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How Did The Ancient Celts In Ireland Live?

The ancient Celts who arrived in Ireland during the iron age having been displaced from Europe, brought their own unique culture.

Come right in and take a walk with us around one type of an ancient Celtic dwelling site, the stone fort at Clogher in County Sligo.

The Ancient Celts Blend In

But over time, judging from archaeological findings, their way of life blended with the already existing

bronze age culture in Ireland to create a uniquely Irish blend of Celtic culture. This was as true for the style of their dwellings as it was for their art, their culture and their way of life.On this page, let me introduce you to three different types of residences that were dominant in the ancient Ireland of the Celts.

Cashelore stone fort, County Leitrim, Ireland.

Cashelore stone fort (above) in County Leitrim is located a short 15 minute drive from Sligo town and lends itself to a great excursion on a dry afternoon for the beautiful views of the Ox Mountains alone.

Ring Forts- Defended Farmsteads

The ancient Celts were pastoral warrior herdsmen. A typical residence was the ring fort which served as a defended farmstead. You might call it a fortified ranch, seeing that Celtic agriculture was centred around the herding of cattle.

Of these ring forts, believe it or not, 30,000 still dot the Irish landscape. You can see them in many places in the countryside once you start to look. Take note of circular patches of areas overgrown with shrubs and trees. Local farmers will often avoid ring forts, calling them ‘fairy forts’, believing you must not disturb the spirits living in them.

Rathbeg ring fort at Rathcroghan, County Roscommon, Ireland.

Rathbeg ring fort at Rathcroghan, seen from the road. Start looking out for these earthen mounds in the countryside and you will be surprised just how many you will be able to identify. This rather large one used to be the residence of  ancient Celtic noblility.

The ring fort is a typical residence of Celtic Ireland which developed from what was initially just one individual circular hut. People quickly realised they needed defences around their hut, hence the mostly circular bank or wall.

There were two distinct types of ring forts. The type built depended on which building materials were available locally. In the Irish language, both types of forts are known as ‘dun’, but they also have more specific names. The first type, the ‘rath’ was made of a round earthen bank with a wooden palisade. The other type was a dry stone construction, known as a ‘Caiseal’. A good example for a caiseal is the impressive ‘Dun Aenghus’ on Inishmore off the Galway coast.

The entrance to Clogher stone fort, County Sligo, Ireland.

Look at the impressive thick wall of Clogher stone fort in County Sligo. Wouldn't you feel safe behind these walls?

There were different size ring forts. Most ring forts were small and are considered to have been single farmsteads, typically defended by one bank or wall only. Bigger ones which had a diameter perhaps as great as 200 feet and were defended by multiple banks were probably the seat of kings and nobility.

Reconstructed ring fort at Craggaunowen, County Clare, Ireland.

Our borrowed ring fort residence for the day at Craggaunowen outdoor heritage museum in County Clare.

Although there were no towns in Ireland until the arrival of the Vikings, many of the large ring forts served similar functions as towns. Forts could be used as meeting places or as places to hold markets, for example during annual fairs called  ‘Oenach’. Large centres such as Tara or Rathcroghan were used for big annual fairs.

Within the enclosure of a ring fort you would find one or more buildings made of materials available locally, such as natural stone, or wattle and daub. These buildings were the residences of the family,grain stores and associated farm buildings. They might have had space for a vegetable or herb garden.

Many ring forts contained a feature known as a souterrain. A souterrain was an underground passage which was used for storage, but also provided refuge and sometimes a secret way out of the ring fort for times of attack. A souterrain was awkward to enter for an attacker, but it was easily defended by the residents. See our brave six year old emerging after exploring the first few feet of the souterrain at Clogher stone fort in County Sligo on the photo below.

Ancient Celts- entranc to the souterrain at Clogher stone fort, County Sligo

The Most Mysterious Type Of Dwelling- The Crannog

Crannogs are dwelling sites on lakes. Like ring forts, most of them were circular. People created artificial islands first by mounting up rock or soil or fallen trees. Imagine the work involved, with an average size crannog measuring some 25 metres in diameter! Once a platform was created, they erected wattles and daub thatched dwellings, and defences which typically were wooden palisades. The water, too, helped of course, making access difficult for any potential attackers. During the iron age, crannogs appeared in Ireland in large numbers.

Reconstructed crannog at Craggaunowen, County Clare, Ireland.

Reconstructed Crannog dwelling at Craggaunowen.

And before concluding the subject of Celtic residences, let me answer one more important question that might have occurred to you here:

Why Were The Forts And Crannogs Of The Ancient Celts Defended?

Good question.

The architecture of the ancient Celts was all about defended structures. Yet the level of the defenses used- mostly wooden palisades and wooden gates, suggests that farmsteads expected little more than quick 'run and grab' raids. They might be at conflict with neighbouring clans or overlords, and might raid each others cattle.

That's why they built defenses and lived behind wooden palisades. But the ancient Celts still made merry, played games and sports and had a very intricate legal system, (Brehon Law) that regulated their pagan society.

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