The Burren ringfort or Stone Fort

A Stone fort or ringfort is an early medieval farmstead enclosed by a roughly circular drystone wall or earthen bank. Sometimes more than one bank or wall is present, giving rise to the labels uni-vallate, bi-vallate and tri-vallate (denoting one bank or wall; two Banks or walls etc). Though the name includes the element "fort", these dwelling-places were not designed for defence: rather the role of the bank or wall was to give shelter and security to the family, its livestock and their possessions. The scale and complexity of the bank(s) or wall(s) may also have served as an indicator of the occupier´s status, much in the same way as the size of one´s front garden is an index of wealth in our own society.

Burren information - A bi-vallette Stone fort & ringfort at Cahermore

In ringforts, the space enclosed by the bank or wall ranges from 20m to 60m (60-100 ft). Today, all that is generally visible at ringforts are the enclosing banks or walls: the original houses and outbuildings in the interior were most built of perishable materials (wood, wattle, straw). However, there is generally an entrance gap (usually on eastern side), and occasionally, as at Caherconnell, the remains of buildings and/or souterrains (subterranean refuges) are visible in the interior.

The ringfort is the most common field monument in the island of Ireland. A recent count by Matthew Stout calculated that there are at least 45,000 examples. Their distribution is widespread, generally preferring well-drained lowland locations and avoiding peatlands and uplands. In the western parts of Ireland, where stony soils and rock outcrops are plentiful, large numbers of ringforts were built of stone (Stone Fort) (hence "caher") rather than earth (hence "rath").

Only about 250 Irish ringforts have so far been subjected to archaeological excavation, among them the Stone fort shown below at Cahercommaun in the burren. The radiocarbon determinations from these excavations are remarkably consistent, indicating that the main period of ringfort construction and use was from AD c.500 to c.1000. However, as the majority of the ringforts excavated to date are from eastern parts of Ireland, these dates may not represent a complete picture. Structural and documentary evidence from the west of Ireland suggest that ringfort occupation if not construction continued well into late medieval times (13th -15th C.) in places like the Burren.

Aerial view of a tri-vallette ringfort at Cahercommaun

Nobody has yet calculated how many ringforts are to be found in county Clare, let alone in the Burren. Tim Robinson, one of the Burren´s cartographers, cites a figure of 450, suggesting an average density of one ringfort per square kilometre! Numbers apart, what is distinctive about the Burren´s ringforts is the widespread and skilful use of drystone in their construction. Though some fine examples of earthen ringforts do occur, the vast majority are built exclusively of angular limestone blocks and slabs. Amongst these stone forts or cahers, are some superb examples of the stonemason´s craft: Caherconnell, and Cahercommaun (near Carron). The latter site is of particular importance, being the only ringfort in the region to have been fully excavated by archaeologists. The results of its excavation, when coupled with the well-preserved remains at Caherconnell, allow us to reconstruct many aspects of the lifestyle of the inhabitants of an early medieval Stone Fort.

Aerial view of an earthen ringfort in the Burren.