Pre-Christian Ireland (c.7000 B.C. – c. A.D.432)

On any tour of Ireland you will find yourself considering the history of the island.

Lack of contemporaneous sources leaves us with little knowledge of the sociopolitical system of ancient Ireland.  By analyzing the legendary history as found in later sources, a tentative reconstruction can be made.  The Celtic and Celticized groups had dominance in all areas of Ireland by the second century B.C.  Their assimilation with earlier communities had given rise to the tribes known as Iverni (“land-people”).  A strong new group from Britain, called Lagini (“spear-men”), however, extended their power in Ireland from eastern coastal areas.  In succeeding generations of further migrations from Britain, culminating in refugees from the Roman legions in the first century A.D. the Lagini strengthened their position.  Another powerful group, the Venii (“tribes-men”), probably originating in southern coast, pushed the Ivernian tribes to the west.

In or about the fourth century A.D., the Lagini seized the ancient ritual center of Tara (in county Meath) from the Ivernian tribe of Lugunii, but within a century the Lagini were driven south from Tara by the Venii.  Having taken control of the rich and strategic plain of Meath, the Venii moved north-ward against the strongest of the Ivernian tribes, the Uluti (“bearded men”), whose ritual center was Isomnis (later Emhain Macha in County Armagh).  At the dawn of the fifth century A.D., therefore, the most powerful groups in the country were the Uluti (by then known as Ulaidh), the Lagini (then Laighin), and two groups of the Venii (those known as Connachta in the north midlands and those known as Eoghanacht in Munster).  Other groups of Iverni (then Erainn) still controlled some territories, especially toward the western seaboard.

The Connachta were by now the strongest group in Ireland, and to gain both wealth and prestige they undertook raids on western Britain, seizing booty and captives.  Their celebrated king in the fifth century, Niall Naoighiallach (Niall of the Nine Hostages), was in fact the son of a famous Connachta raider-king and of a British slave-woman.  The reign of Niall saw the two most significant events in pre-Christian Ireland: the capture of the boy Patrick (the future saint and patron of Ireland) in a huge raid on the British coast, and the taking of Emhain Macha from the Ulaidh by the Connachta.

The culture which prevailed in Ireland up to the coming of Christianity was basically Celtic in its outlines and – just as its language reflected a quite old variant of Celtic – the customs of Ireland seem to have been more antiquated than those of neighboring countries.  Whereas the Celts abroad had developed systems that gave increased influence to the nobility in the affairs of the kings, in Ireland the kings were still holy rulers.  A king was considered the intermediary between his people and other world powers; his inauguration reflected this with elaborate rituals, and his life was circumvented by taboos.  These ideas permeated all social life.  There were probably well in excess of a hundred local kings in Ireland, each ruling over his own territory but linked in confederations with the over-kings who ruled the major clans and their satellites.  The druids, who played a major role in public ceremonies, were an important adjunct to royal power.

This period of history is well worth thinking about.