Edward Riordan (MPhil Candidate)
Perceptions of ringforts in Early Modern Ireland
Supervisor: Mr. John Sheehan
Early Medieval and Viking Research Group
Ringforts are the most common archaeological monuments present in the Irish landscape. Dating from the latter half of the first millennium the development of these structures may be a consequence of the structure of Irish society in this period. The technological limitations of this period obliged the inhabitants to maintain a close, almost symbiotic, relationship with the surrounding environment. As a result, the economic base of early-medieval Irish society was strongly influenced by the prevailing climate and geographical conditions. Thus, it was a primarily rural and agriculture based society, within which the majority of ringforts served as the habitations of individual farming families. This society was also politically organised through a system of local and regional relationships of obligation centred on the clan, and on a wider tribal system. As such, Irish society of this period has been categorised as hierarchical and in-egalitarian. Ringforts could also serve as physical expressions of these conditions and examples of this may be most easily recognisable in those of multi-vallete construction. However, these initiatory conditions could be influenced by stronger external influences and eventually these structures lost favour and as a system of construction were ultimately abandoned.
Nevertheless, ringforts remained a highly visible presence in the majority of the countryside and may also have fulfilled a variety of practical functions for succeeding communities. It may also be argued that these structures evolved as an important presence in the mental landscape of these communities. Of primary interest is whether these perceptions may have affected any subsequent behaviour towards ringforts and whether this may have resulted in either the destruction or the preservation of these monuments. Because this project intends to include information of a historical, geographical and folkloric nature to support a strong archaeological foundation it may be considered to possess and interdisciplinary focus. Once a wider, national, context has been established, it is felt that the aims stated above may best be achieved through the examination of several specific sites throughout South Munster. Preference will be shown to sites possessing supporting information extending to the beginning of the early modern period and, in addition, which exhibit a variety of physical conditions which would allow any conclusions to then be applied to the broader regional landscape.
The primary investigations for this project will require a desk-based focus. This section will commence with an investigation of all available cartographic evidence. A comparative study will then be undertaken so as to show the evolving situation as regards the physical presence of ringforts throughout the study areas. Once a statistical value for this presence has been established, the political, social and economic developments in each locality will be investigated in an attempt to associate a specific cause to any reduction in ringfort numbers. Finally, it is proposed to address the abstract concepts evident in the position ringforts held in the imaginations of the local communities. Drawing upon historical and folkloric sources it is hoped to emphasis the continued importance of these monuments. It is then proposed to combine the information gleaned through each of these strands to provide a comprehensive and in-depth account of the attitudes of the different sections of Irish society towards ringforts in the early modern period.