HILLFORTS/SETTLEMENTS IN IRELAND III

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

3. Hillforts

A general description of a hillfort is given by Barry Raftery in 'Pagan Celtic Ireland' which is as accurate as you can get I think: "a hilltop enclosure of considerable size and strength which deliberately exploits the natural properties of the siruation for defensive purposes." Beyond that we cannot go with certainty at the moment. The key elements, therefore are contained in the words 'hilltop', 'enclosure', 'size', 'strength' and 'defensive'.


Raftery defines three classes of hillfort and deals with coastal promontory forts separately from these groups. Following this approach (which I think is mostly valid) we have an estimate of 60-80 'true hillforts' currently known, though as we've only had five excavated so far the actual nature of some of these is open to question. The principal defining features of Class 1 hillforts is that they are univallate (ie one single defensive wall), while Class 2 'forts have two, three or in the case of Grianán Aileach and Rathgall, four. The separation is about as much as we can hope for at present due to the lack of excavation work, though it does hint at a geographic division which I will pursue later. Inland promontory forts (ie Class 3 forts) are another issue, and it's here particularly that I would like to reinforce some points that Raftery himself - and others - have made.


Some detail. Almost all known examples are positioned on hilltops or inland cliff-edges at an altitude well beyond the normal range of farming activity. This implies that they were built outside the area likely to have been under the ownership of fine, and thus within commonage or true uplands. As Ray pointed out in an earlier post, this land was under the control of the local or provincial ruler and we can safely look on their construction as being initiated by those rulers. The very scale of the work alone points incontrovertibly in that direction as the ramparts surrounding them are comprised of many tonnes of stone even in the smallest examples.


Ray has already provided a description of the classes of 'fort, so I will refrain from repeating his work too much in this regard and instead concentrate on geography and dating. As mentioned we have excavations so far at only five hillfort sites and this equates to just 6% of the total possible known sites. Haughey's Fort, Co. Antrim radiocarbon dating points to 1170-770BC, which is well inside the Bronze Age. Rathgall, Co. Wicklow dating centres on 600-400BC (on the margins of late Bronze Age and early Iron Age) and we have established signs of bronze age occupation also from Downpatrick, Co. Down and Navan Fort (which I would question his adding to a discussion on hillforts proper). Signs of occupation in the late centuries BC or early centuries AD are also suggested at Haughey's Fort and Rathgall. Though these *numbers* are tiny, when compared to the actual number of excavations done they point to a likelihood that further excavations elsewhere will reveal similar results. As we know of occupation immediately prior to the iron age and have hints at occupation during that time, especially in the absence of any good reason to suspect abandonment, I'm inclined to 'go with the flow' and look on hillforts as probable occupation sites during the period in question.


Geography reveals some slightly more interesting information from my perspective. The vast majority of known hillforts of Class 1 or 2 occur in the southern half of the island, and most are grouped in a band running from the west side of the Wicklow mountains to the Shannon Estuary. This is the line of the northern border of Munster as was, and more importantly it positions them along the southern edge of the midland bog region at the north and the main routes into Munster from Leinster, and north-south within Leinster. In contrast, the prime examples of inland promontory forts occur in Antrim in the north and along the Dingle peninsula in Kerry on the north west periphery of Munster. Raftery mentions a possible connection between these forts (of which there are maybe ten or so) and the coastal promontory forts (of which there are about 250). The association is based not only on their position, which utilises cliffs for defense, but also the fact that those with more than one defensive rampart mostly (in the case of coastal examples) and exclusively (in the Ulster inland examples) have those walls closely spaced, which is in contrast to the widely spaced ramparts of multivallate hillforts proper. I'm inclined to agree with this and separate these from the designation 'hillfort' altogether.


However, to get back to the geography issue. In my last post I noted that there are signs that ringforts developed earlier in Ulster and northern Connaught than elsewhere. To this observation I'd like now to add the above comments on the distribution of Class 1 and 2 hillforts, which are predominantly a southern feature. If we take promontory forts as a single group we have an island-wide distribution - they occur almost everywhere along the coast that allows such structures to be built. The isolated inland examples I consider to be simply the result of two unconnected developments of this fort style in north Kerry and Ulster (the examples there are found in Tyrone as well as Antrim). I know of no dating information relating to any of these promontory forts, so I can't position them within the iron age structure, but instead consider them as a separate case which *potentially* can be added to the classification if data supports it.


Stiofan Mac Amhalghaidh


Firstly I'd like to develop, and slightly modify, a comment I'd made in 'part 2' on hillforts:


"If we take promontory forts as a single group we have an island-wide distribution - they occur almost everywhere along the coast that allows such structures to be built. The isolated inland examples I consider to be simply the result of two unconnected developments of this fort style in north Kerry and Ulster (the examples there are found in Tyrone as well as Antrim)."


There are several textual references to the occupation of the Dingle peninsula during the late iron age by people from Ulster. Note: the following is speculation at its height: *if* we can tie this to the Ulster inland promontory forts and those found in Dingle, and *if* we can tie the arrival of Ulstermen in Dingle with the migration of the Deisi Muman to Waterford (they came, it's said, from the region around Temrach, or Tara, and thus are taken to be from the site in Leinster of that name; my suggestion is that they came from the other 'Temrach' on the Dingle peninsula)... then we could tie the building of the Dibgle inland promontory forts to the period immediately after the arrival of these Ulstermen, and also - critically - to the given date for the migration of the Deisi muman (which date we have). This would assign dates during the 4th cent. AD to these forts, and suggest a slightly earlier date for the Ulster ones. I will have to do some hard work to establish whether this is rubbish or reasonable. I'll let you know.


Now, a quick summary of my position to date. In the Early Christian Period (ECP) we have a load of ringforts (which I will call raths from now on) built which seem to originate around 300-500AD and are concentrated in Ulster and north Connaght on the one hand, and across northern Munster on the other. All are characterised by the physical structure: an area enclosed within an earth (or sometimes stone) bank and, usually, an outer ditch. In 18% of cases there are more than one bank-and-ditch structures. With some success the larger raths have been equated with the dwellings of the higher levels of society. When considering the Bóaire and Ócaire classes the matter is more open. No reference in any text states that an Ócaire or Bóaire will have an embankment surrounding their les or 'farmyard', but the huge number of smaller raths which exist suggest strongly that they cannot all be the sites of noble homes. I have suggested a number of purposes which a bank and ditch perimeter may serve other than that of defence including drainage, which seems to have been something of an issue in the building of raths. I have also argued that we cannot see the embankment around smaller raths as effectively defensive except by accident or later design. By contrast, those around the larger raths, which I will suggest be referred to as dún, are sufficiently large and usually in multiples, thus being more easily equated with the ramparts referred to in the law texts. We have some datings from these sites, and these show an ECP origin in almost all cases. Where finds have revealed dates earlier than this, the dates came from building remains inside the ring, not from the banking. I have suggested that this points to the banks being built around existing homesteads. Further, there are slight signs that the northern raths produce earlier dates than the southern ones until about 600-900AD, at which point both areas produce most of the dates. I have suggested that this indicates that raths may have originated in Ulster or northern Connaght and spread south to northern Munster from there in line with the expansion of Uí Néill power into the midlands.


From the above I propose that we refer to all multivallate ringforts as dún and tie these to the nobility and royalty; that the univallate ringforts be associated primarily with Bóaire farmers, with Aire Déso lords and some at least of the Ócaire class. I suggest also that development began in or around Sligo and/or central Ulster as an extension of the bank-and-ditch perimeter fencing used at important sites of the northern half of Ireland such as Tara, Navan, Cruachu etc and were used initially by the higher nobility, this style being copied later by the lower nobility, then by higher commoners aspiring to base lordship. I also propose that many of the smaller raths are actually simply homesteads of Bóaire or Ócaire surrounded by a ditch with primarily drainage purposes, the excavated earth from these being used as a low bank onto which wattle fencing was set. I also suggest that many Ócaire dwelt in homesteads that were not surrounded by a ditch and thus cannot be located by searching for evidence of these. The primary distinction here relates to the purpose of the earthwork and its subsequent association with textual terms: ramparts were viewed first as earth walls, the ditch being an accompaniment to this, and the purpose was defense; my suggested drainage ditches were seen first as ditches, the excavated earth being useful only as a secondary feature, and the purpose was drainage (the protection + enclosure and exclusion of animals being a secondary effect).


Hillforts are divided into several classes and are, I think, definable as different from promontory forts as a whole. To put this another way, Raftery's Class 1 and Class 2 hillforts are, I suggest, 'true' hillforts (sometimes called 'contour' hillforts as their ramparts follow the contour lines of the hilltop). Inland and coastal promontory forts are possibly variations on one theme, but I propose (tentatively for now) that the inland versions originated in Ulster, and were spread to one isolated group in north Kerry via an aggressive incursion in that region. Coastal promontory forts are found all around Ireland's coast and may be seen as the predecessors of the inland version, which is my personal view. I suggest that, following the few dates we have available, we look to the late Bronze Age for the building of most hillforts and promontory forts alike. I suggest that, again following tiny dating hints, we consider hillforts and promontory forts as probable settlement places of some sort during the Iron Age, possibly fulfilling the roles of royal centre, ritual site or public assembly point as well as centres for defense and control of the surrounding countryside. My main concern about this picture is the dating of the coastal promontory forts, which may not fit.


Into this structure we have to put crannógs and unenclosed homesteads. The first required some effort to build and thus point to the availability of several adults to do this work. As Ray suggested, this inclines toward a noble rather than commoner ownership for these sites. I agree, though I suggest that these be considered as lower or middling noble dwellings rather than higher noble or royal. A quick mental assessment of the ratio of noble-looking sites to other sites suggests that about 20% of the population was noble... which strikes me as too high. This provides far too few commoners and begs the question: 'where are the rest of the common folk?' As proposed by Ray, I suggest that something between 25%-75% of Ócaire lived in unenclosed dwellings (by which I mean dwellings not inside raths), and that these were supplemented by an unknown number of indentured landless and slave people, though I would expect that the slaves would be found within raths or dún and live in some other structure than the primary roundhouse.


Note that the last paragraph refers to the situation of about 600-900AD, not to the iron age, during which time I believe all Ócaire and probably all Bóaire would dwell in homesteads surrounded only by wattle fencing.


All the above points, in my view, to a rough chronology which begins in late bronze age Ireland with the development of hillforts, primarily in the south, in line with rath-like centres in the north, both developments being largely isolated from each other by the spread of the midland bogs across much of Offaly. The use of dún in numbers as defenses for the homes of royal and noble peoples developed in or around the Sligo/Roscommon/central Ulster region (ie the area around Cruachu and Emain Macha, and inspired by them or similar structures) in the 200s and 300s AD, being spread far afield with the Uí Néill expansion which occurred about the time the bogs were reducing again in size, thus opening the area to easier communication. That the Eóganacht took control of Éli (north Tipperary and south Offaly) about this time also provides direct contact for the first time in centuries between the power centres of Munster and north Connaght, and it is this, I propose that led to the rapid and dense uptake of the rath structure in north Munster. This, I suggest occurred between 400 and 500AD. By this time the original pre-rath sites (Emain Macha etc) were being abandoned and I suggest that this, and the abandonment of the hillforts, was initiated by the political stirrings (among other factors) that preceded Uí Néill and Eóganacht ascendancy from about 400AD. I see the development of raths as perimeters for previously undefended homesteads developing from royal and high noble example from about 500AD, being at its height during the period 500-700AD, during which time all noble and Bóaire homes became thus enclosed, along with a number of lesser homes, though as stated above, I feel that the smaller 'ringfort' structures we see today are more likely to be simple farmstead enclosures rather than defensive ramparts, perhaps enlarged for show or in an attempt to mitigate the effect of cattle raiding.


Stiofan Mac Amhalghaidh

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