Irish Mythology Conversations for Six Year Olds

There’s quite an amusing story in the Guardian Newspaper site about an ‘ancient’ Scottish stone circle that actually turned out to be built in the 1990s (you can find it here: Stone Circle Story). It’s also a good example of how disconnected people from the “Celtic” countries can be from their own cultural heritage (and I use the term ‘Celtic’ with caution).

Most people in modern-day Ireland, Wales and Scotland tend to have a cultural understanding that’s still tainted by centuries of ‘colonial overlay’. Much of that understanding is garnered from what we were taught at school and what we see in the commercial entertainment sphere (films books, games etc.).

Unfortunately, we now know that much of what we learned in school wasn’t correct. In addition, given that most of the commercial entertainment sector output rarely has any kind of cultural integrity, that leaves us at a serious disadvantage in terms of authentic learning about our own culture.

Two years ago when I was back home, I was asked for an interview around the “scandal” of Danny Healy-Rae, an independent TD (Irish member of parliament) for County Kerry who suggested that “there was something in these places you shouldn’t touch” when speaking about a road that passed through an area rich in fairy-related folklore and which was constantly requiring repair.

The Irish press at the time were useless, most of their reports going for the cheap jab story along the lines of “Politician believes in Fairies” rather than looking at the fundamental belief systems underpinning the issue. What was particularly striking was the fact that the Irish newspapers and television news programmes were still referring to ‘fairy forts’ instead of ‘ráth’, as though the entire findings and learning of the past century had completely passed them by.

Most Irish newspapers are still comically inept when it comes to reporting on Irish mythology and cultural belief systems. Others, like the American Irish press, have veered so far into the commercial “Celtic Fantasy” interpretations that they have very little residual connection to Irish culture at all.

One thing is clear, however. As a society, we need a fundamental and commonly understood terminology to genuinely discuss those elements of our own cultural heritage. We also need a certain amount of cultural maturity to achieve that. Until then, any conversation we have around Irish culture/mythology is pretty much like trying to explain nuclear physics to a six-year old.

The Difference between Irish Fairy Forts, Fairy Rings, Ráth and Lios

 
Finally back from a ‘research’ trip back home so just a brief post today on ráth or ringforts.  Some people who’ve read Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma have asked for a bit of clarification around what exactly the ráth or ringfort might have consisted of.

Essentially, ráth were ancient circular settlements that were enclosed by one or more earthen banks. The banks were usually constructed using upcast dirt from the ditch; an effective way of forming a second defensive structure for the effort of a single one. On occasion, the inner bank was also topped with a timber palisade which made entry even that much more difficult.

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Because of their relative simplicity, the ráth was a relatively common defensive living area with more than 60,000 identified surviving examples in Ireland. In Defence of Ráth Bládhma, I set a ráth siege situation towards the end of the second century. This might be stretching the truth but, to be honest, it’s not too much of a stretch. It’s true the vast majority of recorded ráth date back to a period between 500 – 900 A.D. but there’s some clear evidence of much earlier prehistoric pre-ringfort activity (and later re-use of them into the later and post-Medieval periods).

In the west of Ireland where stone was much more prevalent, stone versions (caiseal) did exist which consisted of a large circular stone wall with stone huts in the interior. Sometimes, the remains of a ráth is called a lis (lios) but this actually refers to the circular enclosed courtyard.

Ráth were probably preceded in most cases by open settlements which became more defensive as the population grew and the need for protection became necessary. Although sometimes known as a ‘ringforts’ this is really a poor description as they were agricultural settlements, not martial structures. The defensive structures tended to defend the inhabitants and their cattle – their most prized possessions – against predators such as wolves and occasionally (if they were unlucky) raiders. They certainly weren’t designed for warfare.

The inhabitants were largely self-sufficient and it is wasn’t uncommon in the early medieval period (when the population was larger) to have neighbouring ringforts. Traces of iron and bronze working have also been recovered suggesting some ringforts had very specific uses while others were multifunctional.

With the passing of centuries, the basic facts about ráth became lost or confused. Later generations in Ireland – particularly those in the deeper countryside – could see these significant structures within their local area and, not knowing what they, came up with alternative rationales to explain them (usually as sidhe or fairy rings).

It’s relatively difficult to find decent photographs or recreations of a ráth but the above shows the remains of a relatively well preserved example down on the Beara Peninsula. I tramped around this particular one last week during a period of good weather and it was still in pretty excellent condition given the many centuries since it was first constructed.

[Update: Apr 2016 – For those who are interested, the first book in the Fionn Series (Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma which describes how a ráth operated in practice, is currently available for free by simply signing up for the monthly newsletter.]