PREHISTORIC AND ANCIENT IRELAND

By Tim Lambert

The first humans arrived in Ireland between 7,000 and 6,000 BC after the end of the last ice age. The first Irish people lived by farming, fishing and gathering food such as plants and shellfish. The Stone Age hunters tended to live on the seashore or on the banks of rivers and lakes where food was plentiful. They hunted animals like deer and wild boar. They also hunted birds and they hunted seals with harpoons.

About 4,000 BC farming was introduced to Ireland. The Stone Age farmers kept sheep, pigs and cattle and raised crops. They probably lived in huts with wooden frames covered with turfs and thatched with rushes. The farmers made tools of stone, bone and antler. They also made pottery. For centuries the farmers and the hunters co-existed but the old hunter-gatherer lifestyle gradually died out.

The stone age farmers were the first people to significantly affect the environment of Ireland as they cleared areas of forest for farming. They were also the first people to leave monuments in the form of burial mounds known as court cairns. The Stone Age farmers sometimes cremated their dead then buried the remains in stone galleries covered in earth.

They also created burial places called dolmens, which consist of massive vertical stones with horizontal stones on top, and passage graves which have a central passage lined and roofed with stones with burial chambers leading off it. The passage graves were covered with mounds of earth.

About 2,000 BC bronze was introduced into Ireland and was used for making tools and weapons. The bronze Age people also erected stone circles in Ireland. They also built crannogs or lake dwellings, which were easy to defend.

Then about 500 BC the Celts arrived in Ireland. They brought iron tools and weapons with them. The Celts were a warlike people. (According to Roman writers they were passionately fond of fighting) and they built stone forts across Ireland. At that time Ireland was divided into many small kingdoms and warfare between them was frequent. Fighting often took place in chariots.

The priests of the Celts were called Druids and they practiced polytheism (worship of many gods).

Celtic society was divided into 3 classes. At the top were the kings and aristocrats. Below them were the freemen who were farmers. They could be well off or could be very poor. At the bottom were slaves. Divorce and remarriage were by no means unusual in Celtic society and polygamy was common among the rich.

CHRISTIANITY COMES TO IRELAND

In the 4th century Christianity spread to Ireland, probably through trade with England and France. In 431 Pope Celestine sent a man named Palladius to Ireland. However he was killed shortly after his arrival.

Then in 432 a man named Patrick arrived in Ireland. Patrick was probably born about 390 or 400. He lived in Western England until he was captured by Irish raiders at the age of 16 and was taken to Ireland as a slave. Patrick was forced to work as a herdsman and so had much time for thinking about religion. After 6 years as a slave Patrick managed to escape back to England.

However he had a vision in which he read a letter asking him to come to Ireland. This he did. Patrick became a missionary to Ireland until his death in 461.

Patrick tried to organize the church in Ireland along 'Roman' lines with Bishops as the leaders. However the Irish church soon changed to a system based on monasteries with Abbots as the leaders.

From 500 to 800 was the golden age of the Irish church. Many monasteries were founded across Ireland and soon the Irish sent missionaries to other parts of Europe such as Scotland and Northern England. Irish monks also kept alive Greek-Roman learning during the Dark Ages. In Irish monasteries learning and the arts flourished. One of the greatest arts was making decorated books called illuminated manuscripts. The most famous of these is the Book Of Kells, which was probably made at the beginning of the 9th century. However this golden age ended with the Viking raids.

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