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.

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.]