Irish Ringforts, Matthew Stout. (Four Courts Press/Group for the Study of Irish Historic Settlement, £19.95) ISBN 1-85182-300-X

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Pre-Norman History, Pre-Norman Social Perspectives, Reviews, Volume 5

This very welcome study by Matthew Stout represents surprisingly the first ever book devoted to the most common field monument of Irish archaeology. During the Early Medieval Period—the Early Christian Period of less secular-minded archaeologists and historical geographers—according to Stout, whose figures must be regarded as authoritative, about 45,000 examples of this homestead-type monument were constructed. Using the latest comprehensive surveys, the author has produced what we may at last regard as a valid picture of the distribution of these round earthen or drystone enclosures variously called rath, lios, cashel and caher. These he has carefully mapped against the relief of the landscape and analysed in relation to various factors such as soil type, more or less contemporary ecclesiastical sites, and also routes of communication. He has used the historical sources, especially the early laws of status and also saints’ Lives to place the ringfort in context and to sketch what in many ways is a credible picture of a functioning agrarian society. In doing so, he has placed us deeply in his debt.
The study is essentially an exercise in historical geography—its core is the distributional analysis. Stout argues that ringforts were built and occupied over a relatively short period of time ‘perhaps three centuries’ (p131) from the sixth century and he draws attention to the dependence of all his social theorising on this conclusion. The legal descriptions of early Irish society on which he depends are themselves the products of the seventh to eighth centuries and we may thus have here a classic feedback loop. If the monuments were longer-lived, then the texts on which we rely may have most relevance for only one phase of their period of use: society changed, the nature of property-holding seems to have altered and so the functions of ringforts likewise might have changed. The laws were probably conservative. The archaeological evidence is equivocal and the jury is still out on the question of the duration of the period when ringforts were built and occupied. Evidence to very late (including post-medieval) occupation of some is considered by the author to be in the nature of re-use and he is strongly sceptical that ringforts were built in the aftermath of the Anglo-Norman invasion.
To Stout, the ringfort was par excellence the dwelling place of the members of a hierarchical society dependent in the main on pastoralism while the monastic sites which tend to be located in different situations, were the centres of a more specialised tillage-based economy. Thus, he presents in broad terms a neat complementarity of ecclesiastical and secular society. The law tracts make clear the importance of ploughing, milling and brewing to even the lowest grade of free farmer and ringfort excavations have produced significant direct evidence of arable agriculture. While the distributional studies by Stout show ringforts clustering in many areas on soil best used for grazing he also records many examples sited in substantial numbers on good tillage soils. The law tract which lists the factors which raise the value of land makes it obvious that cultivable land was highly prized (p121). The author supports the attribution of tillage to the monasteries by the observation that hagiography generally attributes miracles connected with livestock to youthful saints and those connected with cultivation of the soil to their maturity. How statistically valid this ingenious interpretation may be is difficult to say and how relevant, given the late compilation of many Lives, is open to question. If the contention holds good for a significant number of the Lives might there not be other explanations such as the division of labour between young and old, skilled and unskilled, slave (e.g. St Patrick) and free? It might also be added that we have very little information on how monastic lands were farmed, how they were distributed, near or far, scattered or coherently grouped together. Might not many ringfort dwellers have been dependants of important monasteries—monasteries did raise bands of warriors who were almost certainly free and almost by definition farmers when not fighting?
These are just some of the questions Matthew Stout’s timely and valuable study raise in this reviewer’s mind. There is little doubt that he has tackled many of the key issues in understanding how early Irish society functioned and he has outlined the research agenda for his colleagues in other disciplines as well as making a significant contribution—his interpretations can for example be tested by coherent excavation campaigns or by a re-reading of the literary sources. A return to the public excavations would pay dividends in the light of the questions asked by this study. Above all, his plea for the preservation of humble ringforts—about 37 per cent of them nation-wide have been swept away since the first Ordnance Survey—must be heard. For the archaeologist and historical geographer, this tragedy is the equivalent of some vandal tearing up, unread and unedited, thousands of precious documents. Matthew Stout has made an important and challenging contribution to early Irish studies.

Michael Ryan


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