Perceptions of ringforts in pre-modern Ireland

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O'Riordan, Edward
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University College Cork
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Ringforts are among the most numerous and definitely the most visible archaeological monument on the Irish landscape. The majority of these monuments were built during the latter half of the first millennium AD and most had ceased to serve as habitation sites by the twelfth century. Nevertheless, communities across Ireland would have remained very aware of the presence of these monuments. Several centuries later, much land, particularly in the east of the country was appropriated by the Anglo-Normans and they too seemed to have viewed ringforts as important, albeit different, types of monuments. The goal of this thesis has been to investigate the question of how ringforts were perceived in pre-modern Ireland. To do so, this initial question was broken down into three others, namely how attitudes and beliefs towards ringforts developed, how these attitudes influenced behaviour towards these monuments and what effect, if any, these had on the survival of ringforts in particular areas. Seeking to demonstrate how attitudes and beliefs towards ringforts originated and later developed, involved an initial division of Irish society in two broad groups, one group being indigenous and the other group comprising newcomers. The former group was then further sub-divided into those that comprised the learned classes of society and the popular class. An examination of evidence for how ringforts were perceived within the two Irish groups was then undertaken and it was shown that a correct knowledge of ringforts, particularly concerning their origin but also of their function, was available within the Gaelic manuscript tradition. Evidence was also provided to demonstrate how this information may have been disseminated into the wider community. It has also been shown how the decline in fortune of the learned Gaelic class, and the disappearance of many manuscripts, meant that this knowledge faded from the grasp of the general population. This decline in understanding then paved the way for the emergence of another, mythological, association of ringforts. The initial development of this association was facilitated by the presence of underground chambers in many ringforts. These were initially constructed as refuges and storerooms, but over time the perception of these changed as their association with an underground living mythological race developed. Perceptions of this race itself changed over time, particularly as a result of a serious decline in the Gaelic language, and this attributed qualities to this group that it did not originally possess. The association in traditional belief between this group and ringforts supposedly served to protect these monuments from destruction. Aside from these Gaelic interpretations, an equally influential perception developed within the worldview of the newcomers to the country. This attributed a completely different origin and function to ringforts. Over time this perception developed the status of orthodoxy and proved extremely difficult to dislodge from its position. However, attempts were sometimes made by the remaining Gaelic antiquarians to present to a wider audience the knowledge concerning the indigenous origin of ringforts. However, it was only towards the end of the 18th century that this information began to achieve prominence, and from this date it grew in importance and eventually displaced the theory that ringforts were of foreign origin and had a predominately military function. Did these differing attitudes have an effect on ringfort survival? An examination of 19th and 20th century maps, from study areas in Co. Cork, showed that some level of destruction occurred between these two periods. In this context the word ‘destruction’ is used in a general sense, while remaining cognisant that an important archaeological element remained underground. Earlier estate maps are available for these study areas and a comparative study of all the available cartographic sources indicated a severe rate of decline in ringfort numbers from the beginning of the 18th century to the present day. Additional examination of photographic images from recent aerial surveys showed, in some cases, that the levelling of ringforts began even prior to the compilation of the first maps in 1717. This comparative study highlighted the apparent contradiction between the important position of ringforts for each of the local communities and the high level of ringfort destruction. It also allowed for the period of most risk to ringforts in these study areas to be identified. A study of the practical developments in each of these two baronies that was likely to have most affected ringforts in each of these study areas was then undertaken. The study suggested that the development of commercial tillage farming from the later part of the 18th century posed the greatest risk to ringforts in the east Cork barony. In the second study area, of mid-Cork, the proximity to an urban area seems to have negatively affected ringforts in the region. This study also highlighted that the levelling of ringforts continued throughout the period under examination and this facilitated the conclusion that the desire to maximise profits drove a doctrine of ‘Improvement’ and it was this economic factor that posed the greatest overall risk to ringforts in these two baronies. An attempt was then made to corroborate these results through seeking to apply them to areas throughout the country where other farming practices were noted for the same period. Initially, it was decided to focus on two baronies in Co. Kildare, as these had a long history of arable farming and, furthermore, were located near the main urban centre of the country, Dublin. In this situation, the application of the hypothesis developed in Co. Cork should show an increased rate of decline in both these areas, if the theory held true. Indeed, these were the results that were obtained, with one barony, Kilcullen, providing evidence, in maps and aerial images, for the total destruction of ringforts there. It was then decided to test this hypothesis in areas where different farming activity was noted. Castlereagh barony in Co. Roscommon, noted for cattle fattening, and Ibrickan barony in Co. Clare, an area of small, mixed farms, were chosen and the results conformed to what would be expected if the notion that arable farming posed the greatest risk to ringfort survival was accurate. Therefore, the answers to the questions posed at the beginning of this thesis may be summarised in this manner: ringforts occupied an important position in the world views of the communities that encountered them, fulfilling a variety of social and political roles. However, economic factors seem to have been accorded greater importance and this resulted in ringforts being removed from the Irish landscape in large numbers.
Ringforts , Cultural struggle , Destruction , Economic developments
O'Riordan, E. 2019. Perceptions of ringforts in pre-modern Ireland. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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