Golden age of Ireland

Golden age of Ireland

Early Christian Ireland, conventionally dated from the fourth century AD until the beginning of the Viking Age in the ninth century, saw the rise of Christianity and the creation of a literate society.

In the largely prehistoric early period missionaries such as Palladius and Patrick established the Church in Ireland, and legendary kings such as Niall of the Nine Hostages and the Three Collas were credited with creating the political landscape. In later centuries, Irish churchmen such as Columbanus and Columba were active in Gaul, in Scotland and in Anglo-Saxon England. The mixing of Irish, Pictish and Anglo-Saxon styles created the Insular style of art, represented by the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Book of Kells. Ireland's reputation for scholarship was such that many scholars travelled from Britain and from European mainland to study in Irish schools.

When compared to neighbouring Insular societies, Early Christian Ireland is extremely well documented, but these sources have not always been easy to interpret. Many questions remain unanswered and the study of Early Christian Ireland continues to produce new theories and new discoveries. Since the later nineteenth century, when scholars such as Kuno Meyer and Whitley Stokes applied an increasingly rigorous approach to the study of written sources, a great deal of new information has been extracted from the written material. New fields, such as paleobotany, have contributed to the debate, while the volume of archaeological evidence has increased.

Ptolemy's Ireland

Tribes of Ireland according to
Ptolemy's Geographia. [After Duffy, p. 15.]

Ptolemy's Geographia, written in the second century AD, gives a partial list of the tribes in Ireland some time earlier. Of the tribes listed, only two appear to have left traces in the Early Christian period, the "Voluntii", who are presumed to be the Ulaid of Ulster, and the "Auteini", who may be the Úaithni of southern Connacht. The "Iverni" are thought to have been the source of the name "Érainn". Other than these, Ptolemy's tribes have disappeared by the fifth century AD. [Charles-Edwards, p. 152; Byrne, p. 8. Older identifications, such as the the "Nagnatae" with the Fir Ól nÉchmacht of Connacht, or the "Brigantes" with various tribes in Leinster, appear to have been abandoned.] As well as these large changes to the political landscape of Ireland, the late Iron Age saw sizable changes in human activity. Following an apparent decline in population in the period from the second or first century BC onwards, confirmed the paleobotanical evidence of pollen samples, the third and fourth centuries saw a rapid recovery. [Charles-Edwards, p. 148.]

The reasons for the decline and recovery are uncertain, but it has been suggested that recovery may be linked to the purported "Golden Age" of Roman Britain in the third and fourth centuries. The archaeological evidence for trade with, or raids on, Roman Britain is strongest in northern Leinster, centred on modern County Dublin, followed by the coast of County Antrim, with lesser concentrations in the the Rosses on the north coast of County Donegal and around Carlingford Lough. [Charles-Thomas, map 8.] Inhumation burials may also have spread from Roman Britain, and had become common in Ireland by the fourth and fifth centuries. [Charles-Thomas, pp. 175–176.]

Roman sources mention raids on Britain by Saxons of north-west Germany, by Picts from Scotland and by two groups of people usually associated with Ireland, the Scotti and the Atacotti. The origins and meanings of Scotti and Atacotti is uncertain. Atacotti disappears with the Romans. Scotti means Gaels to Adomnán in the late seventh century, but not to Columbanus in the early sixth century, who uses the older term Iberi instead. The Scotti are perhaps a confederation of tribes in Ulster, and the Atacotti one in Leinster, but this is not certain. [Charles-Edwards, pp. 158–160. Origins in the Hebrides have also been suggested for the Atacotti. The Late Roman army as recorded by the Notitia Dignitatum included auxilia palatina named for the Atacotti, the normal interpretation of such names being that they were recruited from prisoners of war.]

Natural science

Cultural geography

There are very few economic centra apart from the monasteries. With few exceptions the population is dispersed among many isolated farms and a few small villages here and there. They are close to royal residences and monasteries, at important river wadings and harbours.

The citizenship of each kingdom amounted to some 5, - 20,000 persons, this gives in total about half a million at the crest of the demographic rise. It is hard to give a number of kingdoms in Ireland but educated guesses give somewhere between 50 and 100, of very different size and influence.

The five paramount kingdoms are Ulster, more or less equal to the modern Northern Ireland plus county Donegal to the west and county Cavan to the south. Furthermore Connacht, i.e. the land west of Shannon river minus County Clare. Then we have Munster which is Ireland south and west of Tipperary. Leinster consisted of the southeastern corner of the island, counties Wexford etc. Mide, the smallest.

General society

The top social layer is the nobility (nemed), in control of the main part of the cattle herd of the clan they are in charge of, the nobility of a serf clan is as a matter of course less numerous and with fewer resources than the nobility of a free clan. For since the cattle herd is more important to farming than the agriculture, the number of cattle heads is more important than acreage area. The royal family doesn’t have any more prestige than the rest of the nobility, the royal dignity is an office and not a social rank. Nobility is not personal but collective for all the extended family and it is based on blood relation – if you are closely related with the clan chieftain you automatically belong to the nobility. The blood price of a nobleman of various ranks is given under the chapter “Ranks”. Officials, higher ranking clergymen and guild aldermen are members of this upper class too, by special privilege.

First step downwards is the (boaire) who is involved in some agriculture aside of his main occupation with the clan herd, he has a blood price of five cows. He has an inalienable share in the cattle of his clan – but only for as long as he is a member of it.

Next step down is the(bothach) with a very alienable share to cattle in his clan land. Serf clans are more poor than free so there are not cattle for everyone. Serfs with no cattle eke out a hardscrabble life, always looking for seasonal employment. Life is only a little better for serfs with cattle, caring lovingly for those few cows and then struggling with a tough soil to get some sustenance out of it. For the land they are allotted by the chieftain of their master free clan serf clans are paying an annual rent fixed by negotiation, and they obey their master clan chieftain whenever it is politically needed. But as members of clans with full rights of enfranchisement their blood price is the same as free men.

Finally, at the very bottom of society, are the (mug) with a blood price of three cows. They are prisoners of war no ransom has been paid for or criminals who couldn’t pay the penalty for their crime, and their descendants. Most of them are personal servants of the lord who bought them, sometimes they engage in the most gruelling part of working life, like carrying charcoal to the smith, logging in the forest and in general doing odd unpleasant jobs. In demography they are insignificant but in economics they are a cornerstone.

ocial mobility

There are three significant exceptions opening doors through the class barriers. The simplest way upward is the clerical. The priest is a man of towering status, the supreme of them are mostly recruited from the nobility but cases where men born into servitude make a career up to the top are anything but unheard of.

The next one is the able craftsman. In every secular profession regarded as important for the kingdom there is an “ollam”, an alderman ranking well above common master craftsmen. For very many crafts are reserved for commoners, a nobleman is demoted from nobility into the non-noble sections of the clan if he demeans himself to four types of work: with spade, mallet, pitchfork and hammer. So there is all the time a little “social leakage” downwards in rank, this way up in social status isn’t simple as it is in a way “swimming against the current”. Not all crafts has any such corporate leadership, humble weavers, potters, carpenters etc. have to do without.

The last way up from ignominy is luck in war and diplomacy. Since freedom is a question of clan economy, it is possible for a serf clan chieftain to put aside resources for the golden opportunity, when the lord clan is vulnerable something useful can be offered in return for freedom afterwards, or the rival lord can be offered treason by his serfs or slaves and allegiance in return for freedom at once. Analogous, a non-noble priest, bard, brehon or brave warrior can offer services to either contestant in return for a noble girl for marriage. Likewise a lowly chieftain might be able to capture royalty for himself along the same way. In any such case it is vitally important to get rid of the social stigma connected with their background, it is a first class opportunity for an able bard to edit the genealogies to fit current political realities in return for “services”.


type = content
text = Some of this may of the section#if:| into the topic of another article, "{1}".
Please help [fullurl:FULLPAGENAME|action=edit improve this section] or discuss this issue on the talk page. ()
Christianity is introduced at the end of the 4th century. In doctrine the Irish church of the age is only different from the ordinary Roman Catholic in fine points like liturgical calendar, what is different from Catholic norm is practice, ecclesiastic law and the nature of the clerical hierarchy.

We are dealing with a basically self-contained farming society with only weak mercantile contacts outside the island. Almost all wealth comes from farming, supplied with a bit of fishing, mining and fine arts. Most of what little trade is going on is actually gifts exchange due to diplomacy and festivities. The main point with trade is in other words prestige more than profit. The one big merchandize apart from luxuries for the top people is tools and arms of iron, sold in return for this is in the first place farming products and a little gold, during the Viking age the gold disappears and mercenary service becomes the common way to earn.

The only centres of business in the early era are the monasteries. For diligent monks keep ledgers, it is they who coordinate public buying and selling. The ab of a kingdom can be called a royal treasurer too. Monasteries are storehouses for paid tribute from vassals, craftsmen’s workshop use to be in the vicinity since the monasteries are their permanent customers. It goes without saying that most monasteries are well fortified, even more so they get during the turbulent Viking Age, the wealth stored inside here is a permanent temptation to greedy bandits and to rival princes who want to erode the power of his opponent as well as increase his own too.

Public income is equal to the income of the king and ab. Primarily it can be divided in four sources: War booty, gifts, tribute and penalties, but all objects handed in can be developed at the workshops, for instance can calves be butchered and from the skin can monasteries make parchment for writing.

Farmland and grazing land is allotted according to the sum of blood price of all the clan citizenry, in multiples of about 60 acres.


All professions are part time employment, something done in addition to farming and fishing. Excepted from this rule are noblemen involved in this business.

Most crafts of importance in each kingdom have a master, an ollam, who keep an eye on the standard of his craft. At a higher level the ab can be said to be ollam for the clergy, the bard is ollam for all the clan storytellers and the brehon is the ollam for the men of law in each clan.


This is beyond doubt the most prestigious career open to a commoner man. For a priest (and a monk, the two are interchangeable) is not only an expert on the eternal affairs, he is also a diplomat, public scribe, banker, trade lord and sponsor of fine arts. The head priests, the abs, are mostly but not exclusively closely related to the king themselves. Those with no aptitude for it will hardly even make any pretence at celibacy, to the great consternation of Rome. This is not to say that monastic discipline is lax at Ireland, some abs are unflinchingly stern in their demands and there are hermits who have retired completely from this sinful world and eke out a peaceful and strenuous life high up in mountains or out at islands, often far out at sea. We know that Irish hermits settled at Faeroes and at Iceland before the Vikings, some say that they went all the way over to America.

Learned personnel of other kinds

Other professions with a demand to respect, the officials (fili), are the bard (royal poet, historian and toastmaster at enthronements and inaugurations) and the brehon (the judge who knows the laws by heart and interpret them at the public assembly when a verdict is to be given). These will often diffuse over into each other and into the clergy.


Of lower rank are various craftsmen of fine crafts, like goldsmith, wood carver, smith and physician, but their guild headmen (ollam) enjoy high respect. Even lower in esteem are the local craftsmen like carpenters, millers, boatmakers, wheelwrights, tailors etc.

Occasions for celebration

The religious holidays are self evident, some of them are pre-Christian in a thin disguise.

The rule of thumb is that all occasions when the laws are at work are occasions for festivity, whether secular or spiritual. Baptism is a de jure declaration that a lawful offspring has been sired, with the priest as head witness. The First Communion (catholic Confirmation) is a de jure declaration that this offspring now is formally adult and has been given the due rights to inheritance, sealed by the priest. Marriage is an alliance with a different clan or kingdom, rights to inheritance is exchanged in return for political support. Marriage without religious ceremony does occur, it is called “secular marriage” and is regarded as a cohabitation registered by law and can take place even if both parts are legally married otherwise, even more than one at the time… Mistresses of this kind rank mostly come from lower social class than the man and they rank in status below the wife wed by the church, the arrangement can be called a semi-polygamy, but children born to such unions are socially the equals of their brothers. The central point about marriage is not mutual faith and love between him and her but juridical contracts about alliance and cooperation.

An enthronement is a completely secular affair arranged like a secular marriage with the land itself. The priest will at most pronounce a divine blessing over the now enthroned. It always takes place at a public assembly and with the bard as master of ceremony. He initiates the ceremony by announcing that the king is either dead or has shown himself unfit for his dignity. Then the brehon will recite the laws of inheritance and explains what they imply at this opportunity, it is then for the population present to decide among the lawful candidates of each preference category. When the vote is ready the bard takes over, he commands the royal elect to mount the top of the royal stone or heap. The chain of royal predecessors back to the Celtic colonization of Ireland is then recited, the speech ends with an exhortation about what suits a good king. Then the royal elect is handed his royal cane and that is the starting point of a merry celebration with good food and strong beer, exciting music, solemn poetic recitation and humoristic storytelling, much boasting and sometimes a drunken fistfight or two.

Less solemn occasions also to be ratified by the public assembly or at least made known there is blood brotherhoods declarations, fosterage of children, verdicts from a trial at superior level, alliance treaties, office inaugurations, declarations of war, peace agreements, diplomatic receptions and presentations of diplomatic notes.

Civil administration

The king is less a civil detail administrator than the cornerstone controlling the workings of the rest of the society. He is the commander in chief of military action, he is the head of diplomatic negotiations, he redistributes various resources as needed and he is ritually responsible for the wealth of the nation – during famines his power is in jeopardy! When new officials are to be elected his words does count, like their opinions does count when a new king is to be elected – the king is the state official # 1, you see. Chieftains have the same royal power within their own clans.

Fiscal administration and social services are tasks for the clergy. His job is mainly to look after the royal cattle herd, for it is in this that the main part of the royal wealth is invested – the store of luxury gadgets is never very full. Law administration is for the public assembly to decide, but according to laws presented by the brehon and according to precedences from Bible and history presented by the priest and the bard.

Organizational structure

Every more or less influential kingdom (tuath) use to put about 700 men at a campaign, i.e. 6-8 clans. A king has better control over these men but when it is time for battle even this command is illusory. As a rule not all participating clans are equals, some clans are serfs owing their masters implicit obedience – but their allegiance is not to be trusted if an opportunity to freedom should pop up. Still this reduces the number of independent counters considerably.



Common settlement is in dispersed farms, sometimes in agglomerations (including a cattle pen for refuge – cattle is often stopping by) where there is economy for it, like fishing banks and in particular monasteries. There are few demographic centres totally independent from them.Common people’s houses are round with conical thatched roofs and wattle-on-daub or sod walls. The few noble manors are longhouses of rectangular outlay, door in the middle and gabled roofs but mostly the same building technology. The only stone houses are the monastery churches, they are small longhouses of the same plane as noble manors but built of grouted stone in the walls.


Fortresses are by law regulated to at least three in any more or less independent kingdom. They are situated on hill tops close to population and traffic hubs, and sometimes on small islets in streams, lakes and coastline – those islets are sometimes artificial “crannogs”. Fortresses are often situated so that nature itself aids the defence as much as possible. The fortresses are palisade walls around lords’ manors, sometimes with up to three concentric walls. Monasteries are also likewise fortified if they are close to people, sometimes even stronger than most fortresses because they are storages for comparatively much wealth.

Field camps are simply cattle pens for defending the valuable loot inside, in other words a hedge around.

Means of transportation

Ox-drawn carriages and wagons. Pack horses and donkeys.

Roads are the model of abject primitivity – simply paths sometimes worn down deep if the traffic along them is heavy. Very few bridges, wadings will mostly have to do.

At rivers and canoes there are dugout canoes of tree trunks. They are simple to make but will not store for anytime long – every third or fourth year a new canoe will have to be made, they are not very good at open sea so they are strictly for inshore, lake and inshore traffic, and they are slow to paddle.

At sea there are currachs, from rowing boat dimension up to two or three masts. Their construction is much like baskets covered with rawhide. Currachs are simple to make too and far more seaworthy than the canoes. Speed is quite good, up to 15 or 16 knots. They are highly seaworthy vessels but however with a main drawback when challenged by Viking ships, their rawhide hull. This can easily rupture when crashed into, consequently currachs are good vessels for transportation but when a sturdier vessel come sailing they have instantly to flee.


Key: L light infantry, C cavalry


Written Irish literature is during this period mostly tended by monks and it is overwhelmingly religious. Many books are exquisite works of art on parchment like "Book of Kells". Apart from this written literature there is the oral literature which is remembered and retold by bards. Both are utilized for educational purposes, for instance “Book of Joshua” in the Bible contains a lot about warfare. The Bible also has the advantage that it is permanent, standardized and holy, in other words well suited as a source of law.

Bards tell epic stories about the background for current state of affairs, the words are fixated by rhymes. They are like the Bible important sources for precendences for law, but they are not so fixed that it is impossible for a bard to amend the stanzae to fit with political desires of someone willing to pay well for it, to give him an advantage in controversies of the day. This jurisprudential aspect of the ancient sagas of Ireland makes them dreary and tedious to read for a modern audience, and they often dabble in gruesome detail to demonstrate humiliation and exaltation of somebody.

On the other hand there is in the opening chapters of some of them preserved a lot about pagan mythology and Irish relations before St. Patrick, preserved from oblivion for reasons of law precedence much like Norse mythology in the main has been preserved because Scandinavian poets needed to know the allusions to mythology if they were to compose poems that gained respect.



cite book
author = Alice Stopford-Green
title = History of the Irish state to 1014
publisher = Macmillan
location = London

cite book
author = William Skene
title = Celtic Scotland - A history of ancient Alban. Vol. III
publisher = David Douglas
location = Edinburgh

cite book
author = R.F. Foster (ed.)
title = The Oxford Illustrated History of Ireland
publisher = Oxford University Press
location = Oxford
isbn = 0-19-822970-4

cite book
author = Kenneth Neill
title = The Irish people. An illustrated history
publisher = Gill & Macmillan
location = Dublin
isbn = 0-7171-0915-1

cite book
author = Brian de Breffny (ed.)
title = The Irish World
publisher = Thames & Hudson
location = London
isbn = 0-500-25057-x

----Main source for the workings of civil society of the age:cite book
author = Donncha O'Corràin
title = Ireland before the Normans. The Gill history of Ireland
publisher = Gill & Macmillan
location = Dublin
isbn = 0-7171-0559-8

Main source for militaria of this age:cite book
author = David Nicolle
title = Arthur and the Anglo - Saxon wars. Men - at - Arms series 154.
publisher = Osprey
location = London
isbn =

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Golden Age (metaphor) — For the mythological meaning see Golden Age, for other uses see Golden Age (disambiguation) A golden age is a period in a field of endeavour when great tasks were accomplished. The term originated from early Greek and Roman poets who used to… …   Wikipedia

  • Golden Age of Radio (album) — Infobox Album Name = Golden Age of Radio Type = studio Artist = Josh Ritter Released = 2002 Recorded = 2000 Undercover East (drummer Darius Zelkha s house), Soundgun in Philadelphia, The Electric Cave in Portsmouth, New Hampshire Genre =… …   Wikipedia

  • Ireland — Irelander, n. /uyeur leuhnd/, n. 1. John, 1838 1918, U.S. Roman Catholic clergyman and social reformer, born in Ireland: archbishop of St. Paul, Minn., 1888 1918. 2. Also called Emerald Isle. Latin, Hibernia. a large western island of the British …   Universalium

  • Ireland — This article is about the island. For the sovereign state of the same name, see Republic of Ireland. For the constituent country of the United Kingdom, see Northern Ireland. For other uses, see Ireland (disambiguation). Coordinates …   Wikipedia

  • Golden hat — Golden hats (or Gold hats) (German: Goldhüte , singular: Goldhut ) are a very specific and rare type of archaeological artefact from Bronze Age Central Europe. So far, four such objects ( cone shaped gold hats of the Schifferstadt type ) are… …   Wikipedia

  • Age groups in Scouting and Guiding — National Scouting and Guiding organisations are divided into different age groups in order to deliver the Scouting and Guiding programmes for a full range of youth.HistoryOriginally, there was only a single section for all members of the Scouting …   Wikipedia

  • Golden Eagle — For other uses, see Golden Eagle (disambiguation). Golden Eagle Adul …   Wikipedia

  • Bronze Age — For other uses, see Bronze Age (disambiguation). Diffusion of metallurgy in western Europe. The darkest areas are the oldest. Bronze Age …   Wikipedia

  • History of Ireland — The history of Ireland begins with the first known settlement in Ireland around 8000 BC, when hunter gatherers arrived from Great Britain and continental Europe, probably via a land bridge. [cite book | last = Moody | first = T.W. Martin, F.X.,… …   Wikipedia

  • The Ireland That We Dreamed Of — is the title commonly given to the St. Patrick s Day speech made by Taoiseach of Ireland Éamon de Valera on Raidió Éireann on March 17, 1943. That year marked the 50th anniversary of the foundation of the Gaelic League (Conradh na Gaeilge), a… …   Wikipedia