Since my first visit to Ireland, one of the things that has struck me most profoundly is the visual history to see all around in the landscape. In North America, anything a few hundred years old is considered very old, while in Ireland you can walk among ruins that were built 1500 years ago! There are beautifully restored castles and ring forts and conserved sites throughout the county. I love to visit these, but in many way the unconserved sites just sitting in a field are even more striking to discover.
Last March, we spent a week in County Kerry not long after I had purchased an archaeological atlas of the Iveragh peninsula. I had poured over the contents for weeks, and then compared the listed sites to satellite images of the area. While I had found the beautifully restored ring forts of Staigue, Cahergal, and Leacanabuaile amazing feats of workmanship well worth the visit, I was surprised to find that I could pick out many other sites from the descriptions in the atlas compared against present day satellite images. I decided I would see what could be seen of these unrestored monuments during our trip.
Our first foray was down the hill from our house. My son and I went out early one morning, and while I had a sense of where I expected to find this ring fort, it took my son’s sharp and unbiased eyes to point out to me what was in front of us. I scanned the distant field where I expected to find it, and he pointed out that just belowe the overlook we had climbed was a round stone wall in a field. Climbing down to examine it, it was obvious that in this pasture was the remains of the ancient ring fort we were seeking. There was a clearly marked round stone wall, perhaps thirty feet in diameter, with an outer ring partially visible through the brambles and holly that had grown up around the stones. It was our first find, and thrilling to realize that this ancient structure, built sometime between 500-1000AD was still discernible if you knew where to look.
The next one we found was easily seen on the satellite map. It was in a field between two houses, and had newer a stone wall bisecting the old structure. We set out to walk to the area on a beautiful morning, enjoying the stunning greens of the pasture, the young lambs frisking in the fields, the blue of the ocean in the distance. We stopped at one point to watch some rabbits hopping about the pasture, and it wasn’t until we had been staring at them in the distance for several minutes that it occurred to me what we were staring at. This field had a stone wall down the middle, and on either side was the slight outline of a rounded shape, the faint remains of the ring fort we were seeking! Had it not been for the rabbits we might have passed it by without ever noticing the underlying structure that revealed the ancient architecture still faintly visible.
Our final find that trip was perhaps the most intact structure, but in an overgrown field that made it hard to see all that we were looking at. Though the structure was just off the road, we found ourselves scrambling up a slippery slope, with nothing but brambles to grasp to pull us up. Soaked through, we finally made it to the site of the fort, which was situated with a commanding view out over Derrynane Bay. The entrance to the structure was flanked by two upright slabs. As I explored the inner ring of the fort, my son discovered the remains of a souterrain, an underground chamber, within the thick stone wall. Outside the fort was a second wall, which created a rounded a laneway, partially obstructed by holly trees and gorse. Our explorations were cut short when the skies opened and we were soaked by a spring shower, but I hope to return to this remarkable spot someday.
People have lived on these lands for millennia, and the gentle climate, where the ground never freezes, allows for remarkable stability of the built heritage of the area. If you find yourself in Ireland, I hope you can take some to just wander and allow the countryside to reveal its hidden treasures. There is much to see, whether labeled and marketed or left quietly in a field.