With an estimated 45,000 examples, raths (also known as ringforts) represent the most common form of ancient monument in Ireland. Dating to the early Christian period, they are circular earthworks defined by a deep ditch and internal bank, enclosing an area of twenty to forty meters in diameter. Within their interiors the remains of houses and other structures have been discovered. Raths with two or more sets of banks and ditches are also known, and these are considered the probable homes of the upper echelons of society. Raths are often associated with souterrains, artificial caves used for refuge and storage purposes, whereas cashels, the stone equivalents of raths, were constructed in hilly upland areas.
The origins of the rath remain uncertain; only a small number of sites have been investigated by archaeological excavation. Scientific dating suggests that the majority date to between 600 c.e. and 900 c.e., and that they fell out of use by medieval times. Finbar McCormick has proposed that during the early Christian period Ireland underwent an agricultural revolution generated by the advent of dairying. This was a time when wealth was measured in cattle, and the endemic form of warfare was raiding. Raths may therefore have developed as a means of protecting the farming family and their valuable livestock. Their defensive capacity, however, has been questioned by Jim Mallory and Tom McNeill, but their argument has been countered by Matthew Stout, who considers raths to have been adequate for the everyday security needs of the inhabitants.
A body of folklore grew up around these monuments and they were regarded as the homes of the sídhe (fairies), earning them the title "fairy forts." Until recent decades superstitious fear of retribution from the fairy-folk dissuaded country people from damaging the monuments and, as a consequence, protected many from destruction.
McCormick, Finbar. "Cows, Ringforts, and the Origins of Early Christian Ireland." Emania 13 (1995): 33–37.
Mallory, James P., and Thomas E. McNeill. The Archaeology of Ulster. 1991.
Stout, Matthew. The Irish Ringfort. 1997.
Eileen M. Murphy