When I returned home to Ireland in 2017, I was contacted by an Irish radio station to do a quick interview on a ‘scandal’ that was taking place at the time. This concerned some issues with the ongoing cost of maintenance with the N22 (one of our national roads that passes through Cork and Kerry) particularly in one area Curraglass near Killarney where a persistent dip continued to reappear despite previous repair work.
This all became a “scandal” when an independent Irish politician (Danny Healy-Rae) suggested that the problems with the N22 could be due to “numerous fairy forts in that area” and that “anyone that tampered with them back over the years paid a high price and had bad luck.”
Needless to say, the media jumped into this story faster than a pig into a mud-pond and Healy-Rae’s comments got a level of international coverage that the politician could previously only have dreamed of. At the time, the reporting lines in the media tended to follow two distinct narratives:
- Look at what that ‘muck savage’ Healy Rae believes- shock/horror! (mostly Irish media – Irish Times, Irish Examiner, Irish independent, etc.)
- Folk beliefs still hold powerful sway in good old, romantic Ireland – please buy our associated products (overseas media, Irish Central, etc.)
What really struck me at the time was that neither narrative progressed beyond childlike fact-finding or churlish commercial thinking. What was even more striking was the fact that both the international and Irish media insisted on using the term ‘fairy fort’ as this term had connotations they could use for whichever version of the story the wanted to spin.
This is one of the problems we face when trying to have a grown-up conversation around Irish mythology. Beyond academia, there isn’t any commonly accepted nomenclature around Irish mythological concepts which means that when you attempt to have a conversation, people come into that with hugely varying comprehensions of the concepts being discussed. Another problem is that a large number of vested interests out there (usually businesses or creatives dependent on the ‘fantasy portrayal of mythology for their business model) have no interest in allowing such facts to come to the fore.
Here, however, are the basic facts associated with “Fairy forts”.
- The correct term for these structures is ‘ráth’ (pronounced like ‘raw’ in English). The plural is ráthanna.
- Essentially, a ráth was an ancient circular settlement 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 more difficult.
- Because of its relative constructive and design simplicity, the ráth was a relatively common defensive living area with more than 60,000 identified surviving examples in Ireland. The vast majority of recorded ráthanna date back to a period between 500 – 900 A.D. but there’s some evidence of much earlier prehistoric pre-ringfort activity and, indeed, later re-use into the later and post-Medieval periods.
- In the west of Ireland, where stone was far more prevalent, stone versions called caiseal were built. These generally consisted of a large circular stone wall with stone huts in the interior.
- Sometimes, the remains of a ráth is called a lis (or lios) but this actually refers to the circular enclosed courtyard within the embankment.
- Ráthanna 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 primarily intended as 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 with major warfare in mind – although they certainly would have helped. [Note: In my book Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma, I included a military siege story in a ráth towards the end of the second century – a slight stretch but, to be honest, not too much].
- The inhabitants of a ráth were largely self-sufficient and it wasn’t uncommon in the early medieval period (when the population had grown much larger and the settlement would have grown too crowded) to have neighbouring ringforts.
- Traces of iron and bronze working have also been recovered at some ráthanna suggesting some ringforts had very specific uses while others were multifunctional.
- With the colonisation of Ireland from the 1100s and the subsequent disruption of indigenous cultural knowledge transfer mechanisms, much of the native Irish population was essentially uncoupled from the teaching of its own history. Because of this, much of the history around native structures like ráthanna was lost or forgotten.
- As a result, to explain these imposing structures, local people started linking them to stories about ‘fairies’, which colonial literary influences at the time, strongly encouraged. This is how ‘fairy forts’ became a thing.
Back in 2017, I pulled out of the radio interview when it became obvious the interviewer was only interested in giving his audience a particular spin on the story, much of which ignored the fundamental facts.
The next time you hear someone going on about ‘fairy forts’, ask yourself what their motivation is in using that term. Are they trying to sell you a fantasy story, are they trying to spin you a romantic ‘Oirish’ meme or are they, actually, just completely ignorant on the subject?
That’ll be up to you to decide.
Note: My advice is to avoid Wikipedia when it comes to the subject of Irish mythology- their current section on ‘ringforts’, for example is completely wrong.