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History of Ireland
 
 
 

Early History

The earliest inhabitants of Ireland, people of a mid-Stone Age, or Mesolithic, culture, arrived sometime after 8000 BC, when the climate had become more hospitable following the retreat of the polar icecaps. About 4000 BC agriculture was introduced from the continent, leading to the establishment of a high Neolithic culture, characterised by the appearance of pottery, polished stone tools, rectangular wooden houses and communal megalithic tombs, some of which are huge stone monuments like the Passage Tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, many of them astronomically aligned (most notably, Newgrange). Four main types of megalithic tomb have been identified: Portal Tombs, Court Tombs, Passage Tombs and Wedge Tombs. In Leinster and Munster individual adult males were buried in small stone structures, called cists, under earthen mounds and were accompanied by distinctive decorated pottery. This culture apparently prospered, and the island became more densely populated. Towards the end of the Neolithic new types of monuments developed, such as circular embanked enclosures and timber, stone and post and pit circles.
The Bronze Age properly began once copper was alloyed with tin to produce true bronze artifacts, this took place around 2000 BC, when some Ballybeg flat axes and associated metalwork was produced. The period preceding this, in which Lough Ravel and most Ballybeg axes were produced, and is known as the Copper Age or Chalcolithic, commenced about 2500 BC. This period also saw the production of elaborate gold and bronze ornaments, weapons and tools. There was a movement away from the construction of communal megalithic tombs to the burial of the dead in small stone cists or simple pits, which could be situated in cemeteries or in circular earth or stone built burial mounds known respectively as barrows and cairns. As the period progressed inhumation burial gave way to cremation and by the Middle Bronze Age cremations were often placed beneath large burial urns.

The Iron Age in Ireland began about 600 BC. By the historic period (AD 431 onwards) the main over-kingdoms of In Tuisceart, Airgialla, Ulaid, Mide, Laigin, Mumhain, Cóiced Ol nEchmacht began to emerge. Within these kingdoms a rich culture flourished. The society of these kingdoms was dominated by an upper class, consisting of aristocratic warriors and learned people, possibly including druids.

Linguists realised from the 17th century onwards that the language spoken by these people, the Goidelic languages, was a branch of the Celtic languages. This was originally explained as a result of invasions by Celts from the continent. However, research during the 20th century indicated otherwise, and in the later years of the century the conclusion drawn was that culture developed gradually and continuously, and that the introduction of Celtic language and elements of Celtic culture was a result of cultural exchange with Celtic groups on southwest continental Europe from the neolithic to the Bronze Age. Little archaeological evidence was found for large intrusive groups of Celtic immigrants in Ireland. The hypothesis that the native Late Bronze Age inhabitants gradually absorbed Celtic influences has since been supported by some recent genetic research.

The Romans referred to Ireland as Hibernia. Ptolemy in AD 100 records Ireland's geography and tribes. Ireland was never formally a part of the Roman Empire but Roman influence was often projected well beyond formal borders. In recent years, some experts have hypothesized that Roman-sponsored Gaelic forces (or perhaps even Roman regulars) mounted some kind of invasion around 100, but the exact relationship between Rome and the dynasties and peoples of Hibernia remains unclear.


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