• Ali Isaac

fairy forts of ireland you can visit

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

The landscape of Ireland is literally littered with ancient circular structures, some of them constructed of earthen mounds, banks and ditches, others of stone. These are the remains of Ireland's 'fairy forts', also known as ring forts, raths, and lios. Many of them can no longer be seen with the naked eye, having been dismantled or ploughed over to make way for the needs of successive generations of landowners, or have simply reverted to nature, on the surface at least, succumbing to the passage of time.

Traditionally, these sites have acquired strange and mysterious reputations over the years, some of them darker than others. According to folklore, these places were usually associated with 'the fair folk', whom in Ireland were known as the Sidhe rather than fairies, and whom were thought to have descended from the Tuatha de Danann.

Looking down on the stone ring fort of the Grianan of Aileach
By Mark McGaughey - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57551148

The Grianan of Aileach is a stone-built ring fort in Co. Donegal dating to the sixth or seventh centuries, and is thought to have belonged to the Ui Neills. In Irish mythology, this ring fort was said to have been built by the Dagda to enclose the grave of his son, Aedh. The story is preserved in the Great Book of Lecan (Leabhar (Mór) Leacáin in Irish), which was written between 1397 and 1418.

It was thought that to visit a fairy fort uninvited, or to cause damage to one would anger the Sidhe, who would seek vengeance and bring misfortune on the perpetrator. In order to avoid this, some landowners surrounded fairy forts on their land with a ring of trees, so as to prevent livestock accidentally straying into the circle, and to protect themselves from farming too close to Sidhe property. Today, many farmers still respect these boundaries, whether they believe in the Sidhe or not, and the tree-lined circular site is a common sight in Ireland's countryside.

Dúchas has collected many local folklore stories through its Schools Collection (collected 1937-39), which indicate people's beliefs and experiences of fairy forts into fairly recent times. I like this one, told of a site in Co. Carlow:

There is a story told about a boy that was living in Ballymurphy. He was in the "Ratheen" field when the rath was there and it was about nightfall and he saw a woman sitting at the rath with a head of golden hair hanging to her waist and she was combing her hair. He went over to her and she left down the comb and he took it and he ran around the rath with it and she followed him and at last he gave it to her and he went home and said it was the "Boheenka". Long ago people called the "Banshee" the "Boheenka". There are many fairy forts in this district. Some of them are in sight of one another. People dont till the "raths" or cut bushes or anything in them as they believe if they did something bad would happen to themselves or their families.

Here's another lovely one, which I particularly like, also from Co. Carlow:

I live in Ballybrack. There are Fairy Forts in it. The people of the district call them Raths. They are circular in shape. There is a fence of stone and bushes around one of them. The people of the district dont till them or cut bushes from around them, because they would be afraid that something bad would happen to them or to their families or to their cattle. There were two men talking together one day one of them was telling all about the fairies and when he had his story finished the other man asked him how did he get to know so much about them and he said that he spent three days and three days with them in the rath. He said he was passing one night and he met a fairy who asked him to go down in the rath with him. The man went down and he met a big crowd of fairies below, they were dancing and singing and playing music. After a while they prepared a meal and the plates were like buttons and the cups were like timbles, they did that every night until the man got so hungry that he asked them could he go home and they said he could. When he went home he told they whole story but the people would not believe him but he said it was the truth.
Looking down on the Hill of Tara from above, showing large outer ditch and enbankment and conjoined figure of eight structure within
The Hill of Tara

The Hill of Tara is a complex site with multiple layers of archaeology indicating its long history as a sacred ritual space, a place of kingship ritual, and in mythology, the dwelling place of Ireland's high kings. In this image the large outer boundary denotes the ditch and embankment of the ring fort known as the Rath na Rí (the Fort of Kings) within which the conjoined structures of Cormac's House and the Forradh (King's Seat), upon which the standing stone, the Lia Fail is located. At the top of the picture, the Mound of Hostages can be seen, and just outside the Rath na Ri is the Mound of Synods. You can find out more about Tara here.

However, not all stories are so benign, particularly in more recent times. Take the building of the new M3 motorway which connects Dublin with Navan; according to Irish newspaper, The Irish Examiner, the building of this motorway through the Tara/ Skryne valley in 2007 could have unleashed 'the Curse of Tara':

"there has been nothing yet about the occult significance of what is unfolding at Tara. In the past fortnight, more than half a dozen large nests of wasps have been encountered in the valley. In Celtic lore, the wasp is associated with the anger of Mother Earth at man’s wrongdoing. Its unexpected appearance in a given location was believed to portend disaster or ill fortune for anyone messing around with fairy forts or fairy rings."

The curse of Tara was bestowed upon the site by Saint Ruadhan in the sixth century; he declared that no King or Queen should ever live there and that in due course it would become desolate. This was the result of conflict which arose between Diarmuid, High King of Tara, and the Christian clergy, probably because Diarmuid still adhered to the old ways and retained a team of Druids amongst his advisers. You can read the full story here.

Other misfortunes have also been attributed to this curse following the motorway construction; for example, the then Minister for the Environment was attacked by an armed gang, and later sacked from his job; a tree fell on the Chief Health and Safety Officer and very nearly killed him, and a worker on one of the sites was trapped and died. Whilst the curse of Tara was inflicted by a saint, these incidents have been described by some as retribution by the site's Sidhe guardians.

Stone ring fort, grey stone walls, collapsed in places
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52333

Staigue Fort is a stone-built ring fort near Sneem in Co. Kerry dating to the late Iron Age, between 300 and 400 AD. An unusual feature of this ring fort is the excessive number of staircases which climb the interior wall: there are ten of them. Local tradition has it that this was where the local fairies used to play football, and that a man who removed stones from the fort had his sleep disrupted every night by the fairies until he finally returned the stones.

Speaking to the Irish Times in August 2017, Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae claimed that recurring damage to the new N22 road, which had cost €40, 000 to repair, was due to the local fairies, who were angry at the damage the road had caused to their forts in the area. You can read the article here.

Clearly, the fair folk don't like our roads. But it's not just roads; there are similar stories of disasters following the destruction of fairy trees, and of burial sites. The latter is a very interesting story because it is so local to me, so please do make sure to click through and read.

Of course, thanks to the advancement of science and the amazing work of archaeologists, we now know that Ireland's fairy forts are actually the sites of homesteads and dwelling places from the Iron Age and early Christian period. The banks and ditches were designed for protection, and the larger and more elaborate the site, the higher the status of the family which lived there. Often, the ring forts would have also had a wooden palisade within the bank and ditch system, and the huts inside were usually circular, and constructed from degradable materials such as wood, wattle and daub, and thatch. It is thought there could be as many as 60, 000 of these structures dotting the landscape, which indicates why so few of them are excavated.

In this image you can see a screenshot of my local area as shown on the National Monuments Service's online Historic Environment Viewer; all the red dots are the remains of ring forts. This is just one tiny area... imagine what the whole of the island looks like! You can click on each dot to find out more about each site. Just remember, though, that before you head off across the countryside to find one, most of these are on private land; you must get prior permission from the landowner if you want to visit one, there may be crops or livestock s/he does not want disturbed.

Before we were hit with the coronavirus lockdown, I was very lucky to visit Cahercommaun ring fort in the Burren, Galway with my lovely friend, Jenni. It's a wild and lonely spot. The weather was foul that day, we were nearly blown off the hilltop and hailed on ferociously, but despite that, it was well worth the visit.

tumbled grey stone walls of ring fort
Tumbled walls of Cahercommaun

Approaching the tumbled stone walls of Cahercommaun was exciting, but gave no indication of the precipice it is built upon. My images could not capture the drama of the ravine. This was clearly a defensive feature of the site. There was only one entrance which originally consisted of an 8m long paved passage roofed with capstones to form a tunnel, also probably a defensive measure.

Cahercommaun is a stone-built ring fort in Kilnaboy, Co. Clare which dates to the eighth or ninth century, although there is evidence of earlier habitation at the site. The fort has three impressive stone walls, and is constructed in a spectacular location right on the edge of an inland cliff. The innermost wall forms a complete circle, rising up to 14ft high,and is the thickest at 5 ft wide. The other two walls form semi-circles around the the innermost wall, sealing it off against the 30 m drop of the cliff. An archaeological excavation in 1934 found the remains of twelve buildings within the circular wall, some with souterrains. A beautiful silver brooch was found in one of them; other artefacts included about 50 wooden spindles for weaving cloth. The site probably housed about forty people, probably a wealthy and important local chieftain and his family.

Please use the arrows to scroll through the slideshow of images.

One final piece of news I'd like to share with you: last week I had a creative non-fiction essay along with a smaller article published in the distinguished Irish literary magazine, The Stinging Fly.

Because of the coronavirus lockdown, the magazine can't be printed until later in the year when the printer reopens for business, but a pdf sampler has been produced to give you a taster.

You can get your copy here.

I am so proud and honoured to be published in this magazine. I hope you will enjoy it.

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