Knockaraha Ringfort/Cashel

On the way into Ballintubber, on the way out of Drum, an enormous ringfort with apparently low-lying trees can be seen upon entering one particular field (Michigan State University, 2009).

Ringforts more generally

The Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council (n.d.) source posits that “The earliest ringforts date from the 5th century, while others were occupied until as late as the 13th century.” The same source goes on to say, that these ringforts were primarily used for protecting “small settlements consisting of a family, their workers and livestock against raids.” Located inside the ringforts were small wooden houses where single family units would dwell. These wooden houses can no longer be seen, however (Michigan State University, 2009).

From an archaeological perspective, ringforts and enclosures can be categorized broadly in three different ways:

  • A cashel — which describes an enclosure with a stone bank.

  • A ringfort, rath, or lios describes a ringfort which had a bank made of earth.

  • A hybrid enclosure. This describes a site with both earth and stone banks (Michigan State University, 2009).

There is a term known as ‘univallum’ which describes ringforts which have one bank made of earth. There is also a second term, known as ‘bivallum’ which describes a ringfort which has two banks made of earth (Michigan State University, 2009).

Ringforts vary in dimensions and size with the largest measuring up to 100 meters across and the smallest measuring just a few meters across. What defines them is an outer ditch and a circular earthen bank—with a gateway leading into the inside of the ringfort. Some archaeological digs have shown that ringforts were not just used for housing—they were also used for pottery production, metal working and as previously mentioned they were also used for animal husbandry. So, ringforts served as both centers of economic activity and also as residences for their communities (Irish Archaeology, n.d.).

Ringforts are the most common archaeological feature in Ireland—with an estimated 45,000 in Ireland alone. The ringforts served as protection against the lightning cattle raids which were prevalent in the Early Christian Period in Ireland (c.400-1200 A.D.) (Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council, n.d.)

These ringforts now function as natural habitats—for ecosystems for both flora and fauna (Michigan State University, 2009).


Occasionally, one can find ringforts with underground passageways known as ‘souterrains.’ These souterrains were used as a place of refuge during an attack. They were also used for food storage (Michigan State University, 2009).

As previously mentioned, sometimes-- associated with ringforts-- are underground chambers commonly known as souterrains. Souterrain is a French term meaning ‘underground.’ Not all souterrains are inside or associated with a ringfort, and not all ringforts have a souterrain. These souterrains have little remaining organic remains that can be used for radio carbon dating, and they have few artifacts that can help date the souterrains by context. West Cork Paleoecology (2020) confirms my previous statements that the purpose of the souterrains were largely thought to be for cool, dry storage locations (a bit like cellars) or hideaway locations in times of attack. The entrances to the souterrains appear to be often hidden or are at least located in places which are not obvious. Souterrains often consist of a series of chambers, joined by short passages. West Cork Paleoecology (2020) states that the recent find of a souterrain in Tooreen townland in West Cork had three chambers with short joining passages (West Cork Palaeoecology, 2020).

One school of thought about the existence of raths (ringforts) and souterrains is that they were needed for the development of dairy farming. The evidence for this is based on numbers and types of bones found in archaeological contexts. It is thought that the increase in dairy production required cold storage in souterrains—and high value cattle needing protection in raths. West Cork Paleoecology (2020) states that a dairy based economy presupposes an ability to either transport and market the produce on a regular basis or to store foodstuffs and produce that is very perishable. The same website states that we modern people should bear in mind that many different cultures (both past and present) consume dairy products that we would consider sour, ‘gone off’ or unpalatable (West Cork Palaeoecology, 2020).

Superstitions surrounding ringforts

Many ringforts still exist in Ireland, and this is likely, in part, because of national and local superstitions. This superstition is based on the fact that many ringforts have come to be known as ‘fairy forts.’ These ‘fairy forts’ are structures which famers and landholders are unwilling to tear down. Hence, many ringforts have been preserved (Michigan State University, 2009). The Causeway Coast & Glens Council (n.d.) source further testifies to the perceived supernatural element associated with ringforts when it says, “Traditionally, ringforts were believed to be ritual sites or associated with supernatural forces, such as fairies or ‘wee folk.’”

Marion McGarry of RTE (2021) opines that in the “recent past in rural Ireland, many ringforts were associated with fairy activity and supernatural happenings.” Oftentimes, these ‘fairy forts’ are “left untouched by human hands,” with no planting or ploughing and no livestock allowed to graze there, either. These ringforts—which were originally places of dwelling—are often referred to as fairy forts. Some of these ringforts have “a dual reputation as places of historic dwelling and as supernatural places that allow access to the otherworld.” Many locals avoid such fairy forts “‘just in case’ of bad luck” (McGarry, 2021).

“In Irish tradition, fairies could be dark and malevolent, and interference with or by them could make or break a family’s luck, health, livestock, home or fortune. Essentially earth or nature spirits, they were thought to occupy a parallel universe, often conducted underground, and mostly invisible to the human eye. But they were deemed to be omnipresent with the ability to hear and see things at all times” (McGarry, 2021).

“Many people devoutly followed Christian beliefs yet chose to ‘play it safe’ and practice placation rather than profess disbelief in fairies. Paradoxically, a blessing by a priest was in some cases seen as the remedy to unwanted fairy activity” (McGarry, 2021).


  1. Causeway Coast & Glens Borough Council (n.d.) Ringforts. Available at: Accessed 10th of May, 2024.

  2. Irish Archaeology (n.d.) Raths, Ringforts. Available at: Accessed 9th of May, 2024.

  3. Michigan State University, Study Abroad Programme. (2009). Knockaraha Ringfort/Cashel. Internal Report: Folder 2, Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail—Clogher Environmental Group Ltd. Unpublished.

  4. (Marion McGarry) (2021). The Superstitions and Mysteries around Ireland’s ‘fairy forts.’ Available at: Accessed 10th of May, 2024.

  5. West Cork Palaeoecology (2020). Ringforts (Raths) and Townlands in West Cork. Available at: Accessed 10th of May, 2024.