Hidden in the middle of one of Mayo’s countless conifer plantations lies one of the true jewels of the county. Lios na Gaoithe (The Fort of the Wind) is a large ringfort constructed sometime from the late Iron Age to the early medieval period. Scholars now tend to lean towards the latter being more likely as the period of ringforts in Ireland (500 to 1,000 AD).
Standing at a maximum of almost 4m from bottom of ditch to top of enclosure bank (see picture, below) and forming a circle of roughly 26m diameter, this structure has a circumference of around 82m. It would originally have had wooden stakes placed vertically around its perimeter, probably for keeping animals within and predators without. Note that present-day opinion is that ringforts were unlikely to have been in fact ‘forts’, in the sense that they probably did not serve any real defensive purpose. They were not constructed particularly high above the surrounding ground level and a ring of stakes might not have kept any would-be attackers at bay for very long. They were more likely to be status symbols of local chiefs or powerful clans, perhaps representing their control over surrounding lands.
The ringfort is the most common remaining ancient type of homestead in Ireland – there are estimated to be around 40,000 of them dotted all over the country. They consisted of a raised mound within a sunken ditch and an elevated outer bank. Indeed, sometimes there are more than one ditch and associated bank, the latter built of the material removed in order to dig out the former.
An entire earthen ringfort is called a ‘ráth’ and the dwelling enclosure within the ‘lios’, although in the case of Lios na Gaoithe, the latter term has come to refer to the whole. Were it made of stone, the structure would be known as a ‘caiseal’ or ‘dún’, such as the famous Dún Aenghus of Inis Mór in the Aran Islands.
Interestingly, ringforts are often built in prominent positions and / or on good quality ground. Today, however, neither of these attributes applies to Lios na Gaoithe, located as it is in classic Mayo boggy terrain. Having said that, it does command a strong (though not elevated) position in a valley running from northeast to southwest through hilly terrain and is close by a small river.
Ringfort Excavations in Ireland
Read about some ringfort excavations at other sites on Heritage Ireland’s website.