The Ancient Ringforts

The ancient Stone Ring Forts – Leacanabuail and Cahergal.

In the ‘Iveragh Peninsula, An Archaelogical Survey of South Kerry’, published by University College Cork in 1996, the authors state that Ringforts are the most numerous field monuments in the Irish countryside and number between thirty and forty thousand. Ring forts are usually known locally by names such as ‘rath’, ‘lios’, ‘cathair’ or ‘caiseal’. Rath and lios are usually applied to earthen ring forts while terms like cathair and caiseal are applied to stone forts. The Iveragh Peninsula has some 247 such monuments classified as ringforts. Souterrains are also present in most forts in the peninsula. The most impressive forts in South West Kerry are Cathergal and Leacanbuaile in Kimego West, Cahersiveen, Lohar a few miles from Waterville and Staigue Fort in Caherdaniel. Most of the other forts are poorly preserved or even levelled raths or cathairs.

The town of Cahersiveen, Cathair Saidhbhin (The Stone Fort of Little Sive) gets its name from such a structure that unfortunately has been obliterated. Most of these structures were built in early Christian times between 600 and 1000AD suggesting that a rapid expansion in agriculture occurred at that time.
Intriguingly, the two stone forts are only about 400 yards apart which poses the interesting question of why two such imposing structures were built so close together.

In comparison to Cahergal, Leacanabuaile Fort is much more complex in structure, consisting of a single circular building and three square buildings. The vastly thick outer wall is believed to date back as far as the 6th century while the structures that are found within the fort are probably later,dating to the 9th century.

Leacanabuaile, (The Slope of the Booley). ‘Booley’ is a Gaelic term for transhumance. a term well recognised in many cultures where during the summer months, farmers would take their cattle to higher ground for grazing.

The fort has an interior diameter of 70ft and walls 10ft thick and a number of structures are clearly visible internally. It is one of only a few Irish Forts to have been excavated (between 1939-40) and those excavations revealed both Bronze and Iron Age objects suggesting that there was a farming community here from an early date. These forts have been carefully restored and preserved and are well located giving a wide view of the surrounding countryside and many of the views are seaward which could suggest a strategic purpose. It is generally agreed that they were community built but it is unclear for what purpose. There are many possibilities as to the function of these forts –  agriculture, living quarters for an important family or families; community protection,an assembly point for the local community, sporting contests, a centre for textile industry or craft, even religious activity. It is also possible that they had a variety of uses.

Cahergal  (The Bright Stone Fort) is believed by archaeologists to have been built between the 9th and 11th centuries and it is an amazing feat of ‘dry wall’ construction with a ten foot thick fort wall. The fort has an interior diameter of 75ft, a base width of 15ft and is 18ft at its highest point. The structure is internally tiered like an amphi-theatre with seating while the centre  contains a structure that is believed to have been a beehive hut. Recent excavation produced artifacts from the early Christian period. Some people consider that because Cahergal seems more like a kind of amphi-theatre with tiered seating and a central stage and Leacanabuile seems more like a house, possibly Cahergal was a place of entertainment or a ‘court’ while Leacanabuaile was the clan castle. On the other hand,
they may not both have been occupied at the same time; some people have suggested that Cahergal may have been abandoned and the occupants moved to Leacanabuaile at some point.

One thing is for sure – we will never know….

Cahergal and Leacanbuaile are located just a short drive ‘over the water’, north of Cahersiveen, near Ballycarbery Castle.