Early Christian Ireland

Early Christian Ireland 400-800 AD

With the arrival of Christianity, things become much clearer.  In the first place, Ireland becomes ‘literate’ – it learns to write and keep books. Ogham – the indigenous script developed here in the pre-Christian period – continued to be used for inscriptions, sometimes alongside the new latin script. However, it is this new script that transforms Ireland’s written record and a wealth of information about the Early Christian period has survived. Christianity came to Ireland about 1600 years ago and seems to have spread rapidly.  Monasteries like the one built here in the Heritage Park sprang up across Ireland and quickly became centres of learning, art and political power.   While the new religion was originally established on the diocesan model common throughoutEurope, which was led by bishops, it changed very quickly here inIrelandto a monastic model, led by abbots.  In many ways the so-called ‘Celtic’ Church had more in common with Coptic Christianity which predominated in the East, rather than the Roman version. Some of the Irish monasteries became so large and powerful, with so many people living in them, both lay and religious, that they can nearly be thought of as towns.



 However, most people lived in the countryside in the type of dispersed settlement that has characterised Irish society since earliest times. The ordinary people lived in open sites, but around 1,400 years ago wealthier people started to build what we today call ‘ringforts’. While some of these were indeed strongly defended, most may just have been enclosed farmsteads. At its simplest, a ringfort consists of a circular area enclosed by an earthern bank and a deep ditch. Most were built between 600 and 900AD. Sometimes there was a palisade on top of the bank, as shown on the full-scale reconstruction here in the Park, or the wall could be faced with or built entirely of stone.  Some ringforts had multiple walls, one outside the other, and some could be strongly defended with stout gates and even gate-towers.  However, most were just enclosed farmsteads and the banks surrounding them could become overgrown, while the ditches silted up. Nonetheless, these are the homes of the most important people in society: lords, wealthy farmers and craftsmen, poets, judges and kings all built and lived in ringforts. Immediately outside the ringfort, there were fields for crops and grazing animals – particularly cattle, who could also range over open country. There was generally a vegetable garden nearby too, and a small orchard of apple and plum trees.  Pigs rooted in the woodlands, followed by swineherds.



The early Irish laws tell us quite a lot about what we might expect to find inside a ringfort.  There was a main family house and an outhouse; there were animal pens
and hencoops and sometimes beehives; a dunghill was in the centre and there would have been a variety of farm equipment, such as a plough, spades, billhooks, threshing sticks etc.  Many ringforts also had a souterrain, a type of underground cellar which could have been used for storing food or as a refuge from attack.  The main entrance into the ringfort was often paved and was swept regularly.



Several varieties of grain were grown in early Christian Ireland, including different types of wheat, rye, barley and oats.  Wheat was the most highly-regarded,
especially for baking bread.  All grain required some degree of processing before it could be used. After threshing, i.e. beating the corn to remove the grain from the stem, the grain had first to be artificially dried.  Specially constructed  corn-drying kilns were used, like the one you see here.  Heat from a hot, slow-burning fire was conducted along a flue to a circular drying chamber under the thatch, where the grain was carefully spread out on a bed of straw or on a horse-hair sheet above a wattle screen.  Several screens could be stacked one above the other. This complex arrangement allowed the grain to dry slowly, without burning, while the thatch kept everything weather-proof. After the grain was dried, it was ‘winnowed’ to separate the grain from the chaff, and then stored in a barn, ready for the mill.  The mills were water-powered, most on inland waterways, but some were built to make use of tidal power as well.  Powerful landowners, such as the nobles and the monasteries would have owned their own mills, but less well-off farmers could come together as a co-operative and take shares in a mill.


The literary evidence indicates a highly productive farming-economy, and in some cases there are suggestions that population grew so fast it outstripped resources, leading to famine, and a type of boom-bust cycle. The construction of ringforts was part of that cycle:  50,000 of them were built, the vast majority within a 300 year period from about 600AD to 900AD.  However, wider environmental events also continued to play a role –  analysis of the growth-rings for trees growing at the time shows us that around 540AD another major worldwide environmental event occurred,  the effects of which continued for some ten years.  Evidence for this event is found from North America to Argentina, from Scandinavia to Ireland, to the Mediterranean and even China. We have accounts of the sun becoming dimmer in the Mediterranean and outbreaks of plague which ravaged the populace. Ireland too saw repeated outbreaks of plague from the 6th century through to the 9th century.

Notwithstanding the occasional plague, however, the economic trends in Ireland across this whole period remained decidedly upwards. The underlying drivers for this growth are not clear, but the earlier opportunity to nibble at the fraying edges of theRoman Empireundoubtedly founded some fortunes here inIreland, as well as a few political dynasties, while Christianity also played its role, introducing new technology and crops, as well as new social structures. Irish kings began to aspire to something more than local rule.  They were tuned into what was happening on the Continent, and in the rich Saxon kingdoms in Britain, and the concept of provincial kingdoms – one of whom might aspire to be a High King over all – began to gather pace.  By the time the Vikings appeared on the scene, Ireland was already used to the tramp of marching men and to a warfare which was becoming endemic.