The Late Bronze Age Hillfort at Rathgall, Co. Wicklow, near Tullow, Co. Carlow

Google Earth image of the Late Bronze Age Hillfort at Rathgall, Co. Wicklow.

On the R725 road between Tullow Co. Carlow and Shillelagh, Co. Wicklow and about 5km east of Tullow is the Late Bronze Age hillfort of Rathgall. From the main road a minor road leads to the site either from Knocklow coming from Tullow and then 2km to the site or at Killinure coming from Shillelagh and then 1.5km to the site. The site is a sign-posted National Monument and a roadway leads off the road to a narrow parking area. Although the site is a Hillfort it is actually quite close to the road and easily accessible across a wooden stile or through the gate. The site has been undergoing conservation by the Office of Public Works since 2009. The interior and walls are being cleared of vegetation and there is some reconstruction work.

Rathgall has been only partly excavated but is one of the richest sites known from the Late Bronze Age in terms of artefacts. The Hillfort consists of four ramparts that enclose an area of over 7 hectares. The inner enclosure is a stone wall that encloses an area 45m in diameter. This stone enclosure is very similar to an early Medieval cashel and may date later than the rest of the fort. This is enclosed by two closely spaced stone ramparts which can now be seen cleared of vegetation and there is fourth rampart at a greater distance enclosing an area of 310m. This can be seen next to the access road. These ramparts have not been dated.

Rathgall, Co. Wicklow, view of the central enclosure looking toward the entrance.

Excavations in the 1970s carried out by the late Barry Raftery uncovered the largest Late Bronze Age house known from Ireland which was 15m in diameter with an eastern entrance that was enclosed by a ditch 35m in diameter. There were also a number of hearths and postholes within the enclosure. Large numbers of finds were made in and around the house including coarse pottery, bronze objects, and stone and glass beads. What appears to have been a workshop with a number of postholes was situated outside the ditch to the east of the house. Finds of clay moulds for making bronze swords and spearheads and tools were found as well as jet and lignite bracelets, glass beads, amber, gold and stone objects. This house appears to have come into use after 900 BC and was the home of a significant family, probably the chief famliy of the area.

South of the workshop a ditch enclosed an area 19m in diameter that contained a central pit with a cremated adult enclosed by a U-shaped arrangement of 150 stakeholes. A cremated child was found in another pit and a coarse pot contained a cremated adult and child. A third pit contained a hoard of bronze objects, a chisel, spearhead and sword. On the southern slope of the hill outside the Hillfort a D-shaped hut and a larger circular structure associated with coarse pottery were uncovered and there were pits with pottery, saddle querns and moulds nearby. Rathgall is situated in the Medieval cantred of Ofelmeth, that included most of the baronies of Rathvilly, Co. Carlow and northern Shillelagh, Co. Wicklow, and probably functioned as the Chiefly centre of this area in the Late Bronze Age.

Rathgall, Co. Wicklow excavation plan of the Late Bronze Age house and enclosure.

There is a second hillfort situated directly across the road 300m to the north in Knockeen townland which consists of an earth and stone bank enclosing an area 300m in diameter with a cairn in the centre. This site has not been investigated.

Further reading
Waddell, J. 1998. The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland, 270-3.

View rathgall in a larger map

GPS coordinates 52.803799,-6.667671

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