A Brief History of Ireland's First People
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.
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.
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.