Mystery Raths

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    • #709242

      Anyone have any ideas on the following from this morning’s quondam Cork Examiner:

      05 March 2007

      Mystery of raths can be clarified

      By Dick Warner
      I WAS visiting a friend the other day and he mentioned that he had a well-preserved rath on his farm and invited me to come and look at it.

      Raths or ring-forts are the commonest archaeological feature in this country, though many have disappeared due to urban sprawl and road-building. One source suggests their average density in rural Ireland is as much as one every two square kilometres and they are usually marked on Ordnance Survey maps.

      The one on my friend’s farm was fairly typical, a roughly circular earth bank enclosing a space with a diameter of something between 30 and 40 metres. Raths range in size between about 20 metres in diameter up to more than 60. Sometimes there are two or even three concentric circular banks with ditches between them from which the earth was excavated. In parts of the country where earth is in short supply they are made of free stone.

      The surprising thing about them is that, despite the fact that they are so common, there is no agreement among the experts about when they were built or what they were used for.

      The commonest theory is that they were constructed in the Early Christian Period between about 500AD and 1,000AD and that they were fortified farm houses. The fortification is supposed to have defended the inhabitants from cattle raids by unfriendly neighbours.

      But there are some experts who think their origin is much older, stretching back at least another 1,000 years into the Iron Age. And other people have suggested that they were being constructed and inhabited in quite recent history, as late as the 17th or 18th century.

      Doubt has also been cast on the classification of them as fortified farm houses. It’s been pointed out the fortification wouldn’t have been very effective from a military point of view. It’s also significant that close to 200 raths in this country have been the subject of some form of archaeological investigation. A majority have shown some signs of human habitation but a significant proportion have shown none at all.

      References to them in early Irish manuscripts suggest they might have been some form of status symbol — the bigger your rath the more important you were in the local hierarchy of chieftains.

      I was pondering these mysteries as I walked around my friend’s rath, trying to think back into the past and decipher the motives of the people who did all this digging. I suddenly remembered that I had seen something similar a long time ago and a long way away.

      It was in the East African Rift Valley and I was watching Masai pastoralists tending their livestock. This was the remnants of an Iron Age culture. The herdsmen followed the livestock through the bush all day, armed with spears to protect them from wild animals. At night the cattle, sheep and goats were put into a circular stockade of cut thorn bushes, exactly the same size and shape as this rath, but called a ‘boma’.

      Sometimes the Masai lived in huts in the boma with their animals but some bomas just had livestock in them.

      In Ireland up until the 18th century there were quite a lot of wolves and very few fields. Livestock farmers were pastoralists who herded animals during the day, protecting them from wolves and preventing them from damaging arable crops. But they had to have somewhere to put them at night.

      A lot of the mystery surrounding raths can be explained if they were like bomas, reinforced with thorny branches. The fortification was not against people but against wolves. People lived with the animals in some raths, but not in all of them. They were not needed once enclosed fields appeared and wolves became extinct.

    • #787708

      And other people have suggested that they were being constructed and inhabited in quite recent history, as late as the 17th or 18th century.

      Ah yes, the mystery of the “fairy forts”. I doubt that they could have been built up until the 18th century. I know that folk memory can be terribly unreliable but the fact that they have been popularly attributed to supernatural forces (fairies) for the last couple of centuries at least would suggest they had ceased to be used for their original purpose at least a century or two before that.

    • #787709

      Dick must have had a memory lapse – or more likely was probably trying to fill space! These ring-forts have been attributed to cattle holding pens (booleys) for years. The early Irish were a nomadic people during the summer grazing period, it would have been a pain to build an enclosure every night, so these were built as a form of medieval “Travel Lodge” for man and beast. Protection against wolves was necessary until relatively recently; Ireland had a big wolf population explosion after the Cromwellian wars…. too many dead bodies. Various Acts under Cromwell and later Charles II granting huge bounties (

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