Forts and lioses dotted all over our lands are special places

In his weekly column, John Arnold recalls the many ancient and historical sites, including fairy forts, lioses, ráths or dúns
Forts and lioses dotted all over our lands are special places

A PIECE OF HISTORY: Tribes, clans and invading groups abandoned the lioses for stone-built houses. Many remain untouched.

I WAS thinking recently of Lissaniskey, Listowel, Lissarda, Lissanley and many other places which have ‘ Liss ‘or ‘Lis’ in their names. Like ‘Bally’ there are literally thousands of placenames in Ireland with a reference to ‘ Lis’ and ‘Lios’.

‘Twas last Monday night when I was in the townland of Lackabeha East not far from my home-place. With the day’s work done and an hour to spare before attending a Club Meeting I was re-visiting a spot where I’d not actually stood for close on forty years. Ye may well ask;

What it can be the cause of all my dreaming,

What is this dream so very dear to me?

And, truth to tell, ‘tis often I go roaming

In dreams along the road of memory

I have an inquisitive mind, which some people think is a great attribute whilst others feel it’s a terrible affliction!

Lackabeha East is a townland of just 132 and a half acres — apparently there are 45,361 townlands in the country larger than it in size. The name Lacky Behy was first recorded in writing back around 1630 and the generally accepted translation is Leaca which means ‘hillside’ and beithe which means ‘birch’ so the Birch hillside or the hillside of the birch is the presumed origin. The hillside still remains though the birch trees or wood are long gone although birch can still be found here and there around this district.

Just 100 years ago Waterford born canon Patrick Power published his Place Names and Antiquities of S. E. Cork. In this fascinating book Canon Power gathered together myths, folklore, historical facts and did extensive research of his own. Painstakingly he went through parish after parish after parish and townland after townland. He noted physical features such as rivers, lakes, wells, hills, hollows as well as man made additions varying from forts and lioses built nearly 1500 years ago to tower house constructed in the 1800’s. In the 1830’s and 40’s the British government which ruled Ireland at the time commissioned the first ever Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Maps were made and many ancient and historical sites were marked on these maps. In the townland of Lackabeha East on the 1842 OS Map is marked ‘Lissawoanbra’.

In his play ‘Translations’ the late Brian Friel dealt with the ‘verbal’ conflict that happened between the English speaking Military Sappers making and marking the Maps and the local Gaelic speakers who had no word of Bearla. We often use the phrase ‘lost in translation’ and that’s just what happened. Tobar Phartalain (Well of Bartholomew) became Bartlemy. An old castle in this area belonging long ago to a blond-haired, knife-wielding woman called Shiela became Sheelaboonaskeens’s (Shiela buí na Scian’s) Castle and so on!

When Canon Power was compiling his book over a century ago there were still a few native Gaelic speakers in this area. Between the jigs and the reels Lissawoanbrea was translated as Lios an Moin Brea which Canon Power deciphered as the Fort of the Fine Turf. Well there’s no doubt about the existence of the Lios or Fort — traces are still visible, but Fine Turf? I know that during the War years turf was harvested in parts of this parish in upland areas of poorish moor land. Neither Lackabeha East or it’s 88 acre neighbour Lackabeha West would fit that description. So what then is the true meaning of ‘Lissawoanbrea’?

I was studying the nature of the terrain there recently and it came to me — Lackabehy is the Birch Hillside and on a hillside there can be ridges. Hey presto the Irish word for a ridge is ‘iomaire’ so it could well be Lios an Iomaire the Lios or Fort of the Ridge — I’m no expert and won’t debunk Canon Power’s theory but in the absence of any evidence of a bog or turf perhaps the Fort of The Ridge might fit.

In the neighbouring townland of Kilshannig are also the possible remains of another ring-fort and it was said that back in the 1800’s a dog travelled via underground passages from the Lackabeha fort to the Kilshannig one. When the Devonshire family were erecting high walls around their demesne at Kilshannig in the 1700’s the wall was curved slightly in order not to interfere with the ancient fort. As I said it must be about two score years ago since I was ‘in’ the Lackabeha ring fort — not alone was I in it but I was under it also. Back then when an extension was being built to a house fairly cavernous stone-built underground chambers were accidentally discovered. These souterrains ( sou= under, terrain = ground, French) are a common feature of ring forts, sometimes they were simply for storage of dairy products, grain and other perishable foodstuffs.

These underground chambers with passages attached were also used for defensive purposes in times of attack from wild animals and wild neighbours! What amazed and startled me 40 years ago down in that souterrain was the quality of the stone built walls. They had been constructed perhaps 1,000 or 1500 years ago but were in perfect condition, dry and each stone set perfectly.

We closed up that ‘cave’ four decades ago in order to expedite the building work. I often wonder if one of us had gone and crawled on our hands and knees how far would we have got? Did the tunnel connect with a similar chamber underneath another ring fort?

Just this week a megalithic site dating back over 5,000 has been discovered in County Meath proving that this country of ours was inhabited way back in the mists of times. The ring forts of course were the original ‘compounds’ where extended family groups lived with their domesticated animals. If people lived for centuries and millennia in these forts, lioses, ráths or dúns it was only natural that they cremated or buried their dead close by so these circular enclosures dotted all over the land are indeed special places.

Just as in modern times the desecration of burial grounds is frowned upon so it was down the ages. Though successive tribes, clans and invading groups abandoned the lioses for stone-built house their dead remained where they were. Gradually ‘twas said that fairies and ‘the little people’ occupied these so-called ‘fairy forts’. Some people rubbish these beliefs but even if we have a splink of spirituality in us we must recognise that though people might be physically gone they leave a ‘mark’ after them — call it a memory, a ghost, a presence but it’s undeniable. That’s why these abandoned homesteads have been left untouched in many areas for nearly 1500 years.

Claudius Ptolemy the Greek map-maker lived from c 100 to 170 AD. His early map of Hibernia (Ireland) shows that a tribe called the Brianti lived in the south. On another hilltop here in our parish — about a mile from Liosnamoinbrea is a second fine ring fort named Lisbrian — the Fort or the Lios of the Brianti so people have been living up here in the high ground commanding a view of the Bride Valley with a long, long time. It’s the same every place where there’s a townland name with Lis or — Lios or Dún. People think of these ancient ring forts as belonging only to rural places but there was a time when towns and cities didn’t exist as we know them today! We all know of the Bells of Shandon and of the fame of Shandon itself. The Church and district in Cork city are named after the Old Fort or in Irish Sean Dún — yes indeed we Irish go back a long, long way.

More in this section

Sponsored Content