Celtic, Early Christian Age

500BC – 1169AD

The Celts emerged from Central Europe as a culturally distinct people about 1,000 BC. Aided by iron weapons, and bringing their unique form of Celtic art, they expanded over much of Europe, reaching Ireland at around 500BC.

The Irish did not write, but their traditions were handed down orally. The earliest form of writing dates from around the third century BC. It was called Ogham (pronounced like poem). It consisted of notches carved on standing stones, and therefore was used only for special purposes, such as commemorating important people. The inscription usually gives some information about their history.

The example at the Irish National Heritage Park in Wexford, reads “Ivageni Avvi Maqqi Treni” meaning “Of Eoghan, grandson of Mac Triuin” This name comes from the Irish for New Ross, Ross Mhic Triuin.

This picture shows the rath, or ring-fort (at the top) and the early Christian monastery (on the right).

Raths were typical dwelling places of the nobles and “strong farmers” from around 500 to 1000 AD.

They consisted of a circular area enclosed by a timber wall with a ditch on the outside. In the west these banks were made of stone, and called cashels.Within the enclosure were dwelling houses with walls of stone and clay and roofs of straw or reed thatch. Many raths contained underground passages known as souterrains. These were stone-lined, and could be used for storage of food, concealing valuables, and for hiding during attack.

Cattle raising was a major activity, and a man’s status in the community would be determined by the number of cattle he owned. This made cattle-raiding very common. Cereals were grown for making Bread and beer. Peas, beans, onions and celery were also grown.

The cereals would be ground in a quern (left). The ungrounded corn was put in at the top, it was rotated by hand, and flour came out the bottom

Ireland. Although Christianity triumphed all over the country, traces of Paganism remained for centuries. From around 550 AD a major change took place in the Irish Church, with the arrival of Monasticism. This form of Christianity originated in the Egyptian desert and spread quickly across Europe. Its ideals of seclusion and prayer Monasteryseemed to appeal greatly to the Irish people, and Monastic Settlements were very quickly established throughout the country.

During this period, some of Ireland’s greatest works of art were produced, such as the Book of Kells and the Ardagh Chalice, and Ireland became known abroad as the “Island of Saints and Scholars”.The monastery in the Heritage Park consists of the Church, a Monk’s cell, a scriptorium, a refectory and garden.

In these times it was necessary to dry the cereal grain by means of indirect heat from an open fire, to avoid mould growth from dampness, and to remove moisture before milling, which would have clogged the millstone.

A drying kiln was usually used for this purpose. The heat from a carefully controlled, hot, slow-burning fire was conducted along a flue, to a circular drying chamber and passed up through a lightly built drying floor. This floor consisted of a wattle framework, supported by several larger cross beams. On this was a horse hair sheet, on which the corn was placed for drying.

The horizontal water mill is one of the world’s first automatic machines and its origins remain obscure.

The earliest evidence for these mills in post-Roman Europe comes from Ireland where there are more pre-10th century mill sites than in the rest of Europe.

They were probably introduced here in the beginning of the 7th century, and it is thought that they were a common feature in the Irish countryside by the 8th century.
They would have been mostly owned by families or small communities. Monasteries also operated the mills.

The process was a two-step one. First, to remove the husks from the shells, the stones were separated by the thickness of one grain. After this, the husks are separated by winnowing. The kernel was again fed into the mill, where the millstones had been now been brought closer together. The ground kernel was now carefully sieved to extract either flour or meal.

The Irish Horizontal Mill used a spray of water from a reservoir to turn the mill wheel. This was controlled by gates in a dam. They have been found throughout the Mediterranean, Europe and as far east as Pakistan. Spanish settlers brought it to the Americas in the 16th century, and it is still in use in the central Andes.
Hunting was a favourite sport in Ireland in prehistoric Ireland. At the end of the day, it was customary to set up a camp and prepare a feast from the day’s kill.

Sometimes the same campsite was used for the entire season or for several seasons. To cook them they used the Fulacht Fiadh.

This was built in low marshy ground, often near a river, where water was easily obtainable. After skinning the animals, they were wrapped in straw. A pit of water was heated to boiling by throwing rocks into it from the fire. It was kept hot by throwing more rocks in. For this reason, Fulacht Fiadhs are marked by large mounds of burnt and shattered rocks.

Fulacht FiadhIn the Irish National Heritage Park, the Fulacht Fiadh is regularly used in the summer, and it has been discovered that the cooking time is very similar to that of our own modern ovens : 20 mins to the pound and 20 minutes over.
Artificial Islands known as Crannogs (Crann Óg = Young Tree) have been constructed from the Stone Age times, but the concept of a secure dwelling place, protected with a palisade, dates from around the first millennium AD. It is, in effect the rath in water, a safe habitation for a man and his family.

The foundations of a Crannog usually consisted of layers of brushwood, sods or peat but all kinds of serviceable material such as stones and bones were also used.

A timber palisade surrounded the island. Access to the crannog was by boat, as shown by the discovery of jetties and dugout canoes at some crannogs. Causeways were also used.

Evidence of small scale industries has been found on crannogs. These included the mass-production of items of jewellery such as pins and brooches, as well as decorative mounts for shrines and ecclesiastical

Leather-working, weaving, wood-turning, and coopering were carried on also. Quern stones were roughly shaped and traded. No doubt, the owner of the crannog would have farmed the land beside the lake.

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