A Short History of Ireland

A Short History of Ireland

Chapter One

Pre-Christian Ireland

The First Inhabitants

The first people to reach Ireland arrived in the island about 6,000BC, crossing the narrow channel between Scotland and Ulster and spreading along the coasts and up the river Bann to Lough Neagh. The Ice Age had come to an end around 1500BC. The improving climate had first allowed giant deer to roam grassland, and then dense forest had covered the island. The forest restricted the movement of the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age people, and they lived by hunting and fishing close to sea, river and lake.

Meanwhile the techniques of farming were being learned in the Middle East. The Neolithic or New Stone Age people who reached Ireland around 3500BC knew how to grow grain, to keep domestic animals for food and hides and to make pottery. Polished stone axes allowed land to be cleared for cultivation. In Ireland the newcomers naturally settled on the lighter limestone soils which were most fertile and easily cultivated. Their homes were simple, but they were built striking stone tombs for their dead.

By 1800BC the first metalworkers had reached Ireland and were exploiting copper deposits in many parts, particularly in Cork and Kerry. Much of the tin, which they also needed to make bronze, probably came from Cornwall and Spain, so there was increasing trade. Irish axes, daggers and halberds were exported to Europe, as were gold ornaments such as the crescent-shaped collar or lunula. The Late Bronze Age, which began about 1200BC, produced a distinctive leaf-shaped bronze sword, finely decorated bronze shield and a rich variety of gold ornaments, all suggesting the emergence of a warrior class.

The Celts

Around 700BC powerful tribes of iron-using warriors became established in Central Europe north of the Alps. These were the Celts, known to the classical Greek writers as Keltoi and to the Romans as Galli, and they spoke a language akin to modern Irish. Iron weapons made conquest and expansion possible, and iron implements meant that new land could be cleared for farming. The Celts spread eastwards into Asia Minor, southwards into Italy and Spain and westwards through France to Britain and Ireland.

The earliest inhabitants of Ireland remained, of course, but the Celts or Gaels imposed their authority and ultimately their language. Unlike other parts of Western Europe, Ireland remained free from invasion by the Romans. Tacitus records that the Romans general Agricola gazed across the sea from Scotland and reckoned that a single legion could subdue Ireland. However, no expedition was launched, and as Celtic society evolved it was the Irish who crossed the sea to harass a declining Roman Empire.

In subsequent centuries learned men wrote and rewrote history, compiling legends and providing important families with genealogies linking them to the leaders of the Gaelic invasion and beyond this to Adam. The most remarkable work of this kind was the twelfth-century Lebor Gabala or Book of Invasions. According to this account all but one of the earliest invaders perished in the flood. Then came an invasion from Spain led by Partholan, but his people were destroyed by a plague. A third invasion was led by Nemhedh, but his followers had to yield to a race of monsters known as Fomhoire. The Fir Bolg, agriculturalists from Greece, were supposedly the next invaders. Then came the Tuatha De Danann, the ‘tribes of the Goddess Danu’, who possessed the arts of magic and were able to defeat both the Fir Bolg and the Fomhoire. The last arrivals were the Sons of Mil, whose descendants were the Gaels. Although they defeated the Tuatha De Danann, the power of magic was such that the Gaels had to agree that Ireland be divided into two parts, above and below ground. The Tuatha De Danann took the lower part, becoming the underground ‘fairy people’ whose fairy mounds are still treated with respect by the superstitious. Written in this way the Book of Invasions managed to preserve in a Christian age some of the Celts’ pre-Christian tradition. The Celtic gods, the Tuatha De Danann, were not banished entirely from history but allowed to continue below ground level.

The Celtic Kingdoms

Celtic Ireland was divided into a number of small kingdoms or tuatha, probably more than a hundred in all, each ruled by a king or ri. A number of these rulers were also over-kings, receiving tribute from neighbouring kings. There were also kings of provinces, but the idea of a high king or ard-ri of all Ireland appears to have been a later invention. Niall of the Nine Hostages, who ruled at Tara at the beginning of the fifth century, may have been the first to claim the title of ard-ri. His descendants, the Ui Neill, were seldom able to press their claim to the high kingship in any material way.

Initially Ireland was divided into the so-called ‘five fifths of Ireland’. These corresponded to the present provinces of Ulster, Connacht, Munster and Leinster, except that north Leinster formed the province of Meath around Tara. Later, however, two additional units were formed on the borders of Ulster by the defeat of the Ulaid. These were Aileach and Airgialla.

Each king was elected from a small group of people possessing royal blood, known as the derbfine and comprising the male descendants of a common great-grand-father, four generations in all. Thus a king could be succeeded not only by a son or grandson, but by an uncle or a great-nephew.

Beneath the king were the nobles or flaithi. These were warriors and owners of cattle, and had an important role as patrons of the aes dana, the ‘men of art’, who comprised the learned classes, the poets and musicians, and the skilled craftsmen. Next came the freemen, the tillers of the soil, usually bound by contract to a nobleman. Under this contract, which could be terminated by either party, the nobleman provided protection and lent the freeman cattle to graze his land, receiving in return a rent which might consist of sacks of wheat or malt and possibly a salted pig or a young calf. There were also slaves, probably captured in war, but comparatively little is known about them, and they may not have been numerous.

Celtic society was essentially rural, but the members of a tuath or small kingdom met regularly in an assembly or oenach over which the king presided. This was an occasion also for games and sports. Horse-racing and an equivalent of the modern Irish hurling were common, and there were board-games similar to chess or draughts. Feasts took place to the accompaniment of music and story-telling. Wine was imported from the Mediterranean and beer was brewed from Irish barley.

Druids, Lawyers and Poets

In the centuries before Christianity reached Ireland the druids exercised great influence, not merely as priests but also as learned men who could judge disputes and advise kings. Their training lasted possibly a dozen years, and their traditions were passed on orally. The druids practised magic and claimed to foretell the future. They conducted public sacrifices, offering captured animals to the gods after a successful battle, and possibly there were on occasion human sacrifices. In time two other important groups emerged, the lawyers or brehons, and the poets or filidh. Christianity meant the end of the druids but the poets and lawyers continued to have an important place in Irish society.

The brehons were professional lawyers, and when disputes arose, it was to them that people turned as aribitrators, for there was no public enforcement of law. There was a complicated system of sureties to make certain that contracts were fulfilled or that the parties to an arbitration accepted its outcome.

The filidh were more than poets. In addition to composing and reciting poetry they were custodians of the history, mythology and genealogy of the Celts. In the Christian era they acquired much of the authority which had once belonged to the druids, and did much to preserve Irish tradition and learning at a time when the monasteries looked to the Continent for inspiration.

The earliest surviving Irish manuscripts are written in Latin, and are copies of the Gospels and the Psalms. The sagas of Celtic Ireland are found in much more recent vellum manuscripts, compiled in the twelfth century and later, although the language suggests they were copied from earlier works dating as far back as the ninth century. The most important manuscripts are the Book of Leinster and the Book of the Dun Cow, both from the twelfth century, and the Yellow Book of Lecan from the fourteenth century. These manuscripts contain the often heroic tales which the filidh handed down from generation to generation, and which are a blend of history, pagan belief and deliberate fiction.