Garranes: an early medieval royal site in south-west Ireland

In 1938, the large triple-banked early medieval ringfort of Lisnacaragh at Garranes was excavated by Professor Brendan O’Riordain of University College Cork. He uncovered debris from fine metalworking and imported pottery on a scale that has yet to be repeated at any ringfort excavated in Ireland. At the time, the excavator noted the similarities in the pottery to that at Tintagel, but thought that the material had come from no further than France. We now know that some of the pottery had its origins in Turkey and North Africa. Despite the fact that the ringfort was believed by some to have been the seat of a royal family, no buildings were found, and O’Riordain instead concluded that it was a specialised metalworking and trading centre.

The present excavators were able to locate a very large roundhouse, which, unusually, had two opposing doors. Radiocarbon dating indicated that the site was occupied for a very short period, in the 5th and 6th centuries, before being abandoned. More intriguingly, a large enclosure located a mere 100m away proved to be of the same date. The defences of this enclosure were less substantial than the main site, with a single low bank and associated shallow ditch, but with an unusual internal palisade. There has been a tendency to regard such secondary sites as livestock enclosures, but this site produces evidence for high-status settlement including imported pottery similar to the main site, French glass, and Anglo-Saxon beads.

Test excavations of other ringforts in the vicinity of the two large sites indicated that they were constructed in the 9th/10th centuries. This is the first time that several early medieval enclosures in a restricted area have been excavated in modern times. Previously, it was thought that the variation in the morphology of ringforts in any given area was indicative of settlements of different status. The findings of these excavations have placed a large question mark over this hypothesis. In the Garranes area, we instead have rather elaborate enclosures being built in the early centuries of the early medieval period and, after a few centuries of abandonment, simple types of ringforts were built. This will surely set the cat among the pigeons!

Garranes: an early medieval royal site in south-west Ireland, William O’Brien and Nick Hogan, Archaeopress, £45, ISBN 978-1789699197.
Review by Finbar McCormick.