Irish Faerie Forts
These intriguing fortresses of old has always fascinated me conceptually once I read about them in the many legends and folklore of the Irish Faeries. However, it wasn’t until the last two years that I’ve had the chance to explore these raths of myths and tales in-depth and personally wondering if they are truly gateways into the Land of the Young, Tir Na Nog or the Faerie Otherworld. “Fairy Forts” are the names given especially by the Irish, Cornish, and other residents of the Isles around Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Britain who strongly believe in the faerie folk. This is a localized term for the “raths”, “ringforts”, “lios”, “hillforts”, “rounds”, “earthen mounds”, or circular dwellings found in England, Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, and Wales.
Archaeologists will tell you these came to be around the late Iron Age and used upwards to the domain of early Christianization of the land when the Island’s residents dwelled in circular structures (perhaps “roundhouses”) within earthen banks or ditches that were used for defense. These were believed to have been topped with wooden palisades, stone or wood buildings, roundhouses, or structures. Many archaeologists believe that these were primarily made of wooden structures that would have decayed and is the reason none of the structures remained leaving only vague circular marks in the landscape. These “fairy forts” or “raths” are simply large mounds of earth, clay, grass, hedges, bushes, gorse, and thorn that is circular in shape like that believed to be a round banked enclosure. Archaeology tells us the circular bank was formerly the base for a high fence or wall of sharpened logs sometimes with or without a moat filled with water. Inside the circular enclosure, more often than not, are round wooden thatched dwellings. Also within this enclosure was kept livestock during bad weather as well as to prevent raiding. There is believed to be over 40,000 ringforts in Ireland alone. In 2009 a team of four photographers supported by the Wales Arts International took a road trip across Western Ireland to record and photograph fairy forts. These can be seen at www.fairyfortproject.com. Actual “Sidhe” or Hills, are most commonly interpreted as burial mounds, passage tombs, or tumuli. Human remains have been found in these to support archaeology. Some claim the Tuatha de Danann were actually the “Danes” who were legendary “fort builders”.
This however is disputed by many folklorists and archaeologist as most of the forts took on Gaelic names. According to Archaeology, the forts are attributed to all sorts of times and races. Legend even attributes them to belong to the Firbolgs, Tuatha Dé Danann, the Celts, the Vikings, as well as mythological individuals such as Aenghus, Eerish, Eir, Farvagh, Cuchuallain, Midir, Croaghan, Lachtna (820-840 C.E.), Brian Boru (980-1014 C.E.), and King Conor (1242-1269 C.E.). Place names throughout the Isles are named after faeries, banshees, and other beings or myths surrounding them. tells a different story opposing the archaeologists’ perspective. The myths, legends, and lore of the land tell that these ringforts were “fairy forts” blessed and protected with Druidic prayers, spells, and magic to protect the “faeries” that lived within or under them. Those who believe in Faeries do not alter or trespass on them. Legend states that the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fir Bolg had originally inhabited Ireland as a mythical race of magical folk who dominated Ireland. Around the time of the Iron Age (oddly enough corresponding to archaeology’s dating of raths) when the Milesians came to Ireland and defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Tuatha was forced to relocate to the Other World, A Faerie dimension, or down below the hills, to Middle Earth as a agreement that only the Milesians ~ the humans ~ could dwell above ground. The Faeries, the “Good Neighbours” had to move underground or to their “Faerie Isles”. They were to retreat into the hills or mounds called “sidhe” which became a word for the “faeries“. These were often described as circular barrows or ringforts. These “hollow hills” have traditionally become known as the home of Faeries. “Sidhe” in Gaelic means “people of the hills”. According to the Book of Armagh, they are the Gods of the Earth known as the Tuatha de Danann. Sometimes seen as God/desses, other times as Druids or sorcerers, and on an odd occasion as aliens, the Tuatha have a rich mythology and is strongly embedded into Irish lore. Some Irish call them the “Sidheog”. To many Christian groups, faeries are believed by some to be fallen angels who are too good to ever be allowed in Hell, and too devilish to ever be accepted into Heaven. It is from these myths, that these defensive forts, were seen to be the domain of the Tuatha Dé Danann as entrances to their world. Out of respect and fear of “war” taking place again between faeries and humans, they are to be respected and avoided. The actual mounds are also seen as potential burial mounds or sacred resting places. As Archaeology has found many burials within such mounds, such as at Newgrange and Tara, hillforts and mounds are avoided out of superstition. A good farmer wouldn’t even mess with the moat, the walls, cut brush from it, remove stones, or damage it in any way. If they did, hard luck and even death could follow. Most respected on these “fairy forts” were the whitethorns, the ash, the gorse, or the “sceach” around its boundaries never to be cut for that would most likely lead to death. In MacCraith’s “Triumphs of Torlough” the “fairy forts” are labelled as the lodgings of appalling apparitions. There are many stories of the hills being lit up by strange lights at night. Sometimes this is described as the hill rising up on pillars, opening to the night sky, revealing brilliant lights of Faeries processing from one hill to another, especially during Lammas tide (August 2nd through 7th). November 11th, during Hollantide, is when the Manx fear their Hogmen or Hillmen the most as it is the time these particular Fae choose to move from one hill to another.
Irish lore and ghost stories tell much about the supernatural stature of “Fairy forts”. Many believe “leprechauns” live in them and hide their pots of gold within the mounds as has been expressed in Rudyard Kipling’s 1906 novel “Puck of Pook’s Hill”. In addition to the Ringforts, Dolmen reputedly were also believed to be faerie homes or dwellings. A legend tells of a lady who lived in one became deranged, thought her lover was a dragon, and jumped at him. Many unexplained phenomena takes place in or around the fairy forts. Local lore tells tales of a man who tried to blast down a dolmen resulting in a septic hand while the dolmen remained unscathed; the local astronomer who tried to blast the Inchiquin Barony dolmen was badly injured with his hand as well; a Templenaraha oratory demolition (which was in a ringfort) collapsed a calf shed onto its occupants for building the unstable structure; the 1840 tale of workmen at Dooneeva who were trying to level earthworks in a fairy fort had apparently turned up dead (though his mystic wife ran to a “fairy spot” to work magic to bring him back to life); The Lissardcarney and Ballyhee fairy forts in Templemaley Parish were always known to be faerie strongholds with troops of faeries garrisoned within them (1839 stories); Songs were reputedly heard from the Cahernanoorane in Inchiquin and Liskeentha near Noughaval; tales of faeries haunting the Tobersheefra holy well; the 1892 tale of Nihill a farmer who wrecked and removed the out wall of a triple stone fort near Quin leading to his father stricken with acute pain and only recovering from it when the work was stopped; a landlord losing the use of an eye from the dust of an explosion when blasting a rock in an earth fort being removed in northeast Clare; and in 2011 developer Sean Quinn found financial ruin after he moved a fairy fort. Another tale tells of a cow that grazed in a fairy fort was found with broken legs whose owner then ate its meat only to find the cow in the fairy fort a year later. The farmer was told by the faeries they substituted an old stray horse to make him believe it was his cow as they needed his cow’s milk, and they then let him take his cow home afterwhich he became very prosperous for the loan. Another tale tells of a another farmer who couldn’t understand why none of the cows would enter the fairy fort on their property, and upon investigation by his son, found an old fairy in the fort who asked the man to help him get a young human girl to become his wife. The farmer’s son would not give a young girl to the old fairy but instead married the girl himself, leading to rage from the old fairie who thereby destroyed the farmer’s property. Outraged, the farmer’s son and the girl rode to her parent’s house to tell her three brothers. Her brothers then went to the fort to dig for the old fairy’s house, upon finding his large flat stone, he begged for them to save him his home, which they did in exchange for restoring for what he had taken. There are some ringforts that are more dangerous than others, such as in the case of the Croaghateeaun stone ring wall near Lisdoonvarna. One of the most modern cases of faerie wraith for damaging faerie forts was believed to be the invocation of an ancient curse of the Hill of Tara when the government destroyed sites by construction of the M3 Motorway. In 2007 the Minister for the Environment, Dick Roche supposed befell against bad financial luck after signing a order to destroy the Lismullion Henge. By Faerie wraith, he lost his job, was demoted, and held up by an armed gang in the Druids Glen Hotel. The Minister for Transport, Martin Cullen afterwards nearly got sucked out of a helicopter when the door fell off. The Chief Health and Safety officer was seriously injured by a falling tree at Rath Lugh. A worker was killed while being trapped at Fairyhouse where there have been many accidents on that particular stretch of road. There is much concern about being taken by the faeries. Fears from stories such as these may be responsible for the incredible preservation of these forts, hills, raiths, and mounds across the countryside. In many areas, the raiths and fairy forts are protected by Irish law for reasons of heritage preservation, preventing construction or building within 30 meters of them. The Irish government and larger corporations however somehow skirt these laws often when they find need to destroy them for construction projects or building motorways.
Littering the landscape are also pathways that some call “fairy paths”. Some align these with what they believe to be mystical geo-magnetic gridlines called “leylines”. These are believed by many to connect together by means of faerie sites or faerie forts. Many old buildings in Ireland are missing parts of the structure out of belief that part is obstructing a faerie path. Other kind of faerie sites would be mounds, isles, wells, and faerie trees or bushes. These sites are often dressed and adorned with “rag” or “wishing trees” with offerings to faeries for blessings.
Today many believe that at these places the offerings of milk, butter, and/or honey would appease the Good Neighbours. Though not much histories or archaeological record make that proved to be true. This seems to come more from Swedish folklore in terms of “elf mills” where it is found in the covers of more than one of these structures as well as large bullauns or basins at others. Modern belief is to leave out food and drink for the faeries, often on plates and cups at the faerie forts. Evidence of this is found at Inchiquin and Moyarta Baronies as well as on the Shannon bank where the slopes were thrown out and clean plates, water, chairs, and a well swept hearth was left for the faerie guests. Fairy forts, isles, and mounds are not the only doorways to the land of Tir Na n’Og believed to exist. Cave entrances in Ireland are also believed to be passages as well. Two of the most famous ones are located a Lough Gur in County Limerick and at Rathcrogan in County Roscommon. One of Ireland’s famous fairy forts is at the Knocknashee mountain. Here it is believed, that if you make a wish, turn around 3 times with your eyes closed, and if you wind up facing Knocknashee when you open your eyes, the wish will come true. A “fairy” amusement park for kids is also at the base of this mountain dedicated to the “faeries”. Some say if you walk nine times clockwise around the fairy fort, mound, or isle during the full moon, the entrance to the Otherworld will appear. Invitations into the faerie domain can be prosperous or fateful. Such invitations should be taken carefully by humans especially of offers of food and drink. Some legends warn that partaking of food and drink will lead to perpetual enslavement and a loss of time, space, or continuum.
Some myths state that after the Tuatha de Danann lost the battle with the Milesians, in addition to being forced underground, they were shrunk in size and stature. They are often described to be “human-like” in appearance, sometimes with animal features, paler skin tone, with green eyes. Throughout the history of Ireland, faeries, especially as personified as belonging to the Tuatha, litters the landscape. Some families claim that their ancestors crossed the fae, and thereby invoked neverending hauntings by Banshees. The banshee are often depicted as a Irish female faerie that comes out at night drawing a comb through her long silvery hair screaming and wailing, especially when predicting the death of one of their family members. Some lore suggests that families with surnames preceded by an O’ are haunted by the Banshee. The earliest writer of describing faeries was in 1014 C.E. while describing the terrors of the battles between the Norse and Irish speaking of a “bird of valour and championship fluttering over Merchad’s head and flying on his breath” as well as flying dark and merciless bodbh screamingly fluttering over the combatants while the bannanaig or styrs, idiots, maniacs of the glens, witches, goblins, ancient birds, and destroying demons of the air and skies arose to accompany the warriors in combat. An 1350 C.E. writer wrote about the 1286 C.E. King Torlough returning from a successful raid ravaging the English lands round the mountains of eastern County Limerick and northern Tipperary where he was greeted by a lovely maiden in ”modest, strange in aspect, glorious in form, rosy-lipped, soft-taper-handed, pliant-wavy-haired, white-bosomed” appearance as the “Sovereignty of Erin” to rebuke the chief for letting de Burgh dissuade him from attempting the reconquest of all Ireland thereby vanishing in a lustrous cloud within an area graced with fairy forts, dolmen, and tumuli. It is also here that it was written that the soldiers of Donchad were also disturbed by phantoms and delusive dreams of lights shining on the fairy forts. Poetry took over describing these battles and the soldiers witnessing the “waves of Erin” groaning “the deep plaint resounded from the woods and streams” as shades were seen and hollow groans heard while gazing at the hills and forts. I can speak from first hand while sleeping in homes near such forts, that the winds making noises through the shutters and windows, along the rocks and bushes, whisper and cry like a siren in angst. These are the same described in faerie tales of the forts and beings coming up from the underground caverns, streams, hills, and forts. Sightings of Faeries have dwindled from the 18th to the 20th centuries greatly. Though many Irish today still have stories of their parents and grandparents telling them of faerie abductions, sightings, or wrath. Some say the dusty whirlwinds along the roadside or in the fields are caused by movement of Faeries. Some places are still reputed to be “fairy hotspots” to this day.
One such is the low earth mound at Newmarket-on-Fergus where one apparition reliably manifests and has for the last 10 years. This one appears as a little old man dressed in green walking on Ennis road thought to perhaps be a leprechaun. Much of modern legend has mutated to actual individuals today who claim to have faerie blood, kindred, or to be faeries living amongst humans. This has led to many novels, books, and movies in the 20th century addressing this new lore. This however is not completely new, as many through history have claimed to be of Faerie lineage. A Faerie monarch in Clare was the “Donn of the Sandhills” near the Doogh castle near Lehinch is listed as a fairy prince named Donn within a list of the divine race of the Tuatha Dé Danann and family of the Dagda, lineal descendant of the ancient Ana, Mother of the Gods. He was addressed with a political petition in 1730 by Andrew MacCurtin, a well known Irish scholar and antiquarian for having neglected the gentry and praying for any menial post at his court. He was never answered, lived under the hospitality of the Kilkee MacDonnells and the Ennistymon O’Briens. Donn’s heartless conduct supposedly met poetic justice as he ever since lacked a sacred bard and thereby became forgotten through history.
Changelings are another case, and another type of faerie within the “Fae” races that are very commonly found in folklore and mythology. History throughout the world refer to them, or some derivative of the belief. Most of the folklore make faeries out to be extremely malevolient towards humans. Much of legend suggests that faeries are envious of humans, often wanting to steal the secrets of their magic, even to the point of changing out human infants with faerie children called “changelings”. The changeling would in all aspects look “identical” to the stolen child. The only way to tell if it wasn’t your child, is if the personality changed inexplicably all of a sudden. This led to a plethera of folk customs, beliefs, spells, and practices to protect children from faeries. Sometimes these were as simple as dressing up boys to look like girls, placing iron in the child’s bed, dropping a small drop of human urine on a child, keeping dirty water in the house, protective charms, and various woods, herbs, or stones.
Bibliography / References:
- Boards.ie: ~ Fairy Forts. Website referenced January 2012. www.boards.ie.
- Dunnings Pub: Folklore. Website referenced January 2012. www.dunningspub.com.
- Fairy Fort Project. Website referenced January 2012.
- Froud, Brian; Lee, Alan. 1978 ”Faeries” through Rufus Publications.
- Historum ~ “Irish Fairy Forts”. Website referenced January 2012. www.historum.com.
- Irish Central: ~ Ireland suffering from ancient curse of Tara and furious Fairy Forts. Website referenced January 2012.
- Slavin, Michael. 1996 “The Book of Tara”. Wolfhound Press.
- Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia ~ “Fairy Forts”. Website referenced January 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org.
- Westropp, Thomas Johnson ”A Folklore Survey of County Clare: Fairies and Fairy Forts and Mounds. Website referenced January 2012. www.clarelibrary.ie.
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This entry was posted on Monday, January 9th, 2012 at 12:54 am and is filed under Faeries, Living Myth, Mythology, Sacred Sites, Sightings. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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