Pre-Christian Ireland

Early Ireland

It would appear that the earliest inhabitants of Ireland were hunter-gatherers, later supplemented by nomadic farmers who cleared the land. Into the early medieval period, cattle and their seasonal movements governed the nomadic rhythms of life. The ancient sagas of the Fianna, and heroic Irish language narratives of pre-Christian tales, tell us little about early society as such.

Knowledge of Ireland before 3,500 BC is inconclusive. Archaeological research in the past two centuries has attempted to make sense of the stone formations clearly humanly assembled that are scattered across the Irish landscape. Formations like the Poolnabrone dolmen in the Burren of County Clare, court cairns and apparent burial chambers found at the extremities of the Dingle peninsula in Kerry, the startling fort of Dun Angus on the Aran Islands are evidence of very early human settlement with complicated engineering capacities but precise dating is still inconclusive.

The most startling achievements of the late Stone Age would appear to be the astonishingly sophisticated passages and chambers set into the ground of the Boyne Valley or Bru na Boinne at Knowth, Dowth and New Grange. These appear to be connected too to the astonishing network of sites that is the complex we call Tara, an extensive range of constructs that seem to indicate the area as a complex centre of construction and human culture. The map of this past is being constantly changed as new road building projects reveal even more complex and layered human settlements, but the controversy between the demands of honouring and discovering a complex past and pushing forward twenty first century road-building is fraught and controversial and encompasses politics at every level. The scale of these constructs is evidence of organisation, hierarchy and skills.

Ordnance and antiquarian researches in the nineteenth century attempted to catalogue, list and describe the extraordinary richness of this early period- in the intervening two centuries over a third of the sites then listed have been destroyed through developments, farmers moving standing stones or simple vandalism.

History may be said to begin with written records, though archaeology and genetic researches have much to tell us. It is unlikely that the population of Ireland a millennium before Christ were Celtic- genetic research seems rather to confirm the notion that the original population may have come from Spain, thus substantiating the allegedly fanciful accounts by bards and later antiquarians that the original Irish were Mil espaigne or Milesians, ‘ out of Spain’. A style of art that we now call La Tene or Celtic is evident however from this period. The earliest recorded indigenous language of Ireland, Irish or Gaelic, was categorised in the nineteenth century by philologists as being of the Celtic branch of the Indo European language category so the concept of ‘the Celtic’ is core to later images of early Ireland reflected through its distinctive art work and reinforced by the categorisations of modern scholars and popularisers.