All over Ireland there are ringforts, the homestead enclosures of those who lived there with their livestock. The term ‘ringfort’ is misleading. The builders, in the latter part of the first millennium, were not preparing for war, but for rustling; this was the age when the theft of a bull was the grand theme of the greatest Irish epic—the saga of Táin Bó Cuailnge, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, told in countless versions before high hearths and humble, long before scribes wrote it down. Lesser proprietors than the legendary Conchobhar and Cúchulainn also felt, not so heroically but just as urgently, the need to defend their livestock.
So traces of the farmsteads of the early Christian period survive, as rough rings on rough grazing. Some are raths, earth-banked and more readily returned to nature; some are cashels, boulder-walled at tremendous cost in effort and material resources. All are vulnerable to the dynamics of settlement: neglect, or ploughing-in, or recycling of the hard-won stones; for the preservation of quaintness or wonder has always been subordinate to the practicalities of gaining a livelihood—a harsh, difficult livelihood—from the structures and landscape inherited from past generations.
Sometimes the wall has been rebuilt, or repaired, as here at Derrymihin, or modified, or let tumble, according to the needs of successive owners. And sometimes the enclosure is preserved for its own sake, after a fashion; the rampart of the rath at Ternahillane, four miles away, has been redefined by use of a mechanical digger—exposing, incidentally, a thin black stratum which perhaps tells of a fire, a thousand years ago, when the rath was the shelter for a family, now nameless, and the black line may be all that remains of their houses.
And sometimes, clearly, a sense of wonder at immemorially ancient structures did persist, with myths and superstitions now lost. Further west, at Knockroe, the rath is all but gone, but the placename Caheraphuca, ‘the fort of the fairies’, survives (as do similar names elsewhere, such as Carrigaphuca, near Macroom), recording the belief that ringforts had mysterious inhabitants. These fairies were pookas, Sídhe from the otherworld, the latterday descendants of the ancient gods, the little people who lived unseen in their cities in the abandoned ringforts. Although their powers were not as great as they had been of old, it was thought wise not to risk their mischief (and worse), and their haunts were places to be avoided. The cashel at Derrymihin seems to be at peace, but it may not have seemed so to folks long ago.