)
The discovery of two souterrains at Tooreen and Driminidy South, Carbery West, Co. Cork by R. Lewando, Ser. 2, Vol. 125, (2020) pp 108-116
Townland information has been obtained from logainm.ie as per this acknowledgement; Irish-language placename data by Logainm © Government of Ireland and licensed under CC BY 4.0.