Emerald Isle


Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore, Irish fairy tales and More Irish Tales and Legends

All of the many magical places in Ireland

There have been people in Ireland for at least fourteen thousand years, after the great ice receded, and while some have vanished and others have stayed to this very day, most of them have left some mark on the hills, plains, forests and fields of this land.

Even today we are still discovering monuments and mysterious dwelling places, ruins and artifacts of clans long-past, those whose names are but whispers in our oldest mythology if they are known at all!

Often it has been said that beneath every stone and leaf in Ireland is a story, a myth, a legend, and that is never more true than when we catch glimpses of the very ancient past in these magical monuments. From the most elder times through to the mesolithic, the neolithic, the chalcolithic or copper age, then the bronze and iron ages, and finally into the Irish classical age, the medieval and then the early modern, like a flower of many petals each has its own beautiful secrets to share if we but ask the right questions.

Come and explore these realms of wonder long past - and who knows, yet to come! - with us and together we will explore ways forgotten by all but the oldest stones, and hear voices speak which have been silent for millennia.

Your guide to ancient Irish history

From about 26,000 years ago to almost 14,000 years ago, Ireland was covered by vast sheets of ice, some more than three kilometers in thickness. They sometimes reached well beyond the southern coast, until the ice bridge between Ireland and the rest of Europe finally melted around 14,000 years ago, around the date of the first evidence we have for human habitation here. The last and worst of the ice had vanished by 12,000 years ago, although it left Ireland as an arctic tundra landscape.

The earliest evidence for people being in Ireland dates back an astonishing 14,000 years, as we learned upon the discovery of a butchered brown bear bone found in in Alice and Gwendoline Cave in the Burren in county Clare. We know little about the inhabitants of the area at the time but they probably would have been hunter-gatherers who lived in small nomadic groups, travelling from place to place looking for food and resources, and they used a long flint blade to make their dinner.

The Mesolithic

The next group of Irish people began to emerge in the Mesolithic, starting around ten thousand years ago. They were excellent craftspeople, making high quality fish traps and cremating their dead on funeral pyres, and they ate well from the richness of the land, storing nuts for later by roasting them.

The earliest known human burial in Ireland dates from the early Mesolithic, discovered near the Shannon river in County Limerick. The earliest known polished axe found in Europe was buried in the same place. People started to move from smaller flake tools to larger flint tools as their skills developed, and they tended to live along the coasts, lakshores and rivers in temporary camps that changed with the seasons. There's no evidence to suggest they lived inland away from water.

They ate a wide variety of foods like salmon, eels, periwinkles, oysters, limpets, and boar. There were no deer, elk or cattle in Ireland at this time. It's probable that Ireland was fairly isolated and home to one people for thousands of years since Mesolithic tools show no regional variation in design - they were all constructed in the same way, by hard hammer percussion.

That's about all we can say on the Mesolithic adventurers who roamed green Éire in days long gone, since rising sea levels and acid peat bogs have removed any other evidence they might have left behind!

The Great Civilisations of the Neolithic

It was during the Neolithic, or New Stone Age, that great civilisations began to flourish across Europe, and Ireland was no different. Widespread farming, domesticated livestock and advanced forms of pottery spread quickly, with red deer, sheep, goats and cattle being introduced, presumably being towed across the Irish sea on skin boats or rafts. An extensive Neolithic field layout growing wheat and barley, at the Céide Fields in County Mayo, was uncovered from beneath a peat bog. The field were separated by drystone walls. Many other such fields have since been discovered.

These new farming practices provided a surplus of food to be traded and allowed leisure to develop skills like carving and masonry, but were also reliant on a few types of crops and animals. If those failed, the Neolithic communities were in big trouble! This is why many of the monuments they erected are aligned to the seasons and certain times of year.

Neolithic technology wasn't adopted by the earlier hunter-gatherers of Ireland, they were displaced to the peripheries or assimilated to be replaced by the farmers, who cleared upland forests, since it was thinner than lowland forests, and built larger houses from wattle-and-daub house made from wood and thatched with reeds, and long-term farms in their place. After many centuries those farms were abandoned and became upland peat bogs as the land stagnated and acidified.

Axes made in Ireland were found as far away as southern England, so the Neolithic people of Ireland were trading far and wide.

Perhaps their most famous hallmarks are the great megalithic monuments, famous around the world. These can be found in many other part of Europe besides Ireland of course, but here they are particularly concentrated. Peope didn't begin to erect them until several centuries after the first farming settlers arrived, and they fall into three broad types, with many of them in the north of Ireland. This isn't surprising since the only place flint can be found in Ireland is in the north - however the rest of Ireland was also populated.

Court tombs or long barrows were among the first structures built, stone chambers covered by an earthen mound, with an eastward-facing court entrance to catch the rising sun, or possibly moon. The earth coverings on these tombs have mostly long since fallen away due to erosion leaving the stone "skeletbons" exposed. They may also, or even mainly, have served as temples.

Portal tombs or dolmens are found in most places except the south of Ireland. They are generally three or more standing stones topped with one or more enormous capstones leaning away to one side, so that one end of the tomb is wide open. Human remains would have been deposited within and the tomb sealed with smaller stones.

Passage tombs were the last of the great Neolithic tombs to have been built, and seem to have originated with a new wave of arrivals from Europe. Newgrange is by far the most famous example of these tombs in Ireland, a circular earth mound with a central chamber and a passage leading to it. The roof of the chamber is a beehive shaped cone going upwards, and there are sometimes other chambers leading away from the central one. The stones lining the walls are often heavily carved and decorated.

It is from this time that many of the earliest myths and legends of Ireland originate, stories which speak of a hunter-gatherer race being invaded by a pastoral people, waves of invasions and wars, friendship, tribute, reversals and triumphs. This was the age of mystery and magic, when the druids or their forerunners watched the stars, moon and sun carefully for portents of troubles or blessings to come, the age when strange darknesses haunted the lowlands and ever-encroaching bogs of our ancient land.

Some estimates of the population of Ireland at the height of the Neolithic suggest there were a quarter of a million people living here, but the population collapsed around 2500 BC as a fresh wave of invaders began to arrive, bearing magical new tools and weapons of reddish-golden bronze and copper.

The Chalcolithic and Bronze Age:

Spanning a full two thousand years, the Bronze age arrived with fire and flashing metal, bringing wonders never before seen or imagined! The first part of the Bronze age was called the Chalcolithic, or copper age, since copper was the main metal in use before the secrets of alloying bronze were discovered, first by mixing copper with deadly arsenic, then later, with much safer tin.

Some would coincide the beginning of the Bronze age with the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann, that mystical and legended race of sorcerous wanderers. They returned to Ireland from exile in Greece or the Middle East after a ruinous war with an older race who had remained here, following closely their once-brothers and kin, the Fir Bolg. Famed beyond fame was the magical sword of the sun wielded by Lugh, and what else could it have been but a bronze sword seen for the first time by Neolithic people?

The people of Bronze age Ireland were very likely to have been closely related to the modern Irish people, since the Irish language finds its roots in the Bronze age along with the wider Celtic culture, as well as mingling with the preceding Neolithic peoples who seemed to remain in the highlands, perhaps becoming known as the Sí.

There were three parts to the Irish Bronze age, during which the people of the country were well organised and lived in a structured society. The production of bronze needed far-reaching trade routes and specialised skills, so Irish culture needed many specialised craftspeople.

The early Bronze age saw the introduction of metalworking and a powerful ruling caste who laid claim to these new riches of gold and bronze, although flint tools such as scrapers and axe heads remained in common use throughout the period.

During the middle Bronze age, the skills of Irish metalworkers exceeded those of any other land, producing breathtaking and delicate pieces in bronze, silver and gold. Ireland seems to have been largely peaceful during this time, and the hall of Tara was built to be the seat of kings.

The end of the Bronze age saw the construction of mighty hill forts, strongly defended stone fortresses like Dún Aonghasa on Inis Mór, Co. Galway, and many more weapons and varieties of weapons being deposited in sacrificial hoards. The climate began to grow colder during the late Bronze age, so communities may have engaged in raiding and warfare on one another as food grew scarce and the bogs expanded, swallowing up low-lying farmsteads, followed by the deep, dark forests. Strange things stirred from the deepest unlit places and walked abroad, that had not been seen for a thousand years and more.

Smaller houses and homes also took on a defensive character during the late Bronze age, either being built on or next to water, or being surrounded by wooden palisades and ditches.

Ritual activity during the Bronze age was sophisticated, although they still used many of the old sacred sites, the passage and court tombs of the Neolithic. They also developed wedge tombs, which were in use for over a thousand years, until eventually cremation and burial in stone-lined cist tombs became common, usually in inverted food vessels, along with pottery and tools to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. Older tombs and sacred sites continued in occasional use well into the iron age.

Sacred places such as pools, waterways, caves and tunnels, coastal shallows, bogs, river fords and the tops of mountains were the main locations for ritual and religious activities. People of the time would often bury golden hoards, jewels and tools in offerings to the water - or perhaps something in the water - along with bog bodies and valued items like weapons.

The Iron Age

Then came the time of iron, iron and blood, when fierce heroes battled in thundering chariots across the ancient landscape of Ireland and the world beyond her shores bowed to the might of Rome. The Iron age had arrived! But not, as it turns out, with a single invasion, but rather knowledge of working this new type of metal spread slowly, with the earliest pieces found around 800 BC. It would take four centuries for iron to completely replace bronze as the preferred metal of use for the Gaels.

The Iron age Irish constructed wooden trackways called toghers across the bogs, to facilitate trade on wheeled carts trundling through landscapes dominated by ancient, mysterious monuments. Trade was brisk with Britain and Europe. Over fifty thousand "ring forts", which were more likely tall tower halls similar to Scottish Brochs, were built over the thousand years of the Iron age, scattered all over the country. These would have served as clan strongholds and fastnesses.

The old certainties crumbled and new ways were followed as the former aristocratic clans of the Irish lost power - the new metal was far more abundant than bronze, more versatile, and could even be found in bogs! There were few new constructions on the scale of the hill forts or great megalithic monuments, but the old sacred places continued to be used, repurposed and renewed.

The Royal Sites of Ireland continued to serve as great centres of Iron age power, and in places huge winding walls of earth and ditches were constructed to hinder cattle raids, such as the Black Pig's Dyke and Cliadh Dubh. These defensive boundary walls were named after creatures from Gaelic folklore, such as an enormous black boar whose mighty tusks ripped up the countryside, or a terrible wyrm who burrowed beneath.

Many of the rich artifacts recovered from this time were found in bogs in the 19th century after being left in what were then rivers and lakes, and these items tended to be adorned with the rich, flowing distinctive La Tène style. Rarely if ever have hoards been found in Iron age burials, settlements or tombs. This style of artwork has been found across Europe, and demonstrates that Ireland had vibrant trade connections with many parts of the world. The European influence remained strong up until about 150 BC, when it was superseded by the influences British Celtic culture, such as can be seen in the Keshcarrigan Bowl.

The La Tène style of design seemed to revive around the fourth century AD and quickly developed into the astonishing Celtic knotwork that is so justly famed, independent of Roman influences.

Although the Roman Empire never conquered Ireland, there are signs of trading or perhaps raiding in artifacts found around the country, including hacked-up silver tableware in Limerick, coins, weapons, cloak pins and neck ornaments.

The end of the Iron age was even stranger and grimmer than the twilight of the Bronze age - this was known as the Irish Dark Age!

It was a time of cultural and economic collapse and stagnation, dating from 100 BC to 300 AD. Nothing was built across these centuries and many places were abandoned, lost, perhaps forever. Pollen data extracted from Irish bogs tells of a decrease in human impact on plant life in the bogs in the third century, and specifically that "the impact of human activity upon the flora around the bogs from which the pollen came was less between 200 BC and 300 AD than either before or after."

Nobody knows why such a time of decay fell upon Ireland, when gaunt lords of ancient lineages brooded over shattered demesnes and cold winds howled around gapped halls, but by the fourth century AD it had passed and the medieval, Christian age had arrived.

Legendary Places in Ireland

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