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Ancient Ireland

Brief summary (PC2 WS15):
  • Burial was very important to the people of the Stone Age and a number of tombs can be found throughout Ireland today that date back to the period. The most well-known type of tomb is probably the dolmen (see below for image) but the most well-known tomb is certainly Newgrange. You will need to know the information about Newgrange below.
  • The Celts were firmly established in Ireland by about 150 B.C. The Celts were hunters, gatherers, and farmers. Most Celts lived in defensive, circular ring forts or crannogs, which were artificial islands built in lakes or rivers (see images below). The Celts lived in a hierarchical society.
  • Before the Roman alphabet came to Ireland, the Celts used Ogham script (see image below).
  • The Celts created Brehon Law, a system of law often seen as a very forward-thinking system today. If you committed a crime on someone who was part of your kingdom, you had to pay a fine to compensate the wrong you’ve done. For a serious crime you could also be outlawed. The judges (Brehons) were free in their judgement and so had much influence. The ancient laws were transmitted orally till they were written down between 600 and 900 A.D. Brehon Law existed in Ireland until the 17th century, when it was repelled by Common Law.
Study questions:
  1. Name the three main ages in ancient Ireland.
  2. What do you know about Newgrange?
  3. Where did the Celts come from, why and who are they?
  4. What do you know about Celtic society?

The Stone Age

The Middle Stone Age (Mesolithic): 8500-7500 to 4000-3500 BC

This  period is characterized by the first settlements established on the coast. They were constructed from timber and animal skin.  Their weapons and tools were made of stone. The first settlers were hunter gatherers.

The New Stone Age (Neolithic): 4000-3500 to 2500-2000 BC 

Farming techniques were brought to Ireland from places now called Britain, France and Spain.  They brought the first farm animals such as cattle and sheep, and also developed new crafts and skills including pottery-making. These early farmers also buried their dead in stone tombs or 'megaliths', many of which can still be seen in the countryside today. The dead were often buried with 'grave goods' which could include pots, stone axes and arrowheads.

Neolithic tombs

When we look at ancient tombs and graves in Ireland it is important to mention that there are all in all four different types of megalithic monuments: chambered cairns, court cairns, dolmens and wedge tombs. You need to be able to identify each of these.

Chambered Cairns
The word “cairn” means “a heap of stones” in Irish. So basically, they look like caves built up of large slabs of stone. They have, as the name lets us guess, a chamber inside which was used as a tomb. Some chambered cairns are passage-graves. The most famous passage graves are Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley. They have been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
 Court Cairns

As the name suggests, court cairns have a courtyard or open area, generally a wall made up of rough stones. Court carins, also known as court tombs, are rectangular burial chambers. They are distinguished by their roofless, oval forecourt at the entrance.

Dolmens are historical burial tombs that are found in hilly areas. They usually had a pair of portal stones (entrance stones) in front and a single stone at the back. A characteristic feature is a massive roof stone or slab, usually weighing many tons.
 Wedge Tombs

Wedge tombs are generally thought to be the newest type, dating from the cusp of the Bronze Age. Wedges are basically wedge shaped stone boxes with a sloping roof slab.
All in all, there are around 400 wedges in Ireland.


Newgrange is a prehistoric monument located on the eastern side of Ireland in the Boyne Valley. It is the best known Irish passage tomb and was constructed around 3200 B.C. by a wealthy farming community. This makes it one of the oldest known structures in the world with clear astronomical intent. Archaeologists classify Newgrange as a passage tomb, but for its builders, it was much more than simply a place of burial.  Above the entrance to the passage at Newgrange there is a small opening called a roof-box. Its purpose is to allow sunlight to penetrate the chamber on the shortest days of the year, around December 21, the winter solstice. As the sun rises higher, the sunbeam widens within the chamber at the end of a long, narrow passage so that the whole room becomes dramatically illuminated.

If you go to this site and click on the first picture, you explore Newgrange interactively.

The Bronze Age

 The Early Bronze Age: 2500-2000 to 1300-1200 BC

Settlers from France arrived in Ireland around 2000 BC, bringing the knowledge of Bronze-working with them. They mixed copper from Ireland with tin from Spain to make simple tools and weapons, which later became more advanced. Bronze was easier to shape than stone and it did not break as easily. 

The Late Bronze Age: 1300-1200 to 700-500 BC    

During the Late Bronze Age, gold became the most obvious symbol of power and wealth and was used for personal ornaments and jewellery in Ireland. In the Late Bronze Age society, more intricate and different types of ornaments were made than before. See this Google search for images of Bronze Age jewellery, many samples of which have been found throughout the country.