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St. Patrick’s Day Time Warp: Ireland Before St. Patrick

Ireland without St. Patrick is hard to imagine. Ireland without lines of stone walls crisscrossing vistas of grassy rolling hills even more so. No farms, no sheep, no deer. No pubs. This is Ireland when modern humans first arrived. Welcome Back. Way Back. Killian Driscoll is a National Geographic/Waitt grantee and part of a team of researchers...

When most people see a view like this one, they focus on the wall. Killian Driscoll and his colleagues see the stones. This shot is from the summit of Red Hill, in the Ballyshannon Limestone Formation, overlooking the iconic mountain of Knocknarea and Sligo Bay in the distance. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)

Ireland without St. Patrick is hard to imagine.

Ireland without lines of stone walls crisscrossing vistas of grassy rolling hills even more so.

No farms, no sheep, no deer.

No pubs.

This is Ireland when modern humans first arrived.

Welcome Back. Way Back.

Killian Driscoll is a National Geographic/Waitt grantee and part of a team of researchers investigating this remote period on the Emerald Isle (ca. 8000-2500 B.C.) by studying stone tools and the rocks they came from (learn more on the Irish Lithic Landscapes project website).

Looking at these hunks and slivers and rocky landscapes, Killian and his colleagues are able to piece together clues about how ancient communities moved through their landscape and used specific sites. They can also discover what the tools were used for by looking at the wear patterns and microscopic residue remaining on them.

Stefan Bergh talking to Adrian Burke, Heather Short, and Graeme Warren about his research on Knocknarea. Overlooking Sligo Bay from Knocknarea. Killian Driscoll researching prehistoric stone tools. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)
Standing atop Knocknarea, Stefan Bergh, Adrian Burke, and Graeme Warren discuss their work on the Irish Lithic Landscapes project, while Heather Short captures the view of Sligo Bay. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)

One of the big lessons has been that Stone Age tool makers didn’t need to limit themselves to finding the ideal raw material, as was once believed. “Prehistoric communities were sophisticated stone tool makers,” he says. They fared equally well with flint, chert, and quartz, found all throughout the country. “They were very adept at finding and using local materials for stone tools.”

Combined with studies of human remains, living areas, and burial sites such as the megalithic dolmens and other tombs, Killian and others are able to reconstruct a good deal about life in Ireland during this distant age.


Fish and Chips of Stone

Talking about the earliest period of modern human presence in Ireland, the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age, 8000-4000 B.C.), he says, “This is pre-farming, so they were hunter-gatherers.”

The retreat of glaciers had made the whole of Ireland habitable by humans, but large prey like the famed Irish elk appear to have been extinct in the area already. Compared to those in Britain and Europe, early Irish hunters had less to go after.

Sample IRL14132 wide shot (sample above and to left of hammer). Outcrop with chert in Dartry Limestone Formation on Tullyskeherny (Hill), Collooney Gap. Killian Driscoll researching prehistoric stone tools. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)
Outcrops of chert like this one in the Dartry Limestone Formation on Tullyskeherny hill provide stone that prehistoric artisans could have put to good use. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)

“Ireland would have had the European bear, wolf, fox, hare, etc.,” he continues. “And it appears that the Mesolithic communities may have brought wild boar with them from Britain or Europe by boat; that is, they were part of a ‘transported landscape’.” It would be thousands of years before common deer were brought over though. Without much terrestrial meat on hand, people turned their attention to fish.

“There is a strong link with Mesolithic activity along the coasts, rivers, and lakes,” Killian says of the archaeological record. People there made extensive use of plant products from the woods and wetlands as well. “The rivers and lakes would, of course, also have been transport links via canoes, [and] some quite beautiful wooden fishing weirs and traps have been uncovered.”

What Did It Look Like?

So if there were no farms or sheep, what did the famed rolling hills and bogs look like?

“Ireland at the time would have been heavily forested,” Killian says. “The Mesolithic communities would have been woodland dwellers.”

Sample IRLL14278 (sample behind hammer) wide shot. Outcrop with chert in Creagh Member at Ballintober, near Lough Carra. Killian Driscoll researching prehistoric stone tools. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)
A hammer marks the location from which a chert sample was taken in Creagh Member at Ballintober, near Lough Carra. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)

But that changed when the new populations and farming practices of the Neolithic Revolution reached the shores. Just as had occurred in the Middle East and elsewhere, people began to clear primeval forests on a grand scale in order to create open land for agriculture.

poulnabrone-howleyThe shift to agriculture “brought in a quite different economy and settlement patterns (including the construction of large timber houses) to the country, as well as new plants and animals.”
And it wasn’t just the living who were in for a change. The dead were about to make a greater mark on the landscape as well. “The Neolithic began a new phase of monumental architecture in Ireland,” Killian explains, “with the construction and use of megalithic monuments and large earthworks.”

With the clearing of the forests and the construction of these standing stones, passage graves, and other structures, the Neolithic would reshape Ireland into the farming landscape we know today.

Tracing Irish Roots

Modern genetic analysis as well as clues about the particulars of artistic styles show that while the Neolithic had begun with the arrival of new human populations from Britain and mainland Europe, the subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages seem to have been cultural and technological shifts made by the existing population influenced by the “Celtic culture” from Europe. (The Genographic Project Returns to Ireland to Reveal DNA Results)

In other words, today’s Irish people are largely descended directly from the Neolithic populations of the island. And some can trace their genes back even to the Irish Mesolithic. If you have a bit of Irish in your blood, you likely have ancestors who were building those massive stone tombs, clearing the forests, and who eventually may have listened to the voice of St. Patrick.

Sample IRLL14189 wide shot. Outcrop with chert in Dartry Limestone Formation at Knocknarea. Killian Driscoll researching prehistoric stone tools. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)
Adrian Burke and Heather Short collect more chert samples from the sides of Knocknarea. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)

Keeping (Really Old) Traditions Alive

St. Patrick himself may not be seen today as much more than a symbol—Santa Claus in green, the bane of Irish snakes—but he was a real man, a fifth-century Romano-British missionary to the island. There are even two known writings of his: a short autobiography and a letter railing against a king whose soldiers killed and enslaved some of Patrick’s recent converts.

Despite ancient and modern generalizations (and even propaganda), Patrick wasn’t the first Christian in Ireland, nor the first priest sent there by official authority, and certainly the spread and development of the religion took the work of many men and women. Still, his life and work occurred at a turning point in Irish history.

Within a few centuries, Christian beliefs and practices had spread throughout Ireland and created major changes for Celtic kings, druids, and slave traders alike. As had happened at the dawn of the Iron Age, though, this change didn’t replace a population, it only changed a culture. This is perhaps what kept so much of the ancient lore and so many of the traditions alive.

“There are many examples of sacred Christian sites that are in fact on previous Neolithic and later sites,” says Killian, “and Irish mountaintops have Christian myths attached to them that are viewed as having been sacred sites during the Neolithic (and possibly back into the Mesolithic).”

He gives as an example the Rock of Boheh, or “St. Patrick’s Chair,” a site decorated with Neolithic/Bronze Age rock art along the pilgrimage to a myth-filled mountain called Croagh Patrick (one of NG’s “World’s Best Hikes”). “There are hundreds of examples from Ireland,” he says. “The whole pre-Christian landscape was ‘converted’.” (See photos of “holy wells” dedicated to saintly women with pagan roots.)

Outcrop with chert in Ballina Limestone Formation (Upper) at Bunowna, Easky. Killian Driscoll researching prehistoric stone tools. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)
A little farther west, in Bunowna, Easky, chert in the Ballina Limestone Formation (Upper) gets smoothed by waves, as wind and time wear down the walls of O’Dowd Castle (background), built in 1207. (Photo by Killian Driscoll)

St. Patrick’s Day Today

Now, around the world, people of Irish descent (or just Irish affection) celebrate the Emerald Isle every March 17 with 20th-century decorations, 19th-century songs, and 18th-century beer—all in the name of a 5th-century saint.

But Ireland’s story goes back much further than any of that; it lives on in her landscape and her people, at home and everywhere.


Irish Lithic Landscapes Project

Photos: Ireland’s Saintly Women and Their Healing “Holy Wells”

The Genographic Project Returns to Ireland to Reveal DNA Results

St. Patrick’s Day Tribute From the National Geographic Archives

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.