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.


One thought on “In Search of Ancient Ireland

  1. tomoconnor09 says:

    I read your blog and about your background with great interest. I wonder whether you might just be interested in having a look at my blogs about the Celts and early Ireland at You might like to browse through the photo file and my book extracts as given in my book’s website .

    Thank you,

    Tom O Connor

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