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Posted on April 20th, 2012, by

The development of urban settlements in Ireland marked rapid progress of Irish culture and society. The emergence of towns was accompanied by significant economic, social and cultural progress. The study of Irish towns can provide a researcher with valuable information on Irish culture, social and economic life of Irish society. At the same time, the development of Irish society in the Middle Ages increased the significance of urban settlements for Irish people, though rural areas still constituted the basis of the economic life of the country. The role of population living in towns was insignificant compared to the role of the majority of the population which lived in rural settlements, where vitally important commodities were produced, including food and clothes. In addition, the agriculture was the basis of Irish economy. Nevertheless, towns and rural settlements cooperated with each other by means of commodities exchange. Moreover, as a rule, towns were fortified sites used for storage and protection of crops. Often peasants stayed in towns, where they were protected during military conflicts which occurred very often in the Middle Ages.

First of all, it should be said that the development of towns in Ireland was natural result of significant changes that took place in Irish society. Irish civilization was traditionally oriented on the development of its towns as major centres of its cultural, political and economic life. For instance, since the Roman Empire and Hellenism towns adopted the major achievements of the Roman Empire in social and economic life, technology and culture. In the Middle Ages, towns have not only preserved their function as centres of Irish culture, social, economic and political life, but they increased their significance even more.

To put it more precisely, in the Middle Ages the life of Irish society was concentrated in urban settlements. In fact, it was large towns that defined the development of Irish society. In this respect, it is even possible to speak about certain similarities between Irish towns. Irish urban settlements had common cultural background, for they were inhabited by Irish people, who have similar traditions and values. In addition, Irish towns were dependent economically on each other because of the development of trade between towns. In the Middle Ages the exchange of commodities between towns was crucial for their development and enlargement. At this point, it is possible to speak about the fact that the structure of Irish towns, reflected social and economic structure of Irish civilization.

At the same time, it should be said that in the Middle Ages Irish towns mainly performed defensive functions and were fortified sites, where the population could hide from attacks in case of military conflicts. In this respect, it is possible to single different types of fortifications which comprise the basis of Irish towns in the Middle Ages. One of the widely spread types of fortified towns was a ring-fort. Basically, the ring-fort is a general term applied to circular enclosures, surrounded by one, two or even three banks or earth and stone with or without ditches. The ditches were up to two meters deep and the banks were made from the earth taken from the ditches ring-forts had a strong defensive capacity. These fortifications which gradually outgrow into urban settlements contained houses of different types, possible outbuildings and even sometimes an underground refuge or Souterrain. Ring-forts varied in size and their major function was being defended farmsteads of the family grouping, archaeological evidence has shown that they were centres of industrial activity, such as spinning and weaving, with smaller examples serving as pens (Fitzpatrick 2007, p 59).Ring-forts are numerous throughout Ireland, with 1,300 in County Down alone. There are several examples of ring-forts still being occupied through-out the Middle Ages and beyond in more eastern locations, some ring-forts were re-utilized by the incoming Anglo-Normans, for example in Rathmullen in County Down, which was continuously occupied from the 8th to the 12th century, when it was converted into a motte.

Crannogs was a form of rural settlement was the crannog: this was an artificial island constructed by a natural shoal, by timber piling and laying down of brush wood, often with the addition of clay and frequently with plan-flooring sometimes the name is applied by extension to lakeside occupation sites. Its origins are to be found in the Neolithic period some of the most important excavated examples originate in the later Bronze Age and occupation of this type of settlement continued until at least the 17th century (Breen 2005, p 101), where they seem to have been used as defended strongholds in the wars of that period however, most archaeological evidence tends to indicate that few Crannogs were used in the Anglo-Norman period.

Furthermore, hill forts was another widely spread type of settlement in the medieval Ireland. Unlike some of the smaller ring forts, hill forts were principally built as defensive sites and generally functioned as tribal, rather than family centres they were a focus for settlement. There are only about 60 probable hill forts in Ireland and excavations have shown that most of them were long abandoned before the start of the eleventh century because they were so few, it is obvious that they were not an important form of settlement in the immediate pre-Norman period.

Promontory forts (the name refers to the point of land that juts into the sea) – were another form of settlement their most recognizable features were their earth or stone banks and their fosse that cut off access to both the coast and inland. Another feature associated with the pre-Norman rural landscapes were the Souterrain and the horizontal mill. The Souterrain refers to an artificially built cave’ and it is basically an underground passage often found in association with ring forts or promontory forts. Their function was two-fold: firstly, for storage and secondly as safe hideaways for the inhabitants of the nearby surface settlements. Excavations have produced evidence of traps or some form of obstruction to confuse the intruder and examples of this can be found at Tyrella in Co Down and Donaghmore in Co Louth (Barry 2000, p 115).

Many monasteries were identical with larger ring-forts, with buildings and huts of wattle and daub (which is a mixture of manure, straw and mud) were crowded within an enclosing wall of earth and stone. However, not all of ecclesiastical settlements comprised small communities in isolated areas where they could easily commune with God. One of the most successful of them was Glendalough, where a large monastery existed (Finan 2004, p 367).

The principal monastic remains consist of a round tower, the ruined cathedral and several stone churches. These ecclesiastical settlements took on urban functions as the centuries progressed and large number of people, both lay and ordained, were attracted both to their thriving religious centres and to the increasing economic activities surrounding them.

In fact, the development of ecclesiastic settlements built around monasteries or churches was a common trend in medieval Ireland. In this respect, it is possible to refer to the case of Armagh. Originally, this settlement was developed as an ecclesiastic settlement and in the Middle Ages it preserved its religious significance. In fact, Armagh was one of the religious centres of Ireland (McCullough and Crawford 2007, p 4). St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral was not only religious but also cultural centre of Ireland.

At the same time, settlements performed important defensive function. In this respect, it is worth mentioning Carrickfergus, the settlement which was the home to the 12th century Carricksfergus castle. The settlement proved its strategic significance during the Nine years War, when the battle of Carricksfergus took place in and around the town in November 1597 (Fitzpatrick 2007, p.71). In such a way, the control over the town was strategically important for parties involved in the war, while the fortification of the settlement helped to defend the local population.

For everyone in the early period of medieval Ireland, be they kings, monks or the poorest of farmers, their homes were comparatively cheerless smoke from the fire on a central hearth could only escape through the roof or through the door this would have led not only to horrible eye problems, like conjunctivitis but also meant that fire was an ever-present threat for both secular and religious settlements. Once a fire started it spread rapidly Glendalough was destroyed by fire nine times between 775 and 1071. Within all dwellings in this period, bones and kitchen refuse were not removed but covered over with successive layers of clay at night, the only light came from rush candles houses were small and in these conditions, even well-to-do families slept in dormitory fashion on beds of straw and hides: privacy was limited and people lived in constant contact with the rest of the family and with retainers. This was the scene in medieval Ireland in the pre-Norman period it comprises an image of indigenous settlement, dominated by the dispersed defended farmstead, the ring fort, but also comprising various other features including souterrains, monasteries and Crannogs. The rural landscape would soon change under the colonists and the first features we will examine comes the heading of earth and timber castles.

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