Michael V. Duignan, ‘Historical Introduction’, in The Shell Guide to Ireland (1967) [1/4]

[ Source: Lord Killanin & Michael V. Duignan, The Shell Guide to Ireland [2nd edn.] (London: Ebury Press 1967). Note: The pagination which appears at the bottom of each page in the original is given here in square brackets. The cross-reference terms ‘see’ and ‘see under’ relating to the corresponding sections of the Shell Guide have not been reproduced here. The paragraphs of the original has been adapted to this context - generally by combining shorter paragraphs in the print-version and by spacing paragraphs for easier reading. There is a copy of the Shell Guide in the CHHLA Library of UFRN (Brasil). ]


Prehistoric Ireland (from 6000 b.c.)

Prehistoric Ireland

Hunters and Fishers
Two skeletons found in 1928 in Kilgreany cave, Co. Waterford, show us that about the close of Late Glacial times, perhaps before 9000 b.c., Final Palaeolithic hunters were living in the south of Ireland. We know nothing else about them, but the animals on which they preyed may well have included the great Irish Elk (Giant Deer) - now long extinct - and the reindeer.

Shortly after 6000 b.c., by which time Ireland was an island, Mesolithic hunter-fishers were living in the densely wooded Bann valley, as well as by the Antrim seashore close to inexhaustible supplies of excellent flint. Because of the abundance of their flints at Larne, these people have been called Larnians. We are still uncertain of their origins and know little of their culture, but in the course of the next three thousand years or so we find them spreading coastwise as far west as the mouth of Lough Foyle and as far south as Dalkey near Dublin. Cross-country they seem to have penetrated as far as Lough Gara on the borders of Cos. Roscommon and Sligo. At their camping places on the Leinster coast we find them accompanied by the hunting dog, though the food they ate by the sea was mostly shell fish in rich variety.

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Farmers and Tomb-builders
Before 3000, perhaps as early as 3500, Neolithic stock-raisers and grain-growers had joined the hunter-fishers in the heavily forested island. Their pottery and other evidence show that these first Irish farmers belonged to the so-called Western Neolithic cultural complex which, spreading northwards from the mainland, flooded SO much of the British Isles in !he later fourth and earlier third millennia B.C.

While it is in the south that we might expect to find the earliest signs of the presence of the neolithic farmers, the evidence to date suggests that they reached the north no later than the south. That evidence demonstrates the co-existence of two contrasting neolithic provinces. In the southern two-thirds of the island, south that is of a line from Clifden Bay in the west to Dundalk Bay in the east, the Western Neolithic is represented by a few scattered ritual and settlement sites (the most notable on the light limestone soils about Lough Gur) of varying date, none of which need represent the initial stage of colonization there; likewise by a very few (Late Neolithic?) single-burial graves such as pit-graves (which may be under the floor of the dwelling) and stone cists (which may be under round mounds). The origins and relationships of this southern neolithic complex have yet to be unravelled.

In the northern third of the island is a Western Neolithic province distinguished first and foremost by long-cairn collective-burial chamber tombs of the kind here called court graves (alias court cairns). Remains of some three hundred of these survive, widely distributed, but noteworthy for marked concentrations in the neighbourhood of certain port; half a dozen outliers have been recorded in South Galway, north Clare, north Tipperary, south Kilkenny, and south-west Waterford. The specialists are still divided as to the homeland of the tomb-builders. Some would bring them from Britain to east Ulster via ports like Carlingford Lough; others visualise them as coming from Atlantic France, by-passing the southern two-thirds of Ireland, and landing on the northern shores of Connacht. [13]

Inside the court-grave province, probably in mid-Ulster, there developed a simpler form of tomb, the portal grave (portal dolmen), whose funerary deposits confirm its architectural kinship with the court grave. These portal graves - about one hundred and fifty survive - spread widely throughout the court-grave province, and south of it as well, particularly down through the eastern counties as far as Co. Waterford. From eastern Ireland they spread to Britain. A major complication was added to the Irish Neolithic by the arrival (c. 2500 b.c.?) of a fresh, and itself complex, collective-tomb element, one characterised by round-cairn passage graves. Commonly cruciform, the Irish passage graves include some of Europe’s most impressive prehistoric monuments (see Newgrange). Their first builders, who also colonised Anglesey, came up the Irish Sea to enter the country in the Liffey-Boyne area. Thereafter passage graves and their simple polygon relatives - about one hundred all told - spread mainly north-westwards into the court-grave province as far as Sligo Bay. A scatter of tombs through the eastern half of Ulster as far as Fair Head marks a second substantial penetration of the court-grave province. From west Wicklow isolated outliers trail southwards into Cos. Kilkenny, Tipperary, and Limerick.

The builders of the passage graves favoured hill-top sites, and often grouped their tombs in cemeteries where the clustering of satellites about major monuments is a recurring feature. In each of these respects, as likewise in the matter of their hieratic art, the passage graves present noteworthy contrasts with every other class of Irish chamber tomb. The passage graves themselves, and their art, suggest that Brittany was the home of the new colonists. At the same time, some of the grave goods point beyond Brittany to Iberia, where the Atlantic passage graves originated. Unlike the court graves and the portal graves, the passage graves continued in use (or were re-used) in the Bronze Age. Indeed, their arrival in Ireland may be said to herald the coming of metallurgists, for, while metal objects have never been recorded in an Irish passage-grave context, the passage-grave builders of southern Iberia were acquainted with copper, and some at least of the Irish tombs were in the neighbourhood of copper deposits. (One of the passage stones at Newgrange seems to have been dressed with a metal claw.) Moreover, Irish passage-grave art includes motifs which recur among the rock-scribings so abundant in the copper-bearing region of south Kerry and south-west Cork. These southern scribings (cup-marks, cup-and circle devices, concentric circles, “map- patterns”, etc.) find their closest counterparts in the Galician region of Portugal and Spain, and suggest the arrival in Munster of metallurgists from that quarter.

In its Irish environment, where it was open to influences from native mesolithic traditions as well as from various quarters overseas, the Neolithic gradually assumed a local complexion and developed into a new amalgam. In their turn, the Neolithic farmers and tomb-builders influenced the ancient hunting and food collecting societies which, as a result, spread much more widely through the wooded interior of the island, adopting neolithic ideas and equipment, and generating vigorous -secondary- neolithic cultures whose traditions are still discernible in the Bronze Age.

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Metallurgists, Traders, and Warriors
At an advanced stage of the Irish Neolithic it was overtaken by the arrival of Beaker Folk, their traces being found in all four provinces. The newcomers may have arrived in two waves, a small one (before 2000 b.c.?) from Atlantic Europe (Brittany?), a much stronger one, around or after 2000, from Holland the Rhine (and Central Europe?) by way of Britain.

Whereas in Middle Europe and in Britain generally the Beaker Folk are among [14] representatives of the Single-burial tradition, in Iberia, Brittany, the Channel Islands, and part of Scotland their distinctive beakers are found in collective-burial tombs. In Ireland Beaker ware-both early and late-has been found in eight (of fifteen) excavated collective-burial tombs belonging to the wedge-shaped gallery-grave class (below). While this is too small a sample for any valid generalizations, it is noteworthy that, as yet, not one Beaker single-burial has been found in Ireland. Most of the Irish finds of Beaker have, in fact, come from widely scattered habitation sites, much of the pottery in the Lough Gur area occurring in the later levels of sites said to have been occupied without a break from Neolithic to Bronze Age times. Ritual sites, too, have yielded Beaker, sometimes in quantity. Among such sites is an embanked stone circle (see Grange under Lough Gur) which also yielded neolithic-type and Bronze Age pottery. These and other considerations (such as the occurrence of copper or bronze objects in four of the eight Beaker collective tombs) suggest that in Ireland, as elsewhere, the Beaker Folk had to do with the first exploitation of local metal resources. They may well have been responsible for the “Copper Age” or initial phase of the Irish Bronze Age. Beaker traditions certainly contributed to the Irish Bronze Age proper.

The short-cairn wedge-shaped gallery graves, about two per cent of which have yielded Beaker, are at once the most numerous (some four hundred surviving examples) and most widespread of the Irish chamber tombs. The main distribution lies in the south-west, the west, and the north, but a few tombs occur in east Leinster. Once again we are dealing with tombs whose counterparts may be found in north-west France. The Irish tombs continued to be built and used well into the Bronze Age. The replacement, from about 2000 B.C. onwards, of edged implements of stone by implements of metal was necessarily long drawn out, and brought with it no cultural revolution, no fundamental change in the basic economy established by the neolithic farmers. As soon as that economy had become capable of supplying the food for prospectors and metal-workers it had been only a question of how soon Ireland’s gold and copper resources, exceptionally abundant for North-west Europe, would lure prospectors and exploiters from regions, like South-West and Middle Europe, where the demand for metal was steadily increasing. Inevitably, therefore, when her own Bronze Age proper began (in the seventeenth century?) Ireland quickly became a major focus of metal manufactures and trade.

The Galician rock-scribings of Munster suggest an Iberian contribution to early Irish metallurgy. Some early Irish metal types do the same. Others mirror Beaker connections with Britain, yet others contacts with Middle Europe. Before very long, however, Ireland began to make her own distinctive contributions to Bronze Age Europe and Irish craftsmen-traders were peddling their wares in many lands - Britain, Iberia, France, the Low Countries, Central Germany, the West Baltic area where their competitors sometimes found it worth their while to imitate Irish products. Prominent in this early Irish export trade were lunulae (crescentic neck ornaments of Portuguese ancestry) and “sun-discs” of sheet gold, halberds (weapons of Middle European ancestry) of copper, and axes of bronze. In exchange Ireland acquired special products (daggers, axes, halberds, amber, beads of glass and of faience) - as well as new techniques from Portugal, Britain, Central Europe, the Baltic, and the eastern Mediterranean. After a time Irish initiative seemingly weakened, and in the fifteenth century or thereabouts the Irish metal industry is markedly influenced by Central European ideas reaching her, in the main, via Southern England. [15]

The brilliant earlier phase of the Irish Bronze Age proper ended in the fourteenth century, to be followed by a couple of centuries during which the skill of the local craftsmen was devoted to the progressive development of established metal types rather than to the devising of new ones, centuries that is, in which the invigorating [15] connections with the mainland seemingly slackened and were feebler than was the case in Southern Britain. Thereafter, however, came (c.1200-900 b.c.) a truly vigorous and wealthy period which strongly reflects the lively stimulus of the Nordic Bronze Age of Denmark and North-west Germany on Southern England. These centuries are marked by a revitalizing and reorganizing of Irish industry (exemplified by new techniques, by an elaboration of the craftsman’s equipment, and perhaps - by a new trading system); by an abundance of repoussé and bar-gold ornaments (torques, ear-rings, bracelets, pins, &c.) in which Nordic influences are conspicuous, East Mediterranean and West European not insignificant; and by the adoption of new bronze types (notably the socketed axe and - towards the end - the leaf-shaped slashing sword) which thereafter figure prominently in the archaeological record. While the socketed axe, of Central European ancestry, reached Ireland via Britain, the first swords seem to have come from France.

Between the tenth century and the eighth intimate connections with the English Channel area led to a further reorganization of the Irish metal industry. (Accompanying the first signs of manufactures on an unprecedented scale is a significant increase in the number of slashing swords.) Then, in the eighth century, comes the climax of the Irish Late Bronze Age. The Late Bronze Age, like the ensuing Early Iron Age critical for the emergence of the Gaelic Ireland of history, remains obscure in several important respects, largely owing to the paucity of known settlements and burials and to the fact that the pottery available is not commensurate with the exotic metal types. One outstanding feature of the Late Bronze Age is the evidence for a technological and industrial revolution that is linked with a much wider range of contacts with the outside world, not so much now with Britain as with West-central Europe, North Germany, South Scandinavia, Iberia, and the Mediterranean. Of particular note are the connections with Denmark, and with Central Europe of the Late Urnfield phase of the Bronze Age and of the initial (Hallstatt) phase of the Celtic Iron Age. It is sometimes assumed that the intrusive metal types imply a succession of invasions, but, in the earlier stages at any rate, the exotic types in question can be explained by trade relations involving, at most, the arrival of smiths belonging to Continental schools.

Thanks to the external stimuli, the output of the Irish metal industry now reached its peak, a peak characterised by the enormous output of the gold and armament industries, by technological innovations (e.g. the making of shields and buckets of sheet bronze), and by an extended range of artificer’s tools. At the same time a noteworthy increase in the number and size of hoards buried in the earth by merchants and metal-founders suggests a likelihood that life had become less secure, a suggestion strengthened by some few fortifications (all very late?) as well as by the increase in the output of weapons of war. Round about 600/500 b.c. a fresh exotic element is revealed by the first of forty-odd bronze swords indicating contacts with the Hallstatt world. These swords join with a few personal ornaments in signalling the approach of the Iron Age.

Despite its recurring phases of close contact with the outside world, the Irish Bronze Age, viewed as a whole, provides little evidence of substantial immigrations after the arrival of the Beaker Folk, for much of the pottery of the earlier phases - Food Vessels and Cinerary Urns - can be traced to local Neolithic-Beaker origins. Thus the Irish Bowl variety of Food Vessel, frequent in the earlier Single-burial graves, represents a fusion of native Neolithic and incoming Beaker traditions. However, the Yorkshire Vase type of Food Vessel points to immigration from Britain via Ulster, as does also the encrusted variety of Cinerary Urns found with so many of the cremations typical of the developed Bronze Age, but these two classes of pottery likewise have their roots in the insular Neolithic. (In its turn the Irish Bowl spread to north and west Britain, where it exerted its own influence. A [16] small group of late collective tombs, the V-shaped passage graves of the Tramore district whose counterparts are found in the Scilly Isles and in France, points to immigration from Europe.

By and large the later Bronze Age pottery carries on the established traditions. The few innovations assignable to the closing phases are imperfectly understood. Of these the most conspicuous are large urns of Knocknalappa and Flat-rimmed Ware. Knocknalappa urns seem to have been suggested by Late Urnfield sheet-bronze buckets which found their way to both Britain and Ireland in the eighth century and were speedily imitated in insular workshops. The Flat-rimmed Ware is held to belong to a family already present in seventh century Britain and likewise thought to indicate contact with Late Urnfield Europe.

In Ireland, as elsewhere, a noteworthy contrast between the Neolithic and Bronze is provided by the evidence for social grading and for the ever increasing rô1e of warfare. In the Neolithic, apart from whatever may be implied by the collective tombs, we have little that points unmistakably to social grading. By contrast, already in the earlier Bronze Age we have occasional Single-burial dagger and other graves which recall, however feebly, the rich “chieftains’ graves” of contemporary Wessex, Brittany, and Saxony. The Neolithic record includes no weapons primarily devised for combat, no fortifications, no defended homesteads. On the other hand, in the Bronze Age the dagger and the clumsy halberd are early conspicuous, and are soon joined by the spear, the dirk, and the stabbing sword (rapier), all three evolved from the dagger, itself perhaps initially a personal hunting eating knife. In time the spear (like the dagger and the arrow not solely a fighting weapon) acquires an added importance which is expressed by new varieties as well as by increasing numbers.

In the later Bronze Age the warlike evidence rises to a prehistoric climax revealed by the abundance and quality of the weapons and few, very late, fortifications. Among the weapons, spears and slashing swords take pride of place, but with them go shields - sometimes ornate - of sheet-bronze, leather, and wood, shields which are among the signs of contact with Mediterranean and Urnfield Europe. The extravagance of a few spears and the quality of the best shields unite with the abundance of gold ornaments and of bronze buckets and cauldrons to suggest the presence of a warrior aristocracy, precursors of the Iron Age heroes of Emain Macha (see under Armagh) and Cruachu (see Rathcroghan). For all that, in the Final Bronze Age the farmer was still the prop and support of whole economic and social fabric, his surplus wheat, barley, cattle, sheep, and pigs, supplying the wherewithal for craftsman, merchant, and warrior alike.

As yet we know little about the homesteads of the Neolithic and Earlier Bronze. Our clearest picture comes from Munster, particularly from the limestone slopes about Lough Gur. There farmers, from Neolithic into Bronze Age times, and herdsmen lived on the same sites in isolated dwellings of several kinds, rectangular, round, and irregular. While the wall footings might be of stone, the walls themselves seem always to have been of timber or wattle or other organic material. One rectangular house was an aisled, timber-post structure of a kind known also in Devon and the Isle of Man. Some of the Lough Gur houses were enclosed by stone-kerbed ring walls. In Carigillihy, near Glandore, an oval dry-masonry hut stood in a small oval enclosure bounded by a massive wall of dry masonry; the pottery resembled early Bronze Age ware found at Lough Gur. In Rathjordan, Lough Gur, and on the shore of Lough Gara (near Boyle), small circular crannógs - “artificial islands” - and lake-shore house-sites have been discovered. Neolithic and earlier Bronze Age lake-dwellings have also been found in Ulster, but it is uncertain if these were crannógs in the accepted meaning of the term. At a few places in Ulster crannógs and waterside settlements (little groups of circular timber-post huts, &c.) belonging to users of the Cinerary Urn have recently been discovered.

The dwellings of the later Bronze Age also included crannógs and other waterside [17] settlements. In Ballinderry, Co. Offaly, remains were found of a roomy rectangular structure supported by a substantial framework of excellent joinery. A crannóg in Lough Gara is thought to have had about ten small circular huts, each with a central hearth. Undefended homesteads leave little above ground to excite the imagination of the layman, to whom funerary and ritual monuments normally make a more immediate appeal. A few classes of such Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments have already been mentioned. A few others merit passing reference, e.g. derivative and degenerate chamber tombs, non-chambered cairns and tumuli, ritual circles, stone alignments, and standing stones (pillarstones). The derivative and degenerate tombs include such impressive monuments as those of Sess Kilgreen and Knockmany near Clogher, tombs whose hieratic art links them with the passage graves. The non-chambered mounds, of several classes, vary considerably in scale. Some cover single burials on the ground; others cover single burials in short cists or in pits; yet others are cemetery mounds containing single-burial graves of various kinds. (Flat cemeteries too are known, particularly in the mature Bronze Age.) While the cemetery cairn and tumulus seem to be confined to the Bronze Age, the low ring-barrow appears to be represented in all periods from the Neolithic onwards. As the Bronze Age advanced, whatever the type of funerary monument in use, cremation became the prevailing burial rite.

Like the funerary monuments, the ritual circles - “open air temples” - found in all four Provinces include some impressive monuments, though nothing comparable to the greater circles of Britain. Some are circles of stones (pillarstones or boulders), others are earthen rings, yet others are circles of earth and stones. Some have an external fosse, some an internal one, yet others have no fosse. A few have a central chamber tomb, or cairn, or tumulus, or other grave, others have a central stone which may mark a grave, yet others have no visible central feature of any kind. Some stone circles have stone outliers; some have tangent or other alignments. At Beaghmore near Cookstown stone circles combine with alignments and small cairns in a complex covering several acres. In parts of Cork and Kerry there are numerous small stone circles with a single recumbent stone; they may have outliers. Very few Irish circles have been excavated; fewer still have yielded satisfactory dating evidence. The great circle in Grange, Lough Gur, yielded Neolithic as well as Beaker and Food Vessel sherds. Drombeg recumbent-stone circle near Glandore enclosed a central dedicatory pit-burial with a Bronze Age type of urn. Earthen circles, including the kind known as “henges” in Britain, are also found in Ireland. None have been examined.

Little as we know about the Irish ritual circles, we know even less about the pillarstones and alignments. Some pillarstones mark Bronze Age graves, others had an uncertain cult significance. Comparable monuments, but with ogham inscriptions or Christian symbols, or both, were still being erected in protohistoric and early historic times. Ireland has nothing which compares with the concentrations of alignments found in Brittany or on Dartmoor, or with the famous English “avenues” of standing stones.

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Kings and Heroes
Gaelic epic, which mirrors the Ireland of the closing centuries of the prehistoric Iron Age, shows us a country of chariot-riding kings and heroes whose aristocratic culture displays many of the features reported in Classical accounts of the Continental Celts. The archaeological evidence, such as it is, of the Irish Iron Age proper, is consistent with the testimony of the Heroic tales.

Although the Irish Iron Age lasted several centuries - perhaps from the third [18] century b.c. to the firm establishment of Christianity, say about 500 A.D. - it is but meagrely represented in the archaeological record. Once again we are hampered by the paucity of known dwelling places and burials. Once again there is no unambiguous evidence of significant immigration. Archaeologically speaking, the outstanding feature of the period is the highly sophisticated abstract ornament applied to fine metalwork and to a few stone carvings. This ornament is in the La Tène style characteristic of the specifically Celtic phase of the European Iron Age. That phase opened on the Middle Rhine in t lie later fifth century B.c. By the third century La Tène immigrants were beginning the first of a succession of movements into Britain, and there are signs of Irish contacts with several phases of their culture.

Some of the La Tène manifestations in Ireland, notably the decorated cult-stones of Turoe (see under Loughrea), Castlestrange (see under Athleague), Killycluggin (see under Ballyconnell), and Mullaghmast (now in the National Museum), have no counterpart in Britain and may represent direct connections between Ireland and Europe - conceivably only Continental craftsmen working for native clients. A few stray metal finds also suggest possible Continental contacts of one kind or another. On the other hand, a small series of ornate sword scabbards is generally taken it) imply an influx of warriors from northern Britain into Ulster in the later first century b.c. (Details of the Turoe stone itself could also be interpreted as reflecting first century links with Britain.) Some argue, however, that the earliest La Tène metalwork in Ulster represents the same third century movement from Europe as does the first insular style of La Tène work in Britain. However they originated, the scabbards combine with other parade equipment, including trappings for pairs of ponies, to indicate the presence of chariot-riding warriors in Ireland.

One of the many striking contrasts between the British Iron Age and the Irish is presented by the abundance of hill forts in Britain and their rarity in Ireland. Few as are the Irish forts - less than a couple of dozen all told - we still know little factual about them. One of them is the Emain Macha of Irish epic, a royal seat which may still have been flourishing as late as the fifth century a.d. (see Navan Fort under Armagh). Others (see Tara, Greenan Elly under Derry, and Dún Ailinne under Kilcullen) are associated with early historic dynasties. The so-called ringfort, the classic farmstead of early Irish history, was already known in the prehistoric Iron Age. Normally the visible remains consist of a bank set inside its quarry ditch and enclosing a circular farmyard (about one hundred feet in diameter) in which had stood dwelling house and outhouses; on rocky terrains the bank of earth, or of earth and stones, was of necessity replaced by a rampart of dry masonry. Only a very small percentage of “ringforts”, those with strong or multiple ramparts, deserves the name “fort”. The crannóg too was known in the Irish Iron Age, but we are still without particulars of the excavated examples.

In the course of the centuries Irish traditions and the Irish environment combined with external stimuli to modify and attenuate the La Tène elements in the later Iron Age material, stimuli from abroad which operated through raiding and trading Roman provinces and, towards the end, through Gaelic colonies in Wales and in Scotland. By the close of the Iron Age the Gaelic-speaking nation of early history had evolved, a nation needing only the inspiration of Christianity to play an important rôle in Dark Age Europe, a nation with a distinctive civilization that is all the more fascinating because it is archaic in so many respects. Major roots of that civilisation lie in the Celtic Iron Age, whence its distinctive social and political institutions, its art, its epic literature, derive. Its patriarchal warrior aristocracy, only finally overthrow by the Tudors, preserved to the last something of the heroes of Emain and Cruachu. Its poets, maintained to the end by that aristocracy, were in a real sense the heirs of the druides, vates, and bardi of La Tène Europe. [19]

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