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Ireland

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Ireland - History

  • 2000 - Bronze tools and weapons begin to be used in Ireland.
  • 600 - The Iron Age begins. Celtic peoples begin to arrive on the island from mainland Europe.
  • 200 - Ireland is ruled by a large number of small kingdoms.




Brief Overview of the History of Ireland

The Irish people are mainly of Celtic origin. The Celts arrived in the 5th century BC. They invaded Ireland along with Great Britain and other areas of Europe. In 432 AD St. Patrick arrived on the island and began to work to convert the locals to Christianity. Monasteries formed where Irish scholars studied Latin and Greek as well as developed the arts of manuscript, metalworking, and sculpture. The isolation of the monasteries helped keep this knowledge alive during the Dark Ages.


Starting in the 9th century, the Vikings regularly invaded and pillaged Ireland. They would do this for nearly 200 years. In the 12th century the Normans invaded and conquered the land.

Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1800 with the signing of the Act of Union. In 1845 Ireland was hit with a great famine. The potato crop failed and millions died of starvation. Millions more left the country and many Irish emigrated to the United States.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s the Irish began to want their independence from the United Kingdom. The Sinn Fein, which means "Ourselves Alone" became a political movement for freedom. From 1919-1921 Ireland and England went to war. At the end of the war the Irish Free State was formed. Ireland was divided into the Republic of Ireland, which is an independent country, and Northern Ireland, which is still a part of the United Kingdom.

Today in Ireland, English is the common language, but Irish (Gaelic) is also an official language and is taught in schools.


Ancient Ireland

Ireland is an island country located in the North Atlantic, bounded by the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St. George's Channel. It is known as Eire in the Gaelic language, which comes from the old Irish Eriu, the name of a daughter of the mother goddess Ernmas of the Tuatha De Danaan, the mystical pre-Celtic race of Ireland. Legend tells that, when the Milesians invaded Ireland to conquer the Tuatha De Danaan, Eriu and her sisters, Banba and Fodla, asked that they name the island after them. Eriu became the most commonly used name, while Banba and Fodla were used poetically as one might a nickname.

The name Eire is also thought to derive from the Erainn (whose name derives from the same root), the chief tribe of the region of Munster in the south-west mentioned in the Greek historian Ptolemy's Geography (2nd century CE). The Erainn were also called the Iverni by Ptolemy, which would give later Romans their name for Ireland: Hibernia. Ireland is the third largest European island (after Great Britain and Iceland) and is presently divided politically between the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign state, and Northern Island, which is a part of Great Britain.

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The Republic of Ireland is generally referred to simply as 'Ireland'. Eire is usually translated as 'abundant land' or 'plentiful land', either in reference to the goddess who was thought to inhabit the region and bless it with fertility or to the tribe who Ptolemy claimed possessed rich lands.

Early Human Habitation

Ireland was uninhabited by people for a much longer time than many other countries. Historian Jonathan Bardon comments, "It is an arresting thought that human beings had been living in Australia for 40,000 years before the very first people came to live in Ireland" (1). Bardon and others attribute this to the Midlandian Ice Age whose vast sheets of ice only began melting in Ireland c. 15,000 BCE.

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The land was then home to only plants and animals that had crossed over from the European mainland on land masses that were submerged when the glacial ice sheets melted. Ireland and Britain were both separated from the European continent at about this time (c. 12,000 BCE). The first people arrived in Ireland between 7,000-6,500 BCE at Coleraine in the far north. The Mount Sandel Mesolithic Site, discovered at Coleraine in 1973 CE, is the oldest archaeological site in Ireland.

Mesolithic Ireland's inhabitants were hunter-gatherers who traveled in small bands from region to region, building villages of wooden huts with domed roofing of bark and animal skin. These huts were communal lodges for extended families with a single basin-shaped fire pit in the center and a round opening in the roof for ventilation of smoke. They used flint to form axes, knives, scrapers, harpoon blades, and arrowheads.

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Based upon archaeological evidence they seem to have also participated in rituals involving painting both themselves and ceremonial objects. Over time, these hunter-gatherers gradually shifted to an agrarian lifestyle of farming. Bardon writes, "From around 4000 BC a dramatic transformation of the Irish economy began. Until then a small scattered population had lived exclusively by foraging, trapping, and hunting. Now they began to clear the land of trees to create pastures for domestic stock and cultivation ridges for growing cereals" (4).

The Ceide Fields in County Mayo near Ballycastle date from this time and are the oldest known farming fields (known as a field system) in the world. The Ceide Fields were discovered by the local teacher Patrick Caulfield who was harvesting peat from a bog for his hearth. He noted configurations of carefully placed stones beneath the layer of peat bog, which seemed deliberate in design.

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His discovery led to the excavation of the site many years later that uncovered a Neolithic settlement of houses, field systems, walls, and tombs. The Neolithic farmers cleared more and more land, clearing the forests and building more substantial homes and villages. Bardon notes how, based upon archaeological evidence, it is certain that "a dense forest canopy [once] covered the island so completely that a red squirrel could travel from Ireland's most northerly point, Malin Head, to Mizen Head in Co. Cork [the southern-most point] without ever having to touch the ground" but now this dramatically changed as farming communities flourished and more land was cleared for crops.

The wooden huts of the Mesolithic era gave way to houses made of wattle-and-daub with thatched roofs, such as the one found at Ballynagilly, County Tyrone, in 1969 CE, a home considered the oldest Neolithic house found in Britain or Ireland, dated to c. 3700 BCE. Even more elaborate homes have been discovered from shortly after this date, including one in County Limerick, at Tankardstown, "built entirely of oak planking with corner posts and external roof supports" (Bardon, 5). The historian Roger Chauvire writes, "In the beginning, Ireland was virgin and empty land" and had remained so for the 3,000 or so years the hunter-gatherers had roamed through the forests, but that time had now passed (20). The land was tamed and the people settled into stable communities.

The Mythical Origins

While this account of Ireland's past is presently the accepted early history of Ireland, it was not always so. 'History' is a word whose meaning changes according to the accepted beliefs of those who write it. For hundreds of years, a different series of events was accepted as history, which are now referred to as 'mythical origins'. This history was unfolded in the book known as Lebor Gabala Erenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland or The Book of Invasions), written in the late 11th/early 12th century CE.

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This story recounts early Irish history as beginning before the Great Flood when Cessair, daughter of one of Noah's sons (Bith, who is not mentioned in the biblical tale in Genesis), is denied a place on the Ark and flees to Ireland. She arrives with three men and 49 women who are all drowned with her in the Flood save one man, Fintan, who is transformed into various animals until becoming a man again and telling his tale. The second group of immigrants was led by Partholan, son of Sera, son of Japheth (one of Noah's sons in the Bible), following the Great Flood.

They came from somewhere in the east and established a colony that was destroyed by disease, all of them dying in the course of a week. Partholan was followed by Nemed, son of Agnoman, who also traced his ancestry through Japheth back to Noah. They came from Scythia and settled in Ireland but were set upon by the Fomorians, savage sea pirates, under their king Balor the Cyclop and fled the country.

Two hundred years passed in which Ireland was uninhabited, and then the Fir Bolg, a group of Nemedians from Greece, took the land and built homes and forts. They were attacked by the Tuatha De Danann (children of the goddess Dana) who were masters of magical arts and formidable adversaries. The Fir Bolg were defeated by the Tuatha De Danann at the Battle of Moytura and forced to serve them. There then came another son of Japheth, son of Noah, Fenius, who came from the Tower of Babel where he combined only the best elements of all the languages of the world he'd heard there to create the Irish speech, and it was his descendent, Goidil (pronounced 'Gaydel') who gave his name to the Gaels and their language: Gaelic.

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Goidil's mother was Scotta, daughter of a pharaoh of Egypt, who would found Scotland (though the founder may have been another woman of the same name, her sister), and his grandson was Eber Scott who conquered all of Spain. Scott's son was Miledh (also known as Milesius), who ruled after him. Around the time of the birth of Alexander the Great (an event already famous for signs and wonders in the heavens), Miledh looked out from the tower of his castle and saw Ireland floating on the horizon. He sent his three sons - Meremon, Heber, and Ir - from Spain and they conquered the Tuatha De Danann, driving them to a place between worlds where they remain to this day.

The three daughters of the goddess Ernmas of the Tuatha De Danaan - Eriu, Banba, and Fodla - asked the Milesians to name the land after them, and so it was. The Milesian invasion was considered the final colonization of Ireland, which subdued the land and established the civilization and culture as the later writers of these tales knew it.

Commenting on this history, Roger Chauvire writes:

These nursery tales have more than a folklore value. They were made to synchronize with the biblical computation, and integrated into a so-called universal history round about the twelfth century by the authors of the Book of Invasions they were accepted as true all through the Middle Ages, and even later, and this is where their importance lies. There was no great princely house which did not allege, by means of some juggling on the part of its genealogies, that it went back to Milesian times, and on this it would base its claims [to rule] (20-21).

It is unknown how the people of the Neolithic Age viewed their history or what their mythology may have been since they left no written record. The "mythological origins" history of Ireland was written long after by Christian scribes drawing on biblical stories to create a national history. Back in the Neolithic Age, the people of Ireland might have been far too busy establishing farms and villages and making a living to worry about their past history, or perhaps not. While they wrote nothing, they did leave a story behind in the great megalithic structures one finds all across the country in grander or more modest forms, and few are so dramatic as those of the Bru na Boinne Neolithic complex in County Meath.

The Megaliths

Evidence of a pre-literate culture who told their stories through stonework can be seen throughout Ireland. Exactly what these stories are is still a mystery, however. The great megalithic monument known as Newgrange was constructed c. 3200 BCE, and the megalithic passage tombs of Knowth and then Dowth followed soon after. Loughcrew passage tomb, also in Meath, dates from between 3500-3300 BCE. The Carrowkeel passage tombs in County Sligo date from c. 3400 BCE, while the megalithic tombs of Carrowmore (also in Sligo) date from even earlier (3700 BCE), and the Poulnabrone dolmen (a megalithic passage tomb in County Clare) to even earlier (4200 BCE).

All these megaliths and majestic mounds (each one older than Stonehenge or the pyramids of Giza) give evidence of a deeply held belief system which may have honored ancestors, great deeds, heroes, chieftains, and deities, but there is no way of knowing because nothing was recorded. The swirling designs and other engravings on stones at sites like Newgrange, if they mean anything beyond decoration, have shed no light on the subject.

There is no doubt that Newgrange was constructed for a very specific ritualistic purpose. Every December, in the days leading up to and away from the winter solstice, the rising sun sends a single beam directly through a portal above the front passage entrance that illuminates the inner chamber, focusing on one single niche in the back wall. As with the other monuments mentioned, there have been many theories advanced as to the purpose Newgrange served but none are conclusive, nor can they be.

The Poulnabrone dolmen, with its massive slanting capstone, seems to have been constructed at an angle for a specific purpose, possibly to ease the souls of the deceased in their passage to the Underworld or ward off unwanted visitors from the other side, but no one really knows why the capstone was slanted. Dr. Carleton Jones, who excavated the site, claims it may have been a 'prehistoric billboard' as well as a tomb, writing, "As a traveler entered the Burren from the north, the impressive bulk of Poulnabrone would leave no doubt in their mind that they were entering the Burren tribe's territory" (1).

Still, this 'billboard' theory does not seem to apply to every dolmen in the country. There are almost 200 dolmens throughout Ireland, all with slanting capstones, and all seem to have been used as tombs but not as `billboards'. Among the largest is the Kilclooney dolmen in County Donegal (c. 3500 BCE), which stands six feet high with a capstone 13 feet long and 20 feet across. All of these, of course, were constructed without cement, cranes, or metal tools.

The Bronze Age & The Celts

Metalworking developed long after the megaliths were built. It was already a practiced craft by 2000 BCE, probably introduced or discovered c. 2500 BCE. Bronze and copper replaced the stone ornaments and weaponry of the earlier age, and advances in technology increased rapidly. The wheel was introduced at around the same time as techniques for brewing alcohol c. 2200 BCE. Farming implements were improved and more land was cleared and cultivated.

The Giant's Ring, a henge monument in present-day Ballynahatty near Belfast, was constructed about this time (c. 2700 BCE) and regularly used for rituals (probably religious, and no doubt astronomical, though the details are unknown). As in Scotland, at roughly the same time (2500 BCE), a new wave of immigrants introduced flat-bottomed beakers and sophisticated earthenware pottery. These beakers have been found throughout Ireland in such great quantity that these unknown immigrants are referred to as "Beaker People" by archaeologists (as they are also in Scotland).

The Beaker People may be the mysterious builders of circular hill forts found throughout Ireland such as the Mooghaun Hill Fort in County Clare where, in 1854 CE, the largest hoard of gold found anywhere outside of the Mediterranean was discovered. The "Great Clare Find" as it was called dated to 800 BCE, and its creation is often attributed to the Celts rather than the Beaker People, but this is disputed.

The Bronze Age merged into the Iron Age with the arrival of the Celts sometime between 500-300 BCE, possibly earlier. This influx used to be regarded as "the Celtic invasion", but that theory has now been discarded as it seems far more likely that the Celts and the indigenous people of Ireland were engaged in trade which led to cultural diffusion and Celtic assimilation. Bardon writes:

When did the Celts come to Ireland? A clear answer cannot be given because they do not seem to have formed a distinct race. Celtic civilisation may have been created by a people in central Europe, but it was primarily a culture - a language and a way of life - spread from one people to another. Archaeologists have searched in vain for evidence of dramatic invasions of Ireland, and they now prefer to think of a steady infiltration from Britain and the European mainland over the centuries (12).

According to historian Helen Litton, the Celts originated in central and east-central Europe in the Early Iron Age, and "they seem to represent a coming together of various groups, during the Bronze Age, who gradually developed a single culture around the discovery and use of iron" (19-20). When the Celts arrived in Ireland, however gradually or swiftly, they brought the knowledge of iron working with them. They also brought conquest as they came in their war chariots fully armed with their "swords as long as the javelins of other peoples and their javelins with points longer than swords", in the words of the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus. They quickly subdued and assimilated the inhabitants of the land to form the Gaelic culture.

St. Patrick & the Rise of Literacy

The Celts ordered their society in Ireland into a hierarchy of warriors and Druids at the top and everyone else beneath them. They built great fortresses, adorned themselves with gold brooches and cloaks, and told epic tales which would not be written down until hundreds of years later, such as The Cattleraid of Cooley, the great Irish epic, featuring the hero Cuchulainn and the great Queen Maeve, the Fenian Cycle, the deeds of great kings like Cormac MacArt, the knights of the Red Branch from the Ulster Cycle, and epic legends like The Pursuit of Diarmund and Grainne.

Literacy came to Ireland with the Christian missionary Palladius and others such as Ailbe, Declan, Ibar, and Ciaran who followed him, as well as the better known St. Patrick in the 5th century CE. Palladius and the others established Christian communities that placed a premium on literacy and became centres of learning, but they were not as successful as the former slave who escaped from captivity in Ireland to return a bishop and change the nation: St. Patrick.

Patrick (c. 5th century CE) was a Roman citizen who was captured by pirates from Roman Britain and sold into slavery in Ireland. After six years he escaped, following a vision in a dream in which God directed him to leave by ship. He returned to Britain and his family but again was summoned in a dream to leave his land and return to Ireland to preach the gospel. Patrick did far more than convert pagan Ireland to Christianity he popularized the faith, carefully integrating it with what he knew of Celtic mythology and Irish lore so that it was more easily assimilated.

He is said to have announced the arrival of Christianity in the country with a great bonfire on the Hill of Slane, just opposite the Hill of Tara, in 432 or 433 CE, defying the edict of the High King Laoghaire who had prohibited any fires that night save the sacred flame of the druids on Tara to celebrate the festival of Ostara. The faith St. Patrick announced that night would change Ireland in many ways, perhaps most importantly in the area of literacy. In spreading the Christian message through the land, St. Patrick planted the seeds of Christian communities, which became seats of learning and centers of knowledge.

The High Kings & the Law

The Hill of Tara in County Meath stands at an elevation of 646 feet (197 metres) and, at the summit, rises the Lia Fail, the stone of destiny where the High Kings of Ireland were inaugurated. Legend tells how, after the Milesians defeated the Tuatha De Danaan, Ireland was divided between the two victorious brothers Eber and Eremon Eremon taking the north and Eber the south. They lived in peace until Eber's wife desired the most beautiful hill in the land, Tara, which was in Eremon's territory and Eremon's wife, Tea, refused her.

The two women drew their husbands into the argument, and they went to war. Eber was killed and Eremon took his lands. Tea also died at this time and gave her name to the hill she had defended and where she was buried. One interpretation of 'Tara' is a corruption of Tea-Mur, Tea's Tomb. The Hill of Tara was thenceforth regarded with great respect for this reason, as well as for the belief that it was imbued with magic by the Tuatha De Danaan, who dwelt in the ground and hollows of the hill and who had brought the Lia Fail to the land centuries before.

These beliefs continued to be observed after the Celts arrived and their kings were crowned at the Lia Fail in accordance with custom. Among the early prehistoric kings was the legendary Conn Cetchathatch (Conn of the Hundred Battles) whose grandson was Cormac MacArt the law giver. The Brehon Laws (also known as the Brehon Codes and Fenechas) are the earliest laws of Ireland and were written by MacArt at some point during his reign (c.227-266 CE). The name derives from Brehon, which means lawgiver, and these laws were interpreted by the Brithem (judges). They are considered among the most advanced and equitable laws ever written (including ancient law codes such as the Code of Ur-Nammu or Hammurabi's Code from ancient Mesopotamia) and, according to historian Loretta Wilson, "covered almost every relationship and every fine shade of relationship, social and moral, between man and man" (1).

The laws provided justice for all, no matter one's social standing, and maintained the independence and dignity of women, which had long been observed in Ireland. Historian Lloyd Duhaime, writing on the Brehon Laws, notes that "women were held on an equal footing as men and eligible for the highest professions including as warriors, priestesses and judges . . . . At marriage, women were partners with their husbands, and not the property of the latter" (2). Cormac MacArt was considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, king of ancient Ireland and, besides being known for his laws, initiated building projects as great as the halls and forts of Tara and as modest as riverside mills. His Brehon Laws would later be revised and codified by St. Patrick who maintained the humane aspect of them and upheld the rights of women in society.

The achievements of St. Patrick and Cormac MacArt, like much of early Irish history, are blended with myth, and so it is with MacArt's descendants, the Ui Neill, the dynasty most prominent in Ireland for centuries. The Ui Neill were descended from Niall Noigiallach (better known as Niall of the Nine Hostages) who, as his name indicates, was a powerful enough king to have held one hostage each from the five provinces of Ireland and one each from the Britons, the Franks, the Saxons, and the Scots. The oldest monument at the Hill of Tara is the Mound of the Hostages, a passage tomb dating to c. 3000 BCE. The name comes from the later practice of kings and chieftains exchanging hostages at the site. The more hostages one held to ensure good behavior of would-be rivals, the more powerful and secure the ruler.

The Viking age in Ireland

Like the legendary Eber and Eremon, the Ui Neill divided the country between them with the northern Ui Neill and the southern Ui Neill. The Ui Neill defended the land against the ever increasing Viking raids along the coasts, built forts and towers, and developed the land. The Viking Age in Ireland began with the first recorded raid in 795 CE off the coast of Antrim and ended in 1014 CE with the Viking defeat by the great High King of Ireland Brian Boru (941-1014 CE) at The Battle of Clontarf. Although Boru is famously known as the king who drove the Vikings from Ireland, this is not so. The Vikings had established a number of permanent settlements, most notably Dublin, and continued to play a part in Ireland's history following Clontarf.

The legend of Boru driving the Vikings from the land is rooted in his victory over the combined forces of the Vikings and Boru's Irish enemies at Clontarf, after which Viking power was broken and Irish monarchies, like the Ui Neill, grew in strength. They had reigned before Boru came to power and, after his death at The Battle of Clontarf, the Ui Neill resumed control of the land but their power was diminished. Following the Norman Invasion of 1169 CE and England's King Henry II's domination of Ireland in 1171 CE, their power, like the other nobles of Ireland, was weakened further.

English rule in Ireland grew steadily more oppressive by the decade, if not by the year, and by 1368 CE, the Brehon Laws were outlawed under the Statute of Kilkenny. The once prestigious clans like the Ui Neill stood their ground as well as they could until they were largely removed in the 17th century CE through the English policy known as the Plantation of Ulster.

Under this policy, half a million acres of some of the best land was taken from Gaelic Catholic chieftains and their families following Hugh O'Neill's defeat at the Battle of Kinsale in 1601 CE and the Flight of the Earls in 1607 CE. The Plantation policy sought to replace Irish Catholics on the land with English Protestants, and it succeeded. Along with the other rules, laws, and strictures imposed on the Irish, it would not be until after 1921 CE that the people of Ireland would regain a measure of the freedom and autonomy they had known prior to the Norman Invasion.

The Legacy of Ireland

In spite of the severity of English measures, the Irish continued to endure and thrive through the centuries. They found ways to preserve their language, law, and culture, which had been outlawed and driven underground, and they owed this success to the foundation laid centuries before by St. Patrick and the early Christian missionaries.

Literacy flourished in the monastic centers of Ireland eventually producing masterpieces of sacred art such as the illuminated manuscript the Book of Kells by c. 800 CE. Great monasteries and communities such as Clanmacnoise and Glendalough were established by the middle of the 6th century CE, only a little over a hundred years after St. Patrick had arrived. The monasteries of Ireland would do more than just encourage literacy in the country they would save the heritage of western civilization.

The Western Roman Empire fell 4 September 476 CE when the Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by the Germanic king Odoacer. The empire had been in turmoil, to greater or lesser degrees, since the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284 CE) and was divided into eastern and western empires in 285 CE. The stability that Rome had offered for centuries was gone and religious factions added to the chaos of the barbarian invasions to threaten the great libraries of the ancient world. St. Patrick is thought to have begun his missionary work in Ireland c. 432 CE and, not long after, monks were copying any book they could find. Thomas Cahill, author of How The Irish Saved Civilization, writes:

The Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature - everything they could lay their hands on. These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed. Without this Service of the Scribes, everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one - a world without books (4).

The claim that the Irish monks saved civilization may seem like an overstatement, but the historical record proves otherwise. Although Agricola initiated plans to invade Ireland, and archaeological finds have unearthed evidence of Roman habitation (in Roman coins, graves, and tools), the invasion never took place. Ireland was left alone by the empire and was largely unaffected by its fall. In the safety of the island, within the walls of their communities, the monks gathered and safeguarded the books that were neglected or destroyed on the mainland, preserving the past for the future.


Do Irish Origin Myths Match the Scientific Evidence?

One of the oldest texts composed in Ireland is the Leabhar Gabhla, the Book of Invasions. It tells a semi-mythical history of the waves of people who settled in Ireland in earliest times. It says the first settlers to arrive in Ireland were a small dark people called the Fir Bolg, followed by a magical super-race called the Tuatha de Danaan (the people of the goddess Dana).

Most interestingly, the book says that the group which then came to Ireland and fully established itself as rulers of the island were the Milesians—the sons of Mil, a soldier from Spain. Modern DNA research into male Y chromosomes has found that the the R1b haplogroup reaches very high concentrations in Western Ireland and the Basque country in northern Spain. While the picture for matrilineal descent (mother to daughter) is more complex, it seems that the northern Spanish and the Irish might have common male ancestors at some point in history.

There are also interesting cultural similarities along the western seaboard of Europe, stretching from Spain up to Ireland - as has been written about by the archeologist Barry Cunliffe. Although it might seem surprising, it is worth remembering that in ancient times the sea was one of the fastest and easiest ways to travel. When the land was covered in thick forest, coastal settlements were common and people travelled around the seaboard of Europe quite freely.

Another interesting finding about Irish DNA is that many men in North West Ireland (and their descendants around the world, including about 2% of men in New York today) are descended from a single man who lived in Ireland around 1600-1700 years ago. This coincides with the time of the famous Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages, who legend says brought St Patrick to Ireland as a slave. The O&aposNeill family, who claim to descend from Niall, have certainly been a powerful family through the ages in Ireland.

Meanwhile, the latest research in 2018 suggests that the Irish are most closely related to people in North West France (Brittany where a Celtic language has traditionally been spoken) and in Western Norway. Interestingly, where earlier studies didn&apost find much impact of Viking DNA among the modern Irish, a recent study suggests there may have been more influence than perviously thought. You can read more details here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-17124-4

What we can take from all of this is that, although the Irish today feel part of a single group united by cultural and national identity, this culture and identity is ultimately founded on waves of migration connecting the island to the wider world of European peoples and beyond.


Irish History

Located just off a much larger island (Britain) to the northwest of the European continent, Ireland has often been perceived as a remote, distant and isolated backwater. Historically, this is far from the truth. Since early prehistory, in Europe sea-lanes mattered as much as, and often more than, land-routes and Irish prehistory and history exemplify this fact. Throughout history, Ireland has tended to be part of complex long-distance networks and cultural contexts, sometimes but not always centred on Ireland’s close proximity to Britain (especially Scotland). Too often, Irish history is discussed simply as an offshoot of British history.

This is to say that Ireland has its own distinctive historical character, dynamic and trajectory, which are central to any understanding of Irish history. The connection with Britain is close for obvious reasons, has had profound influences on Ireland in many ways – even though the flow of cultural influences tends to go both ways – but eventually remains just one aspect of a diverse and fascinating history featuring multiple links in many directions, including for example very significant connections with Scandinavia, France and Spain.

For the visitor to Ireland, one of the country’s most striking aspects is the constant and high visibility of her long history. It is present not just in its townscapes and cityscapes, but also scattered throughout the landscape in the form of innumerable archaeological and historical monuments. Even the landscape itself, at a closer look, reveals the human imprint that made it what it is today.

In Ireland, it is not uncommon to see a prehistoric tomb, a Celtic ringfort, a medieval castle or monastery, an 18 th century estate and a living town or village all within the same view-shed. In contrast to most of Europe, where the physical heritage of one era tends to supersede that of its predecessors, in Ireland we often find them side by side, permitting us to literally walk through history, an experience that is fascinating, humbling and intensely enjoyable.

Below, we offer an overview of some of the key moments in the history of Ireland – hoping to strike a balance between the necessary generalisations such an undertaking requires and the respecting for detail, even nuance that any history deserves.

Ireland: A Brief Timeline

Late Palaeolithic: After the retreat of the last Ice Age’s glaciers, Ireland is initially connected by landbridge to Southwest Scotland and thus indirectly to the European continent. The link to Scotland is flooded around the 12 th millennium BC, making Ireland an island. Scant evidence suggests a presence of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers around 10,000 BC.

Circa 8000-4000 BC: Mesolithic foragers arrive in Ireland and establish impermanent encampments. The overall population is very low, concentrating on riverine and marine resources and producing stone tools.

Circa 4000-2400 BC: The Neolithic era is characterised by agriculture, animal husbandry, permanent settlement, pottery and polished stone tools. These developments have started reaching north-western Europe from the East by about 6,000 BC. Although there is some earlier evidence for experimentation with aspects of the “Neolithic package” (cattle-raising) in Ireland, by about 4,000 BC the whole island is affected and the population begins to increase. The introduction of the Neolithic may entail natives as well as newcomers, it certainly indicates contact with Britain and Northern France. The most strikingly visible aspect of the Irish Neolithic is the appearance of Megalithic Tombs, with close parallels in France, Wales and Scotland. Over 1,200 such monuments are known in Ireland, separated into five types: Court Tombs, Passage Tombs, Portal Tombs and Wedge Tombs. Their exact chronological relationships remain unclear, but Court Tombs appear to be the oldest (beginning a little after 4000 BC), and Wedge Tombs the youngest (3 rd millennium BC), while passage tombs (probably c 3500-3000 BC), fewest in number, are the most elaborate type, often decorated with characteristic rock carvings.

Circa 2400-500 BC: The arrival of a new culture, the “Beaker People” around 2400 BC (probably from the Continent via Britain) marks the beginning of the metal ages. Initially, only copper, available in south-western Ireland, is used, but by 2,000 BC it is alloyed with tin (not available in Ireland): the Bronze Age begins. During this era, Ireland is an important source of both copper and gold and an elaborate tradition of metalwork develops. Little is known of Irish Bronze Age society, but it appears that population further increases and contacts with the outside world are maintained. Irish-made gold objects are found as far away as Scandinavia and Germany. A characteristic type of Bronze Age monument are the Stone Circles found throughout the island.

Circa 500 BC-AD 432: The Iron Age. Many scholars believe that the beginning of this era sees the arrival of Indo-European “Celts” in Ireland, while others place it with the “Beaker Culture” two millennia earlier. It is certain, however, that during the second half of the first millennium BC, elements of “Celtic” culture are firmly established in Ireland, including language, religion and aspects of material culture, especially the “La Tène” style of decorating metalwork, of which Ireland produces fine, if rare, examples. Irish society is organised in tribal units, most likely ruled by local strongmen or “petty kings”. Larger political units probably begin to come into existence. Unlike its neighbours, Ireland is never conquered by the Romans, but spends several centuries existing alongside the Roman Empire, especially Roman Britain, engaging in trade and perhaps other forms of contact with the Roman World. Most of the Irish mythology recorded in later eras relates stories and events that must originate from the Iron Age. Thousands of ringforts (fortified farmsteads) scattered throughout Ireland indicate the main form of rural settlement of the time a handful of much larger and more elaborate “royal” sites represent political and ceremonial centres there is no evidence of cities. Around 140 AD, the Roman geographer Ptolemy produces the earliest known map of Ireland. Although later Irish tradition notes AD 220 as the year when Cormac mac Airt became the first “High King” of Ireland, the island is never politically united in this era and tribal warfare is virtually constant the four (or five) historical Provinces also date from this era. From the 4 th century onwards, Irish raiders start hassling the shores of Britain.

432-795: AD 432, the year that Saint Patrick is said to have returned to Ireland, is the benchmark for the advent of Early Christian Ireland. Whatever the historical/legendary nature of the saint, all of Ireland appears to be converted quite swiftly and without producing martyrs within the 5 th century. This major religious shift also affects politics and culture, opening Ireland to Graeco-Roman influences and catapulting it from prehistory into history, as a written record is established, starting with Patrick himself. During this era, a complex monastic culture develops the new faith is also expressed through elaborate metalwork and the new tradition of illuminated manuscripts a rich literature in Latin and Gaelic starts to develop, as does a distinctive system of “Brehon” law. During the same period, tribes from Ulster gain control of South-western Scotland, bringing Christianity there. Missionaries from both Ireland and the Gaelic parts of Scotland, collectively known as “scoti” play a major role in the re-Christianisation of much of Central Europe. Politically, Ireland remains divided between over 150 smallish kingdoms, with a handful or two of regional over-kingships, controlled by various clans. The role of “High King”, a ceremonial “primus inter pares” among the over-kings is a major prize to gain. Various sects of the clan of the Uí Néill (O’Neill) dominate that title for many centuries.

795-980: In 795, the first Scandinavian “Viking” raids affect Ireland. They remain an ongoing threat for most of the subsequent century, especially on the eastern coast. By the 840s, a Viking base exists at Dublin by the 860s, the Vikings or Norse begin to settle more permanently. Ireland’s first cities, including Dublin, Waterford and Limerick, come into existence and adopt Christianity especially Dublin, now a Norse kingdom allied with York, thrives in the 10 th century: in 997, Sitric Silkbeard, King of Dublin, will mint the first coinage in Irish history. In the areas less affected by these newcomers, Gaelic culture and tribal infighting continue as before. Altogether, the era is violent one, seeing much fighting between Vikings and Gaels, but also amongst Gaels and amongst Vikings, in various alliances.

980-1169: The defeat of Dublin at the 980 Battle of Tara puts an end to Norse dominance in the region, but does not end the Norse presence. In the aftermath, Brian Boru, member of a little-known Western clan, gradually gains control first of Munster, then of Leinster. By 1011, all regional kings as well as the Norse recognise him as High King his is the first attempt to redefine the “High King” as a true “King of Ireland”. At the 1014 Battle of Clontarf, an aged Brian defeats a rebellious alliance of Norse Dublin and its Gaelic Allies, but loses his own life. His lasting legacy is the establishment of his descendants as the Ua Briain (O’Brian), henceforth a force to be reckoned with. Brian’s successors attempt to use the role of High King according to his ambitions, always against major infighting among the many kings. Gaelic culture thrives. During the 12 th century, the Roman Papacy takes a more active interest in Ireland, leading to a reform of the monastery-based “Celtic” church into a more mainstream episcopal one with its archbishop at Armagh in Ulster.

1169-1366: A little over a century after the Normans take control of England in 1066, they set their sights on Ireland. Invited by the ongoing local infighting, Anglo-Normans invade Leinster in 1169 and 1171, the latter foray led by the English King, Henry II, making England a major player on Irish soil for 800 years or more. The “Lordship of Ireland” is instituted as subservient to the English King, ostensibly controlling the entire island. Initially welcomed by many local rulers, the Anglo-Normans take control of choice parts of the island and exert lasting cultural influence. The last accepted High King, Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair, dies in 1198. By the 14 th century, the Anglo-Normans face multiple rebellions, English power wanes and the influence reverses: many of the Norman nobles fall into Gaelic habits, adopting the local language, law and tradition. Gaelic culture continues to thrive. The Lordship, and thus English dominance, is gradually reduced to “the Pale” an area including the East Coast between Dublin and Drogheda and reaching inland from there (the modern English expression “beyond the Pale” preserves its memory). In 1297, the first Irish Parliament is instituted in Dublin, representing the landed Anglo-Normans of the Pale and convening at times in Dublin, at others in Drogheda. In 1320, the first Irish university is founded in Dublin: its languishing and ineffective existence lasts for two centuries.

1366-1542: In 1366, recognising the waning English influence, the Irish (Anglo-Norman) Parliament passes the “Statutes of Kilkenny”, forbidding intermarriage and other connections between English and Irish: this is the beginning of a long and tragic history of segregation and of attempts at oppressing or sidelining Irish culture. Initially, it fails: the now Hiberno-Norman establishment (Hibernia is the Latin name for Ireland) continues in its ways and Gaelic culture still thrives, maintained by both Hiberno-Norman and native Gaelic potentates. From 1494 onwards, the Irish Parliament’s decisions can be sidelined or overruled by English legislation. The cultural distance between England and Ireland is exacerbated by Henry VIII’s split with Rome and establishment of the Church of England in 1534, leading to rebellions that are crushed. Most monasteries in Ireland are dissolved. In 1542, Henry establishes the “Kingdom of Ireland”, a separate realm in personal union with the English monarchy. Henry’s and his successors’ attempts at converting the Irish populace to English Protestantism see little success.

1542 -1641: The Tudor and Stuart realms are a violent era for Ireland, continuing and exacerbating conflict, permanently changing the demographics of entire regions and effectively destroying Gaelic culture. Before his death in 1558, Henry VIII, having consolidated the Pale, sets in motion the “Tudor (re)conquest“ of the entire island. The policy of “surrender and regrant” forces the Gaelic and Hiberno-Norman (“Old English”) chiefs, one by one, to accept their ancestral lands as feudal grants from the monarch, rather than belonging to the tribe as they did under Brehon Law. The process is a slow and bloody one, continued by Henry’s successors Elizabeth I and James I. During Elizabeth’s reign, a series of rebellions occur, first in Munster (1569-1583), led by the Fitzgeralds, Earls of Desmond, then in Ulster (1594-1603), led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, and supported by Spain. Both rebellions entail heavy fighting and the English use of “scorched earth” tactics, leading to widespread famine. of After their eventual defeat, O’Neill, his ally, Rory O’Donnell and many of their followers leave Ireland for the continent in 1607, an event remembered as the “Flight of the Earls”. In both Munster and Ulster, the rebellions are followed by “plantations”, the forcible confiscation of the formerly tribal lands and their redistribution to British settlers who must be English-speaking Protestants. Especially the “Plantation of Ulster”, beginning in 1609, has enormous impact: over 2,000km² (775 sq mi) of land are dispossessed and within two decades, over 20,000 male “planters” and their families, mostly Scottish Presbyterians, live in a province that previously had a population numbering around 40,000. During the same era, English policy in Ireland becomes openly discriminatory of Catholics, restricting their political and property rights. In 1592, Trinity College Dublin is chartered as a Protestant university.

1641-1691: The remainder of the 17 th century is one of the most violent periods in all of Irish history. While a crisis of the British monarchy leads to Civil War in England and Scotland, the Irish Catholic landowners, tired of increasing restrictions, stage the Irish Rebellion of 1641, starting in Ulster, where many Protestants are massacred. They gain control of two thirds of the island, ruling it as the Irish Catholic Confederation, a quasi-parliamentary government representing the Catholic gentry of the Four Provinces and ostensibly loyal to King James I. The Confederation is in constant warfare with English and Scottish armies. Ruthless sectarian conflict is the order of the era, causing resentments that last to the present day. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell invades Ireland with his New Model Army, ending the Confederation and engaging in a four-year campaign of re-conquest and retribution that entails multiple massacres against Catholics throughout Ireland. In the aftermath, Penal Law is instituted, ratcheting up anti-Catholic discrimination: Catholics are barred from the Irish Parliament, most remaining Catholic-owned land is confiscated and given to English settlers, the Catholic clergy are persecuted and 12,000 Catholic Irishmen are sold into “indentured servitude” (a euphemism for slavery) to the British colonies across the Atlantic. In 1685, James II becomes the last Catholic to be crowned King of England the more extreme anti-Catholic measures are briefly suspended during his short rule. His deposition by Parliament in 1688 (the Glorious Revolution), followed by his replacement with William (III) of Orange leads to the Williamite Wars: James enters Ireland with French support, but is eventually defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The 1691 Treaty of Limerick is meant to allow for members of the Catholic Gentry to preserve their rights by declaring allegiance to William, but the Protestant-dominated Irish Parliament rejects these terms and reinstitutes Penal Law (against Catholics and Presbyterians alike) in even harsher form: Catholic landownership is virtually extinguished. For a hundred years, France raises Irish regiments (the “Wild Geese”), posing a theoretical threat to British-held Ireland. Gaelic culture is now a sub-culture, but continues in music and poetry.

1691-1801: Ireland’s 18th century is the Age of the Anglican Ascendancy, an age of ostensible peace, but actually hardening conflict. Virtually all Irish land is in Protestant hands but a split grows amongst the Protestant landlords. The vast majority are absentee landlords, using their income from Irish tenants, collected by whatever means, to live their aristocratic lives in London unconcerned with conditions on their Irish estates. Only a minority chooses to live on their estates, shows concern in local conditions and increasingly develops an allegiance to the country and its fate, constantly disappointed by London’s lack of interest in Irish affairs, especially the fact that England raises tariffs on Irish imports, but not vice versa. In 1740/41, a severe winter causes a major famine, exacerbated by absentee landlordism and killing nearly 40 per cent (!) of Ireland’s rural population. The American and French revolutions, obsessing London with vain efforts to preserve the global status quo, inspire a new movement, the United Irishmen, aiming to unite Anglicans, Presbyterians and Catholics in the interest of Ireland as a whole. In spite of easing of the Penal Laws – as of 1793, some Catholics are permitted to vote, but not to stand for election – the situation comes to a head with the United Irishmen’s rebellion of 1798 it is a chaotic event, including a failed French invasion and much sectarian violence, ending with the execution of its leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone. For the first time, undesirables are deported to Australia. London finally reacts to the ongoing Irish misery by forcing through the 1800 Second Act of Union (the First was with Scotland 93 years earlier), incorporating Ireland into Britain/England and abolishing the Irish Parliament by its own agreement (through bribes). Ireland is now simply part of Britain and Irish voters elect members of the Westminster Parliament, which still won’t permit Catholics.

1801-1845: A second United Irishmen rebellion is crushed in 1803, its leader, Robert Emmett, executed. The Union fails to solve Ireland’s political, religious or economic issues, absentee landlordism continues. Following much agitation led by popular leader Daniel O’Connell, the Catholic Relief Act of 1829 finally restores Catholics’ and Presbyterians’ right to vote and stand for election (O’Connell becomes the first Catholic MP at Westminster in over a century), but the subsequent Reform Act of 1832 disenfranchises the poor. There is much tension throughout Ireland: secret organisations are formed to sabotage and threaten landlords, Catholics, representing 85 per cent of the population, resent having to pay a tithe to the Anglican Church, sectarian strife begins to rear its head in Ulster. During the same period, Belfast and Ulster begin to be affected by industrialisation. The first railway in Ireland opens in 1834. O’Connell’s highly popular campaign to repeal the Union falters in the 1840s. Universities are founded in Galway, Belfast and Cork in 1845.

1845-1849: The Great Irish Famine, technically a natural disaster caused by a fungus (“the “blight”), but aggravated by economic policies, is an event of enormous demographic, cultural, political and psychological impact. During half a decade of successive crop failures, at least a million die from starvation and epidemics, especially in Ireland’s overpopulated western regions, and another million emigrate, mostly to England and North America, reducing the island’s population from 8 to 6 million and starting a trend of depopulation that is only to be halted in the late 20 th century. Absentee landlordism, inheritance law and tradition, over-dependence on a single crop and the government’s adherence to a principle of economic laissez-faire conspire to harshen the effects, in spite of various relief efforts. A failed rising (Young Irelanders) in 1848 does nothing to improve the situation. Among many, the famine results in a severe and permanent loss of trust in England’s ability to look after Irish affairs.

1849-1916: A period of competing political and cultural movements that eventually lead to rupture with England. Emigration continues. There is much agitation about the rights of agricultural tenants, leading to a series of reforms beginning in the 1880s and eventually ending the Ascendancy. The era also sees the beginning of the “Gaelic revival”, a cultural movement eager to rediscover the country’s Celtic roots, including folklore, mythology and the Irish language itself, which has suffered much from demographic changes, ceasing to be the majority’s spoken language around 1900. The newly-founded (1854) Catholic University of Dublin plays an important role henceforth. In the 1870s, the Home Rule Movement is founded, arguing for Ireland’s right to self-govern as a region within the Union: it is a dominant force in Irish politics until the 1910s, represented in Westminster by the Irish Parliamentary Party, most famously led by Charles Stewart Parnell. Any form of rule from Dublin is fiercely opposed by the Unionists (most of them in Ulster), who refound the 18 th century Orange Order to press their point. The early 20 th century also sees increasing industrial confrontations and the beginnings of trade union and socialist movements. On the cultural front, Irish writers have considerable impact on English-language literature during this era and beyond. During the early 1900s, the outbreak of open conflict within Ireland becomes more and more inevitable: organisations like the Irish Republican Brotherhood or the Irish Volunteers on the nationalist side, or the Ulster Volunteers on the Unionist one, take on an openly paramilitary character. A Home Rule Act is passed in 1914, providing for an Irish government in Dublin, but also for a number of Ulster counties to opt out. It is suspended at the outbreak of the First World War. Irish divisions suffer crippling losses in the fighting.

1916-1923: During the most turbulent seven years in Irish history, the Irish Free State gains independence from the United Kingdom. In 1916, the Irish Volunteers stage the Easter Rising, primarily in Dublin, defeated within six days. Initially, the Rising is immensely unpopular, but the immediate execution of its leadership, including Patrick Pearse and James Connolly, leads to a widespread shift in opinion: the days of the Union with England are counted. In the General Election of 1918, the hitherto fringe and radical Republican party Sinn Féin wins 73 out of 105 Irish seats in Westminster, but the Sinn Féin MPs decline to attend the London Parliament. Instead, they convene in Dublin as Dáil Éireann, the revolutionary Irish Parliament, declaring the Irish Republicand adopting the tricolour as its symbol. From 1919 to 1921, the Irish War of Independence is fought between the Irish Republican Army (the “Old IRA”), and various British forces, mostly as a guerrilla war. Fighting is hard and cruel, but overall casualties (civilian and combatant) are little over 2,000. An exodus of Anglo-Irish Protestants from the 28 “southern” counties begins. A ceasefire is agreed in June 1921, followed by negotiations between the British Government (including David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill) and the Irish Provisional Government, its representatives famously including Michael Collins. The agreed Treaty entails a dominion status modelled on Canada’s, the partition of part of Ulster (the six counties forming Northern Ireland) and an Oath of Fidelity to the monarchy to be sworn by Irish deputies. Although Ireland is now de-facto independent, a large proportion of Sinn Féin, led by Éamon de Valera reject the deal, leading to the 1922-1923 Civil War. After hard fighting and the loss of over 4,000 lives, Collins’s pro-treaty forces (the “Free State”) win Collins himself is killed. Resentments about the conflict last to the present day. Meanwhile, a Northern Irish Parliament has been founded in 1920.

1923-present: As Sinn Féin and the IRA continue to reject the Irish state, De Valera breaks with them in 1926 to found the Fiánna Fail party, entering Dáil Éireann in 1927 and gaining power in 1932. He himself is to dominate Irish politics until his death in 1975, his party until at least 2011. In 1936, the IRA is made illegal. In 1937, De Valera introduces a new constitution, abolishing the term “Free State” simply naming the country Éire or Ireland, claiming the whole island, removing all references to the monarchy and recognising Roman Catholicism as the main religion. There are two houses of parliament, the country is governed by the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and officially represented by the Uachtarán (President). Irish is the (nominal) first official language. Ireland remains neutral during the Second World War, although many Irishmen fight on the Allied side. Ireland becomes officially a Republic in 1949. Until the 1980s, the Republic is beset by economic issues such as poverty, high unemployment and emigration. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland has been the venue of increasing sectarian violence since its foundation, its government, parliament and industry dominated by Protestants. By the late 1960s, this turns into the Northern Irish “Troubles”. “Provisional” Sinn Féin and the IRA fight the Northern Irish and British state, which fight back with the aid of various Unionist or Loyalist organisations: an extensive period of outright violence follows, claiming over 3,500 lives, half of them civilians. The Northern Parliament is abolished in 1973. Also in 1973, Ireland (both parts) joins the EEC. From the 1970s onwards, Irish musicians achieve considerable international success. In the 1990s, the phenomenon of the “Celtic Tiger” is marked by extensive economic growth in the Republic, accompanied by rapid social and cultural modernisation. The Northern “Troubles” end (?) with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998: Ireland cancels its constitutional claim on the North Britain accepts that if a majority in Northern Ireland wish unification with the Republic, it will be let go an elected assembly is reinstituted, as is a power-sharing government including both ethnic/religious groups. In 1999, Ireland (not including Northern Ireland) joins the Eurozone. In 2008/09, the international financial crisis leads to a collapse of the Irish economy Ireland enters a bailout deal in 2010, ending in 2013.


Ireland: History

The outbreak of World War I delays the implementation of new home rule legislation, which would have restored the Dublin parliament.

The Anglo-Irish treaty creates the Irish Free State, which is an independent dominion of the British crown with full internal self-government rights.

Voters approve a new constitution, which abolishes the Irish free state and proclaims Eire (Gaelic for Ireland) a sovereign, independent, and democratic state.

Eire remains neutral upon the outbreak of World War II, however, many Irish citizens join the Allied forces.

Eire leaves the British Commonwealth and becomes the Republic of Ireland.

Ireland launches a successful campaign of economic modernization, which mainly revolves around abandoning protectionism and encouraging foreign trade investment. Ireland moves away from its traditionally agricultural-based economy.

Ireland signs the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Area Agreement of 1965 with the United Kingdom, which effectively removes many of the remaining tariff and trade barriers between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Ireland faces severe economic problems stemming from increasing unemployment and foreign borrowing.

In the midst of the global financial crisis, the Irish government guarantees the debts of the country's banks. This move ultimately backfires and damages the economy, as Ireland does not have sufficient reserves to cover the aforementioned debts.

The Irish government drafts austerity measures in exchange for an 85bn euro rescue package with the EU and IMF after the cost of bailing out Irelands banking system drives the budget deficit up to one third of the national GDP.

Moody's rating agency downgrades Ireland's debt rating to junk status.

The European Central Bank approves a deal to liquidate the former Anglo Irish Bank, which was nationalized in 2009.

Ireland becomes the first bailed out eurozone country to exit the bailout program after fulfilling the necessary conditions.


IrishCentral is celebrating Irish food! You can follow the whole story on social media just search for #FoodMyMammyMade and #ICFood. Or you can keep up to date with all our Food and Drink stories here or never miss a recipe by checking out our dedicated topic page here.

The first settlers arrived at Ireland’s coasts in 8000 BC, but the potato only arrived in Europe some 400 years ago. So what was it exactly our ancestors lived on? On a magical evening in the Brewers Dining Hall at the Guinness Storehouse in James’ Gate, I had the pleasure of enjoying a sumptuous feast prepared Guinness Storehouse Executive Chef, Justin O’Connor. As well as a dinner of Irish food we had great entertainment in the presence of Irish food historian and Dublin Institute of Technology lecturer (professor) Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire.

With snippets of food history, bardic recitation, and even a song, Mac Con Iomaire stirred the diners thoughts, to think of Ireland’s food and what our forefathers would have eaten.

“The first people who came here were hunter-gatherers. When they arrived in Ireland the country was covered in trees," said Mac Con Iomaire. “So those people made their way along the coast or in boats up the rivers and that's how they broke their way in.

“What would they have to hand? Oysters would have been huge, scallops, mussels, herrings, all the various fish but particularly shellfish that you could forage along the coastline.

“Also there was things like wild garlic, wild watercress, myrtle berries, grouse, all kinds of wild birds all sorts of wild animals and they were all eaten.”

Archaeological evidence has shown us not only what Ireland's prehistoric residents ate but also how they lived. Mac Con Iomaire reminded us that those people of Ireland built Newgrange, in total alignment with the winter solstice, 500 years before the pyramids in Giza and 1,000 years before Stonehenge.

He said, “They really knew their stuff and I think it's important to remember this. We come from a sophisticated people.

“So much of the discourse about Irish food seems poisoned by the Famine and thinking that we are just this poor nation who had nothing and no education, and emigrated and starved, but if you go back that bit further and back to Newgrange that's a much better place to start and to see just how sophisticated our ancient ancestors were.”

From 8000 BC to now has been a long journey and what we ate along the way has been recorded, at least to some extent. There are even some tales about food from pre-Christian Ireland that have survived to this day.

In Ireland’s mythology, there’s evidence of what we ate. Most famously perhaps in the tale of Queen Maeve of Connacht.

Mac Con Iomaire explained that in these tales the heroes' and villains' wealth was always judged by how many heads of cattle they had. However, they rarely killed their cattle unless they failed to produce milk or were at death’s door. What they ate at the time was dairy based.

“The white meat or the white foods in various different formats was what they ate,” said Mac Con Iomaire. “It was the curds and cheeses. There was a description of the type of milk that they drank at the time. It was a yellow bubbling milk, milk that needed chewing, milk that needed long chewing, slow chewing.”

The dairy industry in Ireland really does date back millennia.

He continued, “It's also interesting that Queen Maeve herself was also killed by a lump of cheese. It was a lump of hard cheddar in a sling that got her, did her in, in County Sligo on the top of Knocknarea.”

Another internationally famous Irish legend is the Salmon of Knowledge or “Bradán Feasa,” which saw the hero Finn Mac Cool cooking the magical salmon for his master. Burning his thumb with some of the oil he stuck it in his mouth and the knowledge became his.

There is more evidence of what the Irish chowed down on following the adoption of Christianity. The monks kept histories and records on paper, a move away from the bardic traditions that had prevailed.

The descriptions of our bountiful land recorded are impressive.

A poem from the 8th century “The Hermit’s Song” or “Marbán to Guaire” “gives you a little taste of food at the time”:

“To what meals the woods invite me

There are water, herb,s and cresses,

A clutch of eggs, sweet mast and honey

Heathberries and whortleberries for a sweet.

All that one could ask for comfort

There are hips and haws and strawberries,

And when summer spreads its mantle

Marjoram and leeks and pignuts,

In “Aislinge Meic Con Glinne” or “The Vision of Mac Conglinne” a parody written in the 11th or 12th century another great description of the foods available is provided.

Mac Con Iomaire points out that this wonderful tale is a great example of the satire of the time. The Irish have always prided themselves on their hospitality. Their insistence that you have a cup of tea, a drink or a piece of cake once you cross the threshold of their house is a throwback to bygone days.

He pointed out that this “comes back to the idea that any person who comes to the door could be Jesus and they would be looked after.”

And even before this, there were “the Brehon Laws and rules about how you behaved and what you were supposed to do when a stranger called. That was what was right to do and we kept doing it.”

This particular tale is about this young scholar from Fermanagh traveling the route of the Santiago de Compostela to Cork, and taking advantage of the monasteries' hospitality along the way.

Sadly his stay in Cork was unsatisfactory and so he wrote this tale of the King Cathal mac Finnguine who is cursed with the "demon of gluttony" that lives in his throat. In the story the hero comes up with a way to rid the king of his illness by starving him, chaining him up, and reciting the following description of a “vision” so the demon would come forth.

“The fort we reached was beautiful,

With works of custards thick,

New butter was the bridge in front,

The rubble dyke was wheaten white,

“Stately, pleasantly it sat,

A compact house and strong.

The door of it was dry meat,

The threshold was bare bread,

cheese-curds the sides.

“Smooth pillars of old cheese,

And sappy bacon props

Fine beams of mellow cream,

White rafters - real curds,

What these rich descriptions clearly show is that Ireland had a deep tradition of great food before the arrival of the potato and it’s not only Ireland that the discovery of the New World changed.

“It's interesting to remind ourselves that until Columbus sailed off on the ocean blue and the New World was discovered that tomatoes, chilies, potatoes, corn, chocolate, all these things came to Europe, said Mac Con Iomaire.

“It's also interesting to think that the was no chilies in Chinese or Indian cooking until the New World was discovered. There were no tomatoes in Italian cookery or Spanish cookery. And there were no potatoes in Ireland.”

And when the potato arrived in Ireland a lot changed.

“In about 1590 there were 1.2 million people living on the island of Ireland. By 1841, a few years before the Famine, there were 8.4 million people or so,” said Mac Con Iomaire.

“Ireland at the time was the most densely populated country in the whole of Europe. If you go through Sligo, Connemara, Mayo and look carefully enough you'll see evidence of lost villages that were just decimated.”

How did this massive growth occur?

The Irish were using the potato as a cleansing crop, as they found the spud, and later sugar beet added rich nutrients to the earth. At the time the other fields were mostly planted with wheat.

“That would be exported for the British and French army. We were also exported fantastic other things like salted beef from Cork, what we call corn beef. We were basically provisioning the British and the French navies for centuries. Particularly when they were fighting each other we were making great money out of it. We were feeding both sides.”

Every field of crops needed to be dug, plowed, planted, weeded and harvested by hand. This meant there was a great deal of work for the poor Irish and also plenty of food to eat in the potato.

Mac Con Iomaire said, “They found that they could grow enough potatoes on one acre of poor or marginal land to feed a family of ten in a year, with very little work. Happy days. No wonder people started to get married at 16 and 17. They were having big families and thriving.”

Then came Ireland’s Great Hunger and everything changed.

“One million died and one million emigrated, people stopped subdividing the land, stopped having big families, waited until the parents had died before they got married and only one person would get married and everyone else would become a priest or a nun and be shipped off to America and so on…

“Since then we have become fascinated with potatoes. We become obsessed.

He pointed out that we need only look to our famous poets and writers for evidence apart from the stereotypes.

Firstly he referred to Patrick Kavanagh’s “Restaurant Reverie”:

"O half potato on my plate,

It is too soon to celebrate

You're boasted in the center, too,

And wet, in soapy soil you grew,

But I am thankful still to you

For hints of history given.

"There's something lonely far away

In what you symbolize to-day

For me - the half that went astray

Of life, the uncompleted.

But up brown drills new pink buds start

With truer truth than truth of art,

Ignoring last crop's broken heart

And a generation defeated.

Secondly, he recited Seamus Heaney’s “In Memoriam” which is about that sacred quiet time with his mother when everyone's away at Mass. It’s no coincidence that this was recently voted as the Irish people’s favorite poem in “A Poem for Ireland” poll, carried out by the RTE.

Here Heaney reads Ireland’s favorite poem:

Irish food has certainly come a long way, but what our meal at Guinness, made up of oysters, black pudding, braised lamb, wild garlic and other delicious Irish foods showed is that there’s more to the history of Irish food than the humble spud. It’s worth sitting back and considering our ancient ancestors' knowledge of the land and also appreciate those who kept these records.


  • OFFICIAL NAME: Ireland
  • FORM OF GOVERNMENT: Constitutional Democracy
  • CAPITAL: Dublin
  • POPULATION: 5,068,050
  • MONEY: Euro
  • OFFICIAL LANGUAGES: English and Gaelic
  • AREA: 26,592 square miles (68,890 square kilometers)
  • MAJOR MOUNTAIN RANGES: Macgillycuddy's Reeks, Wicklow Mountains
  • MAJOR RIVERS: Shannon, Liffey, Boyne, Moy, Barrow

GEOGRAPHY

Ireland is an island nation on the westernmost edge of Europe. It is the continent's second largest island (after Great Britain). The Republic of Ireland occupies 80 percent of this landmass, while a large chunk of land in the north is part of the United Kingdom.

Ireland is known for its wide expanses of lush, green fields. In fact, its nickname is the Emerald Isle. But there are also large areas of rugged, rocky landscape. About 15,000 years ago, Ireland was completely covered by thick glaciers. The movement of these giant sheets of ice stripped the soil, leaving huge tracts of flat, limestone pavement.

The midlands and west coast of Ireland are dotted with damp peat bogs, the soggy remains of dried-up ancient lakes left by the glaciers. Ireland's highlands rise mainly in the southwest, often ending at sheer cliffs that plunge thousands of feet into the Atlantic Ocean.

Map created by National Geographic Maps

PEOPLE & CULTURE

Ireland is a nation of storytellers. The tradition dates back to Celtic bards, who would record and recite the country's history. Many famed writers come from Ireland, including four winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. The Irish also excel in music and sports.

NATURE

The Irish have a great affection for nature and rural life. The country's first coins even featured pictures of animals. Low levels of development and pollution in Ireland have left most of the nation's open spaces relatively undisturbed.

Did you know that there are no wild snakes in Ireland? The sea has stopped many animals common on mainland Europe from reaching the island. There are also only two wild mouse species, one type of lizard, and just three kinds of amphibians.

Irish wildlife is protected by government conservation programs. To preserve natural habitat, the government has established six national parks and hundreds of national heritage areas throughout the country.

GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY

The government of Ireland consists of an elected parliament, which makes the laws, and a president, who is head of state. The head of the government is the Taoiseach (pronounced tee-shuck), which means "chief." The Taoiseach is the leader of the political party with the most parliament members.

For most of its history, Ireland's economy has been based on farming and agriculture. But since the late 1950s, government efforts to attract business have turned the country from one of Europe's poorest nations to its second wealthiest. The amazing turnaround earned Ireland the nickname "Celtic Tiger."

HISTORY

Archaeologists think the first people to settle in Ireland arrived around 6000 B.C. By 3500 B.C., settlers were using stone tools to clear farmlands. Around 700 B.C., a diverse and technologically advanced culture from central Europe called the Celts began to settle the island. They would thrive there for nearly 2,000 years.

In the ninth century A.D., Viking invaders began raids into Ireland. They established settlements that later became some of the country's main cities, including the capital, Dublin. The Vikings and Celts fought often for 200 years until a battle in 1014 united the country. Peace broke down quickly though, and Ireland was divided into many kingdoms.

In 1170, Norman Vikings who had taken control of England invaded Ireland and made it an English territory. In the early 1600s, England's official religion became Protestant while most Irish remained Roman Catholic. This would create tensions that would eventually lead to revolution and Ireland's independence.

By the 1820s, British laws unfair to Catholics had sparked a mass movement for Irish sovereignty. In 1829, many of those laws were overturned, but Ireland still wanted freedom. In 1922, after violent uprisings, the Irish Free State was created within the British Empire.

In 1948, most of Ireland became an independent country, while six mainly Protestant counties in the northeast remained a British territory.


History

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How James Joyce came to be revered in Trieste, Italy

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On the death of James Joyce - from the Guardian, 1941

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The genius of the Irish writer James Joyce - gearing up for Bloomsday

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On This Day: John McCormack, tenor and papal count, was born in Athlone

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Molly Malone Day - What's the truth behind the iconic Dubliner?

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Submarine rescue off Irish coast 50 years ago to be made into action movie

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James Joyce facts for the gear up to Bloomsday 2021

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Exploring the truth and reality on Irish Famine coffin ships

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The surprising tale of the famous Waterford resident, Adele Astaire

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WATCH: Marking 90 years of Muintir na Tíre

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Explore IrishCentral's Irish-German World War II series here!

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Eating like our Irish Iron Age ancestors

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Up to 1,000 Irish silver miners' paupers' graves discovered in Colorado

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The sinking of HMS Wasp, 1884 – A curse, sabotage or human error?

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D-Day: The Irish heroes in the US and British Armies on that incredible invasion

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How weather forecast from Mayo lighthouse saved D-Day invasion

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Ireland - History

Two ancient peoples. A modern-day connection. Nothing divides the Choctaw people from the Irish except for the ocean.

Both the Choctaw Nation and Ireland were, in effect, colonized by outside powers. Their ancient tongues almost became extinct, and have been rescued from oblivion and made into working languages again through concerted effort and sophisticated approaches. Both peoples have successfully preserved their cultures and traditions.

Their relationship began in 1847, when the Choctaws—who had only recently arrived over the ruinous “trail of tears and death” to what is now Oklahoma—took up a donation and collected over $5,000 (in today’s money) to support the Irish during the Potato Famine. The famine ravaged Ireland during the 1840s.

The Choctaws’ donation was sent to the town of Midleton in County Cork, south of Dublin. There, many decades later, the townspeople realized their aid had come from a people who were themselves in a very unique set of circumstances—reestablishing their society and their government after the long and painful migration.

Irish President Mary Robinson visited the Choctaw Nation in 1995 to rekindle and reestablish the friendship, and thank Choctaws for their aid to Midleton. Some years later, in 2017, a sculpture commemorating the Choctaws and their gift, known as “Kindred Spirits,” was dedicated in a beautiful park in Midleton.

In 2018, Ireland’s prime minister, or Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, visited Choctaw Nation headquarters to thank the Choctaws and initiate the first of a continuing series of yearly scholarships for Choctaw students to study in Ireland. Ireland’s Consul General visited the Choctaw Nation a year later.

In 2020 the story took a new twist when a pandemic known as the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, caused disruptions around the world. The death toll was particularly acute in the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Reservation. The Irish, stating that they were “paying it forward” with their aid from the Choctaws in mind, took up a very sizeable donation with which to aid and assist the Navajo and Hopi.

"Adversity often brings out the best in people. We are gratified—and perhaps not at all surprised— to learn of the assistance our special friends, the Irish, are giving to the Navajo and Hopi nations. Our word for their selfless act is ‘iyyikowa’—it means serving those in need. We have become kindred spirits with the Irish in the years since the Irish Potato Famine. We hope the Irish, Navajo and Hopi peoples develop lasting friendships, as we have. Sharing our cultures makes the world grow smaller." - Chief Gary Batton


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