Stone forts or
cashels (Irish caiséal from Latin castellum)
are the most impressive surviving monuments of the Iron-age, now
Celtic-speaking, inhabitants of Ireland. The introduction of iron
weapons and the structural changes of society evidently led to a
great increase in cattle-raising, hence cattle-raiding and warfare
- for cattle were the real unit and source of wealth. Even today
it is cattle that the Irish love, not the land they overgraze. Gradually,
people would have had less time, inclination and opportunity to
erect even simple stone kists - because they were building fortified,
kraal-like farmsteads and refuges which, in rocky, treeless
areas, or when built by the powerful, were of stone.
Because very few
tall, fair-haired Celts actually made it to Ireland in fact rather
than in myth (e.g. Fíonn Mac Cúmhaill and his flaxen-haired
Fíanna), Ireland is much less 'Celtic' than, say, France
or Germany (since the Celts and the Teutons are hardly distinguishable).
Nevertheless, Celtic culture made a huge impact upon the island,
not least in language - which was imported rather as English was
later imported, over time - and in structures made of stone which
still survive. The most characteristic of these are the cashels
and stone forts.
Grianán of Ailech, county Donegal
Many cashels, however,
are not easily defensible: often one side of them is extremely vulnerable.
But they very frequently afford fine views. This suggests that they
were built more for status than for defence, and possibly they acted
as observation-posts - rather like today's fashion for cargo-cult
bungalows with a view onto the road and with a prestige hand-built
dry-stone wall fronting it. Their dating is difficult, but most
of those that survive were built well after the first century BC.
Many were built or kept in service right into the mediæval
period - the period when the Anglo-Normans and the English continued
the traditional method of rule in Ireland: a few immigrants speaking
a new language and with new customs, who lorded it over the ethnically-mesolithic
population (stocky, swarthy, brown-eyed, brachycephalic) as had
the Neolithic farmers.
in general assume various forms, the simplest being the Promontory-forts
which are stone walls across the necks of coastal promontories on
which other defences and buildings might be constructed in wood
and/or stone. Inland promontory-forts cut off mountain-spurs in
a similar fashion.
Dunbeg promontory-fort, county Kerry
ones do not actually cut off a promontory but occupy a cliff-top
higher than the surrounding ground, as at Dún Aonghasa on
the Aran Islands. This fort has a chevaux-de-frise of thousands
of stone obstacles as a further protection against attack
Dún Aonghasa, Inishmore, county Galway
- with surrounding chevaux-de-frise
cashels proper, promontory-forts could they be very large and complex
structures covering up to a hectare or more, but, unlike many cashels,
definitely occupy defensible positions.
cashels (more or less circular stone-walled forts) the largest concentration
is in the Burren of county Clare, and in the maritime counties from
Cork clockwise to Antrim. Many have wall-chambers, stone staircases
and terraces, as well as remains of round huts. Most of these were,
unfortunately, over-restored by fanciful engineers towards the end
of the nineteenth century, and should be admired with a little scepticism.
Dún Conor, Inishmaan, county Galway
few vitrified forts - well-known in Scotland - have recently
been identified in the North of the island. These had a timber framework,
which, when set alight, produced such an intense heat that the stones
started to melt into a kind of glass. This may have been done deliberately,
to solidify the rampart.
Aerial view of the Burren limestone plateau with
a typical stone fort.
At least one (over-restored) stone fort is on an artificial island
in a lake.
Doon Fort, county Donegal
islands - known as Crannógs (from crann = tree,
timber, wood) - occur in their thousands all over Ireland, but rarely
bore anything so massive as a cashel. They are now mostly covered
A typical tree-covered crannóg in Lough
Ramor, county Cavan,
and another in Lough Talt, in SW Sligo.
to see another one in county Meath (high resolution)
were built with brushwood and branches weighted with stones, and
defensible corrals were constructed so that cattle could be driven
over and protected during unsettled (that is to say most) times
right up to the late mediæval period. They are not large and
would have been refuges for just one extended family and its cattle.
A fisherman (in the foreground) at Lough-na-Cranagh
on top of Fair Head,
county Antrim, whose crannóg is revetted with stone.
stone forts, but also occurring in huge numbers all over the maritime
counties, are Souterrains or underground passages which served
as places of safe storage of foodstuffs and valuables, of refuge,
and secret means of entering and leaving defended places, particularly
during the period of Viking/Norse raids in the ninth and tenth centuries
- though some were built (and destroyed) as late as the thirteenth
In the 5th century
AD Ireland had undergone a radical change which transformed the
nature of the Irish settlement and made a lasting impact on the
natural environment. Pollen records testify to a huge upsurge in
grasses and weeds associated with pasture and arable farming - indicating
a revolution in the landscape which involved the clearing of forests
- a process which continued to its bleak and treeless climax right
up to the 19th century.
This was also the time when Christianity
gradually seeped into the island, and closer contact with the ex-Roman
world to the East was established. Irish agriculture "improved"
and thus population increased with the increased food production.
This increase in population lead
to the construction of literally tens of thousands of fortified
farmsteads known as 'ringforts' or (from the Irish) raths
which provided some security from marauding neighbours and raiders
from farther afield. Towards the end of the first millennium the
fortified farmsteads started to become obsolete, possibly because
ring-fort defences were useless against marauding Vikings, who had
moved warfare onto a different plane, and who were keen not just
on sacking the rich monasteries of the East and Centre, but on establishing
settlements along the coast.
As the ringforts vanished, the souterrains
appeared and proliferated: a desperate innovation in defensive architecture.
They can be simple
passages, sometimes roofed with suitable and convenient standing-stones
or they can be complex labyrinths with defensible 'creeps' or stile-like
obstacles. Thousands must have been mere underground tunnels. Several
souterrains were dug into the passage-tomb at Knowth, and one can
still be seen at Dowth, county Meath.
Exposed souterrain revealing roof-lintels.
A souterrain partly-roofed with ogam stones (removed
ones erected on either side)
at Drumlohan, county Waterford.
The passage of a souterrain at Drumena, county
The entrance to a souterrain at Ballybarrack,
just outside Dundalk, county Louth,
excavated in the late 1970s and filled in again. Note the slot in
for a defence of some kind.
A part of the souterrain complex at Ballybarrack
showing one large roofstone.
Another detail of the Ballybarrack complex showing
a defensive trap
which incorporated the decorated ?lintel from a passage-tomb.
most common of all ancient constructions in Ireland are the farmhouses,
known as raths, always circular and with banks which once
supported palisades. There are at least 10,000 of them, all over
the country. Some contain souterrains or remains of stone structures.
They are not listed in this field-guide, but below is a photograph
of a fine example on the Dingle Peninsula, with a by-road skirting
it, and remains of a structure inside.
Doonclaur, county Kerry.