Irish Rural Settlements

Friday, August 13, 2010



The present consensus of academic opinion is still that Ireland was predominantly a rural society in pre-Norman times and that the patterns of settlement were dispersed, i.e. settlements were located out of earshot of each other. The commonest settlement type was the ringfort, which is also generally known by two Irish terms, rath (earthen fort) and cashel (stone fort or enclosure), which is most commonly found in the west where stone is more easily available as a building material. At its simplest it has been defined by Ó Ríordáin as ‘a space most frequently circular surrounded by a bank and fosse’. However, this simple definition does not encompass the large diversity of such sites, ranging from the largest tri-vallate examples with strong banks and fosses to small simple features with insignificant banks and ditches. Their ground plans also vary, sometimes quite markedly, from the ubiquitous circle and occasionally two or more examples are to be found located close to each other. They make up the most widespread type of relict earthwork to be found on the Irish landscape, with estimates of between 30,000 and 50,000 surviving in the first edition of the Ordnance Survey 6-inch maps of the 1840s. Thus it is interesting to speculate as to how many were still surviving in the landscape when the Anglo-Normans landed in Ireland at the end of the twelfth century.

Despite recent researches on this important settlement type by historical geographers such as G.F.Barrett, and by medieval archaeologists such as M.J.O’Kelly and C.J.Lynn there still remains much to be elicited about its chronology and function. With the general lack of information about ringforts in the surviving written sources of the period, which are mainly literary, or law tracts or annalistic writings, archaeological investigation assumes a primary importance. Although the totality of excavations number fewer than 120 sites, a small statistical sample, their random distribution would indicate that we do now possess a typical picture of their chronology and function. However, the archaeological evidence produced by many of these sites has often been either non-existent or undateable. Nevertheless, of the sites which have produced useful data, it would appear that ringforts can be broadly dated to the first millennium AD, and often functioned as defended farmsteads of one family grouping. Some others, such as Garryduff in Co. Cork, functioned as metalworking centres whilst other smaller examples served as pens to protect cattle, valuable assets in pre-Norman Irish society.

It is also difficult to know, given the small sample of excavated sites, how many ringforts of the national total were occupied simultaneously. This together with our lack of knowledge of the size of the population at the time means that it is only possible to guess whether or not the entire population was living in these defended farmsteads or whether there was another complementary nucleated settlement form, the existence of which is hinted at in the surviving law tracts. But before the problem of undefended settlements in pre-Norman Ireland is examined it is necessary to review some of the major conclusions on the nature and chronology of the ringfort produced by archaeological methods of enquiry.

The areal size of ringforts has been measured in some parts of the country as a result of various surveys, such as those for Counties Donegal, Down, Louth, Meath and Monaghan, the barony survey of Ikerrin in Co. Tipperary and Corca Duibhne (Dingle peninsula) in Co. Kerry, and Barrett’s specialized surveys of ringforts in the Dingle peninsula of Co. Kerry and part of south Co. Donegal. They have all shown that ringforts broadly vary in size from around 15 m in diameter to a few which are as large as 80 m. However, the median diameter would be somewhere around 30 m. Inside these fosses and banks archaeologists have found evidence for mixed farming but often with the emphasis on cattle rearing. At other sites there has been evidence of industrial activity, especially ironworking, as well as spinning and weaving. And at some of the larger ringforts there has been evidence of specialization in metalworking as well as glass production.

A more detailed analysis of their chronology reveals that the majority of excavated sites were occupied in the last half of this first millennium AD, i.e. from around AD 500 to 1000. However, both the origins and the final phase of ringfort construction have been the subjects of much academic debate which is still not resolved satisfactorily. It has been put forward by O’Kelly that their origins can be found in the Bronze Age and that they were an important feature of the Early Iron Age. But, there is evidence of occupation and, less certainly, the logical possibility that some were constructed after 1169. Barrett and Graham first put forward the above hypothesis based mainly upon their study of the 1840s distribution of this settlement type, especially in the Pale areas of Counties Louth and Meath. They found that the known distribution of ringforts was much denser in those regions which were west and north of the probable line of the Pale boundary, and they sought to try and explain this either by the removal of ringforts as a concomitant to the more intensive agriculture introduced by the Anglo-Normans in the areas under their control or, more controversially, through the continued construction of such settlement forms in medieval times in areas on the periphery of dense Anglo-Norman settlement. Incidentally, the areas of lower densities of ringforts also correspond fairly closely with concentrations of the place-name element ‘town’ which, according to T. Jones-Hughes, indicates regions which experienced ‘the most durable impact of Anglo-Norman colonisation and settlement’.

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