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A Survey of Monuments of Archaeological and Historical Interest in the Barony of Bunratty Lower, Co. Clare by William Gerrard Ryan

Part 1: Commentary: Prehistoric and early Christian sites: Hillforts

Only one hillfort is known from the Barony of Bunratty Lower:-
“ The great stone-built multivallate hillfort at Mooghaun, Co. Clare, is one of the most remarkable of our antiquities…”         O’Riordain, 1979, 48.

Mooghaun South hillfort, Site catalogue 1.704-723. In general hillforts may be defined as:
“ These monuments are seen to be extensive areas of land within one or more ramparts of earth or stone, defending…rather than merely enclosing a hill-top or other strongly defensive natural position. The size, situation and magnitude of the defences of the hill-forts must denote centres of tribal rather than of family significance. In most cases the hill-fort may be regarded as having had, primarily, a defensive function…” B. Raftery, 1972, 39.

Where does Mooghaun Hillfort fit in the context of Irish hillforts? From the start it must be emphasised that only 7 of the 50 sites have been excavated, with the result that we are still somewhat unclear as to their date and origin.

Barry Raftery states that such sites are of two classes (1972, 39)

Class 1: Simple univallate sites of earth or stone, with or without an accompanying ditch.
Class 2: Sites with widely-spaced multivallate defences:
a) hilltop (including Mooghaun Hillfort);
b) cliff-top.

Class 1. Hillforts are the predominant type in the north and east while the multivallate (Class 2) types are concentrated in the south and west (B. Raftery, 1972, 41).

To date excavation has been concentrated on the univallate examples (i.e. Class 1), with only one multivallate site, at Rathgall, Co. Wicklow, having been excavated.

Two sites have yielded a probable late Bronze Age date. Proudfoot in his excavation of Downpatrick Hillfort, Co. Down, (Class 1) has shown that an open late Bronze Age settlement existed on the site prior to the erection, a short time later, of the first hillfort defences (Proudfoot, 1954 and 1956). The excavation at Rathgall, Co. Wicklow, revealed intensive Dowris phase (late Bronze Age) settlement on this hill-top site, initially thought to have been pre-hillfort in date. Though the date of the hillfort defences have not yet been fully determined it may be that these features are “contemporary with the wealthy Bronze Age settlement” (B. Raftery, 1976, 193). This Co.Wicklow site is of particular interest because of similarities between it and Mooghaun Hillfort, particularly relating to defences and later stoneforts within the site.

Other excavated sites, all of Class 1, have given somewhat later dates. Dun Ailinne, Co. Kildare, was dated “to the Iron Age, perhaps about the time of Our Lord” (O’Riordain, 1979, 46). A similar date was suggested for Clogher Hillfort, Co. Tyrone. The site at Freestone Hill, Co. Kilkenny, initially was dated to the fourth century A.D. (O’Riordain, 1979, 45) though this has been questioned by Barry Raftery (1976, 194).

The findings from Rathgall, Co. Wicklow, and the other excavated sites suggests that hillforts were constructed during the late Bronze Age and continued in use to, at least, early Christian times (B. Raftery, 1972, 54). However there is a problem here because of an absence of intervening La Tene material from sites. This fact, of course, is in marked contrast with the view that Irish hillforts are La Tene in origin and date. In fact “the largest forts, and the greatest concentration of such forts, are to be found in the south and south-west where La Tene material is almost totally absent” (B. Raftery, 1976, 194-5). This immediately raises the question as to the date and origin of such features. The results from Downpatrick, Co. Down and Rathgall, Co. Wicklow suggest a pre-Iron Age date and origin. B. Raftery has argued (1976, 195) that perhaps the Irish sites have two separate origins. He would see an important late Bronze Age contribution to the south and south-westerly sites while those in the north were La Tene in origin. It is, of course, only with further excavation that this question of date may be solved, particularly on the multivallate (Class 2a) southern sites.

As with date there is also a problem with origin. “Despite the often large size of the forts and the elaborate defences of some…One is, however, struck by the essential simplicity in structural detail of the majority of the Irish forts when compared with their counterparts outside the country. This general scarcity of diagnostic features renders extremely difficult the task of providing foreign parallels…” (B. Raftery, 1972, 47). In particular inturned defensive entrances, which are so characteristic of British and Continental La Tene hillforts are completely absent from the Irish examples. Likewise for the closely set multivallation, well represented on many British sites. Such absences makes B. Raftery suggest that “influences from Britain do not seem to be very noticeable” (1972, 48).

If there is little evidence to show an origin, or even links, between Irish and British hillforts, what of Iberian examples? Barry Raftery originally argued for such contact (1972, 50-51), based largely on the presence of chevaux de frise at some Irish sites. However no Irish hillforts contain this feature, only stoneforts and cliff-top fort. This fact alone weakens his argument with the result that he has not advocated this origin since the early 1970’s.

The situation therefore remains unclear and perhaps may only be solved by further excavations, particularly of the southern multivallate hillforts, Class 2.