Mayo Theme -
The first millennium AD provides us with plenty of settlement sites and few burial places. The dispersed pattern of settlement of earlier periods persists with some regional centres represented by hill-forts. Anyone investigating the ancient landscape will become aware of the frequency with which the ring-fort appears. The term ring fort is sometimes misunderstood as having military connotations, but these numerous circular spaces defined by earthen or stone banks were the everyday homestead of the Irish farmer.
The ring-forts, now usually overgrown, are perhaps not as remarkable as when they paraded a wooden palisade along the top of their once formidable banks in order to protect livestock from cattle raiders and indeed to offer respite from attack by wild beasts at night. It also offered some security for the farmer and his family and extended family. They would have lived in huts, which were of a type that differed little from the ones inhabited by people in the Neolithic and Bronze Age. Generally there is no surface trace of any building, although occasionally evidence of foundations has been discovered.
Some ring-forts would have had an additional security element constructed, an underground chamber or 'souterrain'.These stone-lined passages with architectural echoes of the Neolithic were probably used in the main to store food but would have provided a useful refuge in times of attack. Some of the more sophisticated souterrains had air vents incorporated, perhaps an indication of the constant and serious nature of these attacks.
Where the ground was stony and difficult to dig, the ring-fort would have been constructed with stone. These dry-stone constructions are comparable in size with the earthen ring-forts but in some cases are substantial enough to suggest that they were the fortification of an elite member of society. In the main ring-forts are approximately 20 to 60 metres in diameter with a single bank but some examples can exceed 100 metres and some can have more than one rampart. According to Brehon law the king's abode should have a double earthen rampart, the outer ring being built by the forced labour of the king's lower vassals (ceili giallnai). Our modern notion of kingship should not cloud our view of these earlier versions and perhaps what is more likely is that these ring-forts were, regardless of their size, the homesteads of relatively wealthy farmers rather than overlords.
Another form of protected homestead contemporary with ring-forts is the crannog. Crannogs are artificially constructed islands. They were created by pile-driving tree-trunks into the muddy bed of the lake to form a substantial foundation on which branches stones and peat were laid to form a firm flat base. Access to the crannog was by boat or where possible by a causeway submerged just beneath the water. We can picture the complete crannog with its wooden stockade surrounding a round hut with wattle walls and a thatched roof, perhaps enjoying the close proximity of other such dwelling places.
Crannog construction was a considerable undertaking given the amount of timber and other material needed. This would indicate that perhaps these projects were pursued by those with status to command the type of resources necessary for their construction. The crannog on Moher Lake gave its name (Illane na Moghere) to the eastern division of the O'Malley country, thus emphasising the importance and stature of the occupants of this enclosed lake settlement. Many crannogs have yielded evidence of bronze working, mould fragments for the manufacture of trinkets, evidence of luxury goods production.
This distinctly Irish aquatic style of residence has contested origins from the later Bronze Age into the Iron Age and Early Medieval Period, but the same sites were reoccupied time and again even after inundation. The main phase for crannog building was the late sixth to early seventh century AD. The dendrochronology (tree ring dating) shows that in the latter part of the first millennium AD mature oak had become increasingly scarce; as a result, construction of large crannogs would have become more difficult.
The large number of fossilised settlement forms in the Irish countryside indicates a well-settled landscape. Some examples were occupied even as late as the seventeenth century but with the arrival of Christianity in the fifth century, new elements were introduced as the church played an increasingly important role in the shaping of Irish society.
Check out the following sections of the website for related information:
Mayo - Vestvågøy - Mid-Argyll
This project has been supported by the EU as part of the Culture 2000 programme.