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1. Ice Age
During the Ice Age, which began approximately 2.5 million years ago and lasted until about 10,000 b.c., Ireland was covered by two major glaciers. They are responsible for much of Ireland's physical landscape today, most notably its rivers, valleys, and mountains, which by European standards are relatively short and round at the peak. The soil left behind by the glaciers (which began melting around 10,000 b.c.) left an otherwise rocky island with a layer of fertile topsoil that accounts for Ireland's long-standing agricultural traditions.
2. The First Inhabitants
Ireland appears to have been unique among European nations in that Stone Age hunters never reached there. The most striking evidence supporting this theory is the remains of massive elk that boast a shoulder span of six feet and antlers eight feet across.
Ireland's first human inhabitants arrived during the Middle Stone Age (sometime around 8,000 b.c.), probably from Britain via a land bridge that stretched across the Irish Sea from Antrim to present-day Scotland. The trip may have been accomplished in small skin-covered boats called "coracles."
These people were few in number and lived as migratory hunters of wild pig, fowl, and fish, and gatherers of plants. As migratory people, they lived in small huts, produced no artistry (i.e., pottery), and did not engage in agriculture. Archaeologists have found mostly tools and small weapons made of flint, but little else.
With the land bridge eventually submerged by rising sea levels, Ireland's next inhabitants came in small boats from Britain or Europe, sometime around 6,000 b.c. in what is known as theNeolithic (or New Stone Age) period. They were the first farmers and herders and the first to establish substantial settlements. They were skilled in pottery, weaving, and tool making and evidence suggests they produced stone axes in large quantities for trade.
3. Passage Graves
Of all the archaeological evidence found for the Neolithic period, none is more intriguing than the many burial chambers, or passage graves, found throughout the Irish countryside. Dating from approximately 3,000 b.c., these tombs consist of a burial chamber surrounded by a large mound of stonesome involving as much as 200,000 tons moved to the site. A single long passage adorned with decorative murals and stone carvings leads to the inner chamber. Scholars remain uncertain about the meaning of these designs, though they appear to have ritualistic significance associated with sun worship and the afterlife. It is also apparent that these were the burial grounds of kings. The greatest examples of these passage graves are found in the Boyne Valley, at Dowth, Knowth, and Newgrange in County Meath. According to Sean Duffy, author of The Macmillan Atlas of Irish History, "These are among the earliest examples of true architecture known anywhere in the world."
4. The Bronze Age
Between 2,500 b.c. and 600 b.c., Irish metalworkers used the country's plentiful deposits of copper and other metals to produce bronze and copper tools (ax heads, sickles, pots, and craft implements), weaponry (spearheads and shields), and eventually jewelry. By 700 b.c. the Irish goldsmith craft reached its highest point of development, producing a wide array of jewelry and ornaments. Today, Ireland has more artifacts of gold from this period than any other European country.
The first known written reference to Ireland was made by Aristotle in the fourth century b.c., when he mentioned the islands of Ierne (Ireland) and Albion (Great Britain) in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar). But it was left to another Greek, the second-century a.d. Alexandrian geographer Ptolemy, to write the first detailed description of Ireland. For someone who never got within three thousand miles of Ireland, he provided a remarkably accurate description of the island, including the names of its main rivers, ports, and settlements, as well as the domains of important tribes. Since the Greeks never settled there, Ptolemy most likely got his information from accounts provided by mariners and traders.
The name Ierne most likely derived from the name of one of the island's larger tribes, the Erainn Celts who dominated the coastal region in present-day Cork. Their name probably came from the Celtic word for Ireland, Eriu, the forerunner to the modern Eire.
Another early world power that never included Ireland in its far-flung empire were the successors to the Greeks, the Romans. The Roman governor in Britain, Julius Gnaeous Agricola, was invited by an ousted Irish chieftain to invade Ireland in a.d. 78 and seriously contemplated the idea until it was vetoed by Emperor Domitian. Archaeological evidence suggests that contact between the Roman Empire and Ireland was limited to trade. Perhaps the most important influence of Roman civilization on Ireland was the development of its oldest known form of writing, ogham, which preceded Old Irish. Used mainly between the fourth and seventh centuries, ogham was based on (though clearly distinct from) the Roman alphabet. Another contribution of the Romans was the term "Hibernia," the Latin variation of "Ierne."
Centuries later, when nationalists took to lionizing their homeland's once glorious past, they frequently mentioned that the Irish were the only people in Europe not to be conquered by the Romans.
7. The Celts Come to Ireland
The Celts were an Indo-European people who originated in northeastern Europe as far back as 1,200 b.c. By 600 b.c. the Celts were a formidable presence in Europe, and by the third century b.c. they were encroaching on the Greek world. Indeed, the word Celt, like Ierne, derives from the name the Greeks gave to these much-feared barbarians, Keltoi.
The Celts reached Britain by about 400 b.c. and Ireland by 300 b.c. They most likely arrived in Ireland in small bands rather than as an invading horde. Many no doubt arrived from Britain, but linguistic evidence suggests that greater numbers came from Iberia (where the dialect of the Celtic language was different from that in Britain and similar to the one developed in Ireland).
The single most important fact regarding the Celtic cultural impact is that the Romans never conquered Ireland. The spread of the Roman Empire across continental Europe, through Gaul and into Britain, meant a steady erosion of a recently arrived Celtic culture. By contrast, the culture of Ireland's Celts had centuries to take root and flourishnearly eight hundred years until the arrival of the first Christian missionaries and a thousand years before the Viking invasions. It is little wonder then that modern Irish culture continues to reflect this Celtic influence.
8. Celtic Ireland
Although the Celts shared a common culture and language, Celtic Ireland was divided into tuaths, or small tribes or clans. Clans were ruled by a chieftain or king. Below him was a small circle of privileged individuals (among them druid priests, judges, artisans, and harpists) and their families, the equivalent of a nobility. The majority of the tuath consisted of freemen, laborers, and slaves.
A central organizing principle of Celtic society was "clientship." That is, those of lower standing accepted the authority of their superiors in exchange for protection. In some cases, weaker kings became the clients of more powerful ones. Although this system did allow some kings to acquire significant power, probably none ever merited the legendary title "high king of Ireland."
Celtic kings did not inherit their titles; rather they were elected by the highest-ranking members of the tuath. Some Celtic kings grew very rich and powerful, having under them many lesser kings. Many of these lived in substantial defensive settlements called "ring forts," some of which still exist in Antrim. These were not towns, however, for the Celts built none. For the most part they lived in simple dwellings as seminomadic dairy farmers. Cattle, not land (which was usually held in common within the tuath), was the most important possession and sign of power.
9. A Warrior People
The Celts in Ireland, and pretty much everywhere they went, were known as ferocious warriors. Perhaps the best description of the Celtic warrior comes from the Greek historian Diodorus, who wrote in the first century b.c., "Their aspect is terrifying. . . . They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear white skin. Their hair is blond, but not naturally so: they bleach it . . . They look like wood-demons, their hair thick and shaggy like a horse's mane." Just before battle they unnerved their opponents by whipping themselves into a prebattle frenzy, shouting, hurling insults, and rhythmically banging their swords and shields. Many also chose to fight completely naked. Virtually all accounts of Celtic warriors in action describe their almost ecstatic state of rage and fury. They also were widely known to collect the heads of their victims as trophies.
Some scholars have suggested that the strong Celtic belief in an afterlife may have contributed to their legendary fearlessness on the field of battle.
10. Celtic Language
Celts spoke many similar dialects of an Indo-European language. Those who came to Britain and Gaul spoke what linguists term Brythonic Celtic, or P-Celtic. From it derive the modern languages of Welsh and Breton (and the now extinct languages of Pictish and Cum-brian). Celts who settled in Iberia and Ireland spoke Goidelic Celtic, or Q-Celtic, the ancient forerunner of Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx Gaelic.
Irish Celts, under the influence of Roman culture seeping in from Britain and the continent, developed a written form of the Celtic language in the fourth century a.d. Its alphabet consists of twenty letters (later twenty-five) formed by combinations of straight lines of varying length and position. More than three hundred ogham stones (upright stone pillars) dating from a.d. 350 to 600 have been found throughout Ireland, mostly in Munster. The stones appear to be memorial markers, as most of the inscriptions are the names of people and their lineage.
Many people use the word "Gaelic" when they are referring to the native language of Ireland. Technically speaking, the correct term is "Irish Gaelic," or as most in Ireland say, "Irish."
Such specificity is needed because three forms of Gaelic currently existIrish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx Gaelic (spoken on the Isle of Man). All three derive from a common ancient Celtic dialect known as Goidelic.
The loss of the Gaelic language dates to the imposition of a harsh English colonial rule in the seventeenth century. By 1750, only a quarter of the Irish, mainly the people of the poorest and more remote counties in the south and west, spoke the language. By 1920, only about 20 percent had any knowledge of the language. But the Free State constitution established Irish as the official language of the Republic and made instruction part of the public school curriculum. Today, there are about 1,500,000 people (43 percent) out of Ireland's total population of 3.6 million who are familiar with Gaelic, with perhaps 80,000 of them considered fluent.
The central figure of Celtic life was the druid, a kind of wiseman, teacher, judge, doctor, and high priest all in one. More than one scholar has compared them to the Hindu Brahmins of India, the highest figures in the caste system, who exercised social, legal, economic, and religious authority. Druids trained for up to twenty years, studying astronomy, ancient poetry, natural philosophy, astronomy, and the legends and myths of the Celtic gods. Accounts of these "wise men of the oak," as they were known, frequently mention their wearing distinctive white robes.
In their capacity as judges they wielded near absolute authority (including the power to issue sentences of death). "In all public and private quarrels," wrote Julius Caesar of the Celts of Gaul, "the priests alone judge and decide. They fix punishments and rewards, where crimes or murder have been committed or boundary and inheritance disputes arise." Their rulings reflected a powerful sense of morality. "We teach that the gods must be honored, no injustice done and manly behavior always maintained," explained one druid when asked to explain how they arrived at their verdicts. St. Patrick got much the same answer centuries later when a druid explained the foundation of their moral code as "Truth in the heart, strength in the arm, honesty in speech." Little wonder then that druids also possessed the political power to cast the deciding vote if the election of a chieftain was at an impasse.
Further evidence of the high place held by druids in Celtic society is demonstrated by the many exemptions they enjoyed from traditional obligations, such as military service or annual dues or tribute. As scholar Gerhard Herm writes in his history The Celts, "[T]he Druids were the authentic and most important representatives of the Celtic people, the embodiment of all that was unique to it."
14. Celtic Religion
One of the most important functions of the druids was that of priest. Druids were believed to possess the power of prophecy and the power to call upon the gods to intervene, both benignly and vengefully, in human affairs. Celtic religion combined mysticism and magic and also stressed a belief in the afterlife.
Druids and Celtic religion are often associated with nature worship. This is understandable and not altogether inaccurate. They believed oak trees were sacred (the word "druid" may come from the Greek word drus, for "oak") and the four principal days of the Celtic religious calendar (Imbolc, Beltaine, Lugnasad, and Samain) are tied to the changes in the seasons.
Scholars of Celtic religion have collected nearly four hundred names of different deities across Celtic Europe. Most appear to have been local deities, but some appear in multiple places. This enormous Celtic pantheon contained gods of every description, nature, and characteristic. Most, it appears, were regarded with fear, as evidenced by the consistently terrifying sculptures of Celtic gods found by archaeologists.
It was this religious tradition, backed by a powerful druid priesthood, that St. Patrick and other missionaries encountered when they began to arrive in the fifth century a.d. It took at least two centuries for Christianity to triumph over the druids, but strains of the latter's religious tradition persisted for over a millennium, if not longer. Christian missionaries wisely (from the standpoint of gaining converts) chose to Christianize many Celtic rituals. Samain on November 1 became Halloween and All Saints' Day, Yule in late December became Christmas, Imbolc in early February became Candlemas (later Groundhog Day), and the fertility rites of Beltaine on May 1 were melded into the adoration of Mary. Celtic deities were also Christianized by transferring their powers and attributes to Christian saints.
15. Human Sacrifice
One aspect of Celtic religion that, thankfully, did disappear, and relatively quickly, was the practice of human sacrifice. It was still in vogue when St. Patrick arrived in the mid-fifth century a.d. Most likely it was done as a means to appease the angry Celtic gods.
Archaeologists in the 1950s discovered in ancient Danish bogs the perfectly preserved bodies of three men who had been ritually sacrificed. While they may or may not be Celts, a fourth body (known as Lindow Man to archaeologists) discovered in an English bog in 1984 is unquestionably a Celt, and probably an Irish one.
Of course, Celtic converts to Christianity never surrendered the idea of human sacrifice, since that is the essential meaning of Jesus' crucifixion.