Discovering Irish History

Discovering Irish History


Just as each period of Irish history has helped to make the people of Ireland what they are today, so the landscape bears the marks of succeeding generations. Each new wave of immigrants has altered and added to Irish culture, but at the same time has been assimilated by the native population. Much of the past has perished, but much remains – whether deliberately preserved or not – and the imaginative observer can sense the former environments in which historic events took place.

Pre-Christian Ireland

‘Giants’ Graves’

The name is popularly applied to the different types of megalithic 9large-stone) chambered graves of the Neolithic Age. the most interesting are the passage-graves of north central Ireland, with notable examples in the Boyne valley at Newgrange. Knowth and Dowth. A central burial chamber is reached through a passage, and there is a covering cairn of earth or stones. Newgrange, open t the public, has a number of intricately carved stones. Gallery-graves are found throughout Ireland, and consists of a long chamber, often divided into compartments, with a longish cairn above. Some northern ones are known as court-graves or horned cairns because of a semicircular forecourt formed by upright stones. Others are known as wedge-graves, being slightly wider at the entrance, and there are many of these in limestones Burren area of County Clare. Dolmens, in which a heavy capstone is upheld by three or ore standing stones, are commonest in the north. they are also known as portal-graves.

Stone circles

These consist of upright stones arranged in a circle, and many date from the Bronze Age. There are a number at Lough Gur in County Limerick. Some seem to be primitive observatories designed to measure the longest and shortest days of the year, but none is as dramatic as Stonehenge in England.

Standing stones

These are single vertical stones, sometimes 20ft high. Some mark ancient graves, some were erected comparatively recently as rubbing-stones for cattle. Two unusual round-topped stones are at Turoe, County Galway, and Castlesstrange, County Roscommon. They are decorated with curving patterns of the La Tene Celtic style. Later stones bear inscriptions carved in Ogham script, a simple form of lettering consisting of strokes at right angles or diagonal to a central line. This early form of writing continued in commemorative monuments well into the Christian period.

Round cairns

The typical Bronze Age grave was a small stone-lined compartment or cist, covered by a small cairn of stones. These cairns are a familiar sight on hilltops throughout Ireland, whereas many of the larger Neolithic cairns on lower ground have had their stones re-used for walls and houses.

Forts and raths

There is little evidence of Iron Age burials, but great numbers of the circular banks and raths which probably contained a farmhouse and kept animals from straying. Raths are seldom much more than 100ft in diameter where there is a single bank, but in some cases there are two or three banks with intervening ditches. Where siol in thin, the rath tends to be supplanted by the cashel, which has dry stone walls. A common feature of both raths and cashels is the souterrain or underground passage, which may have been used to store food or as a place of refuge. A similar form of dwelling is the crannog, an artificial island constructed in shallow lakes or marshes. Raths are sometimes called ring-forts, but the term fort is better applied to hill-forts such as Navan, County Armagh, and Tara, County Meath, where royal residences were protected by earthern ramparts. There are also substantial stone forts such as Dun Aengus in the Aran Islands, which has four defensive walls and a defensive outer perimeter of upright stones (known as chevaux de frise). There are also a number of promontory forts, mostly on the coast but sometimes on high ground inland, where cliffs provide natural protection on three sides. A good example is at Dunbeg, County Kerry.

Weapons and ornaments

The National Museum in Dublin has an excellent collection of metalwork from the Bronze and Iron Ages. The most distinctive weapons is the leaf-shaped sword from the Late Bronze Age, and the socketed leaf-shaped spearhead belongs to the same period. A wide range of gold ornaments includes lunulae (necklets of beaten gold), torcs (armlets or necklets of twisted gold) and finely decorated items like the Broighter Collar from County Londonderry.


The Coming of Christianity

Monastic sites

The first Christian monasteries were simple structures built of wood or clay and wattle, and have not survived. However, a good idea of their simple layout can be gained from stone-built monasteries in the west. A good early example is the island of Skelling Michael, off the coast of County Kerry, where there are six small clochans (beehive-shaped cells), as well as oratories, stone crosses and the remains of a church. The Dingle peninsula, farther north in County Kerry, is rich in monastic sites. Among them is a perfectly preserved oratory, shaped like an upturned boat, at Gallarus, dating possibly from the eighth century.

Celtic crosses

The earliest crosses were simply engraved on upright pillars, some of which bear Ogham markings. The pillars began to take the form of simple crosses, as at Carndonagh, County Donegal, dating possibly from the late sixth or early seventh century. There were also cross-slabs, flat slabs of stone delicately engraved with crosses and placed on graves. These probably date from the seventh to twelfth centuries, and there is a fine collection on display at Clonmacnois, County Offaly. The finest flowering of Celtic sculptures was the Irish high Cross, in which a circle surrounds the point of intersection. The earliest of these crosses have geometric patterns, but by the ninth century biblical scenes are common. Among the finest High Crosses, dating to the tenth century, are the Cross of the Scriptures at Conmacnois, the Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice, County Louth, and the Cross of Moone, County Kildare.

Round towers

The earliest stone churches were simple buildings, probably very similar in shape to their wooden predecessors. Many were stone-roofed, and an interesting feature is the stone arch which supports the steeply pitched roof and at  the same time creates an attic room above main body of the church, which also has an arched ceiling. Good examples are St Kevin’s Kitchen at Glendalough, County Wicklow, and Cormac’s Chapel at Cashel, County Tipperary. More famous, however, are the tall Round Towers found at many monastic sites. These were built during the tenth to twelfth centuries after the Viking invasions, and were places of refuge as well as watch towers and belfries. The entrance is well above ground level, and movable ladders allowed the monks to retreat to higher floors of the tapering towers, some well over 100ft high. In some cases only the stump of the original tower remains, but there are well preserves examples at Ardmore, County Waterford, and at Antrim.

Celtic metalwork

The intricate but dignified design of the High Crosses was paralleld in the metalwork of the period, of which the best examples are in the National Museum in Dublin. The Ardagh Chalice is made of silver and decorated with glass studs and delicate gold filigree. It belongs to the eighth century, as does the Tara Brooch, which consisists of a decorated silver ring with an ornamented pin. Another treasure is the Moylough Belt Reliquary, a bronze shrine probably made to hold a saint’s belt. The museum has a number of crosiers from the eleventh and twelfth centuries, of which the best preserved is the Lismore Crosier. also from the twelfth century are the Shrine of Saint Patrick’s Bell and the glorious Cross of Cong, a shrine made to hold a fragment of the True Cross. It is made of oak, encased in silver and copper and decorated in gold and gilt bronze, with a large quartz crystal at the centre.

illuminated manuscripts

Surviving manuscripts are illustrated in the same distinctive Celtic style as the High Crosses and the metalwork. The finest of the illuminated gospel books, laboriously compiled by monks, are the seventh-century Book of Durrow and the eighth-century Book of Kells, both in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.

The European monasteries

The twelfth century saw the arrival of Cistercian monks from the continent, soon to be followed by Augustinians, Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans. The older Irish foundations soon yielded to the newcomers, whose better ordered lives were reflected in the well planned architecture of their monasteries. Although succeeding centuries brought ravages and neglect, the ruins of these medieval buildings are among Ireland’s most impressive monuments. There are good examples of Cistercian monasteries at Mellifont, County Louth, Jerpoint, County Kilkenny, and Inch, County Down. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries also saw the building of many cathedrals. Some are still in use, with substantial rebuilding, as at Kilkenny, Limerick and Clonfert, County Galway. others, such as Cormac’s Cathedral at Cashel, County Tipperary, are in ruins.


The (French) Normans


The first Norman fortifications were wooden towers built on artificial mounds or mottes, with an enclosure or bailey at the foot of the mound. Many of these mounds remain, as at Granard, County Lnogford, but the motte-and-bailey soon gave way to substantial stone castles. The main period of castle building lasted from the late twelfth to the early fourteenth century. The typical castle had a central tower or keep, which might or might not be embodoed in the surrounding walls. The keep might be retangular, circular or (a contrast to Norman castles elsewhere) retangular with a circular tower at each corner. Good examples of the retangular keep are Carrickfergus Castle, County Antrim, where the keep forms part of the wall, and Trim Castle, County Meath, where it does not. Nenagh Castle, Couty Tipperary, has a fine round keep. The best preserved towered keep is at Ferns, county Wexford. Some Norman castles, including those at Dublin, Kilkenny and Limerick, were built without keeps. The later keepless castles tend to have substantial towers protruding outwards from the walls, as well as a pair of towers protecting the main entrance. There is an excellent example at Roscommon.

Tower houses

After more than a hundred years, during which there was little major building, there was a revival in the middle of the fifteenth century. Typical of the following 150 years, and both numerous and widespread, is the tower house. This fortified residence is usually rectangular in shape, rising to crenellated parapets sometimes with one or more projecting turrets. Tower houses are sometimes known as ’10 pound castles’ for Henry VI introduced a subsidy in 1429 to encourage the defence of the Pale. There are good examples at Clara, county Kilkenny, and Roodstown, County Louth. both have a ‘murder hole’ over the entrance, allowing defeners above to assail unwelcome visitors. A few towers are circular, including Reginald’s Tower in Waterford, which now houses a museum. Tower houses normally had a fortified enclosure or bawn attached to them.


The Plantations

The Tudor and Stuart period brought the construction of more comfortable residences, with fewer storeys and more windows, yet better designed for defence than their English counterparts. they were still known as castles and usually had a gabled rectangular block with square towers at each corner. A good example is at Monkstown, County Cork. It was common to add a house to an earlier towere, as at Loughmoe, County Tipperary. In Donegal Castle a fine Jacobean wing with many gables has been grafted on to a much renovated tower buily by the O’Donnells.

Under the terms of the Ulster Plantation, English and Scottish settlers were required to provide bawns and in some cases strong houses or castles, and Scottish architectural influences are strong. Typical are the round corbelled turrets with conical roofs, such as occur at Ballygally Castle in County Antrim. Most of the plantation castles were destroyed in the 1641 rebellion, and thereafter there was little attempt to build fortified resisdences. Similarly the development of heavy artillery meant the end of building traditional castles. Ormond Castles at Carrack-on-Suir, County Tipperary, is one of the earliest examples of an Elizabethan mansion not built for defence. The best preserved Elizabethan town house is Rothe house in Kilkenny, built in 1594.

The star-shaped fort was developed in the seventeenth century to meet the challenge of artillery. Heavy earthworks form a strong outer perimeter, which is further guarded by the pointed bastions which give the fort its shape. A good example is at Charlemont, County Armagh. The first fortifications were erected during Mountjoy’s campaign of 1602, the star fort being completed in 1624, and outer earthworks added in 1673. Another example is Charles fort near Kinsale, County Cork.


Georgian Ireland

The big house

William of Orange’s victories in Ireland preceded a century of peace, and from about 1720 onwards this was reflected in the ambitious building ventures of properous landlords. Labour was cheap, and the owners of vast demesnes could afford to import building materials and employ the finest architects to create the ‘big houses’ that symbolised the Protestant ascendancy. One of the earliest was Castletown house near Celbridge, County Kildare. Built around 1722 for the Speaker of the Irish Commons, William Conolly, it consists of a three-storey central block linked by curving colonnades to side wings. The Palladian exterior and the rococo interier are typical of the eighteenth century, and the house now forms the headquarters of the Irish Georgian society. Powerscourt, near Enniskerry, couty Wicklow, is another fine house of the period, with magnificent terraced gardens added in the nineteenth century. The architect of Powerscourt, Richard Cassels, was also responsible for Westport House in County Mayo, which is open to the public. Among the houses built later in the century, Castle Coole near Enniskillen, Couty Fermanagh, is owned by the National Trust. The classical Georgian facades eventually gave way to Gothic-revival styles. Castleward house, near Strangford, county down, was built about 1765 and has one Palladian front and Gothic front.

Dublin and other cities

The eighteenth century was Dublin’s golden age, and many noble buildings were erected. The population grew rapidly, and the city spread into graceful squares bounded by stately terraces whose interiors were handsomely adorned by stucco workers, woodcarvers and other craftsmen. Parliament house was completed in 1739, enlarged later in the century, and after the Union became the Bank of Ireland. Nearby Leinster House was designed by Cassels for the Earl of Kildare. It was begun in 1745, looks more a country house than a town house, and was later occupied for more than a century by the Royal Dublin Society before it was purchased for the modern Irish parliament. Behind Leinster House is Merrison Square, most beautiful of the Dublin squares and second in size only to St Stephen’s Green. Trinity College was largely reconstructed in the eighteenth century and little of the earlier buildings remain. The parliamentary independence of the last two decades of the century was accompanied by further architectural masterpieces in Dublin. The outstanding architect was James Gandon, whose work includes the Custom House, the Four courts and the Kings Inns.


The Nineteenth Century

The cataclysmic event of the nineteenth century was the great famine of the 1840s, and it has left its mark on the landscape in different ways. emigration and death reduced the rural population substantially, and in western areas in particular one can see traces of fields once cultivated and derelict cottages. At this period there were still parts where the rundale or open-field system survived, and land held in common was re-allocated annually in small and inefficient plots. The famine opened the way to the consolidation of holdings, as had occurred elsewhere. The clachans or clusters of peasant houses began to diseppear, and ‘strip farms’ became common, each stretching from the mountain pasture to the lowland bog. Fields now left to grass often reveal the shape of the ‘lazy-beds’ or ridges in which potatoes were grown. The relief works of the famine period included roads, harbours and even the substantial walls which commonly surround demesnes.

The nineteenth century also saw a growing contrast between Ulster and the other Irish provinces. Perhaps because there was already a domestic linen industry. Ulster seized the opportunities of the Industrial Revolution, and its new mills and shipyards brought with them terraces of cheap housing. Belfast is essentially a Victorian city, and few eighteenth-century buildings survive. The subsequent decline of the linen industry is marked by empty red-brick mills in many towns and villages of Ulster.


Important Dates

432     St Patrick’s mission to Ireland.

563     St Columcille founds monastery of Iona.

590     St Columbanus sails to France.

c650   Book of Durrow.

795     First Viking raids on Ireland.

c800  Book of Kells.

841     Dublin founded by Vikings.

1002  Brian Boru acknowledged High King.

1014   Brian killed as he defeats Norsemen at Clontarf.

1066   Battle of Senlac Ridge/Battle of Hastings by the French-Normans Conquest/Crusade of England starts by the usurper Duke of Normandy

1152    Synod of Kells.

1169    Norman invasion of Ireland begins (The Marcher lord Strongbow was asked to come over and conquer Ireland for the deposed King of Leinster).

1171    Henry II lands at Waterford. (the Pope gives Ireland to him).

1175    Treaty of Windsor.

1215    Magna Carta signed by King John at Runnymeade, Berkshire, England.

1315-18 Bruce invasion.

1318    Battle of Faughart: Edward Bruce killed.

1366    Statutes of Kilkenny.

1394-5 First visit of Richard II.

1399    Second visit of Richard II.

1455    Wars of the Roses begin in England. A civil war by soldiers who had come home after the end of the Hundred Years War with France.

1477-1513  Rule of Garret more, the great Earl of Kildare.

1492   Columbus sails to America.

1494-5  Poynings’ parliament.

1534    Rebellion of Silken Thomas.

1541     Irish parliament confirms Henry VIII as King of Ireland.

1569-73 First Desmond rebellion.

1579-83 Second Desmond rebellion.

1586    Plantation of Munster.

1588    Defeat of Spanish Armada by Queen Elizabeth I.

1591     Foundation of Trinity College, Dublin.

1594     Rebellion of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone.

1598     Battle of the Yellow Ford.

1601     Battle of Kinsale: O’Neill defeated.

1603     Treaty of Mellifont.

1609     Plantation of Ulster.

1618-48 Thirty Years’ War in Europe.

1633-40 Sir Thomas Wentworth lord deputy.

1641    Ulster rising begins.

1642    English Civil War begins.

1642    Confederation of Kilkenny formed.

1646    Battle of Benburb.

1649    Charles I executed.

1649    Oliver Cromwell captures Drogheda and Wexford.

1652    Land confiscation begins.

1660   Charles II restored to throne.

1681    Oliver Plunkett executed in London.

1689    Siege of Londonderry.

1690    William III-William of Orange wins Battle of the Boyne.

1691     Treaty of Limerick, followed by land confiscation.

1695     Beginning of penal laws against Catholics.

1720     Act declares British parliament’s right to legislate for Ireland.

1724     Jonathan Swift’s Drapier’s Letters.

1776     American Declaration of Independence.

1779     Volunteers parade in Dublin: trade restrictions repealed.

1782     Convention of Volunteers at Dungannon: Irish parliamentary independence conceded.

1789     French Revolution begins.

1791      Society of United Irishmen formed.

1792-3  Catholic Relief Acts ease penal laws.

1795      Orange Order founded in County Armagh.

1798      United Irishmen’s rising fails: Wolfe Tone commits suicide.

1800      Acts of Union passed: end of Gratton’s Parliament.

1801      Union of Great Britain and Ireland begins.

1803     Robert Emmet’s rising fails.

1815      Battle of Waterloo.

1823     Daniel O’Connell forms Catholic Association.

1828     O’Connell wins Clare by-election.

1829     Catholic emancipation attained.

1831      National education system established.

1832      Great Reform Act at Westminster.

1837      Queen Victoria’s reign begins.

1840      Thomas Davis founds the Nation.

1843      Repeal meeting at Clontarf banned.

1845-9  Potato famine causes death, hardship, emigration.

1848     Young Irelands’ rising fails.

1854     Crimean War begins.

1858     Fenian movement founded.

1861-5  American Civil War.

1867    Fenian rising fails: ‘Manchester martyrs’ executed.

1869    Church of Ireland disestablished.

1870    Gladstone’s first Land Act: Isaac Butt forms Home Government Association.

1873    Home Rule League Association.

1879    Michael Davitt forms Irish National Land League: land war begins.

1880    Charles Stewart Parnell elected leader of irish parliamentary party.

1881     Gladstone’s second Land Act: Parnell imprisoned.

1882    Lord Frederick Cavendish assassinated in Dublin.

1884    Gaelic Athletic Association founded.

1886    Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill defeated: rioting in Belfast.

1889    Parnell cited in divorce case.

1891     Death of Parnell.

1893     Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill defeated: more rioting in Belfast: Gaelic League founded.

1899     Irish Literary Theatre founded.

1904     Abbey Theatre opened.

1905     Arthur Griffith founds Sinn Fein movement: Ulster Unionist Council formed to fight Home Rule.

1912     Ulster Covenant signed.

1913    Formation of Ulster Volunteer force, Irish Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers.

1914    Curragh ‘mutiny’: gun-running by UVF and Irish Volunteers: Government of Ireland Act suspended after receiving royal assent.

1914-18 World War I.

1916   Easter rising fails: its leaders are executed.

1917   Russian Revolution.

1918   Sinn Fein wins majority of Irish seats at Westminster.

1919   First Dail eireann meets in Dublin, Eamon de Valera later becoming president: War of independence begins.

1920   Government of Ireland Act provides for seperate parliaments in Northern and Southern Ireland.

1921   Truce followed by Anglo-Irish Treaty.

1922  Treaty approved by Dail Eireann: establishment of Irish Free State followed by Civil War.

1923   Civil War ends.

1925   Report of boundary commission remains unpublished: triparite agreement confirms existing border between northern Ireland and Irish Free State.

1927   De Valera and Fianna Fail party enter Dail.

1932   De Valera gains power.

1937    New constitution for Irish Free State.

1939   Irish Free State remains neutral during World War II.

1939-45 World War II.

1949   Republic of Ireland inaugurated.

1956-62 IRA campaign in Northern Ireland.

1965   Prime ministers Sean Lemass and Terence O’Neill meet in attempt to improve North-South relations.

1968   Civil rights march in Londonderry banned: sectarian disturbances in Northern Ireland become increasingly serious.

1969   British troops called in to maintain peace in Northern Ireland.

1970   IRA begins campaign of violence in North.

1972   British government suspends Northern Ireland parliament and government.

1973   Republic of Ireland and United Kingdom enter European Econimic Community.


Further Reading

Beckett, J. C.  A Short History of Ireland (4th edition, 1971) / The Making of Modern Ireland (1966)

Curtiss Edmund.  A Short History of Ireland (6th edition, 1950).

Edwards, R. Dudley.  A New History of Ireland (1972).

Kee, Robert.  The Green Flag (1972).

Lyons, F. S. L.  Ireland since the Famine (1971).

Moody, T. W. and Martin, F. X.  The course of Irish History (Cork 1967).