Ancient History of Ireland

Copyright Potted Histories 1998

Click in image above to view full size map plus a map of the Scandinavia arctic circle whence the glaciers came.

As an Irishman from Alaska it is hard to ignore similarities between Alaska and Ireland during the last Ice Age in which  Ireland and the UK were substantially covered by compacted snow and glacier ice.

30,000 years ago icy fingers reached  south from Arctic Scandinavia toward the UK and Ireland. 15,000 years ago most of Ireland was frozen in time.

This public domain map demonstrates three major conditions of the physical geography of Ireland in 15,000B.C. and 13,000B.C.                                 

1. Southern extremity of ice extended to  what we now know as Province Munster.

Note that the areas of Cork and part of Kerry were substantially free of glaciers. 

2. Northern extremity of ice pack 2,000 years later had retreated to Ulster.

3. Turquoise area depicts land above sea level when sea level was 426 feet lower.  

9,000 years ago peat bogs and eskers  were lakes. Read details here.

Before the ice age Ireland was covered with forests and mountains were taller. 

The ice at several tone per square inch was very heavy and literally mashed the mountains downward. 

Photo on left is what Ulster might have looked like 15,000 years ago. Note the conifers growing as glaciers retreated. 

During the waning millenniums of the Mesolithic Period in Europe, the people and climate passed through a time-line gateway; Neanderthal peoples passed into history and modern humans passed through the gateway to replace them. Temperatures began to fall which ushered in the last Ice Age.

At the close of the Paleolithic Period in Europe, between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago Neanderthals and modern humans lived in caves in Europe. Some evidence of their habitation is found in Northern Scotland and in Wales. 

Evidence of Neanderthals in Ireland has not yet been found, but discovery of each new limestone cave gives rise to new hope of discoveries.

Read about Neanderthals in Wales here.                 

Read about Neanderthals in Europe here.

Between 13,000 and 9,000 years ago in Ireland the Mesolithic Period was in full swing and ushered in vast natural changes in Ireland; Glaciers melted and the ocean rose from -426 feet below sea level to sea level as we know it today; Coastal areas were flooded and the Irish Sea and Galway Bay evolved  from being fresh water lakes to part of the ocean.

During that time it was possible to cross from Europe to Scotland and from Scotland to Ireland over land bridges until those bridges themselves were buried under the sea. From time to time there were brief mini ice ages and for short periods of time land bridges re-appeared above sea level.

Ireland was substantially composed of badly drained areas with thousands of lakes fed by retreating glaciers. Those lakes were shallow, from three up to twenty feet deep. As the temperatures warmed, water reeds grew up around the lakes, and other water plants thrived. As the plants died and sank to the bottom in sedimentary layers until the lakes were filled with decaying vegetation. Those became  bogs which fueled Irish hearths for thousands of years.  

Read more details about the eskers and bogs here.

Although the land bridge between Ireland and England sunk below the sea, the bridges subsequently reappeared from time to time during mini ice ages. While trees and vegetation filed in a landscape formerly scrubbed clean by glaciers, and animals like giant deer continued to migrate to Ireland. 

As the Mesolithic Period died with the end of the Ice Age, European cave dwellers tended to follow  the glaciers north. After 9,000B.C. humans could have walked from Europe to England and Scotland and from there to Ireland, but they evidently did not do so that early.

After 8,000BC the first stirrings of human entry into Ireland began to occur. Irish legend holds that the first people to come to Ireland were ugly sea-going monsters dubbed Famorians, who purportedly settled the seashore and rivers of Ireland and eventually died from a plague brought by new people. 

Of course no writings exist extant to 9,000B.C. Ireland, so folk lore exist only in the imaginations of the peoples who followed around 6,000B.C.

Read more about Mythology in Ireland

Paleontologists and Archeologists believe that the first humans came across a land bridge created by a mini ice age to the area of Antrim Ireland around 8,000B.C. Some think they may have come by wooden boat or raft. By radio-carbon tests they theorize a racial continuity between the Mesolithic communities found in North Ireland, Wales and Scotland. If accurate, the timeframe of habitation in Ireland is pushed back to 10,000 years, in substantial agreement with findings of some Archeologists. 

Thirty years ago archaeologists excavating in County Derry found fragments of Mesolithic era huts and charcoal evidently from cooking fires that were later carbon dated to between 6,500 to 7,000B.C. A beach in County Antrim yielded thousands of flint tools including knives and arrowheads. Over in  County Offaly archaeologists found a Mesolithic settlement at Lough ( Lake ) Boora.

Evidence suggests that humans from Antrim spread south down the coast of Ireland to County Cork and up inland rivers to Connaught. At the mouth of Galway Bay on the west coast of Ireland lies the Aran Islands, where evidence suggests habitation in 6,000B.C. Co-incidentally, 6,000B.C. is about the earliest estimate of the arrival in Ireland of the first tribe of so called Celts.

To summarize the Mesolithic period, the people of that era were hunters and gatherers. Some of the earliest symbols found on rocks suggest that the men hunted wild boar in the winter; Their hunting weapons were tipped with flint; Their diet was rich in meat, supplanted by nuts and berries gathered by the women of the tribe; They cooked outside and lived in small huts covered with animal skins. 

Credit for use of some maps

For evidence of early habitation in County Mayo, see Ceide Fields of County Mayo.

Neolithic Age:

3,000 B.C. new people came to Ireland. Unlike the peoples of the Mesolithic Period, these new people were farmers. Facts about their civilization is found at Lough ( lake ) Gur in Co. Limerick. They left behind tools like knives, axe-heads and spears, and megalithic monuments and tombs at Newgrange in County Meath.

2,000B.C. marked the entry to Ireland of people skilled in mining and metalworking, developed skills in jewelry and pottery making and forging metal tools and weapons. This became known later as the Bronze Age.

Read about the Bronze Age on the Fianna website.

1,700B.C. enter the earliest recorded Kings of Ulster and Ireland, the Milesians who probably came from Spain.

Read about the Milesian Genealogies and legends of the Fianna Warriors on the Fianna Website.

1,200B.C. the first *Crannog* was built for defenses. That feature was an artificial island built usually in a lake, and with only horses and wagons, must have been human labor intensive. Suggestions are that most labor in those times was provided by slaves guarded by private armies.

Between 1,200 and 100B.C. several waves of Celts came to Ireland, the last group known as Gaels. Ireland was divided into 150 small kingdoms called *tuaths*. Chiefs of tuaths in turn were aligned with one of five Provincial Kings, Connaught, Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Meath. The laws under which the Kingdoms were governed were known as Brehon Laws.

According to Fianna, "Celtic Ireland had a simple agrarian economy. No coins were used, and the cow was the unit of exchange. There were no towns. Society was stratified into classes, and was regulated by the Brehon Laws, based largely on the concepts of the 'tuath' as the political body, and the 'fine' or extended family as the social unit."

Additional information can be found at the following interesting links:

Ancient and Medieval Links
History Links from the Wild Irish Roves
Hyper History Online
Ulster History Timeline
Irish History
Old Ireland - History: THE STORY OF THE IRISH RACE
List of Soldiers with Cromwell
Ireland - History in Maps
Chronology of Ireland
Has more Neolithic site material


Copyright Potted Histories 1998

Copyright Fun Histories 1996