Rathgall Hillfort, also known as the ‘Ring of the Rath’ is a multivallate hillfort situated near the village of Shillelagh in Co. Wicklow. Rathgall is one of the largest hillforts in Ireland and its entire area encompasses 18 acres within three concentric stone ramparts and an inner circular stone wall. The outer three circles date from around 1200-900BC but the innermost stone walled circle structure dates from the Medieval period.
Although Rathgall has only been partially excavated it has proved to be an incredibly rich source of Bronze Age materials. Barry Rafferty led the excavations in the 1970s and found that there was evidence of a house in the innermost stone circle and the other ramparts provided defence from attack. Rafferty was also able to ascertain that the structure in the centre of the site would have been the largest known late Bronze Age house in Ireland, a number of hearths and postholes were uncovered within the house. A large amount of finds were made in around the house including pottery, bronze objects, and stone and glass beads. To the east of the house it appears there was once a metal workshop as a large number of clay moulds for making bronze swords, spearheads and tools were found as well as jet and lignite bracelets, glass beads, amber, gold and stone objects.
To the south of the workshop area a ditch enclosed an area of 19 metres in diameter contained a central pit with a cremated adult. A cremated child and a gold plated copper ring were found in another pit alongside a coarse pot containing the cremated remains of an adult and child, this pit would have originally been surrounded by up to 150 wooden stakes . A third pit in around this area contained numerous bronze objects, a chisel, spearheads and a sword. On the southern slope of the hillfort once stood a D-shaped hut and here there was many finds associated with pottery, including moulds and saddle querns, in total over 400 clay moulds were found at Rathgall!
It does appear that during the Bronze Age Rathgall was home to a chief or a very prominent family however the site was abandoned for almost 1000 years until in the 3rd century AD when a small iron-smelting industry developed at the site, belt fittings found in excavations date from around this time. The site was abandoned again until the early medieval age when the innermost stone circle was built. Within this circle green-glazed and cooking utensils of medieval character were found alongside two silver coins, one of King Edward I and the other of King Edward III, which would indicate occupation in the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Overall 1000 items were excavated by Rafferty during the 1970s, some of the finest being the aforementioned copper ring with gold-foil cover, a superbly made pendant of gold and glass and a small, perforated bronze disc bearing mercury-gilding.
Much folklore is ascribed to the ‘Ring of the Rath’ which still persists in living memory, it was believed to have had certain properties that made it a site of pilgrimage to childless couples or single men and women. Other stories revolve around hearing fairies playing music at the fort, fairy fox and hound races and even that the fairies ‘took’ a young girl and in her place a disguised fairy was sent back to her family. Animals weren’t immune from the fairies either with stories of cows becoming enchanted and no longer giving milk as the fairies were using them to suckle their own pigs.
The ‘Ring of the Rath’ is an incredibly captivating sight and I was fortunate to experience its majesty alone. Its a quiet and peaceful place now but one can only imagine the hive of activity it had been over the span of almost two thousand years. Though it was abandoned at times, it seems it was always able to entice people back with its strong stone walls and outstanding view over the surrounding countryside.
GPS: 52.80214, -6.66301