If you are interested in the history and archaeology of Ireland, you might want to visit Mackney Ringfort, a remarkable site located near Ballinasloe, Co. Galway. Mackney Ringfort is one of the thousands of ringforts that dot the Irish landscape, but it is also one of the most extensively excavated and studied ones.
Ringforts are circular or oval enclosures surrounded by a ditch and a bank, often topped by a wooden palisade. They are the most common type of archaeological monument in Ireland, with an estimated 45,000 examples surviving today. They were built mainly between 500 AD and 1100 AD, but some continued to be used until the late medieval period or even later. Ringforts served various purposes, such as animal pens, farmsteads, or residences of the elite and the professional classes. They provided some protection against raids and attacks, which were frequent in a society where cattle and slaves were highly valued commodities.
Ringforts usually had one or two entrances, often facing south-east. Inside the enclosure, there were one or more buildings, typically round or rectangular huts made of timber frames and wattle-and-daub walls. The roofs were thatched and had a hole for the smoke to escape from the central hearth. Some ringforts also had underground passages or chambers called souterrains, which were used as hiding places or storage areas.
Ringforts were not only places of living, but also places of dying and burying. Many ringforts became unconsecrated burial grounds, known as killeens, where stillborn infants and unbaptised children were interred. These burials reflect the religious beliefs and practices of the time, as well as the high infant mortality rates. Ringforts were also associated with supernatural beings and powers, such as fairies or ancestors. Many people avoided disturbing or damaging ringforts for fear of angering the “good people” or bringing bad luck.
Mackney Ringfort is located near the M6 motorway, which was constructed in 2006. The construction works led to the discovery and excavation of the ringfort, which revealed a long and complex history of occupation and use. The ringfort dates from the 8th to the 17th century, and has a diameter of about 30 meters. It has two entrances, one on the south-east and one on the north-west. It also has a souterrain on the south-west side.
The excavation uncovered a wealth of archaeological evidence, such as pottery, metalwork, animal bones, seeds, charcoal, and human remains. The pottery suggests that the ringfort was occupied by people of high status and wealth, who had access to imported goods from Britain and continental Europe. The metalwork includes iron tools and weapons, bronze ornaments and fittings, lead weights and spindle whorls, and silver coins. The animal bones indicate that the inhabitants kept cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, dogs, cats, and chickens. The seeds show that they grew wheat, barley, oats, rye, flax, hemp, peas, beans, and fruits.
The human remains are perhaps the most striking feature of Mackney Ringfort. The excavation found 143 skeletons, mostly of infants under six years old. They were buried in the ditch of the ringfort, mainly on the south-west arc. The burials span from the 10th to the 17th century, and show evidence of various diseases and injuries. Some of the skeletons have cut marks on their bones, suggesting that they were dismembered before burial. The reasons for this practice are unclear, but it may have been related to ritual or sanitary purposes.
Mackney Ringfort is a unique site that offers a glimpse into the lives and deaths of people in Ireland over a millennium ago. It illustrates how ringforts were not only defensive structures, but also places of social interaction, economic activity, religious expression, and cultural identity. It also challenges some of the stereotypes and myths about Ireland in the early medieval period as an island of saints and scholars. The ring fort in not open to the public, but can be explored with the local landowner’s permission.
How was it named?