In the Beginning
…… there was ice. In the last great Ice Age, Ireland was covered in rock-crushing sheets of ice over a kilometer thick. As the great masses of ice started to melt and drift into the sea, the landscape was scoured, eradicating any remaining evidence of possible earlier human activity.
The earliest known settlements, then, date from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period, from about 8000 – 7000BC. These earliest people were hunter-gatherers, living on shellfish, fish, birds, wild boar, nuts, and berries. They lived in small camps around the coast or along lake and river banks, as the interior of the country was covered in dense forest. They used sharp flakes of flint wedged in wooden shafts as harpoons and arrows, and also as knives and scrapers. We can tell from post holes that their shelters were circular, formed of branches bent inwards to form a dome, with a fire pit dug into the earth in the centre of the hut. Little else is known of these mysterious figures who populated the country for about 4,000 years. The spreading of new technologies across Europe and the arrival of new settlers to Ireland heralded the end of the Mesolithic and the dawn of a new age – the Neolithic (New Stone Age).
The New Stone Age was marked by the introduction to Ireland of a whole new way of life: the domestication of cattle and pigs and the planting of wheat and barley allowed for the development of settled communities; large axes were used to fell trees for land clearance; rudimentary clay pots were fired in open hearths; and the first megalithic tombs appeared on the landscape. Territorial boundaries are evidenced by defensive ditches and embankments, and trade and exchange between different tribal groups became more widespread.
The Bronze Age
With the introduction of bronze in about 2000BC, life in Ireland was again to undergo a radical change. The Bronze Age smiths became expert at the production not just of high quality bronze tools, they also became masters in manufacturing highly decorated gold ornamentation and personal jewellery. We know from the amount of weapons discovered and from the increase in skeletal combat-wounds that a warrior class developed, reflecting the evolution of new hierarchical structures. As societal organisation developed, a new elite class arose, who could demonstrate their wealth and their power with finely worked bronze swords or gold torcs. Religious beliefs changed too: stone circles and alignments, standing stones, large earthen enclosures were constructed, and the giant tombs of the Neolithic replaced by wedge tombs
The Iron Age
The Iron Age, from c. 500BC to 500AD, saw the arrival of the Celts, with their mastery of a new metal – iron. Ringforts, small defended homesteads, appeared in their tens of thousands. Celtic art appeared, as seen in the fabulous swirls and designs on the Turoe stone. Poets, druids, and warriors assumed exalted status. The Celts brought with them their legal system (the Brehon laws), their language and their love of storytelling.. The latter two have (barely) survived invasions and time, and Ireland is still seen today as the last bastion of Celtic culture.
Early Medieval Ireland
Catholicism was the first of the AD invaders and was spreading by the end of the 4th Century / start of the 5th Century. Early saints such as Columcille, Brigit, Enda, Finnian established religious centres which in time grew to be sizeable settlements and attracted the attention of marauding Vikings. The Vikings, although they are first recorded in the Annals in 795, didn’t settle in Ireland until 840, and by 950 they had founded the first Irish towns: Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Waterford. Although they did suffer major military defeats in 902 and in 1014, the disappearance of the Vikings from the scene
was primarily a result of assimilation – through marriage and through trade, they became a part of our society. Hardly had they sat down, however, when the Anglo Normans arrived in 1169.
For 500 years, the Norman conquest was confined largely to the area around Dublin, known as the Pale. Those Normans who took up residence in the rest of the country (such as the Burkes, Butlers, Fitzgeralds, deMandevilles, etc) gradually adopted local ways and became “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. The landing of Oliver Cromwell and his army, however, brought about the subjugation of the nation, culminating in the Act of Union with Britain in 1801. Destitution, slavery and death were the lot of the Gael (including the Great Hunger of 1845-49) and rebellions occurred sporadically in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries and again in 1916. A Free State was ceded by Britain following a War of Independence (1919-1921), although her interests were protected by fomenting a Civil War in which the radical republicans were defeated by the British-backed conservatives. In 1949, Ireland formally left the British Commonwealth and was declared an independent republic.
I may have skipped a bit here and there , and I will in future blogs be returning to particular aspects or events that warrant attention….