Early history of Ireland

Early history of Ireland


Mesolithic (8000 BC - 4500 BC)

What little is known of pre-Christian Ireland comes from a few references in Roman writings, Irish poetry and myth, and archaeology. During the Pleistocene ice age, Ireland was extensively glaciated.

Ice sheets more than 300 metres thick scoured the landscape, pulverizing rock and bone, and eradicating all evidence of early human settlements. Something similar happened in Britain, where human remains predating the last glaciation have been uncovered only in the extreme south of the country, which largely escaped the advancing ice sheets. During the Last Glacial Maximum (c. 16,000 BC), Ireland was an Arctic wasteland, or tundra. The Midland General Glaciation covered about two thirds of the country with a drifting sheet of ice. It is highly unlikely that there were any humans in the country at this time, though the possibility cannot be discounted entirely.

The earliest evidence of human occupation after the retreat of the ice has been dated to between 8000 and 7000 BC. Settlements of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers have been found at about half a dozen sites scattered throughout the country: Mount Sandel in County Londonderry (Coleraine); Woodpark in County Sligo; the Shannon estuary; Lough Boora in County Offaly; the Curran in County Antrim; and a number of locations in Munster. It is thought that these settlers first colonised the northeast of the country from Scotland. Although sea levels were still lower than they are today, Ireland was probably already an island by the time the first settlers arrived by boat. There is nothing surprising in this, though, for most of the Mesolithic sites in Ireland are coastal settlements. Clearly, the earliest inhabitants of this country were seafarers who depended for much of their livelihood upon the sea. In some ways this economy was forced upon them, for many centuries were to pass before the treeless permafrost was transformed into a densely forested fertile land.

The hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic era lived on a varied diet of seafood, birds, wild boar and hazelnuts. There is no evidence for deer in the Irish Mesolithic and it is likely that the first red deer were introduced here in the early stages of the Neolithic. The human population hunted with spears, arrows and harpoons tipped with small flint blades called microliths, while supplementing their diet with gathered nuts, fruit and berries. They lived in seasonal shelters, which they constructed by stretching animal skins over simple wooden frames. They had outdoor hearths for cooking their food. During the Mesolithic the population of Ireland was probably never more than a few thousand.

Neolithic (4500 BC - 2500 BC)

The Neolithic saw the introduction of farming and pottery, and the use of more advanced stone implements. It was once thought that these innovations were introduced by a new wave of settlers, but there is no compelling evidence for a large-scale invasion at this point in Irish history. It is much more likely that the Neolithic revolution was a long and slow process resulting from trade and overseas contacts with agricultural communities in South West continental Europe and on the Isle of Britain. [Oppenheimer, Stephen (October 2006). [http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=7817 "Myths of British ancestry"] "Prospect" Magazine. Retrieved May 20, 2007.]

Agriculture began around 4500 BC. Sheep, goats, cattle and cereals were imported from southwest continental Europe, and the population then rose significantly. At the Céide Fields in County Mayo, an extensive Neolithic field system - arguably the oldest in the world - has been preserved beneath a blanket of peat. Consisting of small fields separated from one another by dry-stone walls, the Céide Fields were farmed for several centuries between 3500 and 3000 BC. Wheat and barley were the principal crops cultivated.

Pottery made its appearance around the same time as agriculture. Ware similar to that found in northern atlantic has been excavated in Ulster (Lyle's Hill pottery) and in Limerick. Typical of this ware are wide-mouthed, round-bottomed bowls.

But the most striking characteristic of the Neolithic in Ireland was the sudden appearance and dramatic proliferation of megalithic monuments. The largest of these tombs were clearly places of religious and ceremonial importance to the Neolithic population. In most of the tombs that have been excavated human remains - usually, but not always, cremated - have been found. Grave goods - pottery, arrowheads, beads, pendants, axes, etc - have also been uncovered. These megalithic tombs, more than 1,200 of which are now known, can be divided for the most part into four broad groups:

*Court tombs - These are characterised by the presence of an entrance courtyard. They are found almost exclusively in the north of the country and are thought to include the oldest specimens.
*Passage tombs - These constitute the smallest group in terms of numbers, but they are the most impressive in terms of size and importance. They are distributed mainly throughout the north and east of the country, the biggest and most impressive of them being found in the four great Neolithic “cemeteries” of the Boyne, Loughcrew (both in County Meath), Carrowkeel and Carrowmore (both in County Sligo). The most famous of them is Newgrange, a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest astronomically aligned monuments in the world. It was built around 3200 BC. At the Winter Solstice the first rays of the rising sun still shine through a light-box above the entrance to the tomb and illuminate the burial chamber at the centre of the monument. Another of the Boyne megaliths, Knowth, contains the world’s earliest map of the moon carved into stone.
*Portal tombs - These tombs include the well known “dolmens.” Most of them are to be found in two main concentrations, one in the southeast of the country and one in the north. The Knockeen and Gaulstown Dolmens in Co. Waterford are exceptional examples.
*Wedge tombs - The largest and most widespread of the four groups, the wedge tombs are particularly common in the west and southwest. County Clare is exceptionally rich in them. They are the latest of the four types and belong to the end of the Neolithic. They are so called from their wedge-shaped burial chambers.

The theory that these four groups of monuments were associated with four separate waves of invading colonists still has its adherents today, but the archaeological evidence does not really support this point of view. It is much more satisfying to regard the megaliths as native expressions of an international practice. The growth in population that made them possible need not have been the result of colonisation: it may simply have been the natural consequence of the introduction of agriculture.

At the height of the Neolithic the population of the island was probably in excess of 100,000, and perhaps as high as 200,000. But there appears to have been an economic collapse around 2500 BC, and the population declined for a while. By this time, metallurgy was already established in the country.

Bronze Age (2500 BC - 700 BC)

The Bronze Age properly began once copper was alloyed with tin to produce true Bronze artifacts, and this took place around 2000 BC, when some Ballybeg flat axes and associated metalwork was produced. The period preceding this, in which Lough Ravel and most Ballybeg axes were produced, which is known as the Copper Age or Chalcolithic, commenced about 2500 BC. Bronze was used for the manufacture of both weapons and tools. Swords, axes, daggers, hatchets, halberds, awls, drinking utensils and horn-shaped trumpets are just some of the items that have been unearthed at Bronze Age sites. Irish craftsmen became particularly noted for the horn-shaped trumpet, which was made by the "cire perdue", or lost wax, process. These are found in many places throughout Europe; there is a representation of one lying by the side of the famous “Dying Gaul” by the Greek sculptor Epigonus.

Copper used in the manufacture of bronze was mined in Ireland, chiefly in the southwest of the country, while the tin was imported from Cornwall in Britain. The earliest known copper mine in these islands was located at "Ross Island", at the Lakes of Killarney in County Kerry; mining and metalworking took place there between 2400 and 1800 BC. Another of Europe’s best-preserved copper mines has been discovered at Mount Gabriel in County Cork, which was worked for several centuries in the middle of the second millennium. Mines in Cork and Kerry are believed to have produced as much as 370 tonnes of copper during the Bronze Age. As only about 0.2% of this can be accounted for in excavated bronze artifacts, it is surmised that Ireland was a major exporter of copper during this period.

Ireland is also rich in native gold, and the Bronze Age saw the first extensive working of this precious metal by Irish craftsmen. More Bronze Age gold hoards have been discovered in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe. Irish gold ornaments have been found as far afield as Germany and Scandinavia. In the early stages of the Bronze Age these ornaments consisted of rather simple crescents and disks of thin gold sheet. Later the familiar Irish torque made its appearance; this was a collar consisting of a bar or ribbon of metal, twisted into a screw and then bent into a loop. Gold earrings, sun disks and lunulas (crescent “moon disks” worn around the neck) were also made in Ireland during the Bronze Age.

One of the most distinctive types of European pottery, Beaker or Bell-Beaker ware, made its appearance in this country during the Bronze Age. This was quite different from the finely made, round-bottomed pottery of the Neolithic. Beaker ware was once thought to be associated with a particular culture - the Beaker Folk - whose arrival there supposedly coincided with the introduction of metallurgy. But this view is no longer tenable: there were no Beaker Folk, and metallurgy was well established in Ireland long before the appearance of Beaker ware. Irish Beaker ware was of local manufacture and its appearance is evidence of foreign influence rather than foreign invasion.

Smaller wedge tombs continued to be built throughout the Bronze Age, but the grandiose passage graves of the Neolithic were abandoned for good. Towards the end of the Bronze Age the single-grave cist made its appearance. This consisted of a small rectangular stone chest, covered with a stone slab and buried a short distance below the surface. Numerous stone circles were also erected at this time, chiefly in Ulster and Munster.

During the Bronze Age, the climate of Ireland deteriorated and extensive deforestation took place. The population of Ireland at the end of the Bronze Age was probably in excess of 100,000, and may have been as high as 200,000. It’s possible that it was not much greater than it had been at the height of the Neolithic.

Iron Age

The Irish Iron Age begins around the 7th century BC, with early Celtic influence. The extent to which this influence appeared through invasion, or alternatively through other forms of cultural diffusion, is a matter of some dispute. Adoption of Celtic culture and language was a likely a gradual transformation, brought on by cultural exchange with Celtic groups in the mainland or otherwise southwest continental Europe.

The Celtic languages of Britain and Ireland can be divided into two groups: P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. When written records first appear in the fifth century, Gaelic or Goidelic (a Q-Celtic language) is found in Ireland, while Brythonic (a P-Celtic language) is found in Britain. At one time, it was natural to assume that Ireland had been invaded by Q-Celts and Britain by P-Celts.

DNA studies suggest that the influx of populations genetically distinct from the pre-Indo-European inhabitants was very limited. The Y-chromosomes of the modern Irish, characterized by the M343 mutation that defines the R1b Haplogroup (dominant, in variant degrees, from Iberia to Scandinavia), are closely related to those of Iberian population (Portugal and Spain), particularly those of the Basques, which has led some anthropologists to surmise that the Basques are a remnant of the pre-Indo-European population of western Europe, and that the pre-Celtic language (or languages) of Ireland may have been related to Euskara, the Basque tongue. (See Celt, Celtiberians or Galicia (Spain) for a discussion of the so-called “Celtic problem.”)Bryan Sykes, in his book "Blood of the Isles" (2006), states: :...the presence of large numbers of Jasmines’s Oceanic clan, says to me that there was a very large-scale movement along the Atlantic sea board north from Iberia, beginning as far back as the early Neolithic and perhaps even before that. The number of exact and close matches between the maternal clans of western and northern Iberia and the western half of the Isles is very impressive, much more so than the much poorer matches with continental Europe. [...] :The genetic evidence shows that a large proportion of Irish Celts, on both the male and female side, did arrive from Iberia at or the same time as farming reached the Isles. (pp. 280-282)

The Celtic scholar T. F. O'Rahilly proposed a model of Irish prehistory, based on his study of the influences on the Irish language and a critical analysis of Irish mythology. His ideas, though extremely influential, are no longer universally accepted. O'Rahilly distinguished four separate waves of Celtic invaders:
*The Cruithne or Priteni ("c." 700 - 500 BC)
*The Builg or Érainn ("c." 500 BC)
*The Lagin, the Domnainn and the Gálioin ("c." 300 BC)
*The Goidels or Gael ("c." 100 BC)

The Gaelic conquest of Ulster

In Ireland contemporary written records only go back to 431 AD. The Gaelic king of Tara known as "Niall Noígiallach", or Niall of the Nine Hostages, is the earliest historical figure whose historicity is in general acceptance, and of whom we know more than a few meagre details. According to extant records his father Eochu Mugmedón was a king of Tara and ruler of the kingdom of Meath (although the territory of the Midland Gael only came to be known as Meath several centuries later).

Niall succeeded his father around 400 AD and is said to have ruled for twenty-seven years. His reign marks the rise of Tara as the dominant power in the country. The origin of this power was the conquest of Ulster, the culmination of centuries of conflict between the Gael of Tara and the Ulaid of Emain Macha. This conflict is reflected in the mythical cycle known as the Ulster Cycle, which includes the Irish national epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge.

The Gaelic conquest of Ulster was undertaken chiefly by three of Niall's sons, Conall Gulban, Eógan and Énda, who were rewarded with three subkingdoms in the west of the newly conquered province. As a direct result of the conquest, Ulster was reorganized into three overkingdoms:

*Ulidia, in the east, covered most of the modern counties Antrim and Down. It was ruled by the Dál nAraidi, a native Cruthnian dynasty that had sided with the Niall in the war. The Ulaid or Dál Fiatach, who had been the dominant power in Ulster for centuries, were overthrown; their royal seat at Emain Macha was destroyed, and they were driven eastward into County Down. The Gaelic conquest also had a significant impact on Scottish history. One of the Ernean tribes of Ulster that had been reduced to vassalage by Niall were the Dál Riata, whose traditional territory was in the northeast of the country. Following their overthrow, some of the Dál Riada crossed the sea and colonised Argyll. In the course of time this colony became the dominant power in northern Britain. The Kingdom of Scotland was created in the ninth century by the union of Dál Riada and the native kingdom of the Picts.
*Airgialla (sometimes Anglicized as Oriel), in the centre of Ulster, covered much of counties Armagh, Coleraine (Londonderry), Fermanagh, Louth, Monaghan and Tyrone. This kingdom was actually a confederacy of nine sub-kingdoms, each of which was ruled by a native dynasty that had been reduced to vassalage by Niall's conquest. In order to ensure their loyalty to him, these were obliged to send prominent members of their families to Tara as hostages. Hence the name "Airgialla", which means 'hostage-givers'. This is also presumably the origin of Niall's epithet "Noígiallach", or 'of the Nine Hostages.'
*Ailech, or "Aileach", in the west, was co-extensive with the present county of Donegal. At first it consisted of three sub-kingdoms, "Tír Eógain", "Tír Chonaill" and "Tír Énda", but Tír Énda was conquered by Conall's descendants and incorporated into Tír Chonaill (although descendants of Énda continued to hold territories both there and in the Midlands). The two remaining kingdoms later increased in size and prominence, and their names have been preserved in the Gaelic names of two of the modern counties of Ulster: Donegal and Tyrone. Ailech was ruled for about eight centuries by the descendants of Conall and Eógan, collectively known as the Northern Uí Néill, and also provided numerous High Kings of Ireland. The capture (around 425) of Ailech, the royal seat which became the capital of the Northern Uí Néill and from which the kingdom takes its modern name, marked the end of the Gaelic conquest of Ulster.

After his death Niall was succeeded as king of Tara by his son Lóegaire mac Néill, during whose reign Roman Christianity was officially introduced into the country. Niall of the Nine Hostages has the distinction of being the ancestor of all but two of the long line of kings of Ireland who ruled from the fifth century down to the time of Brian Bórú in the early eleventh century.


ee also

*Settlement of Great Britain and Ireland
*Genetic history of the British Isles
*Prehistoric Britain
*Atlantic Bronze Age

External links

* [http://www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/article_details.php?id=7817 Myths of British and Irish Ancestory]

* [http://www.bbc.co.uk/scotland/whereilive/highlandsandnorthernisles/backyard/index.shtml] [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/1021508.stm]
* [http://www.rootsweb.com/~irlkik/ihm/ireclan2.htm Old Irish kingdoms and clans]
* [http://www.rootsweb.com/~irlkik/ihm/index.htm Ireland's history in maps]
* [http://www.irelandhistory.org Early Irish History]
* [http://www.libraryireland.com/SocialHistoryAncientIreland/Contents.php A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland by P. W. Joyce]

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