Cattle Lords and Clansmen: The Social Structure of Early Ireland by Nerys Patterson

Nerys Patterson is trying to provide an analysis of the social structure of medieval Ireland. Her main focus is on the period between the arrival of Christianity and the pre-Norman era. For her sources she uses a combination, of more often than not, fragmented primary sources and sociological and anthropological methods. She uses explanations and analysis of the sources to present her ideas on the social structure of Early Ireland.

The author uses the first chapter to present her sources, the problems that were faced when looking at them and the theories that came up around them at the time they were first used as sources. Then she presents her own theories on the same subject. The evidence for early Irish society structure is found in complex and damaged writings of Old and Middle Irish, Latin and a combination of all the above languages. These manuscripts were put together by clerics and members of secular learned groups in scriptoria, more often then not the writers and the time these writings were put together are unknown. The manuscripts were also hard to place in a certain category as they included stories, law tracts, histories, and bible translations all in one manuscript. This however, accompanied by the fact that the manuscripts were consistent in what was in them, seems to prove that the information is basically accurate. It was very interesting to read about the features of the Irish law tracts, I think people talk about it but don’t really understand what is involved in it. There was different sections dealing with different things, and what survived of those tracts tell you a lot about who was important in medieval Ireland. Also it was surprising to me that their were different laws for different parts of Ireland, I suppose that should not really have surprised me as it would be normal to take into consideration what was important to each part of the country when writing laws. The conclusion of the chapter gives us an insight into who the author is going to proceed from here on, it is an interesting thought because she is going to look at the social structure and what was around it at the time period she will be discussing; an insight into why the social structure was the way it is.

The period between the late fourth and early sixth century was a time of social upheaval in Ireland. A lot of names that could be found on Ptolemy’s map had disappeared and new dynasties established. This change was disguised in the Irish texts as a continuation of tradition. Ireland has always recognized two halves; Conn’s half and Mug’s half, and these two halves had different laws and social structures. This could be explained in the pseudo history of the Lebor Gabála Érenn. According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn when the sons of Míl landed and Éremón and Éber asked Amairgen who should be king he said that it should be Éremón first and then Éber, but Éber wanted to be king now so Ireland was divided into North and South. Some versions said that Éremón took the kingship with him to the North and others say that he was king in the North. Éber was a king in the South. In many ways it can be seen that the Northern kingship was the more important one. Éremón took with him seven chieftains to the North to Éber’s six and there are two ridges in the North while the south only had one. This division gave certain attributes to the North and South. When Éremón went to the North he took the poet with him (learned man), so the North was a place of dignity and learning. The harpist went to the South, and it became the place for music and artistry. It should be noted that these two kingships had a special relationship. Though the Northern Kingship was the major one and the Southern one the minor one the Southern kingship was rich with food and produce and so in essence it is the stronger one. There is always a rivalry between the two seats, but they also complement and complete each other. The North is known as “Leth Cuinn” or The Half of Conn. Conn means head, chief, sense, and reason. The South is known as “Leth Moga” or the Half of Mug. Mug means servant. The author decided to compare two texts one from Munster (Uraicecht Becc UB) and the other is the Críth Gablach (CG), and by comparing these two texts she could get (and by default give us) a sense of the social changes that led to the unification of the legal and social systems. The first manuscript (CG) described social rank in terms of the distribution of status amongst the membership of land holding clans; excluded from this manuscript were the landless, craftsmen, druids, poets, and priests. Society was divided into the óes dána and the aire. The óes dána were the people of art, poetry, learning, and crafts while the aire were the lords and freemen, members of landowning and farming clans. The Munster tract (UB) described a more complex social order. The distribution in (UB) was based on nemed (privileged) and non-nemed and sóer (free) and doer (bond). The free-nemeds were poets, churchmen, lords and féni. The unfree-nemed were a wide variety of craftsmen and people learning. The dóer-nemed were those who were tied to the paid service of the king or other free-nemed. The background for each manuscript is very interesting as it complies with ideas expressed in the Book of Invasions the north was more given to warfare then the south. The laws that were written based on the cultural and historical changes that had happened at the time.

Early Irish society was based on agricultural production, tillage and livestock farming and it is these things that govern the relationship between a lord and his clients. The author, in chapter three, started by describing the topography of Ireland, and the climate associated with it. This helped give me the idea of why the farming was mostly on the fringes of the island, and why there was so much emphasis on livestock. She discusses the things that the Irish planted and what they did with them, as well as the vegetables that were popular at the time. It seems like something simple but once you understand the lay of the land you understand why livestock was important and gave prestige. It was fascinating to me to read about the differences between farmers based on what sort of livestock they had, it was also very fascinating to read about what was written on the different animals in the legal tracts; animals like cattle, swine, and horses.

Chapter four is about how the society was organized on land. In order to discuss this issue two things must be taken into consideration. The first is booleying, which is the communing of herds at the local level during summer and the second is the use of wilderness to maintain large herds. If I understood what I was reading correctly there seem to be a lot of mobility. This makes sense when you take into consideration the livestock. The author in this chapter discusses pastoral territories, their importance and how they were divided between the different groups. She also discusses the settlement forms and field systems with in the larger pastoral territories. At the end of the chapter the author gives us the textual evidence of how Irish farming took place, how land was assessed and taxation was paid according to rank.

The author gives one of the best explanations of the Celtic year I have ever read in chapter five. She shows that the year was tied first to the agricultural cycle and second to the pastoral cycle. The year is divided into summer and winter, with the summer being associated with light and work, while winter is associated with dark and rest. Even food is split between dark and light. The year is also split into four quarters; it starts with Samhain, goes through Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lughnasadh. The author goes on to explain about each of these festivals. She also equates human behavior to the cycle of the year in her conclusion, which was very interesting.

In chapter six the author discusses the different types of clientship, found in Irish society. On a very different (or similar) note, clientship in the IE culture the elite had a belief in oaths and obligation to clients, so people whom were clients were protected. An Indo-European speaking patron could accept outsiders as clients without shaming them or assigning them permanently submissive roles, as long as they preformed the sacrifices properly. It was interesting to read how they are similar to the Irish and also so different.

Chapter seven is a presentation of the rank system, what the different ranks were and what tracts discussed them as well as the most common forms of ranks to be recognized. It was very interesting to read about the honor price and the different ways they were paid. Interestingly enough they are almost the same as the honor price system recognized by the Bedouins here in Kuwait, with camels being substituted for cattle or cows.

The next chapter is a continuation of the previous chapter with the discussion centering on kin and neighbors. It includes a discussion of what is expected of each and how much they can or can’t rent from the lord they are clients under. I’m finding a lot of similarities between this system and the system used by the Bedouins in the Arabian Desert.

Chapter nine discusses the forms of Irish kinship. The author admits that this subject interests the specialists more than the general reader but that it will be useful when discussing lineages and how they are organized. She starts by listing the types of kinship organization and explains them in depth. It is interesting to note that status and chieftaincy had nothing to do with genealogy and was more likely then not determined by competition and political supremacy. I have to say that this chapter was mind-boggling and had so much that needed more clarification. Perhaps more reading on the tracts she used as her reference.

The next chapter talks about the corporate FINE and all the obligations that are tied to it. Reading through this chapter I could not help but equate it to what goes on among the Bedouins in the Arab countries. It is not just similar but exactly the same!

No social structure would be complete with out looking at the place of women, sexual relation and the placement of children; this was the subject of chapter eleven. The author looked at the different types of marriages, termination of marriage, and how children were viewed. It also discussed the economic status of wives and mistresses and the laws governing these things. It was a fascinating chapter to read.

The final chapter of the book discusses the positions in the FINE that govern or police. Nerys also discusses why it was difficult for the English to really govern the Irish because of the fact that they do not punish the people under them; they prefer compensation to punishment.

I’m not really sure how to look at this book. It was interesting to read though at times very complicated. I think this is more of a book for people who already have a basis in the law tracts talked about in the book, as well as an over all idea of the Early Irish structure and Brehon Laws and need more specific things explained.

Europe Between the Oceans by Barry Cunliffe

Europe dominated the world during the course of the second millennium CE, this domination came in the form of arts and sciences. The influence of Europe came from the mobility of its people. It only took a few centuries for the world to come under the influence of European culture.

This book doesn’t look at this time in European history but rather at the time it took to get there. The book looks at the period of history (and pre-history) from 9000 BCE to the end of the first millennium CE, at the time when the states of Europe familiar to us today began to emerge.

The author is emphasizing the fact that geography of the European peninsula had a huge effect on the way human population there developed. He also emphasizes the human factor; how competitive and curious they are and yet they are also conservative. He also discusses the interactions of the different human groups with their environment and each other.

In chapter one the author lays the foundation for his book by explaining the concepts of space, time and human interaction from the point of view of archeologists and historians as well as geographers through time. The author uses archeology, classical texts, dendrochronology, and weather as his resources for this book.

I think the beauty of this book is in the fact that it is written in a way that anyone picking it up will benefit from it. Whether you were a historian, archeologist, scientist or just someone interested in Europe there is something in there for every one. You don’t just know the history you also know the WHY of it. Its a must read for anyone researching European history. What I value the most about this book is the abundant maps that help you visualize what the author is talking about and the further reading section at the end of the book. I absolutely enjoyed reading this book slowly and savoring all the information presented in it.

The Druids: A History by Ronald Hutton

Back when this book was being publicized just before it came out I was itching to get it. I even pre-ordered it, because I had read all of Ronald Hutton’s books and I knew the kind of scholarly study that goes into them. I couldn’t wait for the day it arrived and when it did, I dropped all the other books that I was reading and started to read it.

What first struck me was the introduction. It seems that this book was written with people who thought that his other books were “too hard” for them to read. So the book was made “simple”. He also said that another book was forthcoming with academic people in mind and more information then this book. I didn’t like that. I had expected that this book would be like his other books, full of scholarly information and proofs, still it was fun to read at times and had some good information.

Then I was hit by the way he had divided his book. The division was not based on chronological divisions but rather on “types of druids”. As a result you had information that was recycled in every chapter. Not everything was recycled of course and some chapters had new information that the other chapters didn’t, still it got me a little bored.

There was also the fact that he ignored written works by the Celts that came after Christianity, and while I agree that not everything written about the Druids after Christianity came is accurate, it is not a basis to ignore it completely.

Still the book does go into the history of the Druids that came after the 1700s to the present which is ignored by most of the well respected authors in the druid field or if not ignored marginalized. That in my eyes was a redeeming quality.

If you are a beginner in the field of Druidry then please do not read this book until you have read the others by Miranda Green, Peter Ellis, and Barry Cunliffe.  If you would rather read a book on Druids which is up to the standards of Hutton’s older books then get his new one (which I will be reviewing as soon as I finish it).

The Celtic Consciousness edited by Robert O’Driscoll

The Celtic Consciousness is a collection of essays and lectures that the editor had put together from a Celtic symposium that took place in Canada in 1978. The authors of the essays ranged from the very well known to the obscure.

The editor tells us from the beginning that he is bringing these essays together and indeed helping to put together the symposium so that the information they had of the Celts at that time can be shared as well as encourage the development of programs that deal with the Celts as an entity of there own rather than as a part of the British culture.

The essays are grouped together based on content. The book is divided into six sections; section one is a touch on how the Celts relate to the Indo Europeans. The second section is about the beginnings of the Celtic world, namely archeology, linguistics, history and prehistory. Sections three and four are about mythology, literature, religion, folklore, music and art. Section five is about modern Celtic nationalism, which includes the literary and the political. The final section is about Celtic vision in contemporary thought and art.

The editor at the end of his introduction to the book tells us that the Celts are an inexhaustible source of study. He also tells us that the book concentrates on Ireland and Scotland mostly.
The editor chose to begin the collection of essays with a poem by Kinsella called Finistere. I believe this is a nod to the bards of the old traditions where poetry and storytelling played an important part in the lives of the Celts.

The first section of the book was made up of only one essay. This essay was an attempt by the editor to link the Celts with the Indo-European world. The author of the essay was comparing the Indian literature to that of the Grail tradition, which is a part of Celtic literature. I don’t think that was the ideal way to link India (as a representative of the Indo-Europeans world) and one of the Celtic cultures, then perhaps a comparison between the Brehon Laws and the Indian laws would have been better as well as a comparison between the social structure of the Indians and the Irish.
Section two of the book has five essays. Each essay dealt with pre-history, history or linguistics. The first essay was a very brief overview of the history of the Celts, starting from when they were first mentioned by the Greeks and Romans up until the arrival of Christianity. The next two essays dealt with the linguistics of the Celtic language. The first of the two essays tried to show the connection between the Near East and Africa to the Celts and the second talked about the structure of the Celtic language. The last two essays talk about what the Celts left behind in the matter of everyday life. The first of these two essays talk about a recreated village from the Pagan Celtic era and the discoveries made through recreating it and the second talks about the tombs the Celts of the West left behind. Taking the whole section together you get a somewhat complete study of the Celts mostly from the eras before Christianity. The editor gives you an overview of history, a look at language, and a view of what everyday life might have been like in the first century BCE. Then he ends the section with a look at what the pre-historic Celtic west might have believed about the afterlife.

The next two sections deal with mythology, literature, religion, folklore, music, and art. Both sections between them have twenty-one essays.

Section three starts with an essay on Celtic Art and who and what might have influenced it. The second essay is about early Irish Mythology. The best thing to take away from the essay is to read the myths but also to read about the time they were written in, to look for themes and styles in the myths and to look at what the author was trying to say. Essay three is about prophecy and how it is depicted in myths. The fourth essay is a depiction of heroes in myths and how they are seen, and the questions that the myths raised about the true heroic tradition. The fifth essay is about Celtic heritage. I think this essay has one major point and that was that the Celtic Church incorporated nature and sciences into its heritage as a way to understand what God wants of his flock. It didn’t think either was contrary to what God wanted. The final essay in the third section is about the Scottish Saints and their stories.

The fourth section begins with an essay by Ann Ross about material culture, myth and folk memory follow by an essay by Kevin Danaher about the Irish Calendar and Folk memory, they were both very good introductions to the subjects they covered. The next essay is about the different roles of the poets from paganism, through Christianity and the Norman incursions. Essay number four is about the role women played in resisting the Scottish clearances. This essay is then followed by a poem. The next essay in the fourth section deals with the Scottish Gaelic language and its poetry and how it developed across the ages. The seventh essay was a presentation of the Irish Gaelic love-poetry and the influences that produced them. Originally Irish love poetry is not concerned with love in its idealist form but rather it was very ironic, it was only when the European influence entered the scene in the middle ages did the poetry become more inline with what is today known as classic love poetry. Around the 17th century the poetry composed by the learned class receded to be replaced by folk love poetry. It is a sign of the history of the time, and all the turbulence in it. The next essay is a very short one, which talks about the nature of Irish music. The rest of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth century had developed musically but not the Irish they continued to use the old Modal scale or the “natural” scale, it was used in folk music for a very long time and it is what gives us the “Irish melodies”. Ireland has the largest collection of folk music. In the ninth essay of section four the objective was to establish how the different kinds of poetic laments were musically preformed. The author did give examples of music in the essay unfortunately for someone who can’t read sheet music it meant nothing. For me the real objective of this essay was to learn about the different types of mourning techniques, when each one was used and by whom. This applies to both Ireland and Scotland. Apart from the sheet music, which went over my head, the essay was very informative and interesting. Essay number ten discusses the resemblance between Irish music and eastern music lies in the interpretation of the melody and ornamentation. This can be seen in music composed before the 1930s in Ireland, and not in anything after. However, with composers now turning back to eastern and Celtic traditional music things have changed. The next essay in the section is about the life story of Seán O Riada, who is considered to be the most outstanding artistic figure of post-war Ireland. He was part of the Gaelic renascence that came about in the 1960s and ended in the 1970s. He was a national composer; his commitment wasn’t just about the advancement of Irish music but also international music. The life story of Seán O Riada was followed by a collection of poems bidding farewell to him. These poems were composed after O Riada’s funeral; they showed the depth of the connection between Montague and O Riada. No discussion of Irish culture is complete without looking at the calligraphy displayed in books like the Book of Kells and the contribution of the Irish to the printing presses. The history of calligraphy from the pen to the printing press is recounted starting with Ogham, which according to legend is the earliest known writing system in Ireland. As with most Irish changes in Culture a major event (the coming of Christianity) brought with it writing in Latin alphabets and the great monastic era. The essay produced beautiful examples of the calligraphy of the times. Around 1550 the first Irish printing houses were established. And different types of prints were established. Here again the essay provides beautiful examples. A brief essay by Sorel Etrog discussing the achievements of Liam Miller’s Dolmen press is also included in this section. This press produced books that are part of the great Celtic traditions of book creation. The final essay of this section is on the Celtic contribution to science. The essay mentions all the great Celtic names like Robert Brown of fluid dynamics and Francis M’Clintock the arctic explorer and gives two specific examples; William Rowan Hamilton who developed the fundamental basis of theoretical mechanics and James Clark Maxwell who explained the electromagnetic theory. Then it also mentions the more “contemporary” names like J.C. Dooge and a few others.

Both sections three and four should have been combined into one section as they really discuss the same thing, Celtic mythology, literature and music. The exception being the three essays at the end of section four, two of which discussed calligraphy and printing and the one on the contribution to science. Looking at the two sections I can say that they gave an introduction to Celtic mythology, literature and music but nothing more. Much more is needed to really understand the Celtic mindset/culture.

Section five is about modern Celtic nationalism. The section contains sixteen essays. The first of these essays talks about where the routes of Irish nationalism may have come from. The author says that Ireland never hat to question its identity until it was confronted with the challenge of having to articulate the reason for its being, not just of its cultural and religious traditions, but also its system of law, and way of life. The next two essays talk about the literary revival of Ireland, and how it should be taken as part of the modern Celtic nationalistic movement of the time. The two essays complement each other in that they both explain about the work that took to make this revival and the people who both laid the foundation for it and the ones who fuelled it. Essays four and five should also be taken together because the second is a reply to the first. The author of essay number four has the view that the Irish revolution was not an extension of the ancient Irish culture but rather an extension of the French revolution and was directly effected by it. He goes on in his essay to discuss his theory and try to prove it. In the reply John Montague was in complete disagreement and taking the southern view to what happened in the North as being violent because it is in their nature. I do not understand fully the Irish civil wars yet enough to comment on these two essays, but it seems to me that the French revolution did have something to do with most revolutions that happened after it directly or indirectly, but that does not also mean that there was no historical extensions to it as well. Next comes a beautiful poem about the violence and the ideas behind them. The next two talks in the section were all about setting the record straight on the relationship between the Free Irish Republic and Canada, and when the Free Irish State was declared. I’m not really sure why that was included here. The ninth essay talks about the nationalism of Scotland and Wales and how different they are from Irish nationalism. The next two essays seem to me to be two views of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid. He was a part of the Scottish literary movement. A poem in memory of Hugh MacDiarmid follows the essays about him. The twelfth essay is about AE, and the author’s experience with him. The thirteenth and fourteenth essays are about David Jones and his works. They talk about his background and how that may have influenced his works. The last two essays/poems are authored by Sorely Maclean. In the essay, Sorely discusses the Gaelic and non-Gaelic works that made the most impact. The poems are beautiful examples of Sorely’s work in the original format and translated. This section started out well and then totally deteriorated. I was lost most of the time because I really had no basic knowledge of who they authors were talking about and the lack of background information is a mistake on my part that needs to be remedied. Some of the essays I felt should not have been included in the section.

Section six of the books talks about the Celtic vision in modern writing and art. The section has eight essays. The section begins with an essay that has as one of its premises that the concept of the Celt is a made up concept. Not a great way to start, but it is a valid point to make as it was one of the phases that people who wrote about the Celts had gone through in modern times. In the same essay the author discusses the modern artists and writers on the scene and their ideas, he also discusses the Edinburgh Arts, which is, according to the author, intended to awaken interest in ancient cultures. The next essay in the section is not really an essay but rather a conversation between peers in two of the Edinburgh Arts journey. I often felt while reading these bits of conversations like I entered in the middle of one and got lost. They seem to be complicating things that have simple explanations at least to me. The permanence of the Spiritual is a very short essay that deals with modern art and using it to look at the Celtic world. The art that the author was talking about was a sculpture called “The Hill”, a temple that was to be built in India, and the Arthurian legends of the Island named after an apple. I was able to get from the essay that the Irish Tumuli is perhaps a shape that is natural for people to make. I’m not sure what the author was trying to tell us about the Celtic world as a whole. The next essay seemed to be lamenting the fact that modern artists seem to make their art to rest in museums and art galleries instead of being inspired from the world around them. Then it talks about an art project in Chicago that was a display of lights and how even though it was finished once the show was over, people still related to it and carried images of it in their psyche. I think this is a reference to the fact that people can surprise you and that art should speak to people rather then to be something aesthetic and pleasing in a certain setting. The French comic Aestrix is discussed in the next essay. It shows how the comics were used to tell the story of what is happening in modern world using old world values. The Romans were the social structure and modern industrialism and the Gauls were the human condition and nature. The next essay is about the Celts and Christianity. The author makes the point that the Celts were great on social structure (debatable), economy, or warfare but that had advanced spirituality. The only way to move forward in modern times is to define what it means to be Celtic, which is something I totally agree with, but then he goes on to say that to be a Celt means that you should be an esoteric Christian. This conclusion totally ruined the whole essay, which was short and very good until that part. The Rebirth of the Celtic Folk Soul is a very whimsical and extremely short essay about people going back to spirituality whether they call it Celtic or New Age. They are going back to the old sacred sites and restoring them and the stories around them. I think the most important thing that we can take from the final essay of the section is that history is cyclic. There are ups and downs for a civilization or culture and that nothing should be taken for granted, one little flutter somewhere can have an effect elsewhere. This section is not really what I expected. It had in it all the strains of thoughts that we have in our modern times, that is that the Celts are an invention no they are not, they are a spiritual people, and that they are the ones that lay the foundation for modern western culture, but it was also disappointing in that I was expecting more. I don’t know what exactly but just more…The Epilogue is about how people perceived the “Celtic Hero” A production from Yeats.

Well, I made it to the end of the book mainly because I hate not reading a book to the end. If the editor was intending to interest people in the Celtic Consciousness then he should have stuck to the first three sections of the book and not gone on. The rest just dragged on with essays that I could have done without. Perhaps I should have read this book after studying, mythology, literature and everything else on the Celtic scene, some of the essays just went way over my head.As to its importance to my study of Celtic culture, I think what I most got out of it is that culture should be divided into material (I’m going to include politics and social structure here), literature (this includes folklore, mythology and contemporary writings), art, and religion.

Pre-Christian Ireland by Peter Harbison

Pre-Christian Ireland deals with the archeology of Ireland’s prehistoric period up to the coming of Christianity. The author of this book was trying to make a survey of this period taking into account the updated research and finds made of that period up until the time of the printing of the book. This book uses for its main sources archeology, radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology or the science of tree-ring dating. To a certain extent the author achieved his goal.

The author kicks off the book with an explanation of what prompted the writing of the book, and a survey of the history of research in the area of Irish prehistory. He discusses dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating, the innovations made in those two field and the uses made of them in archeology. An interesting summary of the history of archeology in Ireland and the archeologists who made these discoveries is also presented in the first chapter, this I feel gives the reader a sense of how difficult it was to get the records he/she is now reading. Also it makes one wonder about all the things that were lost under a farmer’s plow and the idea that we should not disturb the ancestors. However, if we don’t then how can we learn about our history?

A look at the geographical location of Ireland is how the author chose to start the second chapter. Coupled with a good map of Europe and the map provided at the beginning of the book, a reader who has never been to Ireland will be able to get a good idea of where Ireland is and what makes it special, namely its sea. The Irish Sea gives Ireland the edge of being near to main land Europe and also isolated from it. The sea provided the trading routes that the Irish Sailors depended on and also the way settlers or raiders came from. It also gave the Irish the look into new spiritual and economic developments. The author also gives us a topographical survey of Ireland’s landscape. This discussion of the topography gives the reader an idea (all be it a simple one) of what kind of natural resources the Irish had. Harbison chose to start his discussion of Ireland’s first settlers at the beginning of the Ice age. This is to set the stage for the arrival of the first settlers, and what they may have seen the first time they set foot in Ireland. He discusses the land bridges between Britain and Ireland and how vegetation, animals, and later people could have used them as a walkway into Ireland. There seems to be evidence of the existence of settlers around the Mesolithic period, with evidence of houses and campsites much older then the ones in Britain. They were hunters and fishermen, and they may have used flint tools.

The third chapter is all about the farmers and the megalith builders, otherwise known as the Neolithic period of Ireland. From examining stratified pollen we know that the earliest date for woodland clearance was from 3895 and 2965 bc, in the southwestern part of Ireland as well as in the opposite side of Ireland and in this side there is evidence of the people who did the clearing. The Neolithic people came in probably from Scotland in small groups clearing land and planting, then moving inland as the lands became infertile; this is evidenced by the re-growth of forests after a few hundred years. The next generations after that though settled down in enclosures which probably held 4-5 families at a time and they were near Court Cairns, which makes us, think that the same people built them. The first houses that could be identified purely as Neolithic were found in southeast Limerick. Though nothing as big as this house was found again with the rest of the finds producing round huts, kitchen middens, and pottery as proof of the Neolithic people. A lot of potsherds were found in Neolithic sites, including burial sites. This indicates the sedentary nature of the Neolithic people. Ireland has 1200 megaliths that probably served as tombs for the Neolithic people and some of the people who came after them. These can be grouped into four major types; Court Cairns, portal tombs, passage tombs, and wedge tombs. These four types seem to be concentrated in the North, in the south the picture is different. In the south we find single burials, quite what the significance of this is, is unknown. I guess it would be interesting to see just what about our assumptions about these sites were true. Did we infer the right things or did we just associate with them things that WE think they might mean?

The Beaker pottery in Ireland is interesting because it was not used the same way as it was in continental Europe and Britain. There it was used as a burial beaker, in Ireland however, it was more associated with domestic activities. It was also found in wedge tombs, again not as a mode of burial. The author in this chapter takes us through a discovery of standing stones and stone circles, different types of burials and the items found in them, and that leads us gently to the rise of metal working. It was really an interesting combination. The most interesting part to me was not just the objects, but what we can glean from them. An emphasis on new techniques and manufacture, a change from communal to personal, perhaps even increased wealth and the emphasis on status are just a few things that are communicated.

The Golden Age talked about in this book is the time from Early Bronze Age to the Late Bronze Age. It was so called because of the amount of the Gold found in hoards in Ireland. The Late Bronze Age is also when the first Hallstatt C influence started to appear. Not a lot of information is known about this time because there is a limited about of burial places and settlements that can be dated to that time. This chapter was interesting because it gives us some idea of what might have been there and is missed by the archeology of today, which is mainly the only way we can learn about the time. Things like what the Irish bartered for the huge amount of gold hoards found if indeed the gold was not domestic, or the difference in tastes between the north and the south could be indicative of an outside influence that is different for each side. A lot to think about.

The last chapter of the book mostly spoke about the how the Celts may have come to Ireland. Different theories were presented and discussed giving us the pros and cons of each. The chapter also talks about the Hillforts and assembly places and about what kind of influence the Romans MAY have had on Ireland.

In the Epilogue the author explains his vision of the book. He tells us that since the people had not written their history down the only way to tell the story is by looking at what they left behind, monuments, settlements and objects. It is up to the archeologist to flesh out the picture based on these objects. I think that for most people who are interested in history an incomplete picture is better then no picture at all. And yet how do we know that the archeologist who is fleshing out the picture is not doing so based n his own biases and/or proving or disproving someone else’s picture? In a lot of books I’ve read the biases are visible, some are forgivable and others are not. I guess one only has to be careful enough and to cross reference as many things as possible.

In general the book is a very good appraisal of the archeological evidence that we have for the period of prehistory in Ireland. I did feel however that the author missed the boat by trying to present only the archeology without giving in ideas of what he thinks these objects fit together to give a more human picture. The way he presented the dates is also very confusing at times, sometimes I didn’t even know what date he was talking about. On the plus side it was not a dry book either, you get the sense of the enthusiasm that the author has for his subject matter, which is mostly missing from many archeology books.

Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery

Pagan Celtic Ireland is a book that was written with the intent of presenting the new discoveries made about the Irish Iron Age. These discoveries involved new dates established with better techniques in radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology. The main goal of this book is to give a picture of life in the Irish Iron age and what it entailed, and the author achieved that goal with ease. The main source used in researching this book is archeology and the written sources were used as a way to give a more colorful picture of the time.

Chapter one is a very brief introduction that is supposed to get the reader from the origin of the Celts to the Celts in Ireland and then from there to the Celts in Iron Age Ireland. It talks about one of the most famous of all Irish Sagas The Cattle Raid of Cooley and what we can get from it in historical value. This introduction is not intended for anyone not familiar with the history of the Celts. It was intended as a refresher for people who are very family with the history of the Celts and are looking for a specific time period of this history, namely the Irish Iron Age.

The author in chapter two starts the chapter with a short survey of the Late Bronze age in Ireland. He goes through how and where the Irish lived, what distinguished this time from the previous one (mainly metal works) and then goes on to talk about how they were buried (cremation mostly) and the evidence of ritualistic offerings. The Iron Age in Ireland is not that easy to define. In the Early iron Age of ireland you can find some evidence for artifacts of the Hallstatt C style, but with an Irish twist on it. While in England we can find evidence of Hallstatt C, D and the Early La Tène phase. The artifacts from the Early Iron Age of Ireland seem to be of swords, and some pins. In fact the Iron Age of Ireland seems to start, stop due to some climatic change and then start again picking up from the La Tène later phase.

As with everything in Ireland Hill forts positions and chronology are not easy. Three classes of hillforts are distinguishable. Class one is of one line defense, Class two is multi lined with 2-3 concentric lines, and Class three is inland promontory forts. There is a fourth kind of fort called the coastal promontory forts. And they vary in defenses and number of ramparts. The forts may have served a multitude of functions. They where in some obvious cases defended villages, or places people can go to in times of danger. They could also have served as places of social gatherings, festivals of religious nature or places where people bartered food and commodities. The distribution of the hillforts seem to be concentrated in the south of Ireland, even though there are hillforts in the north too. The southern hillforts show almost no La Tene style of artifacts unlike the north and yet the southern part of Ireland in the historical era after Christianity was definitely of Celtic nature. The hillforts may have had multiple occupation at different times and that would have an effect on dating them.

The use of tree-ring analysis in figuring out dates of sites has helped the archaeologists to date many of the Royal sites, and corroborate the radiocarbon dating associated with them. These techniques in dating also give us a picture of the Irish Iron Age never seen before. Tara is one of the most famous royal sites, and it is obvious from the artifacts and monuments found in it that it has long been a place of ceremony and ritual. Cruachain, made famous by the Tain is thought to have been a palace, a place for inauguration and ritual, and an entrance to the Otherworld. Dún Ailinne is an enclosure with a bank and a ditch and in ancient times it was the Capitol of the Kingdom of Leinster. The site seems to be mainly used for ceremonies or rituals. Emain macha like Dún Ailinne was an enclosure with a ditch and a bank but it was a little more complex as it seems to have gone through phases where it was built and rebuilt. In the end it was turned into a ceremonial and ritualistic place. It also seemed to be important in pre-Christian times judging from the skull of an African ape. At or around these sites and indeed in other places you also had the assembly sites and the inauguration sites, these were also important places for gatherings and rituals. The linear earthworks are also curious formations that were built in the Irish Iron age. We do not really know their purpose.

Building a road or causeway over a bog was a daunting task and yet the Iron Age Irish managed to do that in Corlea. How much work and man power was put into this is anyone’s guess and yet I can almost see the work being done. Bogs protect artifacts well, things like wooden tools and planks can survive unharmed in them and even bodies (as attested too in the Danish bogs). An interesting theory as to why this road was built was that it was a pilgrim crossing to go from Cruachain to Uisneach and back. Horses were widespread if the evidence of the bits found across Ireland is to be believed. They may not have been shod, and could have been ridden or used as draught animals.

It can be seen that during the Iron Age, transportation was important. Wagons may have been used and horses were most probably used as means of transportation. Corlea could have been a part of a communications system. Travel by river and sea of course is also available as evidenced by some canoes and ships found.

Not much is known archaeologically about the ordinary Iron Age Irish people. We do know however, a bit about the elite section of these people who are really a small percentage of the population. We know about the techniques used to make the artifacts and the level of artistry behind them, but what does that tell us about the people who made them? It is thought that their houses were small, round and made out of timber, and that they used wood, metal and leather as containers for their food. Bones may have also been used as spatulas for tanning and sword and knife handles. Agriculture seems to have declined in the Iron Age and the people may have supplemented their diets with hazels and other nuts, as well as meat from cattle and pigs. Honey may have also been in use. On the personal front the Irish Iron age people didn’t have a lot of ornaments, though they wore belt buckles, safety pins, torcs and some earrings were also found. They may have used mirrors, and some bone combs were found also. They may have lime-washed their hair, and worn woven clothes with deer skin cloaks. The weapons found for the Iron age are swords, spears, shields and ceremonial helmets.
Once again it seems that the Celts were instrumental in spreading iron technology to Europe. Though in Ireland not a lot of examples of Iron works was found. What can be seen from the artifacts found (mainly weapons) is that they did not lose their skill which they acquired in the Late Bronze age, even though the quality of the Iron is not very good. Bronzesmiths may have been the first blacksmiths to work with Iron. A lot of the material found in Iron Age Ireland was made from Bronze by two methods, casting in round and metal sheet workings. The expertise in both methods can easily be seen from the artifacts found. There is evidence of limited gold work during the Iron Age and also beautiful pieces of stone works.

The La Tène art style in Ireland has its basis from abroad but is most definitely Irish in nature. The early styles of the La Tène culture are however absent from Ireland. The first high quality metal sheet workings centers were probably in County Antrim since it had the largest deposit of ores. The style of the La Tène culture developed in Ireland to include more geometry and bird heads but no human heads unlike the continental style.

The Celtic religion is a source of a lot of debate in our years and this chapter tries to shed a small light on it. The chapter starts with a discussion on how the Celts viewed the Gods, who the Druids were and how archeology may help us put an outline of the religion together. Filling in the outline is more difficult. Ritual sites include places like Emain Macha, Tara and burial mounds which are used over and over again. This shows respect for these places, and reverence for them. Standing stones serve as a focus for outside ceremonies, and lakes, springs, wells, rivers and bogs are also sacred places where offerings are made to the gods. The Celts believed that the soul resided in the head and so they worshiped or revered the head. They made carvings in stone and they buried heads in burial mounds, also they may have made offerings of them. Bog bodies could also point to human sacrifice among the Celts. Some interesting examples were found in Denmark, Britain and Ireland. Burials were usually by cremation for the most part and inhumation. Its an interesting chapter that gives an outline of the religious practices of the Iron Age Irish.

A host of Roman artifacts have found their way into Ireland, including burials of people along the Roman beliefs. This chapter speculates on how these things could have happened. The theories that have been put forward by the author are all very valid and make a lot of sense. We know that the irish are sea farers and that means they could have travel into the Roman Empire and came back with artifacts and indeed religious beliefs that are Roman. Then there are the botched attempts of the Romans to invade ireland, surely there must have been some evidence of that? Also it is not far fetched that people from the Roman Empire might have immigrated to Ireland and stayed there. Or perhaps refugees from Britain or Gaul who are trying to escape the Roman wrath and themselves are Romanized.

Chapter ten is a discussion of the problems that archeologists face when they look at the Irish Iron age and the arrival of the La Tène culture. It is an interesting discussion of the interpretation of the available archeological records and the theories that they can explain or not explain. The south of Ireland is particularly problematic in this respect and yet it is no less Celtic then the North. The arrival of the Celtic culture and how that could be explained. The concept of culture itself and what can be defined as culture and what can’t. All interesting discussions, and Ireland presents a challenge.

By the end of this book I was left with a lot of questions. These questions are not the mark of a bad book, in fact they are the mark of a good one. The questions I was left with are the same ones posed by the author in the last chapter of the book. I have been asking myself these questions since I started reading the book and the fact that the author asked these question too means, to me at least, that what he was trying to convey has indeed reached me.

The questions I kept asking myself were as follows. What is the meaning of culture and how does it apply to the Celts? What does “Celtic culture” really mean? How can we apply it to Ireland and make it make sense? If we consider that the Hallstatt and La Tène styles constitute Celticness, then how do we explain the Celts in Ireland, since they have little of the Hallstatt style and only a native version of the La Tène style, with the major arts that define the La Tène culture missing. How can we explain the Celticness of the south of Ireland where the La Tène style is missing completely?

An interesting and thoroughly enjoyable book that gives interesting information, and asks questions that a lot of authors gloss across, and some even fail to ask. Most importantly a book that makes you think.

In Search of Ancient Ireland

In Search of Ancient Ireland is a book designed around a PBS Series. The authors decided to write the book because there have been many new discoveries made in the last 100 years about the history and pre-history of Ireland. These discoveries have been made in the fields of archeology and vernacular records. I think also, that the increased interest in anything Celtic is another reason this book and series were made.

The book deals with the history of Ireland before the 12th century CE, which is around the time that the Anglo-Normans invaded and then settled in Ireland. In the 12th century and beyond the history of Ireland is tied to that of England. The book starts in an Ireland as yet uninhabited and stops just after the Anglo-Normans invade. The book however, is not just a look into history but also gives a glimpse into the culture of the Irish and what influenced it and also into the religions that the Irish followed during the periods talked about.

In the first chapter of the book we get a glimpse of an uninhabited Ireland during the old stone age. We are told that the first Irish had trickled into Ireland from mainland England and Scotland thanks to the Ice Age around 8000 BCE. They were hunter-gatherers and they lived near the water in round huts that could be disassembled and carried around with them. In the years between 4000 BCE and 2000 BCE the first Irish built the Megaliths that served as both burial chambers and places to gather. The Irish also built their first boats and imported farming and herding from Britain.

According to the authors Ross Island was the first place in Ireland where the Irish Bronze age started. They give the date as sometime around 2400 BCE. This was also the place where the major mining of bronze happened. The Ross mine supplied Britain as well as Ireland with the bronze they needed. In this chapter we learn about the Beaker people and their form of burial, but the most important fact on this front is that there were a multitude of burial ways going on at the same time. It was not just Beaker burials at all. We learned a lot about the culture of the bronze age Irish, how they may have lived and where. We also learned about hillforts that gave us an idea of what the Irish religion was at that time. These hillforts were built after a catastrophe had taken place. As usual in times of hardship people always turn to gods and war. It is at this time that a warrior class is born. Lots of interesting tidbits that give us mental pictures. The end of the Bronze age (the period between 700-300 BCE) and the beginning of the Iron Age brought with it another catastrophe.  It is suggested that perhaps it was not as bad as the first one but bad enough to make a change in the landscape of people.

The authors attribute the Celtic craze as it where to the nineteenth century and all the turmoil of the time.  In the 1800s there were many political and economical turmoils that the Irish had to go through like the forced parliamentary union between Britain and Ireland and the famines that went on.  The Irish needed a sense of national pride and the nationalists of the time provided it.  This was the Celtic identity.  Much of what we now call Celtic was an invention of that time, the only thing that is genuinely old is the Irish language.  This is what the authors are relying on as well as archeology to look into the history of what is or isn’t Celtic.  I tend to agree with the authors that much of the misconceptions that we have today about the Irish history comes from this period, but I am not going to dismiss the fact that the Irish do have the La Tene art and as such are Celtic at least from that point of view. Of course the Irish language is also Celtic and so that would be another reason to call the Irish Celtic. Celtic is not a DNA marker but a cultural one. The discussion of myths in this chapter and what can be learned from them is very comforting at a time where there is a sweeping trend in academia to dismiss them as non-sense written by monks.

The Celtic religion and the Druids are a very hot subject right now. With all the misconceptions from classical writers as well as well meaning 19th century scholars its tough to know what is and what isn’t. Its refreshing that in this book the authors speak of this religion as a religion that influenced Irish Christianity. It is also interesting that they say that we can infer a lot from myths like the Book of Invasions. Religion in Ireland, according to both classical writers and Irish myths, seems to be celebratory rather than liturgical, but it is also more of an everyday thing and not confined to the feast days. The Irish laws are a very important part of the lives of the Irish as they govern nearly everything. The laws are not based on Roman or Hebrew laws which makes them very different. The authors consider, and correctly so, the Irish laws and Celtic religion to be two very important aspects of the Irish way of life that could and does give us a pretty good look at the day to day life of the Irish society and individuals.  By studying these two aspects a lot can be learned about ancient Ireland up until the 1600s when the Irish laws were replaced by English ones.

The discussion of the different saints in Ireland is very interesting as they show a picture of how Christianity spread in Ireland and what the personalities behind these saints were like. They behaved more like the warrior and aristocratic class that they came from then saints.

Irish Christianity is also very interesting. It seems to me like it was more of paganism mixed with Christianity then the other way around. The way the Irish society was structured moved to become the way the monasteries of the Irish were structured. Each monastery behaving as a city state rather then a religious order. Another important thing about the monasteries was that they kept annals which gave us some of the important events between the 7th and 11th centuries. These annals were a good source for knowing what the Irish society was like and what effected each area in Ireland at what time. It was the monks who first thought of using the Latin alphabet to write in the vernacular tongue, this giving us the vernacular records. The monks were also scholars, and they spread their form of scholarship across Europe. They were most sought after by monarchs to teach their children and noblemen. In the early Irish church women were just as important as the men, in fact the abbess of Kildare was a bishop in her own right. It was not until the reforms later made to the Irish church to bring it under Roman and English control that the women lost their high status in Churches and monasteries.

The group that most influenced the Irish besides the Anglo-Normans are the Vikings. The first started raiding the monasteries for monetary gain and then settled the country. They brought with them the first coins that the Irish used, influenced the art style of the Irish and were the first to build towns and cities. They also turned Dublin into a economic center in Europe. They allied themselves to the Irish, who were fighting with each other over the title of High King. The main contest seems to be between the Ui Neills and the kings of Meath. Of course the Ui Neills were also fighting each other.
The one and only High King who actually was able to rule with the title was Brian Boru. He came from an obscure family and took the title. Of course that did not last long and he had to defend it at every turn. Brian succeeded where others failed because he realized the importance of Dublin, and how it could effect every war he fought. So his first move was to capture it, and have the Vikings there allied to him. When it all went wrong is when he lost the support of Dublin and Leinster. Brian died in the battle of Clontarf and with him went his son and grandson. After that no other O’Brien was able to hold on to the title, even though they tried. Ireland was plunged into turmoil for the next 150 years. Each dynasty even the insignificant ones was vying for the title with no one high king holding it for long. The last of those high kings was Rory O’Connor. At the time of Rory another contender to the high kingship was Dermot MacMurrough and he is the one responsible for bringing the English into Ireland. He was deposed from his seat and he went to Henry II for support. Henry remembered that he had papal permission to go in and bring the Irish church under English and Roman control and he used both excuses to go into Ireland. At first he sent in his lords and when they became too successful he went in himself to make sure that they knew who was boss. All in all it was the end of Irish independence.

I thought this book would give me an in depth look into Irish history and now that I think about it I think that I may have set a too high standard for it. I don’t believe one book can cover everything. What this book does is give you the most important events in Irish history before the English arrive and then builds you a picture of culture and religion around these events.

Its a good book to start the deeper search into Ireland with. Its light enough to keep you entertained and yet delivers a lot of cultural information that is neglected in other books dealing with history.