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

Geographic Reference
Shannon River

The Shannon River provided an ideal entryway for the Vikings to launch their deadly attacks on Ireland.

Clues from the past

The Romans never invaded Ireland, thereby enabling the Irish to retain their independent and unique form of social order.

Fortress Ireland
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Islands off of Ireland
Irish coast
During the Neolithic and Bronze Age, people and ideas passed easily across the seas between Ireland and continental Europe.
by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton

During the Neolithic and Bronze Age there was much interaction between Ireland and the rest of Europe, and people and ideas passed easily across the seas. The Neolithic tombs found in Ireland are similar to those discovered elsewhere in Europe. Change came gradually as it did in other societies and the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age. There is an old myth that around the year 500 B.C., Ireland was invaded by hoards of Celtic warriors brandishing Iron Age technology, but there is no evidence for this; Irish scholars now believe that the process of change was a gradual one. No archeological evidence of any kind has been found for an invasion of Celtic people. The strongest evidence for a Celtic presence in Ireland lies in the Irish Celtic language. This is the conundrum of early Ireland: the Celtic culture and language arrived but it is possible that no Celtic settlers came.

Over time, the European political situation changed and when Roman legions conquered the neighboring island of Britain in 43 A.D., Ireland became socially and culturally isolated. Irish society was not transformed by the changes that took place throughout the rest of Europe as the Roman Empire imposed its own kind of rule and order. The Romans never invaded Ireland and the Irish retained their independent and unique form of social order. There was no central political control over the whole island, and the Irish lived in small communities known as "Tuatha." There were no towns or urban centers. Overlords or kings did not have any real power. The kingship that existed in Ireland was not at all like the feudal model that emerged in Europe.

Ireland Photo Tour
Ireland Photo Tour
Travel through some of ancient Ireland's evocative places via our photo tour.

Ireland had no central administration, so when Christianity arrived in the middle of the fifth century it could not develop the Roman model it had in the rest of Europe: urban centers of administration and dioceses with bishops in charge of church organization. Ireland's position outside of the Roman Empire meant that its society was not structured the same way. Irish Christianity gradually developed a monastic system similar in style to the rural society at the time. Abbots, and not bishops, held the power and, eventually, the wealth.

The monasteries soon became indistinguishable from Irish secular society. They were family-owned and the abbots were usually married men who passed the monastery along to the next generation. They were also major centers of scholarship and learning. This was the great age of the independent Irish church. As Roman power declined and Europe fell prey to invading barbarians, Irish monks traveled abroad and brought the light of Christianity to the Dark Ages. They were in a unique position to do so because in Ireland, unlike Europe, scholarship flourished during this time. St. Colmcille, also known as Columba, founded a monastery on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland and his mission converted the northern part of Britain. St. Columbanus left Ireland to establish numerous monasteries on the European continent and traveled as far as Bobbio, in Italy, where he died in 615. His monastery at Luxeuil is said to have spawned about 100 other monasteries in the region. Columbanus and his fellow Irish monks are credited with playing a major role in the re-conversion of Europe to Christianity in the Dark Ages.

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