Rath (ráth), Ring Fort


Rath (Ráth) is a really interesting place name component because it is very common (appearing in about 700 townlands), is transliterated directly into English, and reaches back into our ancient past and its mysteries.

Built during the Iron Age (700/600 BC to 100 AD), a rath is a fort, a circular rampart often enclosing a dwelling comprising several buildings (residence, kitchen, housing for calves, sheep and pigs, and a kiln for drying corn). In place names, rath applies to the whole settlement. 

Less commonly found but also a ring-fort is lios, which tends to appear in the north and is rare in the southeast (Flanagan).  Joyce suggests that originally rath applied to the rampart and lios to the enclosed area, a distinction lost over time (Social History, vol. II, p. 59).

As enclosed spaces raths functioned as residences for the nobles (all landowners) and non-noble freemen with property (though not land), known as bó-aire, meaning a cow chief.

Dún solely refers to the residence of the king (rí) or chieftain but raths served as royal residences too, for that purpose called ríráth generically.

Raths without evidence of buildings may have been used as enclosures for cattle to keep them safe at night.  In Gaelic Ireland, wealth was measured in cattle which in turn determined status in society.  Client relationships were forged through the exchange of cattle. Ireland had wolves so predation was a risk but the real danger to cattle came from kings raiding each other to seize cattle. Ireland’s epic the Táin Bó Cúailnge, concerns the tale of the cattle raid of Cooley and rivalry of the royalty of Connaught and Ulster concerning the possession of the greatest bull in Ireland. Rathcroghan (Cruachain) in Co Roscommon features a lot in it, as the royal residence of the chief protagonist, Queen Maebh.

Raths are often situated on low hills. Rathdrum, the fort of the ridge. Since Ráth is pronounced ‘raw’ in Irish (Joyce), you find it as Ra in English.  Raheny, up the road from Clontarf, for example. Joyce gives it as Eanna’s rath, but Flanagan gives it as Ráth Eanaigh, the fort of the march as does Loganimn.ie. Not to be confused with Raheen, Ráithíní, little forts.

Ranelagh, Raghnallach, Ragnal’s place.  Ramelton, Ráth Maeltain, Mealtan’s place. Raphoe, Ráth Bíoth, fort of the hut.

Rathgar is Ráth Garbh or rough fort: Rathgar is rough no longer and is one of Dublin’s premier suburbs.

Rathfarnham, where I live, had been a village outside Dublin up to the start of the twentieth century but is now absorbed as a suburb.  It is interesting because while Joyce translates it as Farannan’s Rath, Flanagan gives us Ráth Fearnáin, Rath of the alder.

Joyce and Flanaghan agree that Multyfarnham refers to Farannán’s home but Joyce says it is Farannán’s mills (muilte) while Flanagan says it the summit of Farannán’s house (mullach, a summit, tighe a house).  Checking the logainm.ie database, Joyce is correct about Multyfarnham and Flanaghan correct about Rathfarnham.

Rath can also feature at the end of the place name.  Ardara, Co Donegal, in Irish is Ard-a’-raith, meaning the height of the rath. Drumragh, Co Tyrone, the ridge of the fort. Corray, Co Sligo, is Cor-raith, the round/pointed hill of the fort or rath.


Main Sources:

Irish Place Names, Deirde Flanagan and Laurence Flanagan (Gill &Mcmillan, 1994, 2002)

The Origins and History of Irish Names of Places, P.W. Joyce (The Educational Co of Ireland, 1869-1920)

A Social History of Ancient Ireland, P.W. Joyce, (M.H.Gill & Son, 1920).

In Search of the Irish Dreamtime, J.P. Mallory, (Thames and Hudson, 2016)




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3 responses to “Rath (ráth), Ring Fort

  1. Gerard Corr

    Eamon: Good article. Biden is doing v well. Best

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Brendan McAllister

    Dear Eamonn,

    As a resident of the Rathfriland Rd. in Newry, this latest post is of particular interest and I thank you for it.

    I hope that you and Mary are enjoying Canada, despite Covid etc. and all the tumult in. Washington DC which feels a bit more concerning, in the long term, than Covid.

    I wrote to a friend in Larne the other day, wondering how it felt, now that the border had moved from Newry to Larne (though, of course, we have a port in Warrenpoint too). The DUP are managing to turn somersaults, emerging as the main objectors to the a situation which they played a huge role in creating. But, like the followers of Trump, the DUP base seem able and willing to accept this sort of mendacity.

    Meanwhile, I am kind of serene, having retired on 11 December. I am feeling some kind of fatigue after 41+ years of constant work. I am quite awake by 6.30am and if I lie-on I reawaken feeling like lead in the bed.

    I have time to say my prayers – the three offices per day expected of clergy: Lauds; Vespers and Compline (Night Prayer).They are all quite beautiful if you have the time. And I now have, though sometimes my bad time-management creates unnecessary pressures at key times of the day.

    I have six months of a theology course to finish before I get my diploma from Maynooth. This is a potentially seminal time for me, since I have some space now to deepen my knowledge of Scripture (and my relationship to the Living Word) and learn important things about liturgy, in advance of the ordination which, due to Covid, might not take place before Autumn.

    Still, this means that I have a nice few months to develop more habitual solitude in my life, before I begin parish ministry and get busy again. Elizabeth has some concern about the time ahead; she is afraid that the old workaholic tendencies will re-emerge and blight these precious years we now have together.

    So, I tell her: ‘let’s decide to be wonderfully married’, whatever else pulls on us.

    A UN colleague has asked me to do a session on reconciliation with his class at the LSE (by zoom) in February. I will say yes to that. Someone else asked me to collaborate with someone from Manchester who is seeking funding to run a course linking Northern Ireland with the Middle East. I said no to that. Too much work involved.

    I would like to stay a bit involved in the game, but not too much. One of your colleagues from the embassy in Luska rang me last year and asked if I would go out there and do some work with the Zambian bishops conference, who wanted to mediate between Government and opposition. I said no at the time – because I was about to go to Iraq (though that got pulled the day before I was due to leave). However, I would be interested in that kind of mission up ahead and have thought of putting myself back on the DFA’s radar before the summer. We’ll see.

    Anyway, Eamonn, I can see that you are continuing to develop or live into other dimensions of yourself, beyond the day job. I am sure you look forward to a time when, like me now, you can indulge your interests a bit more.

    That time will come.




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