Prehistoric Ireland

Stone Age 7000BC-2500BC

The first people to come to Ireland arrived about 9000 years ago, after the last Ice Age. This period is known as the Mesolithic, or ‘Middle’ Stone Age.  Ireland was covered in trees and these first people lived by hunting, fishing and gathering, moving from place to place and building campsites like the one you see here.  They caught fish, sometimes using beautifully woven fishtraps, and hunted birds and animals for meat, especially wild pigs. They also collected nuts, berries, wild apples and all kinds of seeds.  When they first arrived, they used tiny chips of stone called microliths to make blades, arrows and harpoons; later they started using much heavier blades of stone.  They spread widely throughout Ireland, following rivers inland and travelling down the coast. Their way of life was so successful that it lasted, virtually unchanged, for 3000 years.


Around 6000 years ago, the first farming communities appear in Ireland. They began to clear farmland from the forests, planting wheat and keeping cattle, sheep,goats and pigs. This period is known as the Neolithic, or New Stone Age.
What made it ‘New’ was that these people had learnt to grow their own food and keep animals, rather than depending on hunting or gathering.  This also meant that they tended to stay in the same place for much longer. They had learnt to make pottery, which was useful for cooking and storing food and drink.  Farming started in the Near East about 9000 years ago and over the next 3000 years the idea spread from there all across Europe.  Groups of farming families moved with it, while some hunter-gatherer communities began to settle down and farm themselves. New people must have come toIrelandat this time as none of these new crops and animals (except pigs) are native to this country, while their houses and pottery are like those used by farmers elsewhere inEurope.   Their houses were quite different to what existed earlier: they were rectangular and built of timber – either oak planks, wattle or a mixture of both – and they were quite large, up to 15m in length.  The roofs would have been high-pitched and thatched, like the one you see here. The houses were divided into two or three rooms, with doors and sleeping areas and would have been quite comfortable.  We know from pollen evidence that there were fields of grain nearby.

These first farmers were also great architects and engineers. All across western Europe, Stone Age farmers built great monuments called megaliths (from the Greek for ‘big stone’).  Because burials are found in these monuments, archaeologists describe them as ‘megalithic tombs’.   However, burial was probably just one of their functions: some acted as territorial markers and were positioned high in the landscape, others were used to track the movement of the sun, and all were probably places of worship, either of the ancestors or the gods. There are four types of megalithic tomb in Ireland: passage tombs, where the inner chamber is reached through a long tunnel; court-tombs, which have a courtyard in front of the main entrance; wedge-tombs, so named because the internal chambers are wedge-shaped; and portal tombs, like the one here, which have a giant capstone partly balanced on two ‘portal’ or entrance stones.  All were covered to some extent with a large cairn of stone. About 1,500 megalithic tombs are known from Ireland.

The Bronze Age 2500BC-500 BC

Around 4,500 years ago, Irish society changed dramatically. The climate became colder and wetter, bogs started to grow and most of the great Stone Age tombs were abandoned.  A new type of burial appears: a single body placed on its side, sometimes in a stone box called a ‘cist’, along with special pottery and the first metal objects. The Bronze Age had begun.

Across Europe, the spread of metalworking appears to be linked with use of new pottery called ‘Beakers’.  These seem to be drinking vessels and evidence of alcohol has been found in some.  Beaker pots have been found at the earliest Irish copper mines, in Ross Island, Co. Kerry.  The first metal objects here were made of copper, but later it was discovered that alloying copper with tin to make bronze produced a stronger, sharper implement.  Stone tools continued to be made and used, however, and flint was particularly popular for arrowheads.

The Bronze Age lasts for about 2000 years in Ireland, becoming increasingly sophisticated over time.  Many archaeologists see the period as ushering in a new ‘heroic’ age, which emphasised the importance of warriors and combat. Some of the metalwork is magnificent, particularly new weaponry like swords, shields and spears, the rich golden ornaments, and huge bronze cauldrons for feasting. Much of this has been found in wet places, often in great hoards.  These were ritual deposits, deliberately cast into pools and bogs.  One of the reasons people may have done this was the changing climate. Some environmental catastrophe occurred around 1200BC and civilisations all over Europe collapsed; here in Ireland, the weather got colder and wetter and people may have believed that the water-gods were angry and started to make them offerings.  They also started to build great hillforts, probably to control wider territories, and the first ‘kingdoms’ may have emerged.


One of the most mysterious monument types in Ireland is the stone circle. Stone circles are found all across Ireland and were built between 3000 and 4000 years ago, in the middle of the Bronze Age. They may be connected with some form of sky worship. There are two important concentrations in Ireland, one in the southwest (Corkand Kerry) and the other in the north in mid-Ulster.  Burials are sometimes found inside the circles, but whether these represent sacrifices, or sanctification of the circle, or simply burial of honoured dead is unknown.  Rows of standing stones were also erected around this time and again the main concentrations are in Cork/Kerry and mid-Ulster.  Elsewhere, great circles of timber pillars were raised while other circles were built by digging banks and ditches.  There is good reason to believe that all these monument types are related in some way, and all may well be associated with some form of sky-worship.

Another very common monument type which dates from the Bronze Age is the fulacht fiadh. This is just a pit in the ground where water was boiled by dropping in hot stones, probably for cooking. They are found all over Ireland and most date from three to four thousand years ago.  The reconstruction in the Heritage Park (seen here) is regularly used in visitor demonstrations and as a result we have learnt a lot about the technology behind these sites. In the pit here, some 200 litres of water can be brought to the boil in this fashion in just two or three minutes.  A few more hot stones dropped in at intervals keeps the whole thing simmering nicely.  The used stones are thrown up behind the pit to create the characteristic horse-shoe shaped mound which identifies these sites in the landscape today.  They are usually regarded as cooking places, and experiments have shown that they work very well as such.  However, they could have been used for many other things – for washing, or as a sauna, for dying clothes or even making beer.


Iron Age Ireland 500BC – 400AD

The Iron Age remains a somewhat elusive period in Irish prehistory, although research is starting to throw more light on things. The first iron objects appear around 500BC and arguably represent efforts by native bronzesmiths to use a new metal rather than suggesting the arrival of new skilled ironworkers. The northern half of the country seems to have adopted the trappings of ‘Celtic’ Iron Age societies overseas, delighting in the new art style known as La Tène, but the metalwork is almost all native production with distinct differences to what is found overseas. The way that different types of artefacts are distributed across different parts of the country suggests the existence of regional power-blocks and a unique ritual and ceremonial culture developed here, epitomised by large ‘figure-of-eight’-shaped structures at Royal sites such as Tara, Emain Macha and Dún Ailline. These have no parallels overseas and clearly indicate a world view which evolved independently here.  Along with weapons and tools, horse-gear now appears in quantity, testifying to the use of horses for riding and traction. Great roads and trackways seem to connect territories and peoples, some running directly across the bogs themselves like the great chariot-road of Corlea in Longford. Other significant ‘public’ works are undertaken: a long, fortified frontier is constructed along the borders of Ulster and similar earthworks are constructed elsewhere.


At Emhain Macha (near Armagh) which features in the  early sagas as the great capital of Ulster and citadel of the  Red Branch Knights, an enormous timber building is  constructed.  Possibly roofed at one stage, it was then  ‘sacrificed’ by being filled with stone and set alight, before  being covered with a mound of earth.  It has been  suggested that from the sky this must have looked like a giant spoked wheel –  the symbol of the Celtic sun-god. We know almost precisely when this building was constructed, because an examination of the growth rings on the tree from which the huge central post was cut tells us it was felled sometime in late 95BC or early 94BC.  But Emhain Macha must have been important for centuries before that because one of the most remarkable finds in Irish archaeology is also from here, and dates to about 300 years
earlier: it is the skull of a Barbary Ape! How a Barbary Ape could end-up in the capital of the Kings of Ulster boggles the mind – a gift perhaps from someone who had travelled very far indeed, as these apes come from North Africa!

Despite what is often thought, there is no evidence for any Celtic ‘invasion’ of Ireland around this time and what evidence there is – archaeological, linguistic and genetic – suggests broad continuity from the late Bronze Age societies. However, it is also clear that Ireland was in close contact with other parts of Europe, particularly Britain, and an early map of Ireland dating from c.100AD suggests the presence here of tribes with unmistakably Celtic names. There are also a number of intrusive burials – burials of British Celts and burials of Romans or Romanised Britons – but these are exceptions not the rule.

That said, by the time our first written records appear in the form of carved Ogham inscriptions, around 350AD, it is clear that at least one of the languages being spoken here was an early form of Irish.  There may well have been other languages as well, but Irish came to dominate entirely. Irish is a ‘Celtic’ language, but it is not of the type spoken in Britain. How and when the language got here and how it came to dominate so completely, remains a total mystery.