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In Search of Ancient Ireland
Cartographer's Journey
Fortress Ireland
Culture and Commerce
About the Film
Lesson Plans

Geographic Reference

Founded by the Vikings, Dublin became a great center of trade for the whole of Europe.

Clues from the past

In the middle of the 5th century, Ireland was a rural society made up of about 100 communities without any central political power.

Culture and Commerce
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by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton

Thatched homes
In Bronze Age Ireland, people lived in small communities of thatched homes.
The Bronze Age in Ireland was a time of peace and prosperity. People lived in small communities in thatched homes with walls of wickerwood or stone. Along with growing wheat and barley, Bronze Age farmers raised cattle, pigs, and, to a lesser extent, sheep and goats. Cattle were the most important commodity. In every age from the Stone Age on, cattle ownership remained important. There is little evidence of weapons from the Bronze Age, so it must have been a peaceful time. With peace came prosperity, and the abundance of splendid gold artifacts that have survived from this period are the finest in Europe. The National Museum of Ireland in Dublin has impressive displays of Irish Bronze Age gold work. Trading was obviously an important part of Irish commerce at the time, with goods flowing back and forth across the seas. Irish-made copper axe-heads and small tools have been found in Britain. We have no way of knowing what language these early Irish spoke, as little evidence exists to tell us of the pre-Celtic language.

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Video Clip
Cattle were the primary measure of wealth in Bronze Age Ireland.

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There is an old myth that Celtic warriors invaded Ireland around 500 B.C., but no archeological evidence has been found to support this. There is evidence, based on Ptolemy's map of 150 A.D., that the Celtic language was spoken in Ireland. Later texts seem to confirm that the Celtic culture also arrived and that the gods and goddesses of Iron Age Ireland are similar to those found in the Continental Celtic culture. The Irish pantheon of gods and goddesses is known as the "Tuatha Dé Dannan," or The People of the Goddess Danu. The religious year centered around the seasons and the important feasts were held on February 1st, May 1st, August 1st, and November 1st. November 1st was Samain, and the eve of Samain later became Halloween in Christian times. The Hill of Tara, in modern day County Meath, was the most important religious site.

Ireland at this time was made up of a number of small communities known as "Tuatha," Irish for a people or a tribe. The overlords or kings of these communities had no real power, and succession was not guaranteed by birthright as it was in the rest of Europe. On the death of a chieftain or king, a committee met to determine the future leader. The kings were as subject to the law as anyone else and had no ownership of the land. No Irish ruler ever had the kind of power that his European counterpart had.

There was a strong sense of cultural unity, however, as the important feast days often saw large gatherings at the major ritual sites to celebrate and honor the gods and goddesses. Traveling poets and lawyers, known as Brehons, likewise brought a sense of cultural unity as they interacted between the different communities. Ancient Irish law was known as Brehon Law. According to the surviving law tracts, the people with the most important status were the poets. For many years, even beyond the Anglo-Norman invasion of the 12th century, poets enjoyed the rich patronage of the wealthy families. They were held in the highest esteem but were also feared because it was believed that their satire could wound or even kill.

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