Category: Irish History

rock salt sample

The Production of Salt in Ancient Ireland

An adult needs less than 6g of salt per day, but it is still a requirement for survival. Without sodium, the main component of modern table salt, the human body is at risk of heart failure and an increased risk of death. But how did people guarantee an intake of salt in ancient Ireland?

As you season your dinner this evening, spare a thought for those ancient Irish communities who couldn’t ride their horse down to the local store and pick up a shaker of Saxa. They could, however, trade other goods for sacks of mined salt.

Salt in Ancient Ireland

Rock salt deposits
Rock salt deposits are left behind when salt water evaporates.

Natural salts were in abundant supply for those ancient Irish societies, and man was able to sustain his salt intake from eating wild game. But during the winter months (of which Ireland is famous) game was less active, and preserving food became essential.

Before the introduction of salt mining, salt pans – low-level areas were saltwater gets trapped and, over time, the water evaporates or is made to evaporate, leaving salt deposits behind – were dotted around the Irish coast.

Conall Corc and the Corco Luigde, written in the eighth century, documents a tribute of salt paid by the Aran Islands to the King of Cashel. Salt, it seems, was in great demand.

When the Celtic settlers came with their knowledge of mining – copper and iron ore, for example – it is generally accepted that they began mining salt, too.

Though there is little evidence of extensive salt mining in ancient Ireland, one of the only known salt mining locations in Ireland is that of Kilroot, Carrickfergus, in County Antrim. Modern records suggest its current mining operation has existed since 1965, but the site itself is estimated to be over 200 million years old.

The Kilroot salt mine was formed in the Triassic period, most likely by a body of salt water that got landlocked and, as temperatures rose, the water evaporated, leaving a wealth of raw salt deposits behind.

Today, the mine excavates 500,000 tonnes of rock salt a year, and it is used in winter road gritting across Ireland, the United Kingdom, and even the United States.

Whether the mine was used by the ancient Irish or not, we cannot say for certain. But it was rediscovered in the early 1850s when the Marquis of Downshire was searching the local area for coal deposits. Shafts were drilled and water was pumped down below the 600ft of rock and sediment, and a brine mixture was brought up for evaporation.

Salt was essential for winter stores in ancient times. It was used as a preservative for meat that would last the cold months. Beef, pork, fish – anything that could go off would if it had not been salted.

Beyond food preservation, salt was also used by the druids in their rituals. A bowl of salt would be placed beside a man’s deathbed, perhaps to give an offering to Manannán mac Lir on his way to Tír na nÓg.

In any event, salt has been a mainstay of the Irish ways of life for longer than we know.

Cover photo courtesy of Lech Darski
History of Ireland

An (Incomplete) History of Ireland: From the Dawn of…

Who could ever compile a complete history of a country and be proud of it? This infographic was compiled to highlight the salient points of Ireland’s past – an incomplete history of ireland.

Click the image to enlarge it. If you prefer to read the text instead, scroll down below the infographic where we have included the incomplete history of Ireland in written form.

Incomplete History of Ireland

 


Eurostat reported that Ireland had a population of 4.9 million people in 2019, up from 2.8 million in 1960. In Northern Ireland in the last census (2011), 48% of the population were Protestant and 45% were Catholic (the remaining 7% were other denominations or who identified as ‘none’).

14,000 BC

Ireland’s land mass breaks free from Britain to form its own island.

10,500 BC

A bone found in Co. Clare in 1903 suggests humans came to Ireland 12,500 years ago.

7,900 BC

Hunter-Gatherers: Mesolithic Man spends his days foraging for food.

4,000 BC

Early signs of Agriculture: Sparking the start of Ireland’s Neolithic culture, evidence has been found of stone tools, wooden homes, and the domestication of sheep and cattle.

3,200 BC

Newgrange is constructed: Newgrange (Irish: Brú na Bóinne) is a passage tomb in Co. Meath, built around 3,200 BC – older than Stonehenge! It’s structure fills with sunlight on the morning of the shortest day of the year, Winter Solstice.

2,000 BC

The Bronze Age: Bronze Age man now begins producing bronze and gold tools, weapons and jewellery. Communal burial tombs fall out of favour for separate cemetery-style plots.

600 BC

The Iron Age: Celtic-speaking communities start to arrive in Ireland. The earliest known La Tene style Celtic items (named for their origins in Switzerland) have been dated to circa 300 BC.

The Irish Celts are estimated to have had over 60 deities, made up of both Fir Bolg and Tuatha dé Danann characters.

Manannán mac Lir, the sea god, was said to have a self-navigating boat and a horse who can walk on water.

AD 100

Attack of the Romans? It has been speculated, but never confirmed, that Rome may have mounted an invasion of Ireland around the year 100. Trajan, who was later known as Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus Divi Nervae Filius Augustus, was the Roman emperor around this time.

140

Ptolomy paints a picture: The Greek geographer, Claudius Ptolemy, creates the oldest known cartographic representation of Ireland, marked as Ibernia.

The hillfort known as Grianán Ailigh (in its native Irish) was pinpointed as a royal site, ‘Regia’.

432 – 461

Traditionally, St. Patrick (Patricius) is said to have come to Ireland to help convert the pagan Gaels to Christianity. St. Patrick was not the first Irish bishop – that was Palladius who, according to Prosper Aquitaine, was sent to Ireland by the pope some time before St. Patrick.

Bonus fact: St. Patrick is credited with bringing the Roman alphabet to Ireland, but there is little evidence to support this (and let’s not even mention the snakes! There were no snakes in Ireland at the time).

670

The English are coming! Anglo-Saxon monasteries and abbeys are established in Ireland for English students. This was England’s first of many official forays into the Emerald Isle.

684

The Brega Raids: Northumbrian King Ecgfrith sends his first raiding party to Brega, north of what is now Dublin.

795

Attack of the Vikings: Norwegian Vikings are said to have looted Ireland as early as 795. They later went on to establish settlements in Cork, Limerick, Waterford, Wexford and Dublin.

800

The Gospel according to the Kells: The Book of Kells, containing illuminated transcripts of the four Gospels of the New Testament, is created sometime around the year AD 800.

997

Show me the Money! Ireland’s first coins are minted by the Vikings and adopted across the land.

1014

Brian Boru defeats the Vikings: Somewhere between 7-10,000 men were killed during the Battle of Clontarf – including Brian Boru himself. It sparked the beginning of the end for Viking power in the island.

1167

The Knights of Normandy: The first Norman invasion of Ireland takes place. Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, is later made heir of the kingdom, Lord of Leinster. The Irish king Diarmait mac Murchada was deposed and he sought England’s help in reclaiming Leinster in return for giving de Clare his daughter in marriage. De Clare claimed kingship in 1171.

1171

The English return: Henry II lands his fleet in Waterford, becoming the first English king to stand on Irish soil. Six years later, troubled by the Normans, Henry appoints his son, John Lackland, as Lord of Ireland.

1348

The Black Death pandemic arrives in Ireland, killing more English and Normans than it did the native Irish. The plague spread quicker in towns and villages than it did the Irish rural settlements. The English fortified themselves in Dublin and could not regain control of the island for almost 200 years.

1536

Henry VIII decides to reconquer Ireland and assume control. He is proclaimed King of Ireland five years later.

1593

Tyrone Rebels: Hugh Ó’Neill and Hugh Roe Ó’Donnell fought the Nine Years’ War against English Rule. The majority of the fighting was concentrated in Ulster, in the North of Ireland.

1641

Catholics Rebel: Revolting against the English and Scottish protestant settlers that spread across the nation, the Irish Catholics commence a lengthy rebellion.

1649

The English general Oliver Cromwell reconquers Ireland for the Commonwealth. Almost half of Ireland’s population are killed or enslaved.

1690

Backed by the wealthy Catholics who remained, James II attempted to reverse the Penal Laws in 1688. Now, in 1690, James’ forces were defeated by William of Orange and the Battle of the Boyne.

1740-41

The First Famine: Ireland’s first blight, known as the Year of Slaughter, killed around 400,000 people (from a population of 2.4 million) and caused a further 150,000 to emigrate.

1791-98

Seeking Parliamentary reform, the Society of the United Irishmen is established in Belfast. This eventually led to a renewed rebellion in 1798, which was quickly crushed.

1801

Kingdoms United: Following the most recent rebellion, the Acts of Union is established, creating a political entity known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

1832

Catholic Parliamentarians: The Irish Reform Act is signed, and Catholics are finally allowed into the Irish Parliament – although the new (higher) property qualification costs were prohibitive for poorer Irish freeholders.

1845-49

The Great Famine: Mass starvation, death and emigration occurred with Ireland’s second famine, the potato blight. Population went from 8 million to just 4.4 million.

1914

Home Rule: The Government of Ireland Act was passed, aiming to establish ‘home rule’ in Ireland, but the plans were suspended due to the outbreak of World War I.

1916

Easter Rising: A six-day Easter-week rebellion by Irish republicans was mounted against British rule to establish an independent Irish Republic. The uprising resulted in over 485 deaths, of which 54% were civilians.

1919-22

The Republic: On January 27, MPs met to form a 32-county Irish Republic, declaring its independence from the United Kingdom. The Free Irish State was established 1922, and the six counties of Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom.

Bonus Fact: Only 7.4% of the Free State was Protestant, and by the 1960s, it had halved in size.

1920

Northern Ireland: The state of Northern Ireland is created by the Government of Ireland Bill, consisting of Derry/Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Antrim, Down and Armagh. The Ulster Unionist Party is the governing party until 1972.

1949

Independence: Ireland formally leaves the British Commonwealth and is declared a Republic.

Green, White and Orange

The Irish flag, known as the tricolour, was first presented to Thomas Francis Meagher in 1848 from a group of French women who were sympathetic to the Irish cause. When the Constitution of Ireland is introduced (ratified in 1937) the tricolour is officially confirmed as the national flag of Ireland. It was first raised over Dublin’s General Post Office during the 1916 Easter Rising.

1969

Tensions between Nationalist and Unionists leads to severe violence in August. This in turn sparks the deployment of British Troops in Northern Ireland. And so begins the period of Irish history known as “The Troubles”.

1972

Sunday, Bloody Sunday: 26 unarmed civilians are shot by British paratroopers in Derry’s Bogside area on January 30 – 13 died instantly, and one died later in hospital. In 2010, Britain finally acknowledged the killings were unjustified and issued an apology.

1994-97

Ceasefire: In August 1994, the IRA announces a ceasefire and loyalists follow suit in October. The IRA revokes its ceasefire in 1996 and sets off a bomb in London’s Canary Wharf. They call a second ceasefire in 1997.

1999-Present

Devolution: The Good Friday Agreement is signed on April 10, seeing a degree of power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Devolution is suspended multiple times over the years. In January 2020, British and Irish governments agreed to a deal to restore a devolved government. As of today, they are still in talks.

2020

Equality for all: On January 13, same-sex marriage became legal in Northern Ireland when the Northern Ireland Executive failed to form by its October 2019 deadline. The first ceremony took place on February 11, 2020. Same-sex marriage has been legal in the Republic of Ireland since 2015.

Publication note: This infographic was first published in March 2020. It is republished here without change.

a solitary standing stone

Druids of Ancient Ireland: The Society and its Beliefs

Shrouded in mystery, and perhaps rightly so, the druids of ancient Ireland are an enigmatic society. Chief among their duties was overseeing the relationship between man and gods, political reasoning, and the healing of both mind and body.

But given that many accounts of Celtic druids originate from later sources, how much of those texts and explanations we can consider accurate is open for debate. What we know about ancient Celtic religion is meagre. Were human sacrifices really a thing? Could the druids perform miracles of magic? Let’s delve a little deeper into what we know about their society, their practices and beliefs.

The druids and Celtic society

The Celtic society, which became known as Celts in the modern era – and at no point during their own history is there any evidence to suggest they used the term themselves – was based upon a division between its upper class and its lower class. The druids took up positions of authority within the political order and controlled its religious practices.

Over the course of their existence, the druids would create and maintain the two major religious practices of Irish culture: the arts of magic and healing, and the worship of nature – the latter being a way of maintaining balance between man and nature and, some may argue, the attainment of peace.

They developed their own set of rules, the Brehon Law, which was to be adhered to by all. It outlined not just the rules of man, but the penalties for transgression and the minutiae of daily life.

The druids and religious practices

druidic meeting place
Megalithic monuments are often considered meeting places
for druids and their practices of worship.

Much of what we know about the druids comes from later writers. While the concept of druids as supernatural warriors is not unusual in the ancient world, the traditions of prehistoric cults probably did not lend themselves to organised religious ritual as we know it today.

Modern Christian writers have extrapolated on early religious practices and rites, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, leading to some curious interpretations of old texts. The druids were not the deities of Celtic mythology, nor do they exist in modern-day in the same way that druids did in prehistory.

They were a group of individuals that sought to gain favour with and influence from the gods and goddesses of ancient Ireland. They lit balefires (bonfires) and likely met at what we can loosely consider to be temples – henges and the like – where they sang and told tales in the form of poetry.

And although the idea of human sacrifice is a relatively modern construct, there is no saying whether this was ever a recognised practice of Celtic druids. According to Caesar, druids were ‘concerned with the worship of of the gods, look[ing] after public and private sacrifice, and expound[ing] religious matters.’ Although the inference is there that this included human sacrifice, there is only some evidence to suggest this.

The druids and ancient Ireland

The druids have always been veiled in mysticism. As such, very little reliable information about them exists. All we know comes from sources such as the myths and stories of ancient Irish folklore, historic texts, and Ogham inscriptions. We also have the written word of Plutarch (a Greek philosopher) and various medieval histories such as the Historia Brittonum (an alleged written history of early Brittonic people).

Unreliably so, there are also the accounts of monks, priests and clergymen from long after the druidic culture and practices had been forcibly removed from Irish society, none of which give us a definitive picture of the druids. This is unsurprising considering that the early Irish Church had outlawed them after the 5th century AD.

Druids and death

Life expectancy in Irish prehistory was, not surprisingly, shorter than it is today. An average adult, based on the discovered remains from twenty-nine burials at Knowth Passage, Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange), was estimated to have been between 20 and 30 years old at the time of death.

What is interesting is that the remains of children are quite often discovered buried with those of adults. We cannot begin to know the reason for this double burial ritual, but it calls to mind the rituals of the druids, and we cannot exclude the idea of sacrificial rites.

One discovery at the burial site at the Curragh in Co. Kildare was that of a female skeleton in such an unnatural position, with her skull raised at a strained angle, where archaeologists have drawn the most obvious conclusion that she had been buried alive. Were the druids responsible? Or, perhaps more likely, was it performed by a rival wife or clan? We will never know.

Druids and magic

druids and magic
Long considered mystical beings, druids are
depicted as practitioners of magic.

From medieval European writers to English philosophers, the myth of druids were said to involve performing the rituals of magic. More specifically, they were said to use divine magic to control the weather, or to create significant spiritual connections between a person and an animal.

This kind of magic might be considered benign by our standards today, but at the time, it was certainly viewed as dangerous and corrupting in the wrong hands. Magic was in many ways a stand-in for the idea of the divinity of nature, a notion which would become a significant part of medieval European culture in the centuries following the Roman conquest.

In the oral histories of Ireland, the practice of magic is a common occurrence, from the Morrígan’s shapeshifting transformations to Balor’s ‘evil eye’ which, when directed upon you, would cause your death.

The druids earned their reputation as practitioners of magic through their ability to use nature to heal sickness or disease. Theirs was a divine right. True wisdom is magic to the amateur mind.

The druids and medicine

While we can’t know for sure, it is widely accepted that many druids served as healers or doctors to the masses. These healers sometimes sacrificed animals in order to commune with the gods and spirits of the forest.

Druids were also believed to perform a wide variety of healing rituals, to cast spells to appease the spirits of the woods, and to help the sick and dying find peace and deliverance from disease and misfortune. A druid, upon your deathbed, could whisper to you the directions to Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth, so that your spirit would not get lost.

One of the most notable of these sacred healing rituals was that of the druidic confession. This process involved the druid wielding a sickle or broomstick, shaking the very earth, and then ‘making offerings to the forces of nature’. The nature they invoked was usually a female goddess or entity.

Druids were familiar with the uses of nature – of plants and animals – to cure this malady or that decay. These were the forebears of modern-day herbal remedies, some of which are now supported by science.

Druids and the gods

standing stones
Standing stones and henges date back thousands of years
but are most often associated with druids.

The ancient gods were viewed by the people of Celtic Ireland as supernatural beings, guardians of the natural world, and sometimes just as shadowy figures in otherworldly planes. They were not considered to be part of the living world.

Ireland’s gods and goddesses are numerous, though perhaps not as abundant as many would believe. It has long been considered that a god mentioned by name in one region’s oral traditions is just as likely to be another god of a similar nature (sun god, for example) as is mentioned in those tales from another province.

The gods were believed to have knowledge of the future and knew about the past, and there is even the written suggestion that they gave the druids revelations or premonitions about the coming future. Of course, many tales of clairvoyance and prediction are romanticised and glamorised.

In legend, the gods and goddesses of Ireland were made up of the Tuatha dé Danann, most notably the Dagda, Nuada, Lugh, the Morrígan, Dian Cécht and so on. In my Ailigh Wars Saga series, I offer the tradition that each druid has his or her own personal deity to which they commune and maintain a special relationship with. I allow myself this artistic licence, given that so little is known about the druid’s practices concerning pagan religions.

Druids in Written Text

Druids are mentioned often in Ireland’s pseudo-historic texts. The Annals of the Four Masters, a chronicle of medieval Irish history, which was written by four friars, documents some historic context mixed with prejudicial insight into the Irish-Gaelic noble classes.

Part of the Annals of the Four Masters is based on the Lebor Gabála (The Book of Invasions), which narrates the history of Ireland from creation to the Middle Ages. The Lebor Gabála states that Ireland was invaded six times by new settlers, including the people of Cessair, Partholón, Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha dé Danann and, finally, by the Milesians or modern humans.

For centuries, the Lebor Gabála was considered a truthful and trustworthy account of Ireland’s history, but is generally accepted now as little more than pseudohistory or an expansive tale such as druidic bards would recite around the central fire.

Newgrange

Ireland’s Top 5 Amazing Archaeological Finds

From perfectly preserved bog bodies to a 4,000-year-old lunala (a gold necklace), Ireland has been a rich source of amazing archaeological finds over the years. The ancient necklace, found in Roscommon in 1945, was later stolen and discarded in a Dublin dumpster! It wouldn’t be an amazing find without someone trying to steal it, right? Ireland’s vast landscape is littered with such amazing archaeological finds, including a relic of the cross used in Jesus’ crucifixion (also stolen), and a mysterious Neolithic ‘henge’ near Newgrange that appeared out of nowhere during the hot, dry summer of 2018. Here are the top 5 amazing archaeological finds from Ireland. Read more “Ireland’s Top 5 Amazing Archaeological Finds”

St Patrick

St. Patrick’s Day: History & Origins of the Celebration

Ireland’s patron saint, a man who isn’t even Irish, has become a legend the world over. Everyone has heard of him, the man who drove the snakes out of Ireland, but few truly know who he is.

Celebrated on March 17, St. Patrick (Patricius) was born in the late 4th century, kidnapped as a child, and taken to Ireland as a slave. He later escaped, but returned to Ireland to help the Irish convert to Christianity.

Here, we give you a full account of Ireland’s patron saint, his history, and the origins of St. Patrick’s Day when the entire world goes green for one day.

The Life of St. Patrick

The early life of Saint Patrick is shrouded in mystery, but we do know that he was born around 461 CE in Roman Britain. His father, Calpornius, was a deacon, and his grandfather, Potitus, was a priest. Their home was in a place called Bannavem Taburniae, for which there are numerous theories as to its location.

St Patrick
A traditional depiction of St Patrick

At the age of about 16, Patrick was enslaved and taken to Ireland, along with thousands of other kidnapped victims, by his captors.

In his own words, Patrick “deserved this” because he had fallen away from God and “did not keep his commandments”. He spent six years as a slave for a pagan master and, following a dream of a waiting ship that would carry him home to Britain, Patrick escaped the clutches of his master and set sail for Britain.

But his life was not easy; he came close to starvation on his journey home, and he was captured a second time – though briefly – before he made it back to his family.

He tells us, in his Confessio, of a new dream after his return home, in which he was delivered a letter whose heading read The Voice of the Irish. As he read the letter, he was “deeply moved” by the sound of the Irish beseeching him to return and walk among them.

He did not at once heed the dream. For a long time, he refused to listen to it. Even when he was setting sail for the island nation that had previously enslaved him, there was doubt in his mind. But he put his trust in the Lord and, as he journeyed across Ireland’s green hills, he preached to the pagans and baptized them.

St. Patrick The Miracle Maker

Imbued with the Will of God, Patrick preached the Lord’s Word wherever he went, despite his (very real) fears of martyrdom. He had been threatened, cast in manacles (chains), and almost certainly lived in fear.

But where his words were heard by many, and his flock of baptized Christians grew in number, so too did his miracles of life. Patrick himself tells us that he raised the dead, and it is said that he brought 33 people back to life, some of whom had been dead for quite some time.

“Thirty and three dead men, some of whom had been many years buried,
did this great reviver raise from the dead”

– Our Lady of the Rosary Library

The Story of the Shamrock

The shamrock, whose three leaves have a distinctive shape, is the traditional symbol of St. Patrick’s Day. It is said that Patrick would point to the symbol when a trio of snakes met him in a church. One by one, the snakes bit him until only the thistle remained.

He is also said to have gone around Ireland wearing a shamrock on his cloak, to warn away snakes and demons. Shamrocks are often used to decorate St. Patrick’s Day tables, a tradition that began in the United States in the 1930s.

In Ireland, small bunches of shamrocks are still worn on lapels and clothing to this day. St. Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to illustrate the divine unity of the trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

St. Patrick’s Day

Dressed as St Patrick
A man dresses up as St Patrick to celebrate on March 17.

Today, parades are held right across the world, most notably in the United States and, of course, in towns and cities all across Ireland. It is a national public holiday in Ireland, and there is much celebrating (with alcohol in abundant measure, no less).

Children dress up and join the parades, and the national folk music spills out of the bars and pubs as dizzyingly as do the people.

Celtic Farming

Ancient Celtic Agriculture: How the Celts Transformed the Landscape

The Iron Age Celts brought modernity to a vast, unfarmed landscape. They sowed crops, most notably wheat and corn of various types. Long before the much-loved potato found its way to Irish shores (thanks to Sir Walter Raleigh), Celtic agriculture saw the land ploughed with oxen and arathar and they planted seeds, culled forests to make way for communal “families” (clans) and they mined for copper, iron and salt, which became valuable commodities. 5,000 years ago, the Celts domesticated cattle and created fenced fields as pasturelands. They transformed the landscape through agricultural means – and theirs was a vision of a sustainable future. Read more “Ancient Celtic Agriculture: How the Celts Transformed the Landscape”