What is a Rath?
Yes, I feckin spelled that right. Thank you.
Rath, not wrath.
Ráth is the Irish term for an archaeological Ringfort, anglicised as Rath – or one of the terms, rather. Others being lios (anglicised lis), caiseal (anglicised cashel), cathair (anglicised caher or cahir) and dún (anglicised dun or doon). [ref Nancy Edwards, ‘The Archaeology of Early Medieval Ireland’, 2006]
A casual perusal of any Irish map or story will show you a whole rake of placenames with at least the anglicised versions of these words built right into them. Like, you can’t miss them. Rathcroghan would be a very famous example; Ráth Crúachán – the legendary home of Connacht Queen Maedbh (Maeve), and the Irish Goddess of battle and prophecy, the Mórrígan.
Ráth and Lios are what we call those earthen enclosure ringforts (with lios having a particular connotation as a fairy fort in more modern times, out of all of them, for some reason), while Caiseal and Cathair both signify a stone ringfort. The Dún then, can refer to any fort really, and it doesn’t even have to be circular either for that one… it’s basically used to signify an important stronghold.
There’s examples of these types of Ringforts in Ireland dated from the Bronze Age onwards (roughly 2500 or 2000 BCE on), but they’re definitely most common in the early Medieval, and they stopped being built probably around 1000 CE.
They came in all sizes really, with the earthen ringforts marked by a circular rampart (a bank and ditch), and they would have had (generally) at least one building inside, but often multiple dwellings and animal enclosures. The majority of them seem to have been domestic, but there’s a strong theory that the later more domestic working Medieval Ráth was built over or incorporated earlier Bronze and particularly Iron Age dwellings or even ceremonial enclosures, as there’s a distinct relative lack of vernacular housing remains for that period.
Archaeological excavation within some of the Ringforts revealed a lot about their function – there’s some of them with nothing we can find inside, and these have largely been deemed as livestock enclosures, but I’d suggest that an occasional ’empty’ one might just have been ceremonial in nature. In general though there’ll be a large central building found, usually circular, with smaller out-buildings beside or near it. There might be some other stuff too, like cereal drying kilns, or smithing furnaces. It looks like most of them would have been a homestead for small community or extended family, with the protection built in for any dangers roaming round outside the walls or banks.
In Ireland, there’s over 40,000 sites currently identified as Ringforts, and they reckon there would have been at least 50,000 on the island. [ref Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, ‘A New History of Ireland’ Vol 1, 2005]. They are so common in fact, that within any average area of 2 km2 (0.8 sq mi), you’ve a good chance of finding one.
Nowadays, they’re respected and not touched, for the most part, by landowners and communities, as they’re most often referred to as ‘fairy forts’. And you don’t want to go messing with the Good Neighbours now, do ya?
[NOTE – Photo Source]
Kite aerial photograph of the Multivallate Ringfort at Rathrá, Co Roscommon, Ireland. April 2016.
Source: West Lothian Archaeology’s camera flown on a kite at the field outing of the Rathcroghan Conference in April 2016. Credit: West Lothian Archaeological Trust (Jim Knowles, Frank Scott and John Wells).
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