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A Brief History of Ireland – part 1

A Brief History of Ireland


  • Introduction

The island of Ireland has had a chequered history in regards to conquests, invasions, and cultural exchanges with other nations. The story of man in Ireland begins 12,500 years ago with evidence of human markings on Bear bones found in County Clare. Yet after the last Ice Age, in Mesolithic times, the first people were nomadic hunter gatherers- travelling around while hunting and eating what they could find. The first farmers would come in the Neolithic, establishing themselves along the fertile river valleys, introducing farming practices from mainland Europe, and settling into communities where ritual, tradition, and farming practices formed society. Structures such as the historical passage tombs and dolmens still reflect the unwritten Megalithic to Neolithic history of old.

The Bronze Age heralds in mining where these farmers started digging into the ground, finding softer, malleable materials. Copper was found in Ireland, in places such as Mount Gabriel in County Cork, Avoca in Wicklow, Tipperary and in Connemara. When copper is combined with a bit of tin, it makes bronze. Bronze as well as gold artefacts and beaker pottery, would be signs of an organised, stratified society where the highest members of society would have access to the luxuries of  Bronze Axe blades, Golden Torcs and Lunalae; which are Golden , crescent shaped disks worn around the neck.

With the Iron Age comes what many refer to as the Celtic migration, or other’s say, an invasion of Ireland. This transition appears to have happened slowly and over a long period, and it was not until around the third Century BC that a distinctive Iron Age society emerged – The High Kings of Tara, ring forts and exploits of mythological warriors such as those of ‘Na Fianna’ (the warriors) enlighten our knowledge of this era. Yet what gives the period its distinctive character is the widespread use of ornaments to decorate objects using an art style that was developed first in central Europe by Celtic peoples- the La Tene Style. La Tene is defined by the spirals and chevrons, concentric circles and patterns found in both pottery and metal work all across the island.

The Pagan high kings of old were introduced to Christianity by Patrick, heralding in the so called Golden Era. With mainland Europe falling into chaos with the demise of the Roman Empire, heralding in the Dark Ages, monasteries were established by individual monks and later Christian Orders looking for new safe havens to continue their devotional work. They found solace on the Isle of Ireland. Here, far removed from the uncertainty of mainland Europe, Saints and scholars would settle in peace, establishing themselves first on far flung remote places, but later on setting up the Universities and towns of old, becoming the hubs of civilization. Today round towers and high crosses still remind us of the monastic way of these early Christian missionaries.

The Vikings, a maritime people followed, arriving in Ireland seasonally for the benefit of easy pickings – raiding these affluent settlements in a Blitzkrieg type of way, and returning to their own settlements with a bounty of gold and slaves- one quarter of all Icelanders still today having Gaelic ancestry. The Vikings soon found the fertile lands of Ireland much more rewarding than the harsh Nordic landscape, slowly settling in Ireland from the 840’s onwards, setting up the first proto-towns in coastal areas such as Dublin, Wexford, Limerick and Cork

Due to a local chieftain, Dermot McMurragh, the Cambro-Norman occupation of Ireland in the 12th Century transformed the architecture from simple ring forts to majestic stone castles such as those in Trim, Limerick, and Dublin. English influence and control mainly centred on the east and Dublin for the following centuries, where settlers often integrated with the traditional Gaelic way of life. King Henry VIII heralds a new dawn for both Irish and English politics, the new church which Henry appoints himself head of begins centuries of religious conflict. Catholics become the voice of resistance and the threat of uprisings and revolts. Ireland with its predominantly catholic population now is seen as the problem for the English and settling Ireland is now one of the main objectives for the following Kings and Queens of England. Plantations, settlements, dissolution of the monasteries and churches, repression of catholic rights and the rise of an elite Protestant ruling class are the dominant themes for the following centuries for Ireland.

The staunch Catholic Irish would always look upon Europe for support when it came to rebelling against what was seen as English religious and political oppression. Most of these rebellions failed, but the landmark 1916 Rising, known as the Easter Rising, changed the perceptions of the ordinary citizen finally resulting in independence. However due to the loyalties of the North still leaning towards a United Kingdom, the Island of Ireland was split politically into Northern Ireland, and the Irish Free State in the South.

Today, Ireland has a dynamic, young and vibrant population looking optimistically to the future.


  • Ancient Ireland

Palaeolithic Ireland (10,000 BC to 8,000 BC)

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that bones found in a cave in Co. Clare put Ireland’s first settlers at 12,500 years ago. 15,000 bones were found. One in particular had incisions and cut marks on a brown bear placed Radio-Carbon dating at 10,000 BC


Mesolithic Ireland (8000BC-4000BC)

These peoples were hunter gatherers, who would have exploited seasonal fruits, nuts and berries as well as stalked large game and fished the surrounding seas and inland waterways. Mount Sandel Co. Derry is the finest example of a Mesolithic settlement.


Neolithic Ireland (4000BC-2500BC)

The next phase in Irish prehistory saw the arrival of the first farming practices in and around 4000BC. They brought with them new ideas about food production and had the ability to grow crops and raise domesticated animals such as cows and goats. The first farmers also introduced the earliest pottery vessels as well as utilising a much wider set of artefacts, including polished stone axes, a variety of flint tools and saddle querns for grinding corn.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the Neolithic was the introduction of new and monumental forms of burial architecture in the guise of megalithic tombs. These included a variety of monument types with the four most notable being court tombs, portal tombs, passage tombs and wedge tombs.

The passage tombs are most common in Ireland and generally occur in cemetery clusters, with some of the most famous being Carrowkeel in County Sligo, Loughcrew, Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, all in County Meath. Some of tombs can be extremely large with Newgrange probably being the most impressive. They often contain rock art, using motifs such as spirals, patterns and dots to create images.

Also a collection of field markings in the west of Ireland; Connemara, has placed the oldest archaeological evidence for farming practices there.


Bronze Age Ireland (2500BC-500BC)

The next major phase in Irish prehistory is characterised by the arrival of metalworking. Initially these new metal objects were fashioned out of copper and mainly consisted of axes and daggers. The copper for these tools was probably derived from Rosse Island in Killarney, Co. Kerry, where excavations have uncovered the earliest copper mines thus far uncovered in the British isles. The Bronze Age also saw a veritable explosion in fine gold working with some beautiful objects being constructed including lunale, torcs and bracelets.

During the earlier Bronze Age burials could be either cremated or inhumed and were placed within a simple pit or sometimes in a more complex stone lined cist. The burials were often accompanied by grave goods and these most common, consisted of small decorated pots known as food vessels.

Early Bronze Age houses were circular, the Late Bronze Age also saw the development of large hilltop enclosures/hillforts and some of these appear to have been associated with settlements


The Iron Age Ireland (c. 500BC-400AD)

As the name of the period suggests this era was characterised by advancement in metal working, iron tools and weapons, although bronze continued to be used to make items of jewellery. A huge number of sites and locations have been identified as Iron Age settlements through-out Ireland. The population expanded, trade flourished and a complex society emerged from this period. 40,000 ringforts have been categorised from this time. Ringforts are large circular earthen works or circular man-made banks and are all that’s left of the Iron Age houses. The circular bank marked the outer rim of the house where wood or stone was used to construct the dwelling. On the west of Ireland a huge variety of ruined circular stone forts still stand from this time while the rest of Ireland used wood as its main material and as such have long since disappeared. Several places have preserved these iron age centres: Tara, Navan Fort and Rath Croghan are some of the capitals of the Iron age yet many of the earlier sites of the Bronze and Neolithic Age were also still in use. Trade with Europe expanded in leather goods, cattle and porcellanite (a stone used for arrow-heads by the romans). This trade was reflected in the huge rise in artefacts from this time; ordinary everyday objects as well as highly elaborate ceremonial objects.

A number of large ceremonial/tribal sites are also recognised from this period often building upon previous Bronze Age and Neolithic ceremonial sites. Cremation continued to be the dominant burial rite and the burnt remains were often placed with small personal items such as beads or jewellery in tombs. Burial, ritual, ceremony and belief practices changed and new buildings were constructed to accommodate these new ways rituals and ways.

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