A Brief History of Ireland's First People

Updated on October 12, 2016

Who Were the First People in Ireland?

The earliest known site of human habitation in Ireland is at Mountsandel, near Coleraine in Northern Ireland. The site was discovered in the 1970s when an archaeologist found evidence of dwellings and hunting activity which date back around 10,000 years ago.

So, we know people have lived in Ireland since at least 8,000 BCE – but where did they come from before that? Most experts think that the first people migrated to Ireland from Britain at the end of the last ice age. They would have arrived in simple boats, crossing from Scotland which is only 12 miles away from the north of Ireland.

The early people at Mountsandel lived as hunter-gatherers. They fished in the River Bann, and gathered nuts and fruits from the surrounding landscape. They constructed dwellings woven from sticks. They were able to make simple tools such as arrows or axes.

Indeed, the nearby site of Whitepark Bay was a major production point for flint axes in the Stone Age. Axe-heads from Whitepark Bay have been discovered as far away as northern France and southern England. From this evidence, we know that the first people of Ireland were involved in trading with people across Europe.

Inside the chamber at Newgrange.
Inside the chamber at Newgrange.

Early Settlement Sites in Ireland

Apart from Mountsandel, there are a couple of other sites associated with the first people to live in Ireland. These sites date from later, and are particularly impressive because they were made out of stone and so the structures are still visible today.

The Ceide fields in Western Ireland (County Mayo) are over 5,500 years old. This makes them the oldest known system of fields in the world today. The remains today are a patchwork of stone walls which suggest there was once a highly-developed farming community living there. Evidence has shown that the people who farmed there even used cattle to pull ploughs.

Newgrange is one of a series of mounds in the Boyne Valley. These mounds have been discovered to contain stone passage tombs, with carefully constructed corbelled roofs. Newgrange is the most famous of the passage tombs, as it is known for the beautiful light which fills the central chamber once a year on the winter equinox (21 Dec). The tomb took a lot of engineering knowledge, a detailed understanding of astrology and it also suggests a sophisticated religion based on the notion of death and re-birth.

The Poulnabrone Dolmen.
The Poulnabrone Dolmen. | Source

Stone Monuments: Evidence of the First People in Ireland

The early peoples of Ireland mostly built in wood, so there is not much evidence of their existence today. However, as the stone age progressed, the people of Ireland began to mark important and sacred places with stone monuments. Many of these reminders of our early ancestors can be seen in Ireland today, monuments such as:

  • Dolmens are three stones (two supporting the third on top) which are thought to mark important burial sites. They often appear in ancient legends as places where immortals could cross over into the human world – and vice versa.
  • Stone circles are also quite common in Ireland, if you know where to look. Although there are no stone circles on the same scale as Stonehenge, there are quite a few smaller stone circles scattered about Ireland. Some are well-cared for, while others are on farms and have become over-grown and neglected due to lack of interest in our ancient past.
  • Ogham stones are standing stones with Ogham inscriptions carved onto them. Ogham is an ancient system of writing which was indigenous to Ireland. It consists of a series of straight marks – a runic system which can be used to record information. Ogham stones usually mark the life and death of a local king, and were probably used as a form of early gravestone.

A standing stone with Ogham inscription in County Tyrone.
A standing stone with Ogham inscription in County Tyrone.

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Irene McKinnon 

        2 months ago

        Fantastic & so exciting to hear

        this for the first time

        From an Irish (?) Scot.

      • profile image

        Richard Littlefield 

        6 months ago

        The Northwestern Islands. Off Irelands coast. Who were there?

      • profile image

        Nancy Penny (Scanlon), Michigan, USA 

        11 months ago

        As a person whose relatives were from County Cork, I feel a connection to the early people of Ireland. Very interesting facts that show the sophisticated nature of these people 5,000 years ago.

      • profile image

        alan willson 

        13 months ago

        as a red head i found your research very interesting. i feel unique.thankyou

      • profile image

        Borislav Stamov from Sofia, Bulgaria 

        14 months ago

        Congratulations have proved our new historical thesis! The Thracian (proper name is the tyre) tribe of Irites of King Dinor living in Modira, ie. from the old lands of the Thracian tribes (and today, Bulgaria, Greece and Mediterranean Asia Minor). They are tall, with light-red hair and blue eyes. Their gods are Tyr and Tis ... Greetings from Sofia - Bulgaria!

      • profile image

        Lee Cloak 

        3 years ago

        Voted up, great hub, very Interesting, thanks!

      • profile image

        David Williams 

        4 years ago

        Wonderful stuff. Very educational. It makes me want to know more about my heritage. Thank you!

      • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

        Marie McKeown 

        5 years ago from Ireland

        Thanks for taking the time to let me know!

      • profile image

        banny pelobueno 

        5 years ago

        glad i having found the historical.

      • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

        Marie McKeown 

        6 years ago from Ireland

        Glad you found the hub useful Amanda!

      • profile image

        Amanda 

        6 years ago

        Very informative:)

      • Marie McKeown profile imageAUTHOR

        Marie McKeown 

        6 years ago from Ireland

        Glad you enjoyed it!

      • Angela Brummer profile image

        Angela Brummer 

        6 years ago from Lincoln, Nebraska

        Beautiful and informative!Voted up!

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