Ringforts, Ireland, Cornwall – and Pandemics
Walk south of Athenry on the Craughwell road, the R347, past the graveyard with its tight ranks of crosses and the turning to Kiltullagh. Just before the motorway there is a crossroads. The turning on the left runs out to join the Kiltullagh road. The lane on the right, tight against the motorway embankment, is not marked on the map. It seems to lead nowhere, but walk along it anyway. The lane has the strange, ancient stillness of places close to fast-moving traffic. After three hundred metres you reach a gate, with a triangular field beyond. To the right, through the next gateway, is a ringfort.
The ringfort is large, seventy-five metres across. It has been accommodated by the grid of the surrounding fields, its circular form hemmed by dead-straight walls. The embankments are broad, chest-high in places. Where trampling cattle have worn away the grass you can see that the perimeter is built of earth and stones, pushed up like an esker or a motorway embankment. There is a trace of an outer ditch. To the west, the big blue exit sign for Junction 17 hangs in the thick evening air.
There are three other ringforts within half a kilometre to the north; another lies buried under a thorn ticket just beyond the motorway. Circles on a map. Across Ireland, there are some 45,000 of them. Those built of banked earth, like this, are sometimes called raths (the old Ordnance Survey maps give the name of this particular ringfort as Rathacugga, which might mean “the Cuckoo’s Ringfort” – though that certainly wouldn’t have been the name first given it by those who raised its banks). Those built mainly of stone are called cashels or cathairs. The terms dun and lios turn up from time to time too.
They are not really forts – certainly not military structures. They are simply the surviving perimeters of the little homesteads that were once scattered across the countryside. The bank would probably have been topped with a fence, or a ring of living hawthorn. Within it stood huts for the resident family, pens for the livestock: a farmyard.
Walking through the thistles in the ringfort by the motorway, you can detect traces of internal structures; an enclosure to the southeast; an apparent outer gateway opposite; some other cryptic lumps and bumps. The secure perimeter probably had more to do with keeping the cattle in and the wolves out than with any endemic culture of violence.
People may have lived in ringfort-style structures as early as the Iron Age, maybe even earlier. But the bulk of the ringforts that mark the farmland of Ireland like old acne scars were occupied in the second half of the first millennium CE. After that, for whatever reason, most of them were left go. People moved out, moved on. In later centuries some – with their readymade perimeters, their sense of an established place – were used for the burial of babies that died before baptism and were thus denied a place in consecrated ground.
Cornwall, too, has very similar structures – dozens of them. There is one halfway up the hill above Trevowhan, in the field behind Bernard’s bungalow – banks of earth and granite reaching out like arms for an interdicted embrace. A little further off, at the southwest corner of the parish, there is a mighty double ring of pale stone on the high hilltop at Chûn with a view to both coasts. Elsewhere, at other circle-places, the Irish words come back out of the Cornish landscape like a muffled echo: cathair and dun and lios becoming ker and din and lis. The one difference is that the ringforts in Cornwall are older. They were mainly occupied from the Iron Age through to the Romano-British period. Around the seventh century, just as the peak of ringfort use in Ireland began, the last of them were left go in Cornwall, litter in the landscape, as people began to resettle in unenclosed clusters of cottages and barns. If you want to make an informed guess you might say that it was at this point that the first folks moved a little way down the slope in what would one day be the parish of Morvah, to a new hamlet – a trev, which might have been the trev of a man called something like Owen or Vaughan.
The converse cultural shifts – into the ringforts in Ireland, out of them in Cornwall – are not properly understood by archaeologists and historians. But they coincide, more or less, with the period of the Justinian Plague – a terrible wave of infection which seems to have begun, vectored by rats, in the eastern Mediterranean around 540 CE, and which surged and resurged across Europe for the next two hundred years. The plague killed millions, and had pronounced impacts on trade, politics and agriculture. It seems reasonable to assume that it also – either directly or at the end of a long chain of consequences – changed the way people occupied the Cornish and Irish landscapes. A global pandemic as prompt for a change in rural planning decisions.
Much is made today of the supposed protection afforded to old ringforts in Ireland by superstition. So many of them survive, it is said, because country folks consider them the dwelling places of the faeries – even now! – and to damage a ringfort would be to invite a curse. But old things get left in any landscape. A small earthen bank hardly interferes with the grazing of cattle; and even when the land is given over to tillage it might be easier to plough around one small irregularity than to level it out. People sometimes needlessly invent rationales for the actions of their forebears, then, half-ironically, adopt them for themselves.
Anyway, the big ringfort by the motorway is still there, grazed by bullocks, the ground within a metre higher than the land without. There are three huge upright slabs of limestone built into the field wall to the east. Beyond the wall, a line of flowering blackthorns, their branches crusted with greenish lichen. The leathery leaves of the stinging nettles below are dusted with fallen blossom.
© Tim Hannigan 2021