Ireland has been inhabited since Stone Age times. For more than five
thousand years peoples moving westwards across the European continent have
settled in the country and each new group of immigrants, Celts, Vikings,
Normans, English, has contributed to its present population.
In the Stone and Bronze Ages, Ireland was inhabited by Picts in the north and a
people called the Erainn in the south, the same stock, apparently, as in all
the isles before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain. About the 4th century
B.C., tall, red-haired Celts arrived from Gaul or Galicia and established their
distinctive culture , although they do not seem to have come in great numbers.
Ancient Irish legend tells of four successive peoples who invaded the
country?the Firbolgs, the Fomors, the Tuatha De Danann, and the Milesians.
The Irish mythological cycle, which seems to be a history of this period, can
be divided into four major
divisions. The first is the
historical-mythological cycle. Two important texts are part
of this cycle: the Leabhar Gahbala (Book of Invasions), a
mythological history of Ireland; and the Dinnshenchas
(History of Places), a mythological geography of Ireland.
The main theme in the historical-mythological cycle
concerns the peopling of Ireland and the fortunes of the
Tuatha De Danann (People of the Goddess Danann), who were
the mythological ancestors of the Irish.
In the historical-mythological cycle the story of the
predecessors of the Irish settlement is told. The first
group to come to Ireland is led by a woman, Cesair; the
majority of her group is composed of women. This group
arrives before the great flood, and all are destroyed in
the flood except one, Fintan, who in the form of a salmon,
eagle, or hawk witnesses all of the later settlements.
Fintan is the patron of the traditional lore and
storytelling. The next group is led by Partholan, but he
and all of his people die in a plague. A third group is
led by Nemed; after suffering many vicissitudes, this
group divides into three parts and abandons Ireland. Two
of these groups, the Fir Bolg (Bolg Men) and the Tuatha De
Danann (People of the Goddess Danann), occupy the
subsequent history. The Fir Bolg return to Ireland, which
they divide into the five provinces of Ulster, Leinster,
Munster, Connacht, and Meath; they also introduce
kingship. When the Tuatha De Danann arrive, warfare ensues
over possession of the land. One tradition states that
after the First Battle of Mag Tuired, the Fir Bolg and
Tuatha De Danann make peace and agree to live together in
The Tuatha are described as demigods; they are beautiful
people, possessed with skill in music and the arts. They
are always spoken about within a context of fabulous
magical powers and wonders, which define the essence of
their manifestation. A central theme in the myth of the
Tuatha is that of the Second Battle of Mag Tuired. During
the First Battle of Mag Tuired the king of the Tuatha,
Nuada, is wounded. Because he is now physically blemished,
he can no longer serve as king. The kingship is then given
to his adopted son, Bres. Bres's father is a king of the
Fomoire, a group of people with whom Nemed and his people
had fought in previous times. Bres's mother, Eriu, is,
however, a Tuatha. The choice of Bres is apparently an
attempt to accomplish an alliance between the Tuatha and
The Tuatha are themselves later defeated by the Sons of
Mil, the immediate ancestors of the Irish people. The
Tuatha are said now to live in the underground of Ireland,
in the fairy regions, where the fairies are subject to them.
The second division is the Ulster cycle. These myths are
stories of the warriors of King
Conchobar. The themes of those of honor and prestige
revolve around heroic deeds and the hero Cu Chulainn (or
The third division is that of Fenian. The
Fenian Cycle recounts the exploits of Finn Mac Cumhail and
his companions and deals with the cult and institution of
The last division deals with the institution and
founding of the great and lesser kings of Ireland.
Oddly enough, the Romans, who occupied Britain for 400 years, never came to
Ireland, and the Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain, who largely replaced the
Celtic population there, did not greatly affect Ireland.
The earliest settlers arrived around 7,000 BC in the Mesolithic or middle
stone-age period. They arrived in the north across the narrow strait from
Britain. These people were mainly hunters.
Colonists of the Neolithic, or new stone-age, period reached Ireland around
3,000 BC. These were farmers who raised animals and cultivated the soil. Many
remnants of their civilisation - houses, pottery, implements have been
excavated at Lough Gur in Co. Limerick and some can be seen at the folk park
now developed around the lakeside site.
The Neolithic colonists were largely self-sufficient but engaged in a limited
form of trading in products such as axe-heads. Many of their religious
monuments have survived, the most impressive of which is the great megalithic
tomb at Newgrange in Co. Meath.
Prospectors and metalworkers arrived about 2,000 BC. Metal deposits were
discovered and soon bronze and gold objects were being manufactured. Many
artefacts made by these bronze-age people have been found, among them
axe-heads, pottery and jewellery.
About 1,200 BC another movement of people reached Ireland, producing an even
greater variety of weapons and artefacts. A common type of dwelling in use at
this time was the crann�g, an artificial island, palisaded on all sides,
constructed in the middle of a lake.
The people who made the greatest impact on Ireland were the Celts. The earliest
waves of Celtic invaders may have reached the country from central Europe as
early as the 6th century BC with subsequent groups arriving up to the time of
Christ. The Celts belonged linguistically to the great Indo-European family.
They soon came to dominate Ireland and it's earlier settlers. The Celtic
culture of the La Tene civilisation - named after a Celtic site in Switzerland
- reached Ireland around the 2nd century BC. Celtic Ireland was not unified
politically, only by culture and language. The country was divided into about
150 miniature kingdoms, each called a tuath. A minor king ruled a tuath,
subject to a more powerful king who ruled a group of tuatha, who was in turn
subject to one of the five provincial kings. This political situation was very
fluid, with constant shifts in power among the most important contenders.
Celtic Ireland had a simple agrarian economy. No coins were used and the unit
of exchange was the cow. People lived on individual farms and there were no
towns. Society was rigidly stratified into classes and was regulated by the
Brehon Laws, an elaborate code of legislation based largely on the concepts of
the tuath as the political unit and the fine, or extended family, as the social
Christianity was introduced in the 5th century. This is traditionally
associated with St Patrick (d. 461) although there were some Christians in the
country before his arrival. The first written documents date from this period.
A distinctive feature of the development of early Irish Christianity was the
important role played by monasticism. The great monasteries such as
Glendalough, founded by St Kevin, and Clonmacnoise, founded by St Ciaran, were
famous centres of culture and learning and the illuminated manuscripts which
they produced were among the glories of Irish monasticism. It was through the
monasteries that Irish influence on Britain and Europe was exerted from the 6th
Setting out first as pilgrims, Irish monks preached the Gospel and established
new communities across the continent. Ireland, unlike most of the rest of
Europe, did not suffer barbarian invasion and so acted as a repository of
Christian civilisation at a time when it was almost extinguished elsewhere.
Irish monks are associated with a number of continental centres - St Fursey at
Peronne in France, St Kilian at Wurzburg in Germany, St Vergil at Salzburg in
Austria, St Columbanus at Bobbio in Italy. They brought Christianity to pagan
peoples, established centres of learning and paved the way for the intellectual
flowering in 9th century France known as the Carolingian Renaissance. One of
the most notable of these monks was the philosopher and theologian Johannes
The successful missionary efforts of the Irish abroad were matched by rich
cultural achievements at home. Elaborate chalices, croziers and ornamental
jewellery were fashioned while the scribes committed the rich classical
tradition to their magnificently illuminated manuscripts. This period from the
6th to the 9th century has been seen by many as the Golden Age of Irish