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The first evidence for human habitation in Ireland goes back to about 8,000 BCE. These were hunter-gatherer peoples who lived before the era that Celtic languages or cultures existed at all. The archaeological and linguistic evidence strongly suggests that the form(s) of Celtic that developed into Irish cannot have reached the island before about 1,000 BCE. Finding and interpreting the evidence that could explain how and why this happened has so far proved elusive.
Ireland is commonly perceived today to be the stronghold of Celtic culture, a society untrammeled by the Roman Empire. And yet, there are a number of unsolved mysteries and paradoxes about the nature and history of Celtic culture in Ireland that complicate these stereotypes:
The archaeological evidence to date suggests that there are many strong continuities in the material culture of Ireland, especially at a local level, and a lack of evidence of large numbers of foreigners who immigrated into or invaded the island. Although artifacts have been found that appear to have been imported from Britain or continental Europe in La Tène styles that might be linked to the movement of Celtic peoples, these are small in number and mostly to be found in the northern two-thirds of Ireland.
There are, on the other hand, numerous objects in La Tène style that were manufactured in Ireland itself, taking inspiration from numerous parts of the wider Celtic world. These do not suggest any singular geographical source for a La Tène population movement, however. While many of the types of objects to be found in Iron Age Britain are also found in Ireland, such as weapons, jewelry and horse-riding gear, they were not merely imitations of British artifacts but were created in styles or forms specific to regions of Ireland. The Turoe Stone is one of several stone pillars in Ireland richly decorated in La Tène ornament which may have been inspired by similar structures elsewhere but was clearly made locally.
The artifacts in the Broighter Hoard, found on the shore of Lough Foyle in the north of Ireland, exemplify the complexities of understanding the development of La Tène culture in Ireland. One of these is a model boat in gold, suggesting travel across the Irish Sea. Another is a buffer torc which is ornamented with elaborate La Tène decoration, although it was probably manufactured (or re-assembled) in Ireland itself. There is also a miniature bowl, probably meant to represent a cauldron, the center piece of the rite of feasting which may have been instrumental in asserting social prestige and hence the transmission of Celtic/La Tène culture.
The Gaels of Ireland seem to have perceived many ancient monuments and graves of Ireland as belonging to their own ancestors and treated them as sacred sites. One of the most striking of these sites is called “Newgrange” in English, but in Irish Bruig na Bóinne “the hall of the Boyne” (the Boyne itself being a sacred river whose name means “White Cow”). This is a large passage grave built c.3,200 BCE which, like many other Neolithic stone monuments, is aligned to an astronomical event: on the morning of the winter solstice, the rays of the sun enter the back of the chamber and illuminate a stone on which is carved the triple spiral symbol. We know from the name itself and from various tales that Bruig na Bóinne continued to be revered by the Gaels.
When Viking raiders plundered the tombs of the Boyne Valley, the Irish annalist noted with disapproval that this was something that had not happened before. There are records as late as 1084 CE of people going into Bruig na Bóinne to perform rituals invoking the god Oengus for knowledge.
Texts written in the early medieval period by the Irish highlight the importance of ritual sites of political and spiritual power and the archaeological work done on all of these indicate that they were in fact important centers in the Iron Age. Most of the royal sites in Celtic Ireland also incorporate older features which go back as far as the Neolithic era; passage graves and stone monuments are commonly incorporated into these sites in order to highlight the antiquity of the landscape to which the dynasty is laying claim and the power and approval of the ancestors buried there.
Navan Fort / Emain Macha, the ancient capital of Ulster, provides us with a fascinating example. Although constructed on top of an earlier Bronze Age monument (a circular ditch), a large, new structure was built from wood and stone in the year 95 BCE, set ablaze, and then covered in soil. One interpretation of this enormous artificial “burial” is that the local dynasty wished to create for themselves the kind of grand site connected with the ancestral dead that other royal sites (such as Tara) had.
Similar construction techniques and styles are evident in other Irish royal sites but do not appear to derive from any foreign models. Evidence such as this implies that there was a strong continuity of population and gradual Celticization of Ireland rather than any sudden, overwhelming influx of “Celtic aliens” who disregarded the people and traditions that they found.
Language also provides another important class of evidence. There are also many striking examples of the parallels between Celtic Europe (before Caesar’s conquest) and medieval Ireland in linguistic and literary terms. For example, the important social roles and Celtic words for them recorded in Strabo (Geography §4.4.4) – druid, bard, and vate – all survive in the Insular Celtic languages. Although Ireland may have its own individual character and variant forms of Celtic themes, it seems to fit very well into the patterns we see elsewhere in the Celtic world. There is, furthermore, very little evidence of words or place names in Irish from any earlier language or population group, suggesting either complete population replacement, or a very thorough or long period of assimilation.
What do the the following Classical sources say about Ireland? Does this appear to be facts or stereotypes?
Read the primary source The Taking of the Fairy Mound, about the Bruig na Bóinne monument (Newgrange). How does this tale preserve some memory of the astronomical and calendrical nature of Newgrange? How does the tale reflect motifs of the Celtic Otherworld we have seen elsewhere?
Some early tribal, personal and place names suggest that some Brittonic peoples migrated to Ireland, possibly to escape the Roman invasion or conquest. For example, the original name of Cú Chulainn, the famous hero of Ulster, was Sétanta, a name which is clearly related to the tribal name Setantii, recorded by Ptolemy in Celtic Britain.
There are numerous examples of migrations in both directions between Ireland and Britain in this era. For example, there were several communities in early Christian Ireland whose name – Cruithin – is the Gaelic equivalent of Britanni, indicating that they were originally Brittonic peoples who had come to Ireland and that their origins were not forgotten. J. P. Mallory has recently suggested that there may have been a significant migration of Celtic speakers from Britain into Ireland in the late Iron Age.
At least some of the La Tène art and material culture found in Ireland seems to have been imported from Britain. The beehive quern – a major innovation over the older saddle quern – was introduced into the north of Ireland during the late Iron Age (2nd C BCE x 2nd C CE), probably from south-western Scotland.
There are three early beehive querns in northern Ireland with La Tène-style ornaments on them. The distribution pattern of beehive querns (about 200 found so far) corresponds roughly with other La Tène artifacts in Ireland. The Ticooly Quern Stone provides a fine example of a simplified form of La Tène ornamentation.
Read the tale Cormac and Ciarnat. In regard to this tale, consider the information about beehive querns above as well as the fact that watermills (both horizontally- and vertically-driven) are believed to have been introduced into Ireland from the continent of Europe in the 6th or 7th century. How does the tale seem to echo the archaeological evidence (such as we currently understand it)?
Despite the fact that the Roman Empire never invaded Ireland, there is a growing body of archaeological evidence that, when interpreted in tandem with literary and linguistic data, suggests that Ireland was open to more influences from Roman Britain than has been appreciated previously. These influences from Roman Britain could come in the form of Irish mercenaries, raiders or settlers in Roman territory, or exiles from Celtic Britain who came to live in Ireland.
A great many of the heroes and ancestral figures memorialized by Gaelic literature who were supposed to have lived in the early centuries of the Common Era (leaving aside the question of whether they have historical reality or are merely imaginary characters) had connections with Britain in the ways previously mentioned. This suggests that they may have gained wealth, prestige, fighting experience, military technology, and new social and cultural concepts by contact with the Romanized world.
The ethnic group(s) who came to dominate and give their name to the province of Leinster are known in the early Gaelic sources as Laigin. Although the meaning and origins of the name are obscure, one possibility is that it is a borrowing of Latin legion, a unit of troops in the Roman army (between 3,000 and 6,000 men).
The Gaelic text Cóir Anmann “the Fitness of Names” (dating to between the mid-11th century to the early 13th century) purports to explain the origins of names. The entry for Laigin, while it does not provide an etymology acceptable to modern scholarship, does reflect traditions claiming overseas origins and military might: “Two hundred and two thousand foreigners, having broad lances (came) hither (to Leinster); from those lances (laighnibh), without reproach, they were called ‘Laigin’.”
Recent excavations at the the Hill of Tara (in the province of Leinster) found many “exotic” artifacts imported from Roman Britain and Gaul between the 1st century BCE to the 4th century CE, some of which relate to the rituals or activities of kingship. Early dynastic poetry of Leinster (many of these texts go back to at least the 7th century CE) contain a high percentage of Latin loanwords which do not originate in church usages, which also suggests contact with the Roman world independent of Christianity.
Read the tale The Violent Death of Niall of the Nine Hostages. What do the names of Niall’s parents indicate? What does the tale imply about the mobility and military might of the Irish? What political message is it making (to its contemporary audience) about the authority of the dynasty established by Niall and how?