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A Banquet of Ringforts

Michael Smith reviews ‘The Men who eat Ringforts’ by Sinéad Mercier and Michael Holly, featuring Eddie Lenihan

The title of the delightful ‘The Men Who Eat Ringforts’ gratifyingly, replicates the headline for a typically incisive article by Tony Lowes published in this magazine in 2010. It complained that there was no legal protection for ringforts.


Sinead Mercier grew up in An Cheathrú Rua and got a first-class honours law degree from Trinity. She was the primary researcher for the Green Party but has now resigned from the party. She is the daughter of Paul Mercier, playwright, of the Passion Machine.


Michael Holly is an artist and non-fiction filmmaker.

Ringforts or fairy forts are circular mounds often surrounded by trees; some are natural, more were originally stone- or wood- surrounded and were used as forts for housing between 600 and 900 A.D. Some are much larger: Newgrange and Tara


Ringforts are also known as fairy forts and are the most common archaeological feature in Ireland. They are circular mounds often surrounded by trees; some are natural, more were originally stone- or wood- surrounded and were used as forts for housing between 600 and 900 A.D. Some are much larger: Newgrange and Tara. Strangely, some were used for burial of the unbaptised. The fairy forts are generally seen as the mythological underworld of ‘the good people’ who are not ordinary fairies but the spirit of the land, part of a belief that the cosmos is a living organism. They look like us: are mischievous, but are deadly if disturbed.
This sets the tone for the book. The fairy forts are spiritual and emblematic, poetic dwellings, a “letting things be”. They are being casually disturbed, indeed destroyed, by the current generation. Sadly it appears around 34% or ring forts have been destroyed since the 1820s and a further 10% cannot be located.


Sinéad Mercier makes the arresting case that Enlightenment rationality discredits all perspectives of nature that do not “instrumentalise towards the ends of the market or a particular productivist definition of science”. She denigrates modernity’s reduction of pre-Enlightenment beliefs to mere superstition.


The book is a fabulous admixture of the poetic and the forensic. It is lavishly footnoted, and illustrated.


Mercier’s prose is unusually vibrant and rich, often exhilarating: “A fairy fort cannot be described as neutralised, abstract space. It has a recalcitrant materiality of its own. It exists as a clearing”. There is no cliché here.
She outlines the uselessness of the National Monuments Acts – intrinsically toothless they were defanged by Dick Roche around the time the large road was built near Tara. They embrace fairy forts, in theory. Their calculated uselessness has been laid bare from Wood Quay through Tara, Carrickmines, Kilcullen and Waterford: débacles all. She might also have mentioned they were useless to prevent the 1997 destruction of ringforts of Tailteann the site of Ireland’s ancient Games, in Meath.


The only environmental legislation with teeth comes through the transposition of EU law. But in any event law “refuses to venture beyond the limited Cartesian spatiality of quantifiable, fixed on a map, empirical, absolute space”, making nature interdependent with men and giving it no value of its own. She inveighs against nationality and “heritagisation” and culture as resource.


Mercier dates Irish environmentalism not to reaction against the destruction of Georgian buildings but to Carnsore and the reaction against nuclear which she traces through Shell to Sea. She says Ireland has a history based on a concept of spatial justice. I think there was a sense of spatial justice but not in modern times. Even ringforts were thought to be Viking until the nineteenth century. I don’t think Carnsore or Shell to Sea, isolated protests, reveal deep-rooted Irish environmentalism.


Mercier makes the charitable case that the destruction is not down to the rural public but the system which she castigates as the Lawscape. I do not think there is any evidence that there is a well of Irish environmentalism ready to be tapped. And I think it is a pity in the end she does not identify the men eating the ringforts.

This is a lovely book that will advance popular outrage and private contemplation about the place of the land


Her solution seems to be people’s emplacement in land. Urbanists might prefer people’s emplacement in cities but hers is a tenable view, one passable as radical and even sustainable albeit it was also De Valera’s.
A few quibbles: Cluain Meala – Clonmel – is the meadow, not valley, of honey. She claims the “majority of remaining ringforts largely remain on rich pastoral and zoned development land”. There does not appear to be survey evidence to this effect and it is unlikely since only a small percentage of the island is zoned.


There are other essays, by Michael Holly. In the first he describes the finding of a henge near Newgrange by a drone in 2018 made possible because its outline was revealed by the hottest summer on record. In another essay Holly and folklorist Eddie Lenihan seek out damaged
ringforts in County Clare. One near Doonbeg was cut in half as long ago as around 1840.


Typically the men visit a local house to find out the view on the ringfort. A man at Cooraclare says a fairy fort was demolished and within a week the farmer was dead. The man says his parents told him not to play near the area.


Lenihan once told Clare FM that a damaged fairy fort between Crusheen and Gort was causing motorway accidents. The National Roads Authority phoned in to say it was caused by “a microclimate”.


This is a lovely book that will advance popular outrage and private contemplation about the place of the land.