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  • Writer's pictureHugh MacMahon

Thinking Around the Circle

Updated: Dec 9, 2022

After visiting Finnian’s monastic site at Aghowle I continued on to Rathgall Hill Fort, nine minutes further by car. It is another of Ireland’s hidden treasures.

Dating back to 800 BC, it was occupied up to the early Middle Ages and is considered one of the largest and important stone hillforts in Ireland (and probably the least known.) Its four concentric circles cover 18 acres and its size alone made me wonder what might have been.

Circles are among the earliest and most widespread of symbols, perhaps inspired by the shape of the moon and sun. They represent wholeness, connectedness and balance. For millennia they have framed time, expanses and relationships. People felt secure within them, protected from dangers both visible and invisible. From early days the Irish identified with them.

A circle within a circle was the model for an Irish home and the remains of 45,000 such family ‘ring forts’ are still visible around the country. At least another 10,000 have disappeared since records began in the 19th century.

Spirals have decorated megalithic monuments from time immemorial. Torcs and brooches were circular. When Christians raised stone crosses they gave them a circular ‘halo’ effect. Early monastic sites were built within encircling enclosures. Round towers are, well, ‘round’.

It was the Normans and their successors who introduced a different vision of reality with square tower houses, restricting laws and rigid authorities that stamped order on what had been a flexible society. In Asia they would say the feminine (circular and inclusive) was replaced by the male (square and excluding).

Archaeologists have discovered ancient ceramics, pottery shards, glass bead, weapons and burial traces on the site but no individual hero, family or saint is closely associated with Rathgall. Up to recently when story-swapping locals gathered they let their imaginations free with tales of possible owners, mischievous fairies living within the hill.

Rathgall is that kind of place, a spectacular reminder of our former open relationship with nature and others. The circular fort did have a functional purpose but it also framed the attitude of the people inside.

For its ‘forgotteness’ I would give Rathgall eight out of ten and for what it can remind us of, a five.


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