Early history of Ireland

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The main characteristic features of Ancient and Medieval history of Ireland. The main events, dates and influential people of Early history of Ireland. The history of Christianity development. The great Norman and Viking invasions and achievements.

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Early history of Ireland

1. Ancient Ireland

1.1 The Mesolithic Period

No trace of human occupation has been found in Ireland from earlier than the end of the last Ice Age, though animal traces from interglacial warmer periods have been found. The first reliable evidence of human life comes from the Mesolithic period, the `Middle Stone Age'. Flint tools have been found dating back six thousand years before the Christian era began. Although the main source of flints was in the north-east, Mesolithic people were established as far south as Cork. The arrival of the earliest people is so far undated, and the means by which they came is unsure. A land link, later submerged by rising sea levels, between Scotland and Ireland has been suggested, but they may equally well have come by boat. The relative density of very early sites in Ulster suggests western Scotland as a starting point. Evidence of Mesolithic settlements can be found in places like Mount Sandel in County Derry, one of earliest human settlements in Ireland.

These Mesolithic people were true hunter gatherers and seem to have moved along the coasts, and waterways of Ireland in their search for sustenance. The dense forests which covered Ireland at that time would have made dispersion difficult and so the people would fish and forage in the most accessible areas. These people probably entered Ireland along the Antrim coast in the north east where Ireland lies closest to Scotland and possibly some also migrated from Wales to the east coast of Ireland. Sites of their presence have been found along the Bann and in the Boyne Valley, they were also in the midlands at Lough Boora near Tullamore in County Offaly and as far south as Ferrier's Cove in the Dingle peninsula. From Mount Sandel a high ridge along the river Bann, near Coleraine in county Derry, we learn that these early people lived in circular dwellings of about 20 feet diameter and the post holes indicate that they were formed of branches bent inwards to form a dome. The floor of the dwelling was dug out and a fire pit was placed in the centre of the structure.

They would have hunted bore, fished for salmon, trout and eel in the rivers and loughs. They ate fish, shellfish birds, nuts, apples, berries and wild boar. Their tools consisted of small blades of flint known as microliths which were probably bound to a shaft to form spears, arrows and harpoons. They also used various stones for skinning animals and scraping hides. It must be remembered that apart from their flint implements, these people used only organic materials and so we can only have a limited knowledge of how difficult or brutish their lives were.

Throughout the Mesolithic period the only significant development in this society seems to be a change from microliths to macroliths. That is the flint tools have increased in size. However, we can never know if in the 4,000 years of the Mesolithic period there were societal, linguistic or religious changes occurring.

1.2 The Neolithic Period

Ireland's Neolithic (late stone-age) period began around 4000 BC. and is marked by the introduction of farming techniques. Farming had first appeared around 10,000BC, in the Middle East and from Anatolia and Mesopotamia had slowly spread into Europe. Cattle, sheep and goats and grain were ferried across the narrow sea between Antrim and Scotland by new migrants in dugout canoes and possibly skin covered boats. They also brought with them knowledge of pottery making. It was simple, clay formed into ropes and coiled around and round to form a pot shape then heated in a fire. Sometimes the pot would have a simple design such as indentations from stones or fingers. These new incomers found a land that was sparsely inhabited and heavily forested with oak, elm, alder and hazel. The hills and mountains were clothed with pine and birch woods. Those who arrived on Irish soil would clear an area and work it until the ground became infertile, then they would up camp and move somewhere else. It was this style of settlement which would cause the exhausted soil to evolve into the peat bogs. It is probable that the first inhabitants of Ireland would have learned and adopted these new ideas from the new-comers.

Around this period too, there was an improvement in the climate as temperatures, on average, rose. This would have helped in the introduction of barley and wheat. The macroliths of the late Mesolithic period began to be replaced by heavier polished axes which were better suited to fell trees. These axes were made from porcellanite which is much harder than flint. It was mined near Cushendall on the Antrim coast and on Rathlin Island. Whilst finds of Neolithic axes have been made throughout Ireland, though mainly in Ulster, they have also been found in the south of England which suggests a two-way trade existing between Ireland and Britain. It is estimated that over 18,000 of these ancient axes have been found in Ireland alone.

One of most remarkable things the Neolithic people left behind that can still be found in Ireland today are the monuments and burial sites. Today, dotted all over the country, are the remains of these sites many of which have changed over the years. Such monuments and sites includes the Passage Tomb of Newgrange, Maeve's Cairn on the summit of Knocknarea Mountain and the Poulnabrone Dolmen Megalithic Tomb.

1.3 The Bronze Age Period

From around 2500 BC, copper and gold were being mined and smelted in Ireland. Copper was used for utensils, tools and for adornment. When mixed with tin the resultant alloy is bronze, a much harder material than pure copper and thereby more useful for use in weaponry. Finds of Bronze-age weapons include daggers, halberds, spearheads and flat axes. These axe heads were sometimes decorated spirals or zigzagging and have been as far away as Britain and Scandinavia. The axes are heavy and this is an indication that copper was in good supply in Ireland.

The total weight of copper and bronze artefacts found amount to around 750 kilograms but it is estimated that a mine in County Cork, at Mount Gabriel turned out 370 tones. The oldest known copper mine in Northwest Europe is said to be at Ross Island in County Kerry. Later in the period bronze would also be used to produce musical horns and to date 104 such horns are known today.

The Bronze-age is marked by the large number of hoards that have been found throughout the country. There is the Ballinesker hoard found in County Wexford in 1990 and dated from the 8th century BC. The Dowris Hoard from near Birr in County Offaly found in 1830's and dated to between 7th and 9th centuries BC. This hoard includes swords, spearheads axes, horns, crotals buckets and a cauldron. Many crescent shaped lunula made of hammered gold sheets and which fit around the neck, have been discovered. Out of 100 found in Europe 80 of them were in Ireland. The decorations on the lunula usually consist of concentric rows of dots, zigzags, crosses and triangles and are similar to the decorations found on pottery and flat axes. Other finds included arm bands, necklaces, ear-rings, ear spools, bracelets and lock rings made for the hair and made from fine gold wire. Many of the hoards include gold and bronze artefacts with glass, faience and amber beads. Indeed the hoards can contain a great number of different objects from weapons to musical instruments to jewellery. We have to ask ourselves why such hoards have been placed where they were? Many of the larger ones were probably an accumulation of objects gathered over a long period of time perhaps as a votive offering or hidden in times of strife. Others were obviously personal belongings either lost or placed as an offering to a god. As most of these hoards were found in bogs or wetlands it probably signifies sites of spiritual importance.

Another development of the Irish bronze age was the move away from the massive megalithic graves such as Newgrange Passage Tomb. Wedge tombs were appearing. The wedge tomb is a simple stone lined narrowing chamber with a capstone and the whole then covered over with a mound. Normally they don't measure more than 1.5 metres in height and though found in many parts of Ireland they are more numerous in the uplands of Munster, Connaught and West Ulster. They are usually associated with the people who worked with bronze production and are almost always face the southwest.

Another type of grave that puts in an appearance at this time is the Cist Grave. This is a simple grave for an individual. Most cists, on average measure internally about 80cms long and 50cms wide and may contain cremated bones or disarticulated bones. Sometimes the remains are whole and seem to have been bound up before internment. However more elaborate stone lined cists have been found, for instance at Keenoge in County Meath, they are found mostly in Ulster and Leinster and many of them are buried in cairns such as the Creevykeel Court Cairn that had been used over many generations. Stone circles, standing stones and ring forts are other features of the Bronze-age. The stone circles are thought to have been either astronomical sites or ritualistic sites, such as Beltany Stone Circle. They can have very tall stones or quit...