Pre-Christian Ireland

Remains of the earliest human habitations in Ireland, dating from the early Stone Age, have been found principally in the North Antrim and Sligo areas of the country. Over the centuries that followed, the early Annalists record that successive invasions and settlements occurred and were carried out by such tribes as the Parthalonians, Nemedians, Formorians, Fir Bolg, Tuatha de Danann, and finally the Milesians or Celts, the last-named introducing implements and weapons of iron for the first time and overcoming all previous settlers still existing. These iron weapons made it that much easier for them to subdue any and all opposition. These Celts also brought with them a Celtic language of their own, which would later develop into Gaeilge, or the Irish language which we know today.

The strangest of these early tribes was surely the Tuatha de Danann, who were supposed to be able to understand magic and have, more or less, been associated with the Sidhe, or Fairy Folk, frequently recorded in the mystical tales that have come down to us through the ages.

Whatever or whoever these early settlers were, they have left an astonishing legacy of megalithic tombs, court cairns, dolmens, tumuli etc. etc., dotted all over the country, but particularly in the valley of the River Boyne.

Most remarkable of them all is the truly enormous tumulus at Newgrange in Co. Meath, which covers an acre of ground and in the centre of which is a cruciform chamber, built with huge corbaled stone slabs, some of them beautifully decorated. A very narrow stone-lined passage leads to the centre chamber, while a rectangular ‘window’ over the main entrance admits the first sun rays of the winter solstice, which penetrate to the very centre of the cruciform crematorium at the heart of the tumulus, a feature which attracts hundreds of visitors from all over the world on the 21st of December every year.
Newgrange dates from c.3500 BC, which makes it much older than either the Pyramids of Egypt, or Stonehenge in England, and it is currently one of Ireland’s major tourist attractions. Only a fraction of these tombs and tumuli have been unearthed and explored over the years.

In addition, regular earthworks and turf-digging in the boglands of Ireland have, over the centuries, yielded up innumerable artifacts of stone, bronze, gold, silver and bone, all of them relics of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Age. Fine examples of these artifacts are currently on display in the National Museum in Dublin and in several other county museums throughout the country.

One of the most amazing stories of pre-historic visitors to Ireland is an account which appears in several of the early Annals and which tells of a visit to our country, a mere forty days before the Great Flood, by Ceasair, a grand-daughter of Noah (of biblical fame) who apparently was accompanied on her expendition by three men and fifty women. The ‘Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland’, written in the seventeenth century by the “Four Masters” in their Donegal monastery, opens with the following quotation: -
“The Age of the World, to this Year of the Deluge, 2242. Forty days before the Deluge, Ceasair came to Ireland with fifty girls and three men - Bith, Ladhram, Fintain their names. Ladhra died at Ard-Ladhrann and from him it is named. He was the first that died in Ireland. Bith died at Sliabh Beatha and was interred in the carn of Sliabh Beatha, and from him the mountain is named.”

Ard-Ladhrann was the name of a place on the east coast of Co.Wexford, while Sliabh Beatha, or Slieve Beagh as it is known today, is in the north-west of Co. Monaghan. This same amazing occurence is recorded in the ‘Annals of Clonmacnoise’, in the ‘Book of Leinster’, in the ‘Book of Invasions’ and in the ‘Book of Fenagh’ while O’Flaherty also thus records the arrival of Ceasair - “forth days before the Flood, on the 15th day of the Moon, being the Sabbath.”

The historian Geoffrey Keating later wrote ... “I cannot conceive how the Irish antiquaries could have obtained the accounts of those who arrived in Ireland before the Flood, unless they were communicated by those aerial demons, or familiar sprites, who waited on them in times of paganism, or that they found them engraved on stones after the Deluge had subsided.”

Geraldus Cambrensis agrees with the latter more acceptable explanation ... i.e. the theory of the information being derived from hieroglyphics and engravings on stone or on the inner walls of caves.
Over the centuries these various settlements evolved into hundreds of small ‘tuatha’ and then into four major kingdoms, known by the names which exist to this day, with Ulster and Connacht becoming the strongest of the four and being constantly at war with each other.

A fifth ‘kingdom’ then evolved in the midlands and became known as Midhe, or Meath, and this dynasty was to impose its will on the other four. Ulster was finally subdued and was divided into three, thus giving us seven provinces or kingdoms, each of which elected its own king and these in turn, all submitting to an Ard-Ri, or High King, who reigned at Tara in Meath.

Probably the greatest of these became known as Conn of the Hundred Battles, because of his many successes in the continuous warfare that existed between the various tribes. He was succeeded by yet another note-worthy king called Cormac MacAirt, who reigned during the third century AD. He was guarded at Tara by the legendary army known as the Fianna, originally inaugurated as the King’s bodyguard, but which was later extended to full army status, probably to protect the country from Roman invasion, as the latter had conquered Britain and their fame had spread the short distance across the Irish Sea to Ireland.

All this is mere legend, however, but the stories of Fionn MacCumhaill, Oisin, Oscar, Diarmuid, Goll MacMorna, Conon Maol and a host of other mythical heroes, along with the great Celtic romantic tales of ‘Diarmuid and Grainne’ and Oisin in Tir na nOg’ still enthrall Irish children of the 21st century.

Two centuries later evolved what is known as the “Ulster Cycle” when the northern province again became dominant. The legendary king Conor MacNeasa then reigned at Eamhain Macha the seat of the Ulster kings near Armagh, and was protected by his ‘Laochra na Craobh Rua’ or ‘Red Branch Knights’ with their great youthful hero Cuchulainn. In a war with their perpetual enemies from Connacht, Cuchulainn was left alone to defend the ‘Gap of the North’ against Queen Maeve’s western hordes, who had come northwards to capture a prize bull coveted by their illustrious queen. In the ensuing battle, which ended in a single combat between Cuchulainn and the great warrior of Connacht named Ferdia, who by a strange twist had once been the bosom friend of Cuchulainn, the Ulster hero killed his old friend and then tied his own dying body in an upright position to a rock, thus scaring off the remnants of Maeve’s army.

A replica of this Cuchulainn figure, with a raven on its shoulder, stands in Dublin’s GPO and is said to represent the spirit and strength of Irish manhood to this day. This particular story, known as the “Tain Bo Cuailnge” or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, is surely one of the great masterpieces of ancient Irish literature.

The “Red Branch” legends associated with King Conor and his Ulster army are still favourities with story-tellers and children, particularly the tale of how Cuchulainn changed his name from Setanta, while the romantic story of “Deirdre of the Sorrows and Naoise”, and the tragic tale of the “Death of King Conor MacNeasa” will never become unpopular.

Later, another legendary ruler, Niall of the Nine Hostages, would become High King and his dynasty would continue with some 42 of his descendants also becoming kings of Ireland in a truly extraordinary “roll of honour”. It was this same Niall, who is also accredited with bringing a youth named Patrick to Ireland as a slave during one of his raids on the Roman kingdom of Britain c.401, a practice that appears to have been enjoyed by several Irish kings of the period, many of them losing their lives in Britain and on the continent, while one of them was actually killed by lightning at the foot of the Alps during a foray there.

Sold to Miliuc, a prince in Antrim, the young Patrick was then put to minding sheep and pigs on Sliabh Mis, where he incurred the pangs of hunger and cold for six torturous years before eventually making his escape back to his homeland where he was re-united his family. In a short time he would become a priest and then a bishop, requesting papal permission to return to the land of his captivity. This he did in 432 AD and soon would begin the story of the ‘Coming of Christianity to Ireland.”