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 Irelands 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 OFlaherty 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
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 Kings 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 Maeves 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 Maeves army.
A replica of this Cuchulainn figure, with a raven on its
shoulder, stands in Dublins 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
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.