Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Aug/Sept 2014 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
Unquestionably the most important archaeological excavation ever carried out in this parish was that undertaken at the Mackney ringfort in 2006 prior to the construction of the N6 motorway.
Ringforts are the most common field monuments in Ireland, there being an estimated 45,000 examples extant. The term, however, is misleading, since they never had a military function. Many were simple animal enclosures, while others were defended farmsteads or the dwelling-places of the professional classes and the aristocracy. Mostly built between 500 A.D and 1100, in some instances they continued to be occupied up to the end of the middle ages and even beyond.
A ringfort was constructed by digging a circular ditch and forming an internal bank from the excavated soil. On the bank a stockade was set to repel intruders. A section to serve as an entrance was left undug, usually on the south-east circumference and protected by a gate or gate-house. If the ringfort was intended for habitation, one or two large, timber-frame, round or rectangular huts would be built within the enclosure. The roofs were thatched and the walls were of wattle-and-daub (wicker-work plastered with a mixture of mud and cow-dung). Smoke from a central hearth escaped through a hole in the roof.
Ringforts offered a measure of protection at a time when lightning raids for cattle and slaves were commonplace and souterrains were part of their defensive armoury. These were built by digging a trench, lining the walls with a dry-stone revetment and roofing the structure with stone slabs. Basically places of refuges, they may also have been used to store food. Colloquially referred to as fairy forts, ringforts used to be regarded with a great deal of superstitious awe. Initially they were probably respected as the abodes of the ancestors, who in time became conflated with the “good people”. These beliefs have in part accounted for the fact that so many ringforts survived to the present day.
Unconsecrated burial grounds, known as “killeens” and by various other names, mostly used in the post-medieval period to inter still-born infants and unbaptised children, are often located in ringforts and in fact this is the case of more than half the “killeens” in Co. Galway. Popular superstition would certainly have guaranteed the bodies against disturbance at these sites.
Challenging the conventional perception of Ireland in the early middle ages as an island of saints and scholars, ringforts serve to remind us that slavery persisted for longer here than in any other European country. It only went into decline in the twelfth century after the Anglo-Norman invasion, an event the Church interpreted as an act of divine retribution on the Irish for continuing to enslave their fellow-humans.