Claddagh rings are not the only rings that enchant visitors to Ireland. Sure, they are beautiful and you can buy one to take home. Our other famous rings are less portable, and you’d do well to look but not touch them, as people occasionally learn the hard way. The Irish landscape is dotted with ancient ring forts, many that go unnoticed by visitors because they are private land and not visible from a road. Experts estimate that at one time Ireland had as many as 50,000 ring forts.
Truly history coexists with the present in Ireland, and ring forts are a reminder of that. Ring forts are called ‘raths’ in Irish, and ‘rath’ appears in many Irish place names such as Rathfarnham in Dublin and Rathmullan in County Donegal. Ring forts exist in various sizes, usually between 25 and 50 meters in diameter, and degrees of decay throughout the country. Small ones are known locally as fairy forts and often look like raised circles in the grass that has grown over them. One of the larger and more famous is the restored Griánan of Aileach in County Donegal, the origins of which date back to 1700 BC. The remains of two ring forts as well as a holy well and other monuments are at the Hill of Uisneach in County Westmeath on private land that can be visited on period guided tours offered by the owner. The Irish authorities take protection of ring forts seriously, and destruction of them can lead to up to five years in prison. And many people will tell you that is nothing compared to the bad luck you’d heap upon yourself by damaging one.
Despite their other worldly appearance, ring forts usually had a very earthly purpose. For the most part, they encircled a family’s property. Some are in locations that suggest a more exalted or spiritual purpose. Griánan of Aileach, legend tells us, was built on the orders of Dagda, a god worshipped by the Tuatha de Danann, as a monument to his dead son. Some ring forts are built on high land with an excellent view of the surrounding countryside, which is an obvious safety feature. Our ancestors apparently did not appreciate unexpected visitors any more than we do today, and we can only envy their elaborate passageways and vantage points as we crouch behind the sofa hoping the politician knocking on the door goes away soon.
An Irish ring is a beautiful piece of jewelry, and you’ll find plenty to love if you tour the Ring of Kerry – including Bronze Age ring forts – but happening upon an Irish ring fort as you travel off the beaten path is an unbeatable experience. They range from so subtle you could miss them up close to so absolutely magnificent they constitute a major tourist experience, but they do all have one thing in common. They have an air of silent mystery, a sense of being almost but not quite lost to history.