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IRELAND IS EUROPE'S WESTERN OUTPOST, FRONTING THE VASTNESS OF THE ATLANTIC. THIS HAS BEEN ONE OF THE CENTRAL FACTS OF ITS HISTORY.
For centuries, until the discovery of the Americas, the island was regarded as a remote spot on the edge of the inhabited world, and new ideas and technologies did generally reach it very late — which only makes the distinctive Irish contribution to civilization seem all the more remarkable.
Other accidents of geography and climate were equally important in shaping Ireland's destiny. For all its ferocity, the ocean played a crucial role in the making of the land, bringing to its shores the warm currents that helped to make it mild, moist and green. And, more ambiguously, the island's proximity to its more resource-rich neighbour, Britain, influenced the entire course of Irish history for good and ill; although the political outcome has more often than not been unfavourable to Ireland, warriors and missionaries, creators and destroyers, passed in both directions across the sea.
The shape of the land is unusual. Essentially it consists of a rolling, fertile area, the Central Lowlands, which is surrounded by low ranges of hills and mountains; the very highest point on the island, in Macgillycuddy's Reeks, stands a mere 1040 metres above sea level. The one long break in the ranges occurs in the east, where the lowlands extend as far as the coast, from Dublin to Dundalk Bay — an all-too-helpful entry-point for invaders and settlers.
However, much of Ireland'sspecial character derives from the network of rivers and lakes (known as loughs) which divide up the land. The river Shannon rises modestly out of a hole called the Shannon Pot in County Cavan, but then flows on and on until it empties into the sea some 400 kilometres away in the far south-west. It is the longest river not only in Ireland but in the British Isles; and, similarly, Lough Neagh, almost 400 square kilometres in area, is the biggest lake. The land is tamer than was once the case: the forests have long disappeared, and even Ireland's famous peat bogs are much diminished. But although industries, cities and `postindustrial' enterprises have made their mark on the landscape, Ireland remains an extraordinarily spacious place, full of pleasant small towns and villages, mansions and ruins, that complement rather than dominate the peaceful farmlands and magnificently varied scenery.
THE FOUR PROVINCES
IRELAND IS VERY OFTEN BEEN DESCRIBED IN TERMS OF ITS FOUR HISTORIC PROVINCES: ULSTER IN THE NORTH, LEINSTER IN THE EAST AND CENTRE, MUNSTER IN THE SOUTH-WEST, AND IN THE FAR WEST, CONNAUGHT, OR CONNACHT.
Meath (centre-north) was in earlier times one of the `Five Fifths' of Ireland, but now forms part of Leinster. The four-way division is a convenient one, since it does in a general way correspond to regions whose landscape and history differ from one another.
In traditional usage Ulster consists of nine counties, although the word is sometimes used to describe the six that are currently part of the United Kingdom. Ancient Ulster was a Gaelic warrior kingdom, whose heroes and rulers were celebrated in Ireland's great mythological cycles. Stories and legends haunt many of its impressive natural features, which include Lough Neagh, the glens of Antrim, the Mountains of Mourne, the astonishing Giant's Causeway, and Donegal, with its wild coastline, sea loughs, and bleakly lovely landscape.
In the southern counties of Ulster, the terrain is characterized by huge numbers of low, rounded hills known as drumlins, created by the glaciers of the last Ice Age. Further south lies Leinster, which takes in the capital of the Republic of Ireland, Dublin, as well as the populous and popular east and south-east coasts and the Central Lowlands, an area of dairy farms, market towns, peat bogs, and tranquil glens and lakes.
The open coastal plain and its rivers — Dublin's Liffey, the Boyne and the Bann — have always been inviting to outsiders and natural centres for the exercise of pride and power. The Neolithic Irish erected gigantic tombs in the valley of the Boyne; not far away, on the Hill of Tara, the high kings of Celtic Ireland were crowned; and on the Boyne itself, at Trim, the Normans built the mightiest of their Irish castles. Dublin and the area surrounding it easily have the longest continuous history of English occupation; once known as `the Pale', it was held for the Crown even during the late Middle Ages, when the English grip on Ireland was at its weakest. To the south lie the Wicklow Mountains, gold-bearing in prehistoric times, later bandit-infested, but nowadays the delight of moorland walkers and visitors who tour the ancient monastic buildings of Glendalough.
The Shannon forms the long western boundary between Leinster and Connaught. The river, flowing south through a series of loughs, is in effect a separate eco-world; and with the Erne, which rises not far from the Shannon Pot in Cavan and flows north-west through Donegal, it constitutes Ireland's most impressive lake and river system. At various times a highway and a military frontier, the Shannon runs beside many places of historical importance, among them Clonmacnoise, with its extraordinary concentration of ecclesiastical remains, and the towns of Athlone and Limerick, where decisive engagements took place during the wars of the 17th century.
Across the river lies the West of Ireland, most of it within the province of Connaught. For many people — Irish people as well as outsiders — this is Ireland at its most romantic. In legend, Connaught was once a powerful kingdom, vying with Ulster for supremacy. But later, when most of the traditional gentry lost their lands, they were given only one choice by an implacable Oliver Cromwell — `Hell or Connaught!' And as the English language spread across Ireland, the West became the home of the shrinking Gaeltacht, the areas where Gaelic was still the tongue of the people.
Many parts of this land are both bleak and beautiful. Ceaselessly wave-battered, the spectacular western coastline has been worn into a ragged pattern of promontories and inlets. Beyond are the groups of little offshore islands, hostages to the Atlantic, where life is so hard that some have been abandoned within living memory — but not so the Aran Islands, with their immense and mysterious prehistoric fortifications; their way of life, made famous in literature and film, is sustained — and threatened — by tourism.
On the mainland, Sligo is rich in history, but is now seen above all as `Yeats country'; and it is true that names such as Ben Bulben and Innisfree instantly bring the poet to mind. To the south, Galway is wilder and, in places, more desolate; in the western part of the county, Connemara now boasts a National Park to preserve its beautiful moorland, lakes and streams. Its stones are among the most striking features of County Clare: the Burren, limestone upland on which Neolithic dolmens celebrate the anciently dead, and brilliant flowers appear in the spring; and the awe-inspiring Cliffs of Moher.
Although behind the Shannon, Clare is technically part of Munster; but most of this south-western province has a generally milder air. In large part this is created by the Gulf Stream, which makes it possible to grow palms and other semi-tropical plants. Tourists have responded to the climate, to scenery such as the Ring of Kerry and the lakes of Killarney, and to the lively cities of Limerick, Cork and Waterford. Meanwhile the Rock of Cashel and the Blarney Stone (Castle Blarney, County Cork) remind us that, as in every part of Ireland, the past is very much alive.
THE FIRST IRISH
HUMAN BEINGS WERE LATE IN COMING TO IRELAND. LIKE THE OTHER PARTS OF NORTHERN EUROPE, MOST OF THE IRISH LANDSCAPE WAS A FROZEN AND BARREN WILDERNESS FOR THE ONE-AND-A-HALF MILLION YEARS OF THE LAST GREAT ICE AGE.
Then, as temperatures rose and the ice retreated, Ireland emerged as part of the European mainland, linked by land bridges to Britain, which was in turn attached to the Continent. Plants and creatures colonized them until about 8000 BC, when melting ice raised the sea levels and the bridges linking Ireland and Britain disappeared.
Some fauna and flora failed to reach Ireland before the waters rose — notably the snake, although legend was later to credit St Patrick with banishing it. If any human beings were among the fauna that crossed to Ireland by land, they have left no discernable traces. The earliest known Irish must have arrived in primitive boats, probably from south-west Scotland; visible from Scotland's Mull of Kintyre, the Irish coast is a mere twenty kilometres away, making possible a two-way traffic that has affected the history of both countries. Arriving in Ireland at some time after 8000 BC, these Stone Age hunters, fishers and food-gatherers worked their way south over the millennia, following the banks of Ireland's rivers and lakes. Their way of life changed little until about 4000 BC, when a new and more advanced culture appeared, possibly brought in by outsiders.
This culture was Neolithic — that is, one that still involved the use of stone tools and weapons, but was based on farming instead of hunting or crops, stock-raising and pottery-making became the prime constituents of a new way of life, pioneered several thousand years earlier in the Near East. Since the Neolithic Irish knew nothing of writing, we have no unambiguous evidence about their thoughts and feelings; but their ability to work together on a large scale, and their preoccupation with death and eternity, are unmistakably attested to by the stupendous monuments they left behind them to honour or appease the dead. Above all there are the great tomb mounds (barrows), dating from about 3000 BC, of which the most celebrated are Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange in the Boyne Valley. Once regarded as barbaric imitations of the Giza pyramids of ancient Egypt, these Irish `passage tombs' are now known to be older than the pyramids and are admired accordingly.
A new phase of Irish prehistory began with the introduction of metalworking around 2000 BC; knowledge of metals may have been brought by settlers or invaders, but may equally well have been acquired through trade. As a result, copper and gold were mined, smelted and worked into useful and beautiful objects, and Ireland began to play a significant role in the international economy. New customs, such as the erection of stone circles, suggest that this was a period of significant cultural development. The end of the Bronze Age roughly coincided with the emergence of a distinctively Celtic Irish society.
IRELAND'S FIRST WRITTEN RECORDS DATE FROM THE 7TH CENTURY AD, PERHAPS A THOUSAND YEARS AFTER THE CELTS CAME TO DOMINATE IT.
So it is not surprising that scholars are still debating whether the Celts introduced iron technology when they arrived as invaders or settlers — or, for that matter, whether their `arrival' represented anything more than the development in Ireland of a culture that had already spread across northern Europe from Britain to the Balkans.
The most common view is that the Celts moved into Ireland at some time after 500 BC, possibly in several waves, and that they brought with them the Gaelic language, a social order based on warrior values, and a religion involving features such as sacred groves, druids (priests), a severed-head cult and human sacrifice.
In view of their later history, it seems almost certain that they established dozens of petty kingdoms, or tuatha, and fought endlessly among themselves; if the great cycles of myths are to be believed, Celtic pride, honour and passion were regular sources of epic mayhem. Archaeological excavations confirm the widespread use of hill forts, island strongholds and other means of defence, although similar evidence of Iron Age insecurity is also found in other lands. Over the centuries there was a tendency for the petty kings to become subject to provincial overlords, and by about AD 1000 the division of Ireland into the Five Fifths (Ulster, Meath, Leinster, Munster, Connaught) was probably well established. From the 8th century AD one or another of these provincial kings claimed to be `high king' of Ireland, but the title was rarely accepted everywhere and carried more prestige than power.
During the 1st century AD, the Romans conquered most of Celtic Britain (present-day England and Wales, and southern Scotland). Until recently it was believed that Ireland remained undisturbed, but excavations in the 1990s uncovered a large fort of the Roman type on the coast of Drumanagh, north of Dublin. The proper interpretation of the finds is still a matter of controversy, but at the very least they suggest that Roman influence on Celtic Ireland was more substantial than has sometimes been admitted.
Coins from the Drumanagh site suggest that it dates from the 2nd century AD, when the Roman Empire was at the height of its power and prosperity under the Antonines. Within a century, Rome was facing difficulties and Latin writers were describing the increasingly frequent raids launched by the warlike Irish on the coasts of Britain. In time the Irish established colonies in Wales, Devon and Cornwall, and in the 5th century the Irish of Dal Riata in the north-east began to cross into Argyll; these invaders would eventually absorb the native Picts and found the kingdom of Scotland.
It was early in the 5th century that the last Roman legions left Britain. The Empire rapidly disintegrated all over the West, to be replaced by new barbarian kingdoms. Britain's Romanized culture and urban way of life went into decline; yet Roman and British influence was soon felt much more powerfully than ever in Ireland, as the Christian religion took hold there.
THE COMING OF CHRISTIANITY
CHRISTIANITY ALMOST CERTAINLY REACHED IRELAND SOMETIME DURING THE 4TH CENTURY AD, FOLLOWING THE CONVERSION OF NEIGHBOURING BRITAIN, WHICH WAS AT THAT TIME STILL UNDER ROMAN RULE.
It was only a little later, in 431, that Pope Celestine I dispatched a missionary named Palladius as bishop to combat heresy among `the Irish believing in Christ', who were presumably quite numerous. The conversion of the entire community was probably a long-drawnout process, but tradition has simplified it by giving all the credit to St Patrick. Ireland's patron saint was actually a Romanized Briton. Kidnapped by Irish pirates when he was sixteen, Patrick worked for six years as a herder before escaping and making his way back to Britain. His faith strengthened by his experiences, he trained for the priesthood and in 432 (says tradition) he returned to Ireland to preach the Gospel — evidently with success, although remarkably little is known of his activities other than the few biographical details given in the Confession, a statement written by Patrick in answer to some of his critics.
From the 6th century onwards, Irish Christianity flourished mightily. Though local rulers promoted the new religion, neither they nor their subjects easily gave up old habits; but within the Church itself, an intense devotion produced an extraordinary number of heroic saints, scholars and solitaries. Developing its own distinctive character, the Celtic Church was more loosely organized than its Roman parent. Gifted individual churchmen and great monasteries played an outstanding role. Some of the monasteries, patronized by local rulers, became wealthy and influential, but many individuals and groups rejected the world, seeking out bleak and remote places in which to work and worship. The search was not confined to Ireland itself, but impelled monks to settle Iceland before the Vikings even found it; and it sent the 6th-century St Brendan, Abbot of Clonfert, on a long voyage that some believe to have ended on the coast of America!
However, Ireland's contributions to European civilization were of a more tangible nature. With the Roman world in ruins and literacy in retreat, the monasteries of the newly literate Irish became sanctuaries of learning where precious texts were preserved and disseminated by copying. The laws, annals and myths of Celtic society were also rescued from oblivion, and the making of books — masterpieces such as the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells — became an art as well as an act of piety.
Abroad, Irish missionaries were extraordinarily active. In about 563 St Columba, or Colmcille, founded a monastery on the island of Iona, off the Scottish coast. This became the base for the conversion of the Picts and a celebrated re-evangelization of northern Britain, spearheaded by St. Aidan from the monastery he founded on the island of Lindisfarne. Further afield, St Columba's near-namesake, St Columban, was only the most famous of many intrepid Irish missionaries who journeyed tirelessly over western and central Europe; as well as saving souls, they founded monasteries that became famous and settlements that often grew into cities. `The Golden Age of Irish Christianity' may be a cliché, but it is certainly not an exaggeration.
|The Four Provinces||12|
|THE ISLAND'S PAST||17|
|The First Irish||18|
|The Coming of Christianity||22|
|The Great Hunger||34|
|The Home Rule Issue||36|
|The Easter Rising||38|
|IRISH LIFE THROUGH THE AGES||42|
|Hunters and Farmers||44|
|The Celtic World||46|
|Abbots Ascetics and Scribes||48|
|Wild Irish and Civil Irish||50|
|The Irish atWar||54|
|Travel and Travellers||58|
|Life on the Land||60|
|The Sporting Life||64|
|The Love of Music||66|
|MYTH, MAGIC & FOLKLORE||70|
|Monks, Gods and Heroes||72|
|Life and Death of Cuchulainn||74|
|Tales of Love and Death||78|
|THE IRISH ARTS||82|
|Patterns on Stone and Metal||84|
|Pagan Celtic Art||86|
|The Art of the Book||90|
|In the Service of the Church||94|
|Academics and Impressionists||100|
|Into the 20th Century||102|
|FROM TUATH TO TOWN PLAN||104|
|Walls and Ramparts||106|
|Early Christian Landmarks||108|
|The Age of Faith||112|
|From Tower House to Mansion||116|
|Dublin's Fair City||118|
|The Big House||122|
|AN ELOQUENT PEOPLE||128|
|The Dean of St Patrick's||132|
|Playwrights and Philosophers||134|
|Ireland in Story & Song||136|
|The Master Poet||140|
|The Literary Revival||142|
|James Joyce, Dubliner||144|
|A Living Tradition||146|
|Tradition and Change||150|