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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: Ringforts and Stoneforts: Factors that influenced the distribution of Ringforts/Stoneforts in the Barony of Bunratty Lower

1. Height of the Land:

By examining distribution map fig. 7 (below) one will immediately notice the major influence the height of the land has had on ringfort/stonefort distribution. There is a virtual absence of sites from the Gallow’s Hill – Woodcockhill area. In fact, in all, only 5 ringforts are above the 200 ft. contour line – Ballycannan A, 210 ft., Mountievers D, 210 ft..; Castlecrine A, 210 ft..; Glennagross A, 450 ft.. and Reaskcamoge A, 710 ft.. In fact of this number three are within ten feet of the 200 ft. contour line. This means only 2 sites, 1.1% of the 165 ringforts, are well over the 200 ft. height in a region covering over 20% of the Barony’s area.

Two stoneforts are also above the 200 ft. contour line. However both of these, within Mooghaun Hillfort, presumably chose such a site because of the availability of stones for wall construction. None of the other 62 stoneforts in the Barony are near, or over, 200 ft. O.D.

This view of a marked preference for land below 200 ft. and preferably in the 30 ft. – 150ft. zone, contrasts somewhat with Fahy’s findings for the Skibbereen area of West Cork (1969, 152). Though there are some differences in topography between both areas we still find that only 8% of his sites are below the 100 ft. contour line while 72% (180) were in the 100 ft. – 400 ft. O.D. area. He also recorded 20% of the sites over 400 ft. O.D. while my figure, for ringforts and stoneforts, was a very low 0.8%.

Distribution of ringforts and stoneforts
Distribution of ringforts and stoneforts
Click on image for larger version

2. Possibility of Flooding:

A second influence on site location was to be above the possible flood water levels of the Rivers Shannon and Fergus. This accounts for the absence of ringforts and stoneforts along the alluvium covered south and north-western areas of the Barony (Fig. 8, below).

3. Fertile, Well-Drained, Soils:

The two factors dealt with to date, i.e. the height of the land and the possibility of flooding, are reasons to explain why ringfort/stonefort builders kept clear of certain areas. But what attracted them to certain areas, like the Newmarket-on-Fergus lowlands where the vast majority of the Bunratty Lower ringforts and stoneforts occur? (Fig. 8, below). In answering this question I propose to deal firstly with the ringforts, then the stoneforts.

Distribution of ringforts and stoneforts in relation to soil type
Distribution of ringforts and stoneforts in relation to soil type
Click on image for larger version


Why are there so many ringforts in the Newmarket-on-Fergus lowlands? In answering this question one has again to state the purpose of a ringfort. It was a protected farmstead. Therefore a large concentration of ringforts in a given area must surely suggest land of good quality, as this would have been necessary to support so many families, even at different times. Such is the case with the Newmarket-on-Fergus lowlands. The grey brown podzol soil here (Fig. 8, above) is of good quality, being fertile and well drained (see Fahy, 1969, 151 & 153). This land is suitable for pasture and tillage though the former was perhaps more dominant (Proudfoot, 1961, 106 & 112).


Apart from the height of the land and to be clear of areas liable to be flooded, the principal factor in determining the distribution of stoneforts was the availability of stone which was used in the construction of the fort wall. With the exception of a few isolated examples (e.g. Clenagh A and B, Ballycunneen C) all stoneforts in the Barony occur in two areas where there is a deal of outcropping rock.

The two areas in question are:-
1. Ballymulcashel Townland (Kilfinaghta Civil Parish). This area originally contained 19 stoneforts, 10 of which are still visible in the field (1979).

2. Ballysallagh East – Caherscooby Band. In this large area, north of Newmarket-on-Fergus, there was formerly a minimum of 33 stoneforts, 26 of which can still be traced (1979).

The presence, and extent, of the outcropping rock in these two areas – which contain over 80% of the Barony’s stoneforts – suggests an economy based on pasture rather than tillage.

Having dealt with various aspects of the ringforts and stoneforts of the Barony of Bunratty Lower such site-types must now be discussed in an Irish context, particularly relating to their date and possible origin.