Irish history

Stone Age

The modern Irish landscape is dotted with many Stone-Age monuments. The historical sites in Ireland go as far back as 5000 BC and the graves and settlements discovered in recent years are among the oldest in Europe. At the Céide Fields, near Ballycastle in North County Mayo, a network of new stone-age fields has recently been discovered, dating back over 5,000 years. In County Meath, the passage graves at Newgrange and Knowth are remarkably well preserved, with Knowth dating from 3,700 BC and Newgrange from 500 years later, this makes it more than 500 years older than the Giza Pyramids in Egypt and 1,000 years more ancient than Stonehenge. The passageway has an amazing feature: although built from roughly-hewn rock, it is aligned in such a way that the rising sun shines through the roofbox, down the passageway, and lights up the central chamber on the morning of the Winter Solstice (21 or 22 December). Newgrange is a remarkable testimony to an advanced civilisation. The nearby graves at Knowth are home to the largest collection of Neolithic art found in Western Europe.

Bronze Age

By 2000 BC people had begun to mix copper and tin to make bronze. Ireland’s Bronze Age lasted until about 500 BC, when the country was colonised by Celts. One of the characteristic feature of this era is dolmens. These comprise three upright stones with a flat capstone balanced on top to form the central chamber or a grave mound. The portal tomb Poulnabrone Dolmen in County Clare is a similar age, retaining its striking location in the middle of a limestone plain.

The Celts

The Celts were an Iron Age people who originated in central Europe and who reached Ireland about 500 BC. They also went as far west as Spain and as far east as Asia Minor.

St Patrick

St. Patrick’s mission to Ireland appears to have lasted about 30 years and its impact was immense. AD 432 is the date traditionally given for the start of his mission. Patrick is most famous throughout the world for reputedly having driven all snakes out of Ireland. It is true there are no snakes in
Ireland, but the chances are that there never have been since the time the island was separated from the rest of the continent at the end of the ice age. Driving snakes from Ireland was probably symbolic of putting an end to pagan practices. Not long after the spread of Christianity, a great monastic movement began. From the sixth century, monasteries were founded all over Ireland, with key centres in Clonmacnoise , County Offaly, and Glendalough, County Wicklow, establishing themselves as seats of learning renowned throughout Europe. Three high crosses, dating from the 9th century, were discovered at Clonmacnoise and are housed in the heritage centre, while the ruins of temples, a cathedral and a round tower remain. The 34-metre round tower at Glendalough dates from sometime between the 9th and 12th century, as do most of the surviving buildings, including the cathedral, stone churches  and decorated crosses. With Christianity flourishing in Ireland it is not surprising that missionaries began to take their teachings to other shores. The first and most significant of these was Colm Cille (St Columba), who, with Brigid and Patrick, is one of the three patron saints of Ireland.

Viking invasion

The Vikings, aristocratic Scandinavians, were great sailors and ruthless warriors who travelled in well- built longships. They began to raid the coast of
Ireland in the AD 790s. The island-based monasteries were particularly vulnerable to attack and made rewarding targets to the fast moving raiders. This random raids persisted for several decades, gradually intensifying until it became a concrete campaign by the end of the AD 830s, by which time the Vikings had established bases at Annagassan in County Louth and, more importantly in Dublin. They took part in internal Irish wars and made
Ireland a centre of European trad. They also introduced the use of money and had great influence on art, language, folklore and place names. The Viking age in Ireland ended early in the eleventh century.

The Normans

The Normans arrived in the 12th century, and many of the towns established during the period of their ascendancy have grown into thriving cities since. Castles such as Kilkenny Castle, County Kilkenny and Bunratty Castle in County Clare are part of the Norman legacy, many of whom intermarried with the local Irish and integrated with the Irish culture. Over subsequent years the English plantation of Ireland eventually led to the establishment of a Protestant ascendancy which built many of Ireland’s stately homes, some of which are still standing today. Notable examples are the Powerscourt Estate in County Wicklow, and Emo Court in County Laois.

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