Fortress Feng Shui

In Tag! You’re It! I mentioned that I suddenly became “king’” of the library when our director went to lunch and never came back. The six-month reign I was saddled with finally came to an end when a new director was hired last month. The guy spent his first two days making our maintenance person disassemble the massive desk system and haul every piece of furniture out of the office. Instead of familiarizing himself with library staff, policy, procedures, and board of trustees, his priority was the proper arrangement of his space – the feng shui of his corner office.

According to Críth Gablach, an Irish tract on the law of persons dating to the beginning of the eighth century, there was a proper arrangement for the fortress of a king. Here’s the original Gaelic: Cate córus dune ríg bís hi forus do gréss ar chi[u]nn a thúaithe? .vii. fichit triaged di thraigthib innraicib métt a dúne cach leith; .vii. traigid t(e)iget a thalmatha; dá thraig .x. dano a domnae.  (Binchy, 1979, p. 22). And now, the translation: “What is the proper fortress for a king who is in constant residence at the head of his tuath (people/territory)? Seven score feet of full measure the size of his fortress in every direction. Seven feet [the width of] its ditch; twelve feet its depth.” In addition, the entryway through the rampart was to be twelve feet wide, and the base of the rampart and its distance from the dún (fortress) also a width of twelve feet. A proper rampart was supposed to be thirty feet in length on the outside (Byrne, 1973, p. 32). MacNeil translates the prescription for the length of the rampart as, “Thirty feet [9.12 m] are its measure outwardly,” which makes more sense in describing the width of the rampart, from the inside to the outside if one were walking across it. (Stout, 1997, p. 113).

So, how does the building code of a king’s fortress stack up against the archaeological record? Stout says, “These measurements are consistent with field-based findings….The internal diameter of a king’s ringfort, 42.56m [7 score feet], exceeds the mean for the ringforts as a whole (c.30m)….The overall width of the ramparts…of 9.12m [30 feet] is remarkably close to 10.33m, the mean width of the defenses….” (1977, p. 113).

So, why was the circular fortress the proper form for a king’s residence? Aside from the fact that creating circular structures is far easier than dealing with angles, it also afforded unobstructed views, in every direction, for defensive purposes. Stout suggests, “The square enclosure was a Norman introduction, and this imposed dichotomy in settlement forms in many ways mirrors the experience of native North Americans. Black Elk, forced to live in the rectangular homes built on government reservations, remarked that ‘there can be no power in a square.’” (1997, p. 15). He might have had something there. Anyone living in Tornado Alley will tell you that the weakest point to any rectangular building – however modern – are the corners.

Now that you have the proper measurements, you can construct your own fortress! As for my new boss, the remodeling of his royal residence didn’t go so well. He left after only a week, sticking the library with an oriental carpet he’d bought for the office.

Anyone want to buy a rug?


Byrne, F.J. (1973). Irish kings and high kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Binchy, D.A. (ed.). (1979). Críth gablach. Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Stout, M. (1997). The Irish ringfort. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

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