Pre-Christian Ireland - From the First Settlers to the Early Celts

Pre-Christian IrelandPre-Christian Ireland - From the First Settlers to the Early Celts by Peter Harbison. Although one of the last corners of Europe to have been settled by man, Ireland is particularly rich in prehistoric remains. The great passage-tomb of Newgrange, dating to the fourth millennium BC, has become internationally famous since the discovery of its orientation towards the rising sun at the winter solstice, and excavations at the neighbouring tomb of Knowth have given unprecedented insight into the wealth of Irish megalithic art.

The glory of gold and bronze from Ireland's more recent prehistoric past, with its technical brilliance and intricate designs, continues to cause wonderment to the present day. During the Iron Age the Irish Celts produced some of the finest works of craftsmanship in the whole corpus of Celtic art.

Peter Harbison has written the first full-scale survey of Irish prehistory for a general audience to have appeared for a decade. Pre-Christian Ireland gives the story of human settlement from the beginnings 10,000 years ago to St Patrick's Christianizing mission in the fifth century AD. It combines the solid groundwork of earlier generations of archaeologists with the great advances made in research during the last twenty years.

The latest thinking on the astronomical significance of megalithic tombs and the social implications of the great Bronze Age hoards is interwoven with an up-to-date account of the recent major excavations at sites such as Carrowmore, Rathgall and Navan Fort. The author also looks afresh at the controversial question of when the Celts first arrived in Ireland. Pre-Christian Ireland will find a place on the bookshelves of all who are fascinated by the pagan origins of modern Ireland.

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Introduction to Pre-Christian Ireland

Although Ireland may have been one of the last countries in Europe to have been colonized by human populations, it is an island which is particularly rich in prehistoric remains. Its anthology of megalithic tombs comes next in number after France and Scandinavia, and, in the Boyne Valley, it has monuments to rival the glory of Mycenae.

Newgrange UNESCO World Heritage Site
Newgrange megalithic tomb in the Boyne Valley

The rich gold jewellery, unequalled in Western Europe, makes one feel that the country's Bronze Age is a misnomer, and that it should be called its Golden Age. Or, perhaps better, the first of its Golden Ages - the second one being dealt with in Maire and Liam de Paor's Early Christian Ireland, which may be regarded as the sequel to this volume in the Ancient Peoples and Places series. The Iron Age in Ireland has much to offer the historian of Celtic art, and the great fort of Dun Aenghus on the Aran Islands must surely be regarded as one of the most magnificent barbaric monuments to be found anywhere in Western Europe.

It is the archaeology of Ireland's prehistoric period, up to the coming of Christianity, which forms the subject of this book. In it, an attempt will be made to summarize the present state of research, taking into account the most recent findings and discoveries. It would not have been possible to write this book without the dedicated work of fellow archaeologists, alive and dead, who may be thanked here one and all for the contributions which they have made to the study of prehistoric Ireland. Prehistory is not just what prehistoric people made of it, but also what archaeologists have made of it today, and this is the reason why the text of this book makes a point of naming the archaeologists who have made the significant contributions.

Thirty years ago, Professor Daniel A. Binchy, the well-known Celtic scholar, spoke of 'the imaginative and conflicting speculations of archaeologists, and devotees of that curious science which calls itself prehistory'. Because prehistory - by its very nature - has to deal with speculations, it is natural that the views of archaeologists will conflict, and it is only by weighing up the pros and cons that one can come to the most probable solution to any problem in prehistory, where the absence of writing makes it difficult to make the mute stones speak. Professor Binchy may not have been too far wrong when he called archaeology a 'curious science', yet it certainly is one which becomes not only more interesting, but also more exact, with every passing day. This can be instanced by the revolution caused by the discovery of the radiocarbon dating method, and its even more recent and precise counterpart, dendrochronology, or the science of tree-ring dating.

The radiocarbon method attempts to give the date of an organic object by estimating the amount of Carbon 14 which still survives in it, based on the presumption that the carbon content decreases at a steady rate after the death of the object itself. Such radiocarbon dates are purposely preceded by the letter c, for circa, as they are only approximate to within a few hundred years of the given date. But work both in America and Europe on the number of annual rings contained in tree-trunks which have also been radiocarbon dated, has shown that radiocarbon years do not correspond to actual calendar years, the radiocarbon years often being hundreds of years too young.

In order to distinguish radiocarbon years from the actual calendar years before or after the birth of Christ (given in capitals as bc or ad), the radiocarbon dates quoted here are followed by the same two letters, but printed in lower case, thus - bc or ad. As an example, one may quote the case of the great passage-tomb at Newgrange which provided a radiocarbon date of c.2500 bc, but which is likely to have been built about 600 years earlier, around 3100 BC. In order to provide the true date in calendar years, all the radiocarbon dates given in this book ought to be 'calibrated'. The reason why this calibration has not been carried out automatically throughout the text here is that it has not yet proved possible to calibrate all the radiocarbon years accurately on a sliding scale.

The work of Michael Baillie and his colleagues in the Belfast Conservation Laboratory in providing an accurate tree-ring chronology for the Irish oak back to the year 5289 BC has supplied us now with a major breakthrough, and even though the method may be costly, it is hoped that it will not be long before we will have a reliable guide to the actual difference between radiocarbon and calendar years on the basis of the Belfast tree-ring datings. It ought to be pointed out here, however, that the Belfast laboratory has shown that radiocarbon dates falling between 800 and 400 bc can no longer be relied upon, as they cannot be distinguished from one another, and that they ought to be abandoned therefore.

The history of research

The early Irish Christians were consumed by a curiosity to find out about what happened in their country before the dawn of history and so, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, an effort was made in the so-called Book of Invasions to reconstruct the relative succession of the series of peoples who were considered to have invaded the country in prehistoric times. But despite the strength of oral tradition in Ireland, the work of the synthesizing historians who composed the Book need not be taken too literally, for the events they purported to describe are alleged to have taken place 1,000 years or more before they were written down. Furthermore, it was contemporary political reasons which led diligent chroniclers to compile genealogies for ruling families in order to trace their noble ancestry back as far as possible - even to the extent of tracing the line back to Adam and Eve! But, for all their efforts, we can place no reliance on any documentary evidence which tells of happenings or people earlier than the fifth century AD, and it is, therefore, left to the interpretation of the archaeological record to tease out the story of Ireland before St Patrick's christianizing mission.

It is doubtless more than a mere coincidence that it is from the time of the synthesizing historians that we have what may be described as the first Irish archaeological report, in the form of an entry in the old Irish Annals of Loch Cé, telling of the finding of an outsize axe and spearhead in the river Galway in the year 1191. For the fact that such a discovery was recorded at all may be a reflection of that same historical curiosity which led to the compilation of the Book of Invasions, and which inspired Gaelic kings of the twelfth century to commission religious shrines of metal and to erect High Crosses of stone which would help to recreate the glorious Christian past of three or four centuries earlier. The same fervour can be seen at a lower social level during the 1680s, when the re-erection of fallen crosses epitomized the hopes of the people that the Duke of York, when he would ascend the throne of England as James II, would usher in a period of greater religious freedom and tolerance in Ireland, reminiscent of that which had reigned in centuries past.

Edward Lhuyd provided us with the first written account of Newgrange
Edward Lhuyd provided us with the first written account of Newgrange

Not until 1699, however, when the Welsh antiquary Edward Lhuyd paid his initial visit to Ireland, did we have our first record in more recent times of a real interest in Ireland's prehistoric antiquities. Lhuyd, who was a Keeper at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, provided us with the first written account of Newgrange, which had been accidentally opened earlier in the same year. Notices of the discovery of prehistoric objects were recorded spasmodically during the course of the eighteenth century, both by individuals and learned societies, but real progress was not made until the nationalistic sentiments which took Europe by storm in the first half of the nineteenth century awakened among the Irish people a new pride in their country's past. It was during the 1830s that George Petrie, John O'Donovan and Eugene O'Curry, young men with old heads on their shoulders, went out into the field, and in working for the first set of detailed Ordnance Survey six-inch-to-the-mile maps of Ireland, came across and recorded for the first time a vast number of Irish antiquities. Financial cutbacks allowed for the publication of only a single parish-volume of the survey, that of Templemore, which included the plan and account of the Grianán of Aileach, then in Co. Derry and now in Co. Donegal.

The reproduction of the typed-up versions of the Ordnance Survey Letters in the 1920s and 1930s showed us that the work of that noble band of warriors almost a century earlier had come none too soon, for in many cases theirs was the only detailed description and illustration of monuments which have, in the meantime, fallen prey to the claws of the mechanical digger, and are now not even a heap of rubble in the corner of some long-neglected field. In his travels, Petrie amassed a collection of some 1,500 smaller portable antiquities which - like the Iron Age crown which bears his name - have now passed into the national collections by way of the Royal Irish Academy, and his endeavours have earned for him the honorary title of 'Father of Irish Archaeology'. He ought to share this distinction, however, with Sir William Wilde, surely one of the most remarkable polymaths ever to grace the Irish scene. His wide interests are proclaimed on a plaque let into the wall of his residence at No. 1, Merrion Square, Dublin. He fathered not only the genial Oscar, but also a splendidly detailed three-volume catalogue of the Royal Irish Academy's extensive collection of antiquities (1857-1862) which must surely stand, along with Ludwig Lindenschmidt's catalogue of the Hohenzollern collection at Sigmaringen, as one of the great, if isolated, highpoints of solid Victorian archaeological cataloguing.

An effort to see the stone and bronze items of the Academy's collection in a somewhat broader context was undertaken by John Evans, in his books on stone and bronze implements, of 1897 and 1881 respectively, which covered Britain as well. Incidentally, his son Arthur, of Knossos fame, was to play an important role in the history of the Iron Age Broighter hoard. In 1882 Sir John Lubbock's new Monuments Act became law, but the Church Disestablishment Act of 1869 had already given state protection to Irish monuments for the first time, and this has since been greatly expanded by the Office of Public Works, facilitated by the National Monuments Act of 1930, and its 1954 and 1987 amendments. By 1890, the National Museum had come into being in Dublin, the archaeological material in its displays coming from the Royal Irish Academy's collection, and ten years later George Coffey was named Curator of Irish Antiquities, an important post which has ever since continued to be occupied by a succession of distinguished Keepers. Frank Mitchell thinks that it is not too much to claim that Coffey 'was one of the makers of modern European archaeology', and support for this contention comes from Coffey's famous volumes on Newgrange (1912) and The Bronze Age in Ireland (1913) which, despite having been written after he had suffered a series of strokes, still remain valuable today. In producing them, Coffey was helped by his successor, E.C.R. Armstrong, who not only updated Wilde's catalogue of gold ornaments, but also gave us the first synthesizing studies on the so-called Hallstatt and La Tene periods in Ireland.

Excavation in nineteenth-century Ireland was a haphazard affair, scarcely worthy of the modern scientific name. An enormous shaft was dug into the centre of the great tumulus at Dowth in the Boyne Valley, in an unsuccessful attempt to discover a chamber similar to that known from the centre of the neighbouring mound at Newgrange, and other megaliths, too, sadly came in for their share of despoliation. Unfortunately, even reputable names such as that of R.A.S. Macalister, Professor of Archaeology in Dublin, and the great botanist Robert Lloyd Praeger, continued the trend in our own century at Carrowkeel in Co. Sligo. There had been a few brighter spots, such as Coffey's excavation of Topped Mountain in Co. Fermanagh in 1897, but it was not until the advent of the Harvard Archaeological Mission - which carried out the first large-scale scientific series of excavations in Ireland in 1932 and subsequent years - that excavation blossomed out to become the science it is now. Under its programme, Hallam L. Movius carefully excavated and published the Mesolithic site at Curran Point, near Larne, in Co. Antrim, while Hugh Hencken dug not only the crannog at Ballinderry, Co. Offaly, but also the multiple-cist cairn at Poulawack, Co. Clare.

The same year, 1932, also saw the start of a series of excavations at northern megaliths, under the direction of Estyn Evans and the late Oliver Davies, which were to lead not only to a greater interest in, and understanding of, Irish megaliths, but also - in combination with the work of the Harvard Mission — to the emergence of a new generation of trained young Irish excavators. One of these was Seán P Ó Ríordáin, at first Professor of Archaeology in Cork and later Macalister's successor in Dublin. He undertook an ambitious programme of excavation at Lough Gur in Co. Limerick, where he uncovered Neolithic houses in Ireland for the first time, and subsequently he dug at the great royal site of Tara in Co. Meath. But his spade ran ahead of his pen, and his untimely death in 1957 left some important work unpublished. Another young excavator was Joseph Raftery, later Director of the National Museum, who dug the tumulus cemetery at Carrowjames in the 1930s, one of the Loughcrew megaliths and the Rath of Feerwore in the 1940s, and crannogs at Rathtinaun, Co. Sligo in the 1950s.

Perhaps the most prolific excavator of that younger generation was Michael J. O'Kelly, O Riordain's successor in the Cork chair, and a great exponent of the art of practical archaeology. His excavations at sites of very considerable variety culminated in his thirteen seasons at Newgrange, meticulously published in a book which appeared only weeks after his death in 1982. George Eogan, the current holder of the chair of Archaeology in University College, Dublin, has been digging tirelessly for almost twice as many seasons at the neighbouring mound of Knowth, and has already produced two valuable monographs on his fascinating discoveries. But while Newgrange and Knowth have been the most demanding of recent excavations in terms of manpower and human commitment, rewarding advances in knowledge have been provided at a considerable variety of sites dug by other archaeologists, whose achievements will be noted in the ensuing chapters.

Excavation is undoubtedly the more newsworthy side of archaeology. Less glamorous and exciting, but equally necessary to a study of the country's past, is the work of surveying surviving monuments, be it in the form of De Valera and O Nuallain's Survey of the Megalithic Tombs of Ireland, or the more general surveys of specific areas such as Co. Donegal, the Dingle Peninsula or the Barony of Ikerrin. Worthy of mention here, too, are the series of county inventories recently initiated by the Commissioners of Public Works, of which those for counties Louth, Monaghan and Meath have already appeared. A valuable fillip has been given to this work by the aerial photography of J.K. St Joseph, of the Cambridge Aerial Survey, as well as by Leo Swan, and the evaluation of their results will, in time, bear even greater fruit than they have already.

The study of museum artefacts has been described as 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration, but it inevitably produces important results which have, in many cases, been summarized in the pages of this book. These can take the form of overviews of particular periods, as in the work of Peter Woodman (O'Kelly's successor in Cork) on the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age), or extensive publications on selective material of a particular epoch, such as Barry Raftery's recent monographs on the objects of La Tene type surviving in Ireland. Rather than referring in this chapter to the other outstanding pieces of research on various specialized topics, it is felt preferable in a book of this length to summarize them in the appropriate place in the text which follows, and the reader will find the relevant publications listed in the bibliography.

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