The Celts ruled Ireland for many centuries, so there are many examples of houses and settlements that they built just left lying around! Housing for these people can be split into 4 main categories:
- Ring-forts or rath
- Promontory Forts
Ring-forts or rath
These are probably the most common types of settlement found during this period in Ireland. Ring-forts were areas enclosed by one or more earthen banks and ditches and were circular in shape. People lived in these up to the 12th Century and many thousands of examples have been found!
Ring Forts were built by digging a ditch and using the earth and stone to form a circular bank (wall). A timber or wattle fence was constructed on the bank. It had a thatched roof, wattle and daub walls and a hearth in the centre as a fireplace. Smaller buildings were often found beside the main house which would have been used to store food or to keep animals.
Souterrains were built under some of the houses. These were underground passages like tunnels that went under the earthen bank. Archaeologists believe that they might have been used to store food because it would have been cool and dry. Other suggestions claim that they may have been used as an escape tunnel or a hiding place during times of war.
These were fortified lake dwellings. Timber piles were driven into the lake bed in a circle and earth, sods, stones and timber were thrown in to create an artificial island. A timber platform was built on top of this, with a timber or wattle fence. They are similar to ring-forts. Archaeologists believe that only well-off families lived there. This is mainly because it is a difficult settlement to build. The people who lived there also had access to boats and would use them to get to and from the crannóg. It is believed that these people also would have farmed the land along the river bank.
Hill-forts were similar as well to ring forts in design. The difference was that they were built on a prominent site on a hill. They are much larger in area to that of a ring-fort. The lack of evidence that people lived in them found by archaeologists suggests that these sites were used more for a ceremonial or religious purpose. There are many famous hill-fort sites in Ireland such as The Hill of Tara Co.Meath and Navan Fort Co.Armagh.
A settlement of the last ditch variety!! Promontory forts were built on headlands or cliff edges. Most of them were built along the west and south coats of Ireland. They were surrounded by stone banks on 3 sides, or the headland could be cut off by an earthen bank. The most famous promontory fort is seen above, Dún Aengus in the Aran islands. There is also no evidence that people lived in these so it is too believed that they were used for religious and ceremonial purposes.
The Common Denominator?
Out of these 4 settlements there appears a common feature in all of them….. walls! Each settlement possesses a defensive structure, each one tougher to break down than the next. So why go to all this trouble? Well I had mentioned in an earlier post that there was no real evidence to suggest the Celts had attacked Ireland on a large military scale. It seemed as if they had blended into society bringing their own customs. But Celts were not just farmers..they were also ferocious warriors (read more in “Top 5 facts about Celts”).
Celts were often at war with one another. One story in Celtic Legend is that of “An Táin Bó Cuailgne” or The Brown Bull of Cooley which tells the story of a fight between the men of Connacht and Ulster. Have a read:
The story proper begins with Aihill and Maeve king and queen of Connacht, who compare their respective wealths and find that the only thing that distinguishes them is Ailill’s possession of the phenomenally fertile white bull called Finnbhennach. He had been born into Maeve’s herd of cattle but scorned being owned by a woman and so decided to transfer himself to Ailill’s herd. Maeve determines to get the equally potent Donn Cuailnge, a brown bull from Cooley in the province of Ulster, to balance the books and to have equal possessions with her husband. She successfully negotiates with the bull’s owner to rent the animal for a year until her messengers, drunk, reveal that they would have taken the bull by force even if they had not been allowed to borrow it. The deal breaks down, and Maeve raises an army of thousands and sets out to capture him.
The men of Ulster are determined to fight Maeves army but are disabled by a curse and fall into a deep sleep. The only person fit to defend Ulster is seventeen-year-old Cuchullain but he lets the army take Ulster by surprise because he’s off on a tryst when he should be watching the border. Maeve takes the bull, but Cúchulainn prevents her from taking him back to Connacht by invoking the right of single combat at fords. He defeats champion after champion in a stand-off lasting months. When Fergus, his foster-father, is set to face him, Cúchullain agrees to yield to him on the condition that Fergus yields the next time they meet. Finally there is a physically and emotionally gruelling three-day duel between the hero and his foster-brother and best friend Ferdia, and this ends up with Cuchullain killing his best friend and step-brother
Eventually the sleeping Ulstermen start to rouse, one by one at first, then en masse, and the final battle begins. It ends after Fergus makes good on his promise and yields to Cúchulainn, pulling his forces off the field. Connacht’s other allies panic and Maeve is forced to retreat. She does, however, manage to bring Donn Cuailnge, The Brown Bull, back to Connacht, where he fights the white bull, Finnbhennach at Athlone. He kills him, but, mortally wounds himself. He wanders around Ireland where many place names are named after him, before wandering back to Cooley where he dies of exhaustion.
The Tain is one of the great epics of Irish Literature.
The moral of the epic is the futility of war and the worthlessness of possessions
So it was perhaps logical for these people to ensure the safety of their homes by building defensive fortifications. That’s all for Celtic housing. Be sure to have a look at other topics in this section.