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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: Irish context - Date and Origin

“O’Riordain excavated Circles J, K and L at Lough Gur in Co. Limerick and found that these structures were domestic enclosures and not ritual stone circles as had been thought. Circle K. is dated to the late Neolithic – Early Bronze Age overlap period, the primary period at J. has a C14 date of 2,600 B.C. These enclosed habitation sites can be regarded as ringforts”. O’Kelly, 1970, 51.

Some archaeologists, including O’Kelly and O’Riordain (1979, 34) would see the Irish ringfort as having a native development in Neolithic – early Bronze Age times, with a continuation in use and construction, through the intervening periods to the late Medieval period. They list a number of excavated sites to support this argument. However other archaeologists, notably Proudfoot (1961, 91-121; 1970, 37-48) would see a later native development and would question the dates assigned to a number of the important earlier sites.

The majority of excavated sites that could be dated were assigned to the Early Christian period, the accepted main period of ringfort/stonefort construction (For a different view refer to Barrett and Graham, 1975, 33-45). The problem, however, relates to the evidence for a direct continuation in ringfort/stonefort construction from the Neolithic/Early Bronze Age Lough Gur sites mentioned above, to such later impressive Early Christian sites as Garranes (O’Riordain, 1942) and Garryduff (O’Kelly, 1962 (b)) in Co. Cork. The argument by those who see a Neolithic/Early Bronze Age origin for ringforts/stoneforts centres around such sites as Carrigillihy, Co. Cork; Cush, Co. Limerick and Feerwore, Co. Galway. At such sites some, e.g. O’Kelly (1970, 51-2) and O’Riordain (1979, 32-4) would see a direct continuation of the ringfort-stonefort tradition through the Bronze Age and Iron Age to the early Christian period, and beyond.

The first site central to their argument for a Neolithic/early Bronze Age origin for ringforts/stoneforts, and a later continuation, is Carrigillihy, Co. Cork (O’Kelly, 1951). The site was dated to the early Bronze Age (O’Kelly, 1970, 51; O’Riordain, 1979, 34). Such an early date was based on pottery finds. However Proudfoot (1970, 41) has questioned such a date and states “…the sherds do not seem to the present writer to be sufficiently characteristic to be certain of an early date…” with the result that the date for the primary stratum at Carrigillihy “…is uncertain…” (Proudfoot, 1961, 99). Thus this site cannot, therefore, be regarded as definite evidence of ringfort/stonefort construction between Neolithic and early Christian times.

Formerly the Cush, Co. Limerick, sites were regarded as evidence of Bronze Age construction of ringforts (O’Riordain, 1940). However most archaeologists would now see these sites as being somewhat later (O’Kelly, 1970, 51-2) so there is “…no reason to date the sites at Cush earlier than the third century B.C. and it is much more likely that the earliest of the raths is several centuries later than this…” (Proudfoot, 1961, 99).

At least two excavated sites, however, have produced pre-Christian dates. In 1944 J. Raft.ery excavated Feerwore Rath in Co. Galway and though the finds were disappointing they were nevertheless “…considered sufficient to indicate an Iron Age date of between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D….” (O’Kelly, 1970, 52).

This date is accepted by O’Riordain (1979, 32) and Proudfoot (1961, 100-1). A somewhat similar Iron Age date has been obtained for the Rath of the Synods on the Hill of Tara, Co. Meath (O’Riordain, 1979,31).

Evidence of an even earlier origin is now suggested by the recent excavations at Aughinish Island, Co. Limerick. Here some stoneforts yielded, amongst other things, a Bronze Age chisel of Dowris (late Bronze Age) type and date, along with an early Iron Age horse-bit. Thus “…at Aughinish Island, therefore, there are grounds for believing that the construction of the two ringforts took place during the Dowris Phase of the late Bronze Age… The horse-bit may have been an import, but the Aughinish Island people were clearly on the threshold of an iron using era…” (B. Raft.ery, 1976, 192).

It seems quite possible now that the view held by O’Kelly and O’Riordain is correct, that ringforts/stoneforts did have an origin in the Neolithic/early Bronze Age. Certainly the Aughinish Island excavations make this a more distinct possibility. This problem, of course, can only be solved when “an adequate chronology of excavated sites has been established…” (Proudfoot, 1970, 37). This does not exist to date.

As has been previously stated many excavated ringforts/stoneforts gave early Christian dates, e.g. Garranes, Ballycatteen and Garryduff, Co. Cork; Raheennamadra, Co. Limerick, etc. This, based on various excavations, was the main period of ringfort/stonefort construction and occupation.

What of the Medieval period? Some would argue that this period also saw active site construction, and that in areas siting was strongly influenced by the Norman presence (Barrett and Graham, 1975, 33-45). Many, however, would disagree with such views “…The actual evidence for the construction of the Rath during the medieval period is slight indeed…” (Proudfoot, 1970, 45; Lynn, 1975, 30) and “that any apparent correlation between areas of intense Norman occupation must be due to factors other than the postulated withdrawal of ringfort farmers to areas unattractive to the Normans…” Lynn, 1975 (a), 45; MacNeill, 1975, 38.

Evidence of late medieval ringfort construction is shown by the local excavated site at Thady’s Hill, Ballycally Townland (Rynne, 1964), a site dealt with in some detail in Site Catalogue (1.213-7). While some would question aspects of the excavation results most would accept that “the house within the rath and its relationship to the enclosing bank of the rath does provide strong evidence for a medieval date for the rath” (Proudfoot, 1970, 45).