Western Stone Forts
Permanent Delegation of Ireland to the OECD and UNESCO
Counties Clare, Galway and Kerry
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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party
- Dun Aonghusa, Aran: N53 7 33 W9 46 5
- Cahercommaun: N53 0 53 W9 4 14
- Caherconree: N52 12 11 W9 51 14
- Benagh: N52 6 00 W9 37 60
- Staigue: N51 48 19 W10 0 57
The most common Early Medieval (700-1000AD) settlement form in Ireland was the ringfort - in essence an enclosed homestead or farmstead. The number of surviving examples has been estimated as circa 45,000. The majority are simple enclosures defined either by a single earthen bank and ditch (called raths) or a single drystone wall (called cashels). Cashels occur in stony areas throughout the country, but the majority can be found in the west of Ireland. The enclosing wall of the average cashel is usually less than 2m wide and most were probably around 2m high.
Western Stone Forts may be considered to be a subset of cashels. They represent the apogee of that settlement form, and are distinguished from the vast majority of other cashels by having one or more exceptionally thick, and high enclosing walls. As is to be expected, there is a gradation in terms of the prestige of individual sites. A survey of monuments in the western counties indicated that only fifteen or so can be considered to belong to the top echelon of western stone forts. These monuments have exceptionally massive walls (between 4 and 9m thick and up to 6m high), plus one or more distinctive architectural features, such as terraces, steps, guard chambers or a chevaux de frise.. Based on the evidence of archaeological excavations and of early (AD 700-900) Irish documentary sources, western stone forts can be interpreted as royal sites - i.e. they were the principal residences of the kings or sub-kings of various Early Medieval dynastic groups.
Justification of Outstanding Universal Value
Western Stone Forts represent the penultimate use of a distinctive settlement form i.e. the drystone, generally circular, enclosure, a class of monument that was widely used by the maritime communities of the north Atlantic seaboard of Western Europe, throughout much of later prehistory.
Western Stone Forts represent the apogee of the ringfort class of monument (an enclosed farmstead occupied by an extended kin group).The distribution, character, and hierarchy of forms of ringforts provides a mirror of the organisation, economy and polity of Irish society at a particular period (AD 700-1000).
Western Stone Forts constitute an impressive corpus of vernacular architecture and represent a creative human response to the stony environment of western Ireland. Although separated in time and place from other stone fort / roundhouse traditions of Atlantic Europe, the Irish forts, nonetheless incorporate elements of an architectural repertoire peculiar to that region, in particular the chevaux de frise feature, murus duplex method of wall construction, and intra-mural features.
The landscape setting of these forts testifies to a way of life (tribal pastoralist) that disappeared in Ireland, and across most of Western Europe, at the beginning of the second millennium AD, to be replaced subsequently by the feudal lordships of the medieval era.
Western Stone Forts provide an exceptional opportunity for multi-disciplinary research, in particular in the rich fields of archaeology, early Irish history, and historical geography. The survival, down into the medieval era, of an economy/way of life based on cattle, rather than coinage, is not unique in a universal sense - such societies still exist, albeit on a smaller scale. As large, drystone structures, the forts per se are not unique. What make 'Western Stone Forts' of outstanding universal value is, the combination of well-preserved physical remains / landscape setting and the richness of surviving, relevant, contemporary historical texts.
The setting of Dún Aonghasa (on the Atlantic rim of Europe and at, what was at the time of its construction, the western tip of the known world), and the sheer scale of the monument, are imaginative and breathtaking.
Statements of authenticity and/or integrity
The authenticity of the forts (their form, design, materials, substance, location and setting) is validated by a wealth of archaeological and historical research conducted over the last two hundred years, or so. In recent times, in depth research has been carried out as part of the Western Stone Forts Project, under the auspices of the state-funded Discovery Programme. The results of that study (Cotter forthcoming) are due to be published as a two volume monograph in 2010. The project focussed on examining the cultural context of the Irish forts, and on comparative studies with other stone forts in Western Europe. Detailed instrument and photographic surveys were conducted of the most important Irish sites (this included the seven Aran forts, Caherconree and Benagh) and archaeological excavations were carried out at Dún Aonghasa and Dún Eoghanachta. Altogether about twenty different specialist reports were commissioned in the course of those excavations. The results greatly expand our knowledge of the chronology, origins and development, function and demise of the forts. Parallel historical research has helped to expand the explanatory framework and throw light on their overall cultural context. Ongoing landscape studies in the Burren and elsewhere are also helping to build up a picture of the broader environmental background. Contributions by European scholars have also advanced understanding of the different origins of morphologically similar fort types along the Atlantic seaboard of Western Europe.
The Western Stone Forts Project examined the restoration history of the forts (see below) and their historical authenticity can be verified.
The Aran Forts
All seven Aran forts were restored in the period 1884-1885. In the absence of official records, assessment of the impact of those works depends very much on comparing pre-restoration accounts, drawings, photos etc. with existing features. Following this type of analysis for the Aran forts, it appears that the 1884-85 works were largely confined to reinstating fallen sections of walling , constructing buttresses etc. The physical integrity and the testimonial value of the forts have therefore not been compromised. Clearance of the interiors at some of the forts may have had an impact on the preservation of the archaeological record. Dún Formna was remodelled as a castle bawn during the medieval period; only excavation could indicate to what extent this has impacted on the earlier settlement.
Cahercommaun, Caherconree, Benagh and Staigue
As part of ongoing maintenance, some repairs have been carried out from time to time at Cahercommaun and Staigue. Subsequent to the 1934 excavations, the entrance to the inner enclosure at Cahercommaun was blocked up in order to protect the houses and other structures in the interior. This blocking wall remains in place, but, a raised platform now allows a view of the interior. The maintenance repairs at Staigue appear to have been of a relatively minor nature. No refurbishments or repairs have been carried out at Benagh. There is no official record of any conservation works at Caherconree. Some minor alterations (e.g. the creation of a second entrance in the inner wall; the construction of sheep pens in areas of wall collapse) postdate the abandonment of the fort.
The visual integrity of all of the above forts remains intact and their settings retain a good deal of the original landscape character. The traditional farming regime on the Aran Islands and on the high Burren, and the commonage system practised in the mountainous regions of Kerry have protected the settings from developments associated with intensive farming, or industry. This low impact farming has also helped to preserve other elements of the Early Medieval landscape.
Comparison with other similar properties
Based on the evidence of archaeological excavations and of early (AD 700-900) documentary sources, Western Stone Forts can be considered to have been royal sites - i.e. the principal residences of kings or sub-kings of dynastic groups. Other contemporary monuments in Ireland, which had a similar function, are prestigious raths and crannogs (island fortresses). Some of the latter (e.g. Doon or O'Boyle's Fort, Co. Donegal) are included in the category of western stone forts.
Western Stone Forts borrowed elements from Iron Age fortifications in the North Atlantic realm. The chevaux de frise feature is most commonly found in Iron Age, Spanish and Portuguese castros. The wall chamber, as it occurs in Irish forts, borrows from the souterrain tradition (souterrain = an underground passage, with or without chambers, which becomes very common in Irish ringforts from circa the ninth century onwards), and the tradition of hollow wall construction (a technique common in the broch architecture of Atlantic Scotland). Aspects such as the murus duplex type wall construction are typical of Late Iron Age drystone fortifications in other parts of Western Europe.
Outside Ireland, the closest comparable monuments to Western Stone Forts are undoubtedly the royal centres of the Scotti (Irish) in the Scottish kingdom of Dal Riata (historic Argyll), especially forts such as Dunadd (Lane and Campbell 2000) and Dunollie (Alcock and Alcock 1987). Extensive excavations at Dunadd (Lane and Campbell 2000) showed that monument to have evolved over time from a small, summit 'dun' in the fourth/fifth century AD to a much larger nuclear fort by the eight/ninth century AD. In the later period, the fort was an important redistribution centre for luxury commodities, a trade that seems to have been under royal control. Evidence for inauguration of the kings of Dal Riata on the site was also strengthened by the excavation findings.
Listed World Heritage Sites
Palace cities, fortresses and fortified landscapes all feature on the existing World Heritage List.
Listed European fortresses include late prehistoric examples (e.g. No. 906: the late Iron Age Dacian fortresses, Romania; No. 968: the late Iron Age fortresses or defended villages on the Baltic island of Öland, Sweden), pre-Christian examples (No. 1137: the Kernavė Archaeological site, Lithuania), and others, whose character is largely medieval, (e.g. No.826: the hilltop fortresses of the eastern Ligurian Riviera, Italy.). Iron Age castros also feature as a backdrop to the gold mining industrial landscape of the Las Médulas region of northwest Spain (No. 803). Some of the above monuments are superficially similar to Irish Western Stone Forts in that they are of drystrone construction, have 'clan' origins, and (in some cases, at least) have evolved over long periods of time. The main period(s) of use of most either predates, or postdates the Irish examples, however. The concentration of seven very large forts on the Aran Islands (a relatively small land mass), while not unique, is an exceptional, and exceptionally well-preserved, grouping of monuments that retain their Early Medieval character.
Outside Europe, outstanding examples of tribal forts include the immense fort of unbaked bricks at the Oasis of Bahla, Oman (No. 433). The fort, considered an exceptional example of its type, bears testimony to the power of the dominant tribe in the area, the Banu Nebhan, between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries AD. Great Zimbabwe (No. 364) is of comparable date and testifies to the might of the Bantu civilization of the Shona between the 11th and 15th centuries AD.