We daren’t go a-hunting…

A fairy fort near Slea Head (via Wikimedia Commons)

This appeared in the North Clare Local in May. More on fairies, but this time, their dwellings. 

RING forts, ráths, fairy forts, liosanna- to give them just a few of their names- are extremely common in Ireland. The Heritage Council estimates that there could be as many as 60,000 surviving across the country. Clare itself has plenty- 224 to be precise.

So what exactly is a ring fort? Our farming ancestors faced severe challenges in minding their animals. Ireland had a far great proportion of forest than now, and the dangers of livestock wandering into the forest were manifold. They could become injured, fall into streams, get lost- or meet a predator. Ireland was home to foxes, boars and the now extinct wolf.

So to protect their animals, the ancient Irish built circular forts- of earth or of stone. These were farmsteads and dwellings, and what we see today are essentially their foundations. Not only did they function in a practical sense- they were used as a status symbol, and it is believed that the higher your status in Irish society, the bigger the ring fort. Much like a car today!

There is some debate among historians as to when ring forts were built, with some believing that are medieval structures and others placing them as Iron Age. One thing is certain- they are extremely old, and they have been the subject of superstition for centuries.

The fairy forts were seen as gateways to the fairy realm. This interpretation was made easier by the existence, in some forts, of souterrains. These were underground passages in the forts used for storage. Fairies were thought to be the Tuatha De Danann, the legendary Celtic race, who were banished underground by the Milesians- the forerunners of the Gaels. It seemed obvious that the souterrains would lead to their underground home.

As I mentioned last month, the most effective strategy in dealing with fairies was avoidance.

As we can see from the sheer volume of ring forts in Ireland, it was impossible to avoid them completely. Precautions had to be taken to neutralise their power.

People who had a ring fort on their land treated it with respect. It was extremely unwise to damage the ring fort in any way, and the consequences could be terrible. Leaving cows to graze in a fairy fort could lead to them sickening. The famous story, Bewitched Butter, which was collected by Yeats and others, tells of cows’ milk turning to blood. In this story, a malevolent neighbour was responsible, but similar happenings could be attributed to interfering with ring forts.

It was considered unlucky to take brush or thorn from the fort. Many trees or bushes standing alone were thought also to be fairy trees. Many readers will remember how the construction of the M18 motorway between Limerick and Galway was delayed because the proposed route interfered with a fairy bush outside Ennis.

A souterrain in Canna Island, Scotland (via Wikimedia Commons)

The route between a fort and a tree, or another fort, was called a fairy path. Building your house, or travelling on a fairy path, was a very bad idea indeed. It would lead to sickness and misfortune in the house. A Galway woman told me of how a relation of hers built his house with one corner touching a well-known fairy path. Within years, the relation had died.

When a person wanted to build a house, they first tested whether it was on a fairy path. A common test throughout Ireland was the placing of a small pile of stones overnight in the four corners of the planned foundations. If the stones were still there in the morning, the builder had the permission of the fairy version of An Bord Pleanala.

Night was the most dangerous time to be around a fairy fort. Falling asleep by a fairy fort was asking for trouble. Many folktales tell of people waking up with vivid dreams of banquets and feasts in fairyland, only to discover ten years have passed in the real world. Fairies loved to confuse humans as well, and those wandering around familiar fields found themselves going around in circles for hours until they despaired. The way to combat this was simple- turning your coat inside out.

This belief had the effect of preserving our landscape and its many historical artefacts. Some experts believe that fairy belief acted as an early form of heritage legislation- these stories grew up around people’s natural reverence for ancient things. The belief is not totally dead. Sean Quinn’s financial demise was blamed by some in his locality on his demolition of an ancient gravesite. And there are a few who pinpoint Ireland’s economic woes on the beginning of the M3 motorway through Tara.

Earlier this year, a Kerry farmer received a hefty fine under heritage legislation for destroying a ring fort on his land. Proof that if the fairies don’t get you, the judge will!

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