Up the road from
Staigue Fort House…
Staigue Fort, 3km up the road from Staigue Fort House, commands a sweeping view southwards down the valley, across Kenmare Bay to the distant peaks of the Slieve Miskish mountains. When approached by road, the fort comes into view only when one is quite close by. Then it can be seen on a grassy mound near the head of the Staigue river, set against a vast amphitheatre of hills. You can visit the fort day or night – there is no admission charge. It is a special place to be by night – one of the most starry skies in the Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve.
Description of Staigue
Staigue ranks with Grianán Ailigh in County Donegal and Dun Aengus on the Aran Islands as one of the three most important early forts in Ireland. It consists of a nearly circular court (27.13m north and south and 26.82m east and west) surrounded on the outside by a fosse. The very well preserved wall, up to six meters high and four meters thick, is built entirely without the use of mortar. The facing stones, inside and out, were laid with great skill and the space between them filled with rubble. The wall is divided into ten bays by flights of steps crossing each other like an X. It contains two oval chambers with corbelled roofs. Because there are no remains of buildings to be seen, it seems likely that it contained wooden houses. Wooden houses were the marks of the nobility in iron age times at least according to the sagas. So its very emptiness illustrates its one-time importance.
Built in Bronze Age times, c2,400-c600 B.C., it is variously thought to have been an Astronomical Observatory, a Royal Residence, a Theatre, an Emporium, a Defensive Citadel… There are arguments to support each of these theories and indeed it could have fulfilled all of these functions and more in its long history.Its similarity to an Grianán Ailigh which is circa 500 km away northwards may be significant.
Nearby Archaeological Sites
There are also a number of archaeological sites in the vicinity of the fort: bronze age Copper Mines, Souterrains, Rock Art and the foundations of two structures south-west of the fort. The presence of these sites help us picture the activities and culture of the people connected with the fort.
Clues in the Name
“Staigue Fort” suggests the enclosure was built as a defensive citadel, but that is probably misleading, as the ‘fort’ in the name may be simply due to its similarity in shape to ring-forts rather than a reflection of its original purpose. The locals used to call is “Stig” or “Steague,” which was understood to mean “steps”. It was also known as “Staig an air” which was thought to mean “the windy house,” although the more learned are thought to have translated that as “Temple of the Father.” Another name, “Staigue-an-ár” may denote “the staired place of slaughter”. Staigue is prounounced to rhyme with vague, although if you say, “Steak Fort”, everyone will know what you mean!
Dawn of Archaeological Interest
Archaeological interest in Staigue began only in the late eighteenth century. In 1787, General Charles Vallencey, who was conducting a military survey, sent one of his assistants, Mr. W. Byers to survey this part of the country. The then owner of Staigue Fort, Mr. F. C. Bland brought the fort to his attention. About 1781, his family had rescued the fort from being used as a pound (shelter) for animals. In 1812, Vallancey published his “Account of the Ancient Stone Amphitheatre lately discovered in the County of Kerry”, the first published notice of the Staigue Fort.
The entrance faces the meridean, looking exactly south. Mr Alexander Nimmo (1783-1832) suggested that if its entrance were found to face the midday sun, the structure might have been intended as an Astronomical Observatory. Indeed, it could be used for this purpose nowadays. In January 2014, due to its stunning night skies (and thanks to a bid headed by Julie Ormonde of the South Kerry Astronomy Group and to local astronomer Michael Sheehan), this region has been awarded the status of International Dark-Sky Gold Tier Reserve.
Sun, Fire or Lightning worshippers.
It has been speculated that it was built by sun or fire worshippers due to its south facing entrance. Robert Vance, in his book Secret Sights: Unknown Celtic Ireland, (2003) suggests that Staigue “may have been used for ritual, as their god, Bolg (the god of lightning) was venerated during storms and the fort would have been a suitable amphitheatre for such observations…”
It is believed that there were 4 waves of invasions of Ireland between 500 and 100 BC. The Picts, the Fir Bolg, the Laginians and the Goidels. Some of the great stone forts including Dun Aengus and Dun Conor on the Aran Irelands can be identified with the second of these invaders, the Fir Bolg. TJ Barrington, author of Discovering Kerry (1976) speculates that Staigue may have been built by the southern branch of the Fir Bolg. Another theory is that it was one of the royal residences of the King of Cashel. According to the Book of Rights the King had a residence in Kerry called Cathair Meathais which John O’Donovan (author of Ordnance Survey Letters published in 1841) believed to be the Staigue Fort. The fort could have been reused in the Early Historic period as a royal centre having been previously used for another purpose, with wealth possibly being generated from controlling some sea trade.
Place for tournaments
Vallancey, who himself never visited the fort, in his little book “Account of the ancient Stone Theatre” (1812) speculated that the “Reis or Irish Rajah” would sit under awnings on top of the wall, and the two “mediators or bottle-holders” would retire for reflection into the two small chambers. Barrington, however, writes confidently that the chambers were kennels for guard dogs.
Mr Bland believed the fort would have been used as an emporium in connection with the nearby copper mines.
Several near vertical masonry joints making a blunt edge are visible within the wall on the north west side. This may indicate that the fort was built in stages rather than in one continuous operation. Prior to that part of the wall being filled in, the gap would have left a large entrance into the fort which would suggest that defence was not a pressing objective of the structure. The many stairs clearly reflect a need or desire for easy access to the top of the enclosing wall. NUI-Galway archaeologist Michelle Comber writes that “accessing the wall-top may relate to defence and/or communications. The wall terraces would also have allowed the viewing of activities within the enclosure, if such occurred. A high-status settlement, like Staigue, would have been concerned with all of these – defence, control of communications, and social/political events that may have taken place within the cashel on occasion.”
Hostel for Pilgrims
It has also been suggested that Staigue was a protective hostel for pilgrims on their way to and from Skellig Michael.
Home of a Chieftain
The sign by the fort unromantically states that it must have been the home of a very wealthy landowner or chieftain who had a great need for security.
Community Centre…Performance, Public Speaking
We at Staigue Fort House can vouch that the acoustics in the fort are excellent. Having brought singer, Katrin DuPont from Berlin and New York actor, Emma O’Donnell there, Emma had the idea of testing the acoustics. Both she and Katrin took it in turns to stand in the middle of the enclosure and speak and sing very very softly. What would normally have been inaudible at any distance away from the performer was perfectly audible to those of us by the walls. Magic.
Artifacts found at Staigue
The fort has never been excavated. To date, a gold bracelet of Bronze Age, a pendant whetstone with some minor decoration of Viking Age and a horn spoon which is probably of late medieval or post medieval date, have been found there. The pendant and a replica of the gold bracelet are in the Kerry County Museum in Tralee. The horn spoon, found in one of the chambers of the fort in the 1950s, is on display in the Cork Public Museum in Cork city.
Traditions and Superstitions
John Windele, in his Excursions in Kerry (1848) writes that the only tradition he could obtain concerning the place was that it had been once held by Ruanoch the “Brown Shuler”, a stranger in these parts. That he tyrannized it over the people for some time but his conduct became so intolerable that the people at length rose against him, gave him chase and killed him at a place called Coom a Ruanach.
The fort was thought to be haunted and for that reason, locals were reluctant to spend the night there.
According to local man, John Shea, if one stands in front of two particular stones in the fort, any ailment you suffer from will be cured. Just which two stones…
check out this site with 3d imaging of Staigue Fort and the other 24 similar forts in Ireland… http://www.3dicons.ie/3d-content/stone-forts