Map of Ireland

Early history of Ireland

History of Ireland
Early history
Protestant Ascendancy
Union with Great Britain
History of the Republic
History of Northern Ireland
Economic history
Newgrange, a famous Irish passage tomb built c3,200 BC
1 The Mesolithic (8000 BC - 4500 BC)
2 The Neolithic (4500 BC - 2500 BC)
3 The Bronze Age (2500 BC - 700 BC)
4 The Celts

4.1 O'Rahilly's historical model

4.1.1 The Pretanic colonisation
4.1.2 The Bolgic or Ernean invasion
4.1.3 The Laginian invasion
4.1.4 The Goidelic invasion

5 The Gaelic conquest of Ulster
6 Further reading
7 External links

The Mesolithic (8000 BC - 4500 BC)

What little is known of pre-Christian Ireland comes from a few references in Roman writings, Irish poetry and myth, and archaeology. During the Pleistocene ice age, Ireland was extensively glaciated. Ice sheets more than 300 metres thick scoured the landscape, pulverizing rock and bone, and eradicating all evidence of early human settlements. Something similar happened in Britain, where human remains predating the last glaciation have been uncovered only in the extreme south of the country, which largely escaped the advancing ice sheets. During the last glacial maximum (circa 16,000 BC), Ireland was an arctic wasteland, or tundra. The Midland General Glaciation covered about two thirds of the country with a drifting sheet of ice. It is highly unlikely that there were any humans in the country at this time, though the possibility cannot be discounted entirely.

The earliest evidence of human occupation after the retreat of the ice has been dated to between 8000 and 7000 BC. Settlements of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers have been found at about half a dozen sites scattered throughout the country: Mount Sandel in County Derry; Woodpark in County Sligo; the Shannon estuary; Lough Boora in County Offaly; the Curran in County Antrim; and a number of locations in Munster. It is thought that these settlers first colonised the northeast of the country from Scotland. Although sea levels were still lower than they are today, Ireland was probably already an island by the time the first settlers arrived by boat. There is nothing surprising in this, though, for most of the Mesolithic sites in Ireland are coastal settlements. Clearly, the earliest inhabitants of this country were seafarers who depended for much of their livelihood upon the sea. In some ways this economy was forced upon them, for many centuries were to pass before the treeless permafrost was transformed into a densely forested fertile land.

The hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic era lived on a diet of seafood, birds, wild boar, deer and hazelnuts. They hunted with spears, arrows and harpoons tipped with small flint blades called microliths, while supplementing their diet with gathered nuts, fruit and berries. They lived in seasonal shelters, which they constructed by stretching animal skins over simple wooden frames. They had outdoor hearths for cooking their food, and they are known to have built canoes from dug-out tree trunks.

During the Mesolithic the population of Ireland was probably never more than a few thousand.

The Neolithic (4500 BC - 2500 BC)

The Neolithic saw the introduction of farming and pottery, and the use of more advanced stone implements. It was once thought that these innovations were introduced by a new wave of settlers, but there is no compelling evidence for a large-scale invasion at this point in Irish history. It is much more likely that the Neolithic revolution was a long and slow process resulting from trade and overseas contacts with agricultural communities in Britain and on the continent.

Agriculture began around 4500 BC. Sheep, goats, cattle and cereals were imported from Britain and the continent, and the population rose significantly. At the Céide Fields in County Mayo, an extensive Neolithic field system - arguably the oldest in the world - has been preserved beneath a blanket of peat. Consisting of small fields separated from one another by dry-stone walls, the Céide Fields were farmed for several centuries between 3500 and 3000 BC. Wheat and barley were the principal crops cultivated.

Pottery made its appearance around the same time as agriculture. Ware similar to that found in northern Britain has been excavated in Ulster (Lyle's Hill pottery) and in Limerick. Typical of this ware are wide-mouthed, round-bottomed bowls.

But the most striking characteristic of the Neolithic in Ireland was the sudden appearance and dramatic proliferation of megalithic monuments. The largest of these tombs were clearly places of religious and ceremonial importance to the Neolithic population. In most of the tombs that have been excavated human remains - usually, but not always, cremated - have been found. Grave goods - pottery, arrowheads, beads, pendants, axes, etc - have also been uncovered. These megalithic tombs, more than 1,200 of which are now known, can be divided for the most part into four broad groups:

  • Court tombs - These are characterised by the presence of an entrance courtyard. They are found almost exclusively in the north of the country and are thought to include the oldest specimens.
A court tomb at Carrowmore
  • Passage tombs - These constitute the smallest group in terms of numbers, but they are the most impressive in terms of size and importance. They are distributed mainly throughout the north and east of the country, the biggest and most impressive of them being found in the four great Neolithic “cemeteries” of the Boyne, Loughcrew (both in County Meath), Carrowkeel and Carrowmore (both in County Sligo). The most famous of them is Newgrange, a World Heritage Site and one of the oldest astronomically aligned monuments in the world. It was built around 3200 BC. At midwinter the first rays of the rising sun still shine through a light-box above the entrance to the tomb and illuminate the burial chamber at the centre of the monument. Another of the Boyne megaliths, Knowth, contains the world’s earliest map of the moon carved into stone.
  • Portal tombs - These tombs include the well known “dolmens.” Most of them are to be found in two main concentrations, one in the southeast of the country and one in the north.
  • Wedge tombs - The largest and most widespread of the four groups, the wedge tombs are particularly common in the west and southwest. County Clare is exceptionally rich in them. They are the latest of the four types and belong to the end of the Neolithic. They are so called from their wedge-shaped burial chambers.

The theory that these four groups of monuments were associated with four separate waves of invading colonists still has its adherents today, but the archaeological evidence does not really support this point of view. It is much more satisfying to regard the megaliths as native expressions of an international practice. The growth in population that made them possible need not have been the result of colonisation: it may simply have been the natural consequence of the introduction of agriculture.

At the height of the Neolithic the population of the island was probably in excess of 100,000, and perhaps as high as 200,000. But there appears to have been an economic collapse around 2500 BC, and the population declined for a while. By this time, metallurgy was already established in the country.

The Bronze Age (2500 BC - 700 BC)

Metalworking began in Ireland around 2500 BC, when bronze, an alloy of tin and copper, made its first appearance. Bronze was used for the manufacture of both weapons and tools. Swords, axes, daggers, hatchets, halberds, awls, drinking utensils and horn-shaped trumpets are just some of the items that have been unearthed at Bronze Age sites. Irish craftsmen became particularly noted for the horn-shaped trumpet, which was made by the cire perdue, or lost wax, process. These are found in many places throughout Europe; there is a representation of one lying by the side of the famous “Dying Gaul” by the Greek sculptor Epigonus.

Copper used in the manufacture of bronze was mined in Ireland, chiefly in the southwest of the country, while the tin was imported from Cornwall in Britain. The earliest known copper mine in these islands was located on Ross Island in County Kerry; mining and metalworking took place here between 2400 and 1800 BC. Another of Europe’s best-preserved copper mines has been discovered at Mount Gabriel in County Cork, which was worked for several centuries in the middle of the second millennium. Mines in Cork and Kerry are believed to have produced as much as 370 tonnes of copper during the Bronze Age. As only about 0.2% of this can be accounted for in excavated bronze artifacts, it is clear that Ireland was a major exporter of copper during this period.

Ireland is also rich in native gold, and the Bronze Age saw the first extensive working of this precious metal by Irish craftsmen. More Bronze Age gold hoards have been discovered in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe. Irish gold ornaments have been found as far afield as Germany and Scandinavia. In the early stages of the Bronze Age these ornaments consisted of rather simple crescents and disks of thin gold sheet. Later the familiar Irish torque made its appearance; this was a collar consisting of a bar or ribbon of metal, twisted into a screw and then bent into a loop. Gold earrings, sun disks and lunulas (crescent “moon disks” worn around the neck) were also made in Ireland during the Bronze Age.

One of the most distinctive types of European pottery, Beaker or Bell-Beaker ware, made its appearance in this country during the Bronze Age. This was quite different from the coarse, bucket-shaped pottery of the Neolithic. Beaker ware was once thought to be associated with a particular culture - the Beaker Folk - whose arrival here supposedly coincided with the introduction of metallurgy. But this view is no longer tenable: there were no Beaker Folk, and metallurgy was well established in Ireland long before the appearance of Beaker ware. Irish Beaker ware was of local manufacture and its appearance is evidence of foreign influence rather than foreign invasion.

Smaller wedge tombs continued to be built throughout the Bronze Age, but the grandiose passage graves of the Neolithic were abandoned for good. Towards the end of the Bronze Age the single-grave cist made its appearance. This consisted of a small rectangular stone chest, covered with a stone slab and buried a short distance below the surface. Numerous stone circles were also erected at this time, chiefly in Ulster and Munster.

During the Bronze Age, the climate of Ireland deteriorated and extensive deforestation took place. The population of Ireland at the end of the Bronze Age was probably in excess of 100,000, and may have been as high as 200,000. It’s possible that it was not much greater than it had been at the height of the Neolithic.

The Celts

In Ireland the Iron Age was the age of people now generally referred to as Celts. These people are distinguished from their predecessors by their use of iron, and through a range of other cultural traits shared with Celtic populations elsewhere in Central and Western Europe. The extent to which these similarities appeared through invasion, or alternatively through other forms of cultural diffusion, is a matter of some dispute. It has traditionally been thought that Celtic invaders brought the first Indo-European tongue into Ireland, dispacing earlier non-Indo-European languages, but some scholars now suggest that an Indo-European language, ancestral to the Goidelic group of languages, may have arrived in Ireland as early as the Neolithic.

The field suffers from the fact that it is of interest to multiple academic disciplines, and that attempts at cross-disciplinary syntheses tend to be controversial. Related to this, historical syntheses created many decades ago, based primarily on mythology and on linguistic studies, are still frequently quoted as being authoritative, even where modern views of the same material would accept a broader interpretation, and where archaeological and genetic evidence suggest different conclusions. Complicating the matter is a complex relationship between understandings of Irish pre-history and understandings of the Irish national identity.

The Celtic languages of Britain and Ireland can be divided into two groups: P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. When written records first appear in the fifth century of the common era, Gaelic or Goidelic (a Q-Celtic language) is found in Ireland, while Cymric or Welsh (a P-Celtic language) is found in Britain. At one time, it was natural to assume that Ireland had been invaded by Q-Celts and Britain by P-Celts. Even today it is not uncommon to hear that there was one Celtic invasion in Irish history. In 350 BC, according to this view of history, a group of people called the Milesians introduced the Gaelic tongue to this country and subjugated the pre-Celtic inhabitants by virtue of their superior weapons. But this view is primarily mythological.

The truth is more complex. For a start, recent DNA studies have suggested that the people who introduced the Celtic languages to these islands may well have been Celtic-speakers, but they were not members of a Celtic race. Ethnically they were indistinguishable from the pre-Indo-European inhabitants who preceded them. What’s more, their arrival had so little impact on the genetic inheritance of the native peoples that they cannot have numbered much more than a few thousand.

The Y-chromosomes of the modern Irish are closely related to those of the Basques, which has led some anthropologists to surmise that the Basques are a remnant of the pre-Indo-European population of western Europe, and that the pre-Celtic language (or languages) of Ireland may have been related to Euskara, the Basque tongue. (See Celt for a discussion of the so-called “Celtic problem.”)

O'Rahilly's historical model

The Celtic scholar T. F. O'Rahilly proposed a model of Irish prehistory, based on his study of the influences on the Irish language and a critical analysis of Irish mythology and pseudohistory. His ideas, though extremely influential, are no longer universally accepted. However, he distinguished four separate waves of Celtic invaders:

  • The Cruithne or Priteni (c. 700 - 500 BC)
  • The Builg or Érainn (circa 500 BC)
  • The Lagin, the Domnainn and the Gálioin (c. 300 BC)
  • The Goidels or Gael (. 100 BC)

The Pretanic colonisation

Between 700 and 500 BC iron-wielding, Celtic-speaking people first settled in Britain and Ireland from the continent. They spoke a P-Celtic tongue, and called themselves Priteni or Pritani. The impact they had upon the native inhabitants can be inferred from the fact that Greek geographers were referring to these islands as “The Pretanic Islands” (αι Πρετανικαι νησοι) by at least 500 BC. It is also possible that the very name “Britain” is derived from Priteni. However, there is no hard evidence for a Pretanic invasion as such. It is much more likely that their settlement of these islands was a gradual one, spread over several centuries.

In Britain these Priteni were absorbed by later invaders and lost their cultural identity, except in the far north where they were known to the Romans as Picti, or “painted people,” on account of their practice of decorating their bodies with tattoos (a practice which by then had died out among other Celtic nations).

In Ireland, too, the Priteni were largely absorbed by later settlers; but a few pockets of them managed to retain a measure of cultural, if not political, independence well into the Christian era. By then they were identified as Cruithne or Cruthin , a Q-Celtic adaptation of the P-Celtic Priteni. Both words are derived from a root meaning “to shape” or “create.” Celtic tribes generally gave themselves names which were the pluralised forms of names they gave to their deities (in this case “the Creator”).

Among the Cruthnian tribes that survived into the Christian era the most prominent were the Dál nAraide in Ulster, and the Loíges and Fothairt in Leinster. The name of the second of these tribes - modernized as Laois - has been revived and given to one of the counties of Leinster (formerly known as Queen's County).

The Bolgic or Ernean invasion

Around 500 BC the Cruthin lost their dominant position in Irish society when the country was invaded by a second wave of P-Celtic speakers. These were the Builg or Érainn. The former name (originally Bolgi) identifies them as Belgae, a Celtic people mentioned by Julius Caesar. Their other name (originally Iverni) is probably the origin of several of the early Classical names for Ireland: the Greek Ιερνη; Ιουερνια and possibly also the Latin Hibernia. In Irish mythology the name Fir Bolg obviously refers to the same people.

It appears that groups of these Belgae colonised Britain and Ireland in the late sixth or early fifth century. In both islands they absorbed and subjugated most of the previous inhabitants. According to their own traditions the Érainn arrived in Ireland from Britain, and there is no good reason to dispute this.

Among the more prominent Ernean tribes were the following:

  • Uluti (Middle Irish Ulaid), after whom Ulster is named. For centuries the Uluti were the dominant tribe in the north of the country. They founded Emain Macha (Navan Fort), the traditional capital of Ulster, near Armagh. In later historical times their descendants were known as the Dál Fiatach and were confined to the eastern half of County Down.
  • Darini and Robogdii (or Reidodioi), two tribes whose territory was in Antrim and north Down. They were probably the ancestors of the historical Dál Riata or Dál Riada, who colonised Scotland in the fifth century of the common era and from whom the kings of Scotland were descended.
  • Iverni, the dominant Ernean tribe in Munster from whom the Érainn as a whole took their name. The Corcu Loígde of historical times were their descendants.
  • Ebdani, a tribe of the east coast whose name appears in Ptolemy's description of Ireland as Eblani. Their settlement, which Ptolemy calls Eblana, has often been mistakenly identified with the city of Dublin on account of the similarity of the two names.

The Laginian invasion

About two centuries after the Bolgic invasion Ireland was subjected to another invasion of P-Celtic-speaking people. Three names can be distinguished for them, but whether they were one tribe with three different names or three closely allied but separate tribes we cannot say. These names, as given in later written records, are Lagin, Domnainn and Gálioin.

According to their own traditions, they came to Ireland from Armorica, or Brittany. They landed in the southeast of the country and took the southeastern quarter from the Érainn. The modern name of this province, Leinster (Gaelic Laighin), preserves the memory of this Laginian conquest, although in ancient times it was much smaller than the modern province. Before the Goidelic invasion, the River Liffey marked the boundary between Ulster and Leinster.

The Domnainn were clearly a branch of the Dumnonii, a Celtic people identified by Classical authors as inhabiting Cornwall and Devon (to which they gave their name). Another branch of the Dumnonii settled in Scotland, where they founded Dumbarton and established the kingdom later known as Strathclyde. Presumably these settlements occurred at around the same time as the Laginian invasion of Ireland. It is even possible that the Dumnonii of Scotland were originally Irish Domnainn.

The Laginian invasion made little impact in Ulster or Munster, where Ernean tribes continued to be the dominant force. But the same cannot be said for Connacht, the westernmost of the four provinces. Sometime in the third century (all these dates, it should be pointed out, are highly conjectural) they crossed the River Shannon and subjugated the Ernean tribes of Connacht. The decisive battle was fought in County Sligo, in a place called Mag Tuired (Moytura). There a Laginian king (possibly known as Cairbre) overthrew the Érainn and drove them out of Connacht. According to Irish records the defeated Érainn sought refuge in many of the islands around Ireland. The fortresses of Dún Aengus and Dún Conor on the Aran Islands, and Dún Balor on Tory Island, are thought to have been built by them.

It was probably as a result of the Laginian conquests that the island of Ireland first came to be divided into four provinces. The Érainn continued to rule in Ulster and Munster, while the Lagin and their allies became the dominant force in Leinster and Connacht. Traditionally these four provinces met at the exact centre of the country, which was marked by the Hill of Uisneach (between Mullingar and Athlone in County Westmeath), a name which may mean “vertex” or “angular place.” The district immediately surrounding this hill was originally called Medion, which means “middle,” and is the origin of the county-name Meath. Julius Caesar informs us that the druids of Gaul regularly assembled at a hallowed spot in the centre of the country to celebrate their rituals (De Bello Gallico 6.13). Irish tradition records that a similar assembly, the Mórdáil Uisnig, periodically took place at the Hill of Uisneach on Beltane, the May-day festival.

The Goidelic invasion

The fourth and final Celtic invasion of Ireland was the Goidelic or Gaelic invasion. Unlike the previous invaders, the Goidels spoke a Q-Celtic language, which was the forerunner of Modern Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx. The P-Celtic dialects which were spoken in the country at the time of their arrival (and which they referred to as Iarnbélre, “language of the Érainn”) eventually became extinct.

The Goidels originated in Aquitania in southwestern Gaul. Around 100 BC two groups of these Celts emigrated to Ireland:

  • The Connachta were named after Conn Cétchathach, or Conn of the Hundred Battles; a mythical ancestor who was later euhemerized and given a place in Irish history. The Connachta were led by a man known to later history as Tuathal Teachtmhar. They landed at the mouth of the Boyne and pushed inland to Tara, the seat of the local Ernean king, which they sacked. They soon carved out for themselves a new province between Ulster and Leinster, running from the mouth of the Liffey to the mouth of the Boyne and inland as far as the Shannon. In time, this fifth province came to known as “Meath,” presumably for no other reason than that it contained the Hill of Uisnech.
  • The other group were known as the Eoganachta. Their leader is known to history as Mogh (or Mug) Nuadat. The Eoganachta landed at a place called Inber Scéne, usually identified with Kenmare River in the southwest of the country. Unlike the Connachta, they did not carve out a new province for themselves. Instead, they slowly but gradually rose in power, eventually becoming the dominant force in Munster. The names Eoganachta and Mug Nuadat, which were probably adopted after their arrival, suggest that initially there were friendly relations between them and the Érainn, as both names are derived from the titles of Ernean deities.

Early in their history, the Connachta subjugated the Laginian tribes of Leinster and reduced them to a state of vassalage. The Laginian leaders were allowed to retain possession of their territory, but a heavy tribute was imposed upon them. Known as the Bórama (or Bórú), it continued to be exacted at irregular intervals until the eight century of the common era. According to one tradition, it was Tuathal Techtmar himself who first imposed this tribute on the Lagin.

As their name suggests, the Connachta did not stop when they reached the Shannon. At an indeterminable point in history, some of them crossed the Shannon and conquered the western province, bestowing their name on it in the process.

By the late fourth century of the common era Ireland was divided politically into five provinces or “overkingdoms”:

  • Ulster was still dominated by Ernean tribes
  • Meath, or the Midland territory, included Tara and was ruled by Gaelic tribes
  • Leinster was held by Gaelicized tribes subject to Meath
  • Munster was ruled by Gaelic tribes
  • Connacht was ruled by Gaelic tribes

As can be seen, most of the country was in the hands of the Gael. Only Ulster remained independent, but this was not to last.

The Gaelic conquest of Ulster

In Ireland contemporary written records only go back to 431 AD. The Gaelic king of Tara known as Niall Noígiallach, or Niall of the Nine Hostages, is the earliest historical figure whose historicity is beyond dispute and of whom we know more than a few meagre details. According to extant records his father Eochu Mugmedón was a king of Tara and ruler of the kingdom of Meath (although the territory of the Midland Gael only came to be known as Meath several centuries later).

Niall succeeded his father around 400 AD and is said to have ruled for twenty-seven years. His reign marks the rise of Tara as the dominant power in the country. The origin of this power was the conquest of Ulster, the culmination of centuries of conflict between the Gael of Tara and the Ulaid of Emain Macha. This conflict is reflected in the mythical cycle known as the Ulster Cycle, which includes the Irish national epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge.

The Gaelic conquest of Ulster was undertaken chiefly by three of Niall's sons, Conall Gulban, Eógan and Énda, who were rewarded with three subkingdoms in the west of the newly conquered province. As a direct result of the conquest, Ulster was reorganized into three overkingdoms:

  • Ulidia, in the east, covered most of the modern counties Antrim and Down. It was ruled by the Dál nAraide, a native Cruthnian dynasty that had sided with the Niall in the war. The Ulaid or Dál Fiatach, who had been the dominant power in Ulster for centuries, were overthrown; their royal seat at Emain Macha was destroyed, and they were driven eastward into County Down. The Gaelic conquest also had a significant impact on Scottish history. One of the Ernean tribes of Ulster that had been reduced to vassalage by Niall were the Dál Riata, whose traditional territory was in the northeast of the country. Following their overthrow, some of the Dál Riada crossed the sea and colonised Argyll. In the course of time this colony became the dominant power in northern Britain. The Kingdom of Scotland was created in the ninth century by the union of Dál Riada and the native kingdom of Pictavia.
  • Airgialla (sometimes Anglicized as Oriel or Ariel), in the centre of Ulster, covered much of counties Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh, Monaghan and Louth. This kingdom was actually a confederacy of nine sub-kingdoms, each of which was ruled by a native dynasty that had been reduced to vassalage by Niall's conquest. In order to ensure their loyalty to him, these were obliged to send prominent members of their families to Tara as hostages. Hence the name Airgialla, which means 'hostage-givers'. This is also presumably the origin of Niall's epithet Noígiallach, or 'of the Nine Hostages.'
  • Ailech, or Aileach, in the west, was co-extensive with the present county of Donegal. At first it consisted of three sub-kingdoms, Tír Eógain, Tír Chonaill and Tír Énda, but Tír Énda was conquered by Conall's descendants and incorporated into Tír Chonaill (although descendants of Énda continued to hold territories both here and in the Midlands). The two remaining kingdoms later increased in size and prominence, and their names have been preserved in the Gaelic names of two of the modern counties of Ulster: Donegal and Tyrone. Ailech was ruled for about eight centuries by the descendants of Conall and Eógan, collectively known as the Northern Uí Néill, and also provided numerous High Kings of Ireland. The capture (around 425) of Ailech, the royal seat which became the capital of the Northern Uí Néill and from which the kingdom takes its modern name, marked the end of the Gaelic conquest of Ulster.

After his death Niall was succeeded as king of Tara by his son Loegaire, during whose reign Roman Christianity was officially introduced into the country. Niall of the Nine Hostages has the distinction of being the ancestor of all but two of the long line of kings of Ireland who ruled from the fifth century down to the time of Brian Bórú in the early eleventh century.

Further reading

  • T F O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1946, reprinted 1984)
  • B Raftery, Philip's Atlas of the Celts (George Philip Limited, 2001)
  • Simon James, The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?, (British Museum Press, 1999)

External links

  • Old Irish kingdoms and clans (
  • Ireland's history in maps (
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