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Irish History

This is a small synopsis of some of the key periods and events that have helped to shape Irish history. The dates given for the periods are approximations.


The Early Settlers

The glacial ice that shrouded Ireland up to 10,000 years ago may have eradicated any trace of earlier (pre-Ice Age) human activity in Ireland. The earliest human activity so far discovered in Ireland dates to 8000 BC, in a period known as The Mesolithic. The term ‘Mesolithic’ means ‘Middle Stone Age’.

During this period people generally had a nomadic hunter gatherer existence, and kept to rivers and coastlines. The Ireland of 8000 years ago was very different to the Ireland we know today - thick hazel scrub covered the land before it was eventually replaced by dense forest cover.

The earliest settlement site discovered in Ireland was Mount Sandel, Co. Derry. Located on the banks of the River Bann, they chose this area as it had an abundance of natural resources - trout, salmon and eels were the rich bounty of the river. And the surrounding land provided wild boar and other mammals that these early settlers hunted with stone, wood and bone tools and weapons. The archaeological excavations revealed a stone tool type known as ‘microliths‘ - these were small sharp pieces of flint, when a number of these were attached to a wooden or bone shaft using a glue made from animal sinews, they formed a serrated cutting edge.

Other important Mesolithic sites in Ireland can be found at Lough Boora, Co. Offaly and Hermitage, Co. Limerick. The stone tools of flint or chert began to evolve from being small microliths into larger flakes. And a wonderful example of the Mesolithic peoples ingenuity can be seen in the form of the Clowanstown fish traps. These are delicate wicker baskets used to trap fish, and were discovered during the archaeological investigations preceding the construction of the M3 Motorway. These fish traps are now on display at the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street.


The First Farmers

The earliest evidence of agriculture in Ireland dates to approximately 4000 BC. Where better to come face to face with the arduous life of the earliest farmers than on the windswept coast of County Mayo? Here at the Ceide Fields one can see the field walls constructed by Neolithic farmers. They labouriously cleared the dense woodland and began to domestic animals. Through millennia of climate change these stone walls became blanketed in thick layers of peat, perfectly preserving the field systems of the Neolithic period.

As well as harnessing the land, the Neolithic people of Ireland left another mark on the landscape in the form of their elaborate care of the dead. Megalithic tombs became prevalent, the term ‘Megalithic’ simply means ‘Huge Stone’, an apt name for this monument type as they usually incorporate enormous boulders or large stones. Some of the best examples of these monuments can be seen in the landscape of the Bru na Boinne (Bend of the Boyne).

Newgrange is one of the most impressive of the Irish passage tombs. The monument is aligned with the winter solstice. On and around the 21st of December, at sunrise a shaft of light from the rising sun enters the passage of the tomb through a small opening known as a roofbox. This beam of light travels along the passage before illuminating the chamber.

Approximately 10 - 15% of Irish passage tombs have some type of lunar or solar alignment, illustrating how important the changing seasons were to these early farmers, and these careful alignments are also testament to their superb surveying and construction abilities. They are also proof of how important the memory of their ancestors was. The last type of megalithic tomb constructed in Ireland were wedge tombs - these coincide with coming of a new technology that was to change Ireland forever - metalworking.


Metallurgical Marvels

Metal working began in Ireland at around 2,500 BC. The knowledge of working copper spread to Ireland from continental Europe. The earliest copper mines in Ireland can be found at Mount Gabriel, Co. Cork and Rosses Island, Co. Kerry. Early copper working produced simple flat copper axes, that were similar in shape to stone axes. Along with working copper and bronze, goldworking also became prevalent. In fact the Bronze Age could easily be known as Ireland’s First Golden Age as an unprecedented amount of golden artefacts have been discovered across the country. The earliest type of jewellery to be produced were lunulae. These are large crescent shaped sheet gold collars. It is likely that gold was sourced from the Goldmines River in Co. Wicklow, Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, or the Copper Coast in Co. Waterford.

As the Bronze Age progressed, the knowledge of metal working become more sophisticated and copper was mixed with tin to produce bronze. The golden artefacts too evolved and became more elaborate, with the appearance of gold collars and finely made torcs such as those found at The Hill of Tara.

Settlement spread across the country, and towards the end of the Bronze Age in Ireland it was clear that conflict had begun to spread across the country. This can be seen in the artefactual record with swords, rapiers, spearheads and axes, many being discovered as part of ‘hoards’, such as the Dowris Hoard which contained an amazing array of spearheads, axes, musical horns, crotals (a type of rattle), a bucket and cauldrons. Another indication of the unsettled nature of the period can be seen in the promontory forts that were becoming established at the end of the Bronze Age. Such as the majestic Dun Aonghasa


Heavy Metal

The Iron Age is often referred to as the time when the Celts arrived in Ireland. Whether this is true or not is still a matter of debate amongst archaeologists and historians as there is no clear irrefutable evidence of a Celtic invasion of Ireland. Some artefacts have been identified in Ireland as having La Tene – a Celtic style of art – such as the Broighter Hoard and the Petrie Crown (on display in the National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street), however few artefacts in the distinctive La Tene style have been discovered in Ireland. Perhaps rather than an invasion, the knowledge of Celtic artwork spread over to Ireland through trade and dispersed settlement.

It was during this time, that our famous royal sites came to prominence. However these sites often have evidence of earlier activity. The four great royal sites from the Iron Age can still be visited, these are Dun Ailinne Co. Kildare, Rathcroghan Co. Roscommon, Emain Macha (Navan Fort) Co. Armagh and the famous Hill of Tara Co. Meath.

One of the most beautiful artefacts dating to this period was discovered in a lake called Loughnashade next to Emain Macha in Co. Armagh. The Loughnashade Trumpet dates to the first century BC and is a wonderful testament to the sophistication and craft of Iron Age metalworking.

The bogs of Ireland often contain beautifully preserved artefacts and sites. Occasionally wooden trackways are discovered providing evidence of the ancient routeways of Ireland. The most famous example was found at Corlea Co. Longford. As well as artefacts, routeways and sites occasionally a more gruesome discovery can be made in the bogs of Ireland. Many of the bog bodies found in Ireland date to the Iron Age and often bear evidence of ritual killing. The amazingly preserved remains of these unfortunate souls can be viewed at The National Museum of Ireland in Kildare Street. Dublin.


The Coming of Christianity

A common misconception when considering Ireland’s remote past, is that the country existed in isolation from the rest of Europe. This was far from the case. Ireland had always had a thriving trade with the rest of the British Isles and Europe, and indeed following the Roman withdrawal from Britain in AD 410, some of the Irish tribes like the Decies took advantage of the confusion by invading and settling lands in Gwynedd and Dyfed in Wales. The Irish tribes also regularly raided the British coast to capture slaves, and it was during one of these raids that St. Patrick came to Ireland for the first time. The legend states that when he was a young man, he was captured by Irish raiders and sold into slavery. He was bought by a druid on the west coast of Ireland, who made the young Patrick watch over his sheep night and day. Eventually Patrick managed to escape and return home, but he began to suffer strange dreams and visions, instructing him to return to Ireland and convert the pagan people to Christianity. He fulfilled this by returning to Ireland and zealously converting both the high born Kings and Nobles of Ireland and the common people to Christianity. However historical records show that Patrick was not the first man to come to Ireland to convert the people to the Christian faith. A bishop known as Palladius is referenced as coming to Ireland and preaching the Word of God long before Patrick.

However Patrick is the man who gained the laurels and became Ireland’s Patron Saint. His story is intimately associated with the story of Ireland’s famous sites such as The Hill of Tara or The Rock of Cashel.

Whether Patricks story itself is fact or legend, Ireland quickly became the island of Saints and Scholars. However the Christianity practiced at this time in Ireland had its own distinct flavour in comparison to that of the rest of Christian Europe, it was its own brand of Celtic Christianity.

This is reflected in the wonderful and distinct High Crosses that can be found at early medieval ecclesiastical sites. Such as those at Clonmacnoise Co. Offaly. Generally dating from the 9th - 10th centuries these High Crosses were first and foremost a demonstration of devotion to the faith as they were large and impressive carved with elaborate devotional scenes. They were also teaching tools - used as visual aids to communicate the stories of the bible to the largely illiterate population.  

What is unusual about the Irish High Cross is the characteristic ring that surrounds the cross. This is thought to represent the sun, and renewal and rebirth into everlasting life.

Numerous influential monasteries were established across Ireland, including those at Clonmacnoise and Glendalough. Originally established by famous figures from the early church such as St. Ciaran and St. Kevin, many of these sites developed from small ascetic monastic sites into urban centers, as settlement grew around them, while others remained as isolated monastic hermitages like Skellig Michael Co. Kerry.

VIKING IRELAND (AD 795 - 1014?)

History’s Stag Party

The Vikings are often the victims of an unfair reputation. Depicted as marauding pagan savages with horned helmets, looting and pillaging the helpless population and dragging them off into slavery. Well, ok, maybe not all of this reputation is unfounded, but there is far more to the Vikings than you’d guess from reading Hagar the Horrible. Much of this reputation is because they were generally being described by their victims - the monks of Ireland and Britain. The horned helmets for example, were an invention by an imaginative monk - the horns presumably representing devils horns, showing these pagans were in league with Hell.

They first appear in the Irish record when they raided Rathlin Island off the Antrim Coast in AD 795.   They obviously gained a taste for Irish monastic sites, and throughout the 800’s they raided monastic sites across the country including Glendalough.

However they were not just agents of chaos and destruction. It was the Vikings that founded the Irish cities of; Dublin (in AD 841), Limerick (AD 812), Waterford (AD 853), Wexford (AD 888), and Cork City (sometime between AD 915 - 922). They were first and foremost traders and turned these proto cities into trade hubs, opening Ireland to the world. They were also skilled craftsmen and artisans, and they blended their artistic style with the native Gaelic style to form a unique type of early medieval design known as Urnes a blend of Hiberno-Norse art.

There is another common misconception about the Vikings in Ireland, that they were defeated by Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf and expelled from Ireland. In fact the truth is not as simple as the xenophobic Brian kicking these foriegners out. In fact Vikings fought as mercenaries on both sides in the Battle, with the majority of vikings supporting the Leinstermen as they tried to defeat the ambitious Brian Boru who led his Munster Armies north in 1014. The battle was a bloody affair, and although it ended in victory for the Munster men the victory came at a huge cost. Both Brian Boru’s son and grandson were killed in the battle, and after a Viking named Brodar killed Brian as he prayed in his tent.

After the battle the Vikings continued to live in Ireland and gradually became part of Irish culture and society, becoming the Hiberno-Norse.


Invasion and Rebellion

In the 1160’s the unpopular King of Leinster, Diarmuid Mac Murrough decided he needed the aid of a powerful ally to help him subdue his rivals, particularly the powerful King of Connaught, Rory O’Connor. Mac Murrough travelled to England and gained support from the Norman King of England, Henry II. Supported by Pope Adrian IV (handily the only ever English Pope) with his Laudabiliter, a Papal Bull that gave the King of England the right to assume control over Ireland and to reform the Irish church to bring it more into line with the church of Rome.

It wasn’t until 1169 that the Anglo-Norman forces arrived at Bannow Bay in Co. Wexford. Diarmuid had promised his daughter Aoife in marriage to the Earl of Pembroke - Richard de Clare, known as Strongbow. The Normans quickly established themselves at strategic points along the eastern coast of Ireland and began to carve up the land for their loyal supporters. They centered their administration in Dublin and began work on Cathedrals and fortifications such as the imposing Trim Castle Co. Meath. They established a ‘safe zone’ of influence known as ‘Pale’ which ran along the eastern seaboard of Ireland and incorporated counties such Meath, Kildare and Dublin.

In 1348 everybody's second least favourite of the four horsemen of the apocalypse appeared - Pestilence. The Black Death spread across Europe like wildfire. It was a virulent disease spread by fleas that lived on rats, these rats had hitched rides on trading ships allowing them to spread the contagion quickly across Europe. Huge numbers died during the outbreaks of plague, and whole villages became abandoned as the shellshocked survivors moved into urban centres in search of help.

It wasn’t until after the Wars of the Roses and the establishment of the Tudor Dynasty that English Kings began to refer to themselves as ‘King of Ireland’. Henry VIII was the first English monarch to claim that title (1541), and instigated a policy of ‘surrender and re-grant’. Surrender and Re-grant meant that Gaelic chiefs and lords would give up their lands, native titles and political independence to the English Monarch. Henry VIII would then give the lands back with English titles and citizenship. This system was an attempt to guarantee fealty from the Irish Lords while at the same time increasing the reach, power and finance of the English Crown.

Henry VIII also initiated the English Reformation, this siezed all monastic and church lands belonging to the Catholic Church and redistributed them amongst his loyal followers. The reformation came to Ireland in 1540 and was another source of resentment towards the English Crown, as was the extensive policy of plantations.

Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I continued the plantations began by her father. Particularly in Munster and Ulster. This caused great resentment amongst the Gaelic elite, and indeed one of the powerful Ulster Earls, Hugh O’Neill made the first but by no means last attempt to fuse Irish Nationality with Catholicism. He made contact with the powerful Phillip II of Spain who had long standing animosity towards England. Spain agreed to help O’Neill’s rebellion, and it culminated in the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. 4500 Spanish troops arrived off the coast of Cork in October, O’Neill marched his men down to Kinsale through hostile territory in an attempt to combine forces with the Spanish. They were faced by the Crown Forces led by Lord Mountjoy, who had Kinsale under siege. O’Neill’s Irish army was destroyed by Mountjoy’s men while the Spanish troops never left Kinsale.

This had dire consequences for the Gaelic movement, and in 1607 Hugh O’Neill, Rory O’Donnell and about 90 other followers fled Ireland in what became known as The Flight of The Earls. This is seen as a pivotal moment in Irish history. The Earls believed that they were going to return at the head of a large continental (Spanish) army to secure Irish independence, however this was not to be the case. Hugh O’Neill died within a few short years of his exile, and Spain and England secured a peace treaty. Gradually the Gaelic order of life in Ireland began to disintegrate and the plantations of Ireland, particularly the Ulster plantations, continued unhindered.

In 1641 saw another large rebellion in Ireland. Thousands of protestant Scottish and English planters were killed in Ulster, the rebellion soon became an organised political revolt with the Catholic Confederacy fighting to regain independence for Ireland. This period of unrest also coincided with the English Civil War, and despite some early successes for the Catholic Confederacy, after the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell brought his veteran troops over to Ireland to smash the uprising. He brutally took Drogheda and Wexford. Before attacking the Butler Family at the seat of the Confederacy’s power - Kilkenny Castle. After establishing English Parliamentary control over Ireland Cromwell left in 1650. By 1660 it is estimated that famine, fighting and disease had wiped out between a fifth and a quarter of the Irish population.

To compound the misery Ireland became a theatre of war for international and religious politics in the 1690’s. Catholic forces supporting James II fought with the protestant supporters of William of Orange to decide who would become the King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Things did not start well for the supporters of James II (known as the Jacobites), they were defeated at the Battle of the Boyne, and although few casualties were suffered on either side (an estimated 1500 Jacobites and 500 Williamites) it still scared James II enough that he decided to flee the battlefield and Ireland, and exiled himself safely in France. The war continued in his absence and became far more bloody. At the first siege of Limerick the besieged Jacobite forces inflicted heavy casualties on the Williamite forces, and the Williamite forces smashed the Jacobites at the bloody Battle of Aughrim where in the region of 8000 lost their lives. Making it the bloodiest battle on Irish soil. By October 1691 Jacobite resistance ended and William of Orange became King of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. He introduced the severe Penal Laws that restricted life for Catholics by banning priests and putting strong limits on the amount of land or property a Catholic could own, as well as banning them from voting. This extensive and intricate legislation continued into the 19th Century.

Revolution and rebellion in Ireland was fueled by the success of the French revolution of 1789 and the American War of Independence. Theobald Wolfe Tone and other Irish Nationalists banded together to form the United Irishmen in 1791. This fervent patriotism boiled over in 1798, however it was to be a short affair. Within a week the rebellion in Dublin had been quashed. The rebellion continued elsewhere in the country, such as in the South East of Ireland. However the rebels found themselves surrounded at Vinegar Hill outside of Enniscorthy Co. Wexford, they faced hopeless odds and many were slaughtered. In the West, French troops landed in Co. Mayo. They scored some initial successes but the odds were against them and many were killed or captured. On the 10th November, Wolfe Tone was brought before a military tribunal. He begged not to be hanged like a low felon, but his request was denied, he was sentenced to hang. Wolfe Tone cheated the hangman by cutting his own throat with a rusty razor. He is seen still as one of the great romantic freedom fighters of Irish history.


Famine, Uprisings and the Path to Freedom

The consequences of the 1798 Rebellion were felt in 1801 when the Act of Union was introduced. The Parliament of England believed that it was no longer possible to trust the Anglo-Irish ruling class (of which Wolfe Tone was a member). They brought the Dublin parliament back under the control of Westminster.

Daniel O’Connell has an enduring legacy in Irish history. A tireless advocate of Catholic Emancipation, he finally succeeded as the Catholic Emancipation Act passed by the Houses of Parliament in 1829. He also established the Repeal Association, whose intention to dissolve the 1801  Act of Union that had merged the parliaments of Britain and Ireland. He argued for an independent Kingdom of Ireland with Queen Victoria as its symbolic Head of State. He held huge political rallies of supporters in key places associated with Irish Nationalism such as The Hill of Tara, these were termed Monster Meetings as they were attended by hundreds of thousands of supporters. This was viewed unfavourably by the British establishment, and O’Connell was warned not to hold a planned rally at the site of the Battle of Clontarf. O’Connell complied with this warning, however he was still arrested and imprisoned for a year on charges of Conspiracy. On his release, he never again garnered the political support he once enjoyed. He suffered from ill health and eventually died while on pilgrimage to Rome in 1847.

During this period the population of Ireland had began to increase dramatically due to the success of the potato. This handy tuber grew prolifically in the damp Irish soil. It could be stored easily and had a good nutritional value so it became heavily depended on as the main crop. This over dependance proved devastating when the potato crops failed. A series of crops failed throughout the 1800’s culminating in the Great Famine which lasted between 1845 and 1852. It is said that over one million people died of starvation during the famine, and a million more emigrated. The famine became a watershed moment in Irish history, and had far reaching consequences for the demographic, politics and culture of Ireland.

The sluggish and occasionally disinterested response from the English Parliament and some Anglo-Irish landlords caused great resentment, and the Famine became imbued with ideas of Nationalism and Independence. Uprisings were carried out in 1848 and 1867 but both failed. However the uprisings did bring the Irish cause to the attention of some English politicians. William Gladstone was a notable one of these. He was very open to the idea of Home Rule for Ireland, that is that Irish affairs should be managed by Irish elected officials in an Irish Parliament. A constitutional nationalist political party emerged known as the Irish Parliamentary Party with the aim of securing Home Rule for Ireland. This party was led by an able politician Charles Stewart Parnell. He held key roles in Gladstone’s government, but his political career was destroyed due to an adultery scandal.

Despite the failings of men like Parnell and O’Connell, the cause of Irish Nationalism had deep roots. This led to men like Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Eamon de Valera, Thomas MacDonagh, and Tom Clarke organising and carrying out the 1916 Easter Rising that began the route to Irish Independence.