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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
The 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.
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.)
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.