From ringfort to ring road: The destruction of Ireland’s fairy forts

Some of these ancient mounds date back to 3000 BC, but many are buried under motorways

As our faith in fairies has receded in recent years, the fate of Ireland’s estimated 32,000 remaining ringforts has become increasingly perilous. Many of these circular earth mounds are over 1,000 years old, the remains of stone or wooden forts which housed an extended family in early medieval times. Others, which are often classified as fairy forts, are, in fact, remnants of underground passage tombs or ritual sites dating back to around 3,000 BC.

In 2010 the environmentalist and author Tony Lowes first wrote about farmers destroying the forts on their land in the name of modernity and progress. A man on the Dingle Peninsula levelled a large part of the 3,000-year-old Dún Mór fort while the government was in negotiations with him to purchase it, and a farmer near Mallow in Cork destroyed the half of an extensive ringfort that lay on his own land, then tore down the other half when his neighbour was at a family funeral. There was also the story of a Cork dairy farmer who demolished two ringforts on his land, and whose family had previously destroyed three others.

The title of Lowes' article in Village magazine was The Men Who Eat Ringforts, in recognition of the fact that these farmers (and developers and engineers) are invariably male. The title has been adopted for a volume of book art, Men Who Eat Ringforts, published by the conceptual artists Sean Lynch and Michele Horrigan of Askeaton Contemporary Arts. It's a large-format book designed by Daly+Lyon, with thought-provoking essays by Sinéad Mercier and Michael Holly exploring the determined desecration of our ancient past.

Mercier, a researcher of climate change law, points out that, in general, Irish people didn’t consider ringforts in terms of archaeological monuments, but instead saw them as “symbolic of ‘something else’ – manifestations of the mythological netherworld of ‘the good people’ – na sióga... part of an old animistic faith found in the spiritual nature of land.”

Liminal status

Their complex liminal status has made them hard to enshrine in law, possibly due to the fact that the legal system is “a product of the Enlightenment”, Mercier suggests, “a time in which rationality attempted to discredit all perspectives of nature that were not grounded in science and in market economics”.

In 2015, the destruction of a 5,000-year-old ringfort was sanctioned to make way for a multinational pharmaceutical plant development in Waterford

It means that whatever meagre legislation is designed to protect ringforts is somewhat obtuse and circuitous.

“Any individual who has been successfully legally prosecuted has received a conviction not for destroying a monument outright,” writes Mercier, “but for failing to inform authorities of an intention of completing earthworks in its vicinity.”

Since 2007, a total of nine cases have been taken by the Director of Public Prosecutions for alleged offences under the National Monuments Acts 1930-2014. Of these, four convictions were secured by the State.

Nowadays it is more common for the State to dismantle ringforts than individual farmers. The power to sanction the demolition of a national monument was first invoked to facilitate the destruction of the Viking site beneath Dublin Corporation's new office blocks at Wood Quay in 1978, and again during the construction of the M3 motorway through the Tara-Skryne Valley in Co Meath in 2003. The legislation was amended in the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 2004 to further empower the State to demolish any newly discovered national monument on every motorway route in Ireland, without any kind of environmental impact assessment. This was used, for instance, to allow the M50 motorway to proceed through Carrickmines Castle.

Hallowed

The idea that these were once considered, as Mercier writes, “places of magic, sacred, hallowed and revered, ultimately representing a sense of oneness and yet otherness,” ended in the eyes of the State with the 2004 Act. The complex and nuanced status that fairy forts held in the nation’s consciousness now survives in the minds of mystics and romantics.

Michael Holly sought out one such individual for the book. During the spring and summer of 2019, Holly brought the folklorist and seanchaí Eddie Lenihan on a series of journeys along the M18 motorway between Limerick and Galway in search of ancient sites that had been interfered with, either by road construction, farming or industry. Lenihan's connection to this road began in 1999 when he wrote to The Irish Times warning of dire consequences if a sacred sceach, or whitethorn bush, was interfered with during the construction of Junction 10 of the M18.

Lenihan's letter pointed out that the bush was referred to in many folk tales as a meeting place for the fairy hordes of Connaught and Munster, and he warned that, if riled, the fairies might retaliate by causing road accidents. His forebodings were picked up by the New York Times and CNN and eventually led to the National Road Authority diverting the motorway around the bush, although the body denies this was the reason. Yet, as Holly points out, from the overpass "you can see how the route kinks slightly to the east to avoid" the bush, which stands "proudly between the northbound lane of the motorway and the on-ramp on the western side."

Lenihan appeared on Clare FM's Morning Focus to discuss the freak hailstorms that frequently cause crashes on the stretch of the M18 between Crusheen and Gort

During Lenihan and Holly’s M18 peregrinations they navigate a maze of slip roads, on-ramps, off-ramps, carriageways and overpasses, trying to access ringforts, such as at Ballycasey, near the major junction where the N18 Ennis bypass becomes the M18 motorway. It was here that Lenihan saw beech trees being felled in 1999 and again he warned the road workers that there could be dire consequences for their actions.

At the time, Ballycasey’s fort had been on a prominent hilltop location, but now it has been dwarfed by the motorway interchange overlooking it. The gargantuan scale of motorway infrastructure and quite how alienating it can be in the landscape is made clear. These concrete ribbons stretching from one location to another without ever interacting with the local environment appear to exist on another dimension. As Holly writes: “The motorway, as it is either cut into the landscape or is built on top of it, disavows the place that it runs through. It provides you with a trance-like experience of time and space in between destinations.”

Elemental forces

Yet, there are still certain elemental forces that can impact these giants. In August 2017, Lenihan appeared on Clare FM's Morning Focus to discuss the freak hailstorms that frequently cause crashes on the stretch of the M18 between Crusheen and Gort. Lenihan suggested that it could be the fairies who were responsible for the high number of accidents on this route which passes alongside the Curtaun ringfort that was partly damaged by the motorway. TII (Transport Infrastructure Ireland) dismissed the claim, saying it was to do with a rare microclimate in the area, but a Freedom of Information application sought by Holly "reveals that over half of the accidents that happened on the M18 between 2013 and 2019 occurred near the ringfort, and that freak hail showers were a contributing factor in every case". It was an elderly local man who first made the connection and told Lenihan about it, saying: "But sure what could they expect after what they did to the fort?"

The sheer number of ringforts that have managed to survive for millennia in the landscape make it inevitable that each subsequent generation has to contend with them to some degree.

To get a sense of just how ubiquitous ringforts are in the landscape, check out the Twitter bot and Instagram feed created by Irish designer and tech developer Keith Ó Faoláin who used a combination of a dataset obtained from the Irish National Monuments service and a text-character recognition algorithm to create an online bot that isolates the location of a ringfort on satellite imagery, and posts an image of it on Twitter every hour. The @everyringfort account claims that there are enough ringforts in Ireland to keep posting new hourly images continuously until August 2022. It has already been running for a few years.

We may have turned our backs on fairy forts, but they haven’t gone away.

This article was edited on March 22nd, 2021.