Three Rivers of Ireland: History and Culture

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Three Rivers of Ireland: History and Culture
Chapter 1: A Short History of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland

Introduction 2

Very Early History of Ireland 4

Early Christianity in Ireland (400 – 795) 9

Viking Invasion and the Kingdom of Dublin 14

The Norman Invasion (1169) and the Lordship of Ireland (1171-1541) 19

Kingdom of Ireland (1542 – 1800) and the Tudor Invasion 22

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (1801-1922) 26

The Road to Independence and Partition 28

Chapter 2: Two Countries – One Island

The Republic of Ireland 34

Northern Ireland 37

Chapter 3: The River Liffey and Dublin

The River Liffey 44

Dublin 45
Chapter 4: Boyne River Valley History and Culture

River Boyne 51

Drogheda 53

The Hill of Tara 54

Slane Village and the Hill of Slane 56

Monasterboice 58

Mellifont Abbey 59

Battle of the Boyne 60

New Grange 63
Chapter 5: The River Foyle, Derry, and the North

River Foyle 69

Derry 71

Giant’s Causeway 86

Dunluce Castle 87

Glenveagh Castle and Gardens 89

Bushmills Village and Distillery 90

A Short History of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland


Today, there is one island of Ireland, but two “nations”. They share a common land, a common beginning, a common history, but divergent contemporary political systems. Their shared land and history can be traced back some 10,000 years ago. Their current political systems are less than 100 years old.

The Republic of Ireland

The Republic of Ireland encompasses approximately five-sixths of the island of Ireland. The country shares its only land border with Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and is otherwise surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Irish Sea to the east, St. George's Channel to the southeast, and the Celtic Sea to the south.

The country consists of 26 counties in the historic provinces of Leinster, Munster, and Connaught (Connacht) and part of the province of Ulster. The rest of Ulster, which occupies the northeastern part of the island, constitutes Northern Ireland, a constituent part of Great Britain.

The Republic of Ireland has a total area of 27,136 sq. mi. The population of Ireland, about 4.3 million people, is predominantly of Celtic origin. No significant ethnic minorities exist, although diversity has increased since Ireland joined the European Union in 1973.

The capital and largest city is Dublin, with a population of slightly under one million. Cork is the second largest city and a major port, with a population of 175,000. Other cities important primarily as trading centers for produce include Limerick (80,000) and Waterford (42,000).

About 94% of the people of the Republic of Ireland are Roman Catholics, and less than 4% are Protestants. Protestant groups include the Church of Ireland (Anglican) and the Presbyterian and Methodist denominations. Freedom of worship is guaranteed by the constitution.

Almost all the people speak English, and about one-fourth also speak Irish, a Gaelic language that is the traditional tongue of Ireland. Irish is spoken as the vernacular by a relatively small number of people, however, mostly in areas of the west. The constitution provides for both Irish and English as official languages.

The government of Ireland is based on the constitution of 1937, as amended. This document proclaims Ireland a sovereign, independent, democratic state. The constitution also defines the national territory as the whole of Ireland. The country became a republic in 1949.

Executive power under the Irish constitution is vested in the government (cabinet), consisting of about 15 members. The government, responsible to the lower house of the national legislature, is headed by the Taoiseach, or Prime Minister. This official is nominated by the lower house and appointed by the President. The members of the government head the various administrative departments, or ministries. They are nominated by the Prime Minister and, subject to the approval of the lower house, appointed by the President. The President of Ireland is the head of state and is elected by direct popular vote for a 7-year term.

Legislative authority is vested in a bicameral legislature known as the Oireachtas. This is composed of a 166-member lower house, or Dail Eireann (Assembly of Ireland), and an upper house, or Seanad Eireann (Senate). The members of the Assembly are elected for terms of up to five years by proportional representation. Eleven members of the Senate are selected by the Prime Minister and six members are elected by the universities. The remaining 43 members of the Senate are elected by an electoral college consisting of about 900 members from the county borough councils, county councils, the Assembly and the Senate. The elected members of the Senate are chosen from candidates representing national culture, labor, agriculture and fisheries, public administration and social services, and commerce and industry. The Senate may not veto legislation enacted by the Assembly and is otherwise restricted in authority.

During British rule and initial independence, Ireland was one of Western Europe's most impoverished countries and suffered high levels of emigration. However, in contrast to many other states during that period, it remained democratic and financially solvent. The protectionist economy was opened in the late 1950’s and Ireland joined the European Union in 1973. An economic crisis led to large-scale economic reforms in the late 1980’s, as taxation and regulation were dramatically reduced. The economy experienced rapid economic expansion between 1995–2007, a period known as the Celtic Tiger period, before falling into recession made worse by the global financial crisis of 2007-2010.

Today, Ireland is one of the world's most developed countries, and is ranked fifth in the Human Development Index, first in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s quality-of-life index, and sixth on the Global Peace Index. The country is also highly ranked for press freedom, economic freedom and democracy and political freedom.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is one of the four countries of the United Kingdom. Situated in the northeast of the island of Ireland, it shares a border with the Republic of Ireland to the south and west. In 2001, its population was 1.8 million, constituting about 30% of the island's total population and about 3% of the population of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland was for many years the site of a violent and bitter ethno-political conflict. Northern Ireland consists of six of the nine counties of the original Irish province ofUlster. It was created as a distinct division of the United Kingdom on May 3, 1921 under the Government of Ireland Act, although its constitutional roots lie in the 1800 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. For over 50 years it had its own “devolved” government andparliament. A devolved government is one that is granted its powers and authority by the central government of a sovereign state. The authority granted to the devolved government often is limited to financial matters but can also be the authority to legislate for the area that the devolved government covers.

A violent period of civil unrest, known as the Troubles, were primarily conflicts between nationalists, who are predominantly Roman Catholic, and unionists, who are predominantly Protestant. They were caused be institutionalized discrimination of the Catholic population by the Protestant government, and by different visions for the future of Northern Ireland. Unionists want Northern Ireland to remain as a part of the United Kingdom, while nationalists wish for it to be politically reunited with the rest of Ireland, independent of British rule.

The authorities given to the devolved government are not constitutional, but are granted through legislation and can be taken away through additional legislation. And that is what happened, as a result of the Troubles, in 1972 when the government of Northern Ireland was suspended and finally abolished in 1973.

Repeated attempts to restore self-government finally resulted in the establishment in 1998 of the present-day Northern Ireland Executive and Northern Ireland Assembly as a result of the “Good Friday Agreement.” The Assembly operates on democracy principles requiring cross-community support. Most of the paramilitary groups involved in the Troubles have ceased their armed campaigns.

Due to its unique history, the issue of the symbolism, name and description of Northern Ireland is complex, as is the issue of citizenship and identity. In general, unionists consider themselves British and nationalists see themselves as Irish, though these identities are not necessarily mutually exclusive.


Some 20,000 years ago Ireland was almost totally covered by a thick ice sheet stretching south-west from Scotland. Throughout this period the buildup of ice on land across the world caused the sea level to drop, and 20,000 years ago, it had dropped to a level 400 feet below the level it is today. This retreat of the waters meant that Ireland and Britain were once joined together and also with continental Europe.

Over the next 2,000 years the expansion of the ice slowed, reached equilibrium and then began to retreat. By 15,000 years ago only the northeast portion of Ireland was still buried under the dying ice sheet. Although the rising sea levels had begun to flood the lower lands, a land bridge still connected the southeastern tip of Ireland to southwestern England. Trapped between this land bridge, and the ice sheet in the north, the Irish Sea formed a vast freshwater lake.

The land bridge between Ireland and Britain was finally overwhelmed by the sea 12,000 years ago, flooding the fresh water Irish Sea with salt water.

As the ice melted, rivers and lakes formed in the new land left by the glaciers. All the ice was gone by 10,000 years ago. The weight of the ice (several hundred tons per square yards) had pressed the land surface down by 8-10 feet. Once gone, the north of the island began to rise.

The Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age

The first humans in Ireland are thought to have crossed from Scotland in wooden boats, to what is now county Antrim around 8,000BC. There is a cultural continuity between the Mesolithic remains found in northern Ireland and those in southern Scotland. Ireland was one of the last parts of Western Europe to have been settled by humans, and the human presence in Ireland is perhaps only about 10,000 years old.

Although the evidence suggests that Ireland was initially populated from Scotland, there must surely have been some migration from Wales and southwest England.

The people of Mesolithic Ireland were hunters and gatherers - farming was not invented until the Neolithic period. The key elements of a Mesolithic life were flint weapons, a meat-rich diet, a nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle and skin huts.

a mesolithic house [11kb]a mesolithic fisherman [15kb]

The Neolithic or New Stone Age

The key invention that ushered in the Neolithic Age was farming. Ireland's Mesolithic hunters were displaced or assimilated by Neolithic settlers who gradually arrived in Ireland from Britain and brought the technology with them. It appears they arrived in Ireland via the Scotland-Antrim link between 3,900 BC and 3,000 BC. The Neolithic settlers set about clearing upland forest in order to build their permanent farms. As Ireland did not have many native cereal crops, and wild pigs were the only farm animals native to Ireland, the settlers brought with them cows, goats and sheep. It is conjectured that these animals were transported across the Irish Sea on wooden rafts towed by skin-boats or dugout canoes. They also brought wheat and barley which they planted in their farms. The newly-cleared upland was used for agriculture, but erosion and overgrazing was soon to cause it to stagnate, acidify and eventually evolve into peat bogs. Thus most of Ireland's upland peat bogs (although not the lower ones) are actually artificial features inadvertently created by Neolithic farmers. Neolithic farmers may have lived in larger communities and to have built larger and more permanent dwellings than the Mesolithic Irish did, with a number of families living in a cluster of houses with perhaps a larger multi-purpose building in the center. One final technology that the Neolithic settlers brought to Ireland was pottery.

a neolithic house [17kb]

Neolithic Megaliths: One of the most important legacies left by the Neolithic farmers was their megaliths, or large earthen constructions, used primarily as burial places. They are the only things to have survived largely intact from the Neolithic era; nevertheless, with over 1,500 recorded megalithic tombs still in existence in Ireland, it is an important aspect of Irish history. Their construction began several centuries after the first arrivals, around 3,500 BC.

the portal tomb at glenroan [4kb]deerpark court tomb, sligo [8kb]

New Grange, a passage tomb in County Meath, is arguably the most famous passage tomb in the world. The front half of it has been painstakingly restored to look as it probably did when first built 4,500 years ago. This date makes New Grange at least as old as the Egyptian Pyramids and older than Stonehenge in England.

newgrange [13kb]

New Grange passage tomb

Bronze Age

Additional settlers from France arrived in Ireland around 2,000 BC, bringing the knowledge of metal working, mostly bronze, with them. The existing inhabitants learned the trade from them. Slowly the culture of these bronze-working settlers merged with that of the Neolithic Irish and gave birth to the Irish Bronze Age. Ireland was blessed with relatively rich copper deposits, allowing large quantities of bronze to be produced on the island. Counties Cork and Kerry, on the south-west tip of the island, produced the bulk of Ireland's copper. One of the few Bronze Age mines known anywhere in Europe, dating from between 1,500 BC and 1,200 BC, is in County Cork.

Ireland exported a lot of copper during the Bronze Age. By contrast, there is not much tin in Ireland, and most of the tin that was needed to make the bronze seems to have been imported from what is now England. Of course, metal was not the only material used in Bronze Age Ireland. Stone tools were still very important and there was a large pottery industry.

At the same time as this, Ireland's population density was rising and this put increased pressure on the land. The only solution was to cut lowland forests, but this required better tools, and the invention of bronze axes came just in time to solve this problem. Thus the Bronze Age in Ireland marks the beginning of the end for Ireland's lowland forests which were systematically cleared over the coming centuries. Many of the myriad of lowland lakes left by the ice age also began to be choked by peat, forming the raised bogs that characterize many parts of lowland Ireland today.

It was during the Bronze Age that earthen circles known as henges were constructed. These were probably used for ceremonial purposes. Henges were constructed by scraping soil from the center of the circle to form a ridge all around. These henges can measure 330 to 660 feet across.

the giant\'s ring, belfast [11kb]bohonagh stone circle [16kb]

Henge Stone Circle

Towards the end of the Bronze Age, there appeared another type of ceremonial structure, the Stone Circle. There were constructed in Ireland as well as Britain, and were constructed in large numbers.

Celtic Ireland (500 BC)

The limits of the Irish Bronze Age are difficult to state precisely, but it is generally accepted to have died away around 500 BC when other people from Europe, belonging to the superior Iron-Age culture, arrived in Ireland. The people of this culture are more popularly known as the Celts. Developing in the Alps of Central Europe, the Celts spread their culture across modern-day Germany and France and as far south as Turkey. They arrived in Britain and Ireland around 500 BC, and within a few years Ireland’s Bronze Age culture had all but disappeared, and the Celtic culture was in place across the entire island.

Whether or not the arrival of the Celts in Ireland was an actual invasion or a more gradual assimilation is an open question. Current academic opinion favors the theory that the Celts arrived in Ireland over the course of several centuries, beginning in the late Bronze Age. The Celts had one major advantage - they had discovered Iron.

The language spoken by the Celts in Ireland was a variant of the Celtic languages which were used across Europe.

By the late Celtic period, Ireland was ruled by a series of perhaps 100 to 200 kings, each ruling a small kingdom. The kings came in three recognized grades, depending on how powerful they were. A rí túaithe was the ruler of a single kingdom. A 'great king', or ruiri, was a king who had gained the allegiance of, or become overlord of, a number of local kings. A 'king of over kings', or rí ruirech, was a king of a province. Ireland had between 4 and 10 provinces at any one time, because they were always in a state of flux as their kings' powers waxed and waned. The High Kings of Ireland were traditionally installed on the Hill of Tara.

Most kingdoms, or Tuath, in Ireland had a hilltop fort which was used either as a permanent residence for the king or as a temporary refuge in times of conflict. They are typically built on the top of a hill and surrounded by a stone wall.

In the last centuries BC, the rest of Celtic Europe fell to the expanding Roman Empire. The Celts of southern Britain were conquered in 43 AD. The Romans never invaded Ireland. However, Ireland did come under heavy Roman influence, even if not under its rule. In the first and second centuries AD, there is evidence that there was sporadic trading between the Irish and the Romans of Britain.

A village existed at the site of Dublin since the Roman occupation of Great Britain in 1 BC. The writings of the Greek astronomer and cartographer Ptolemy provide perhaps the earliest reference to human habitation in the area now known as Dublin. In around 140 AD he referred to a settlement he called Eblana Civitas. Ptolemy’s map of Ireland, published in Geographia, was compiled in the second century AD.

click to view ptolemy\'s map of ireland [56kb]

Ptolemy’s map of Ireland

Towards the end of the pre-Christian period, the Irish took advantage of the decline of the Roman Empire and its colony in Britain, and began raiding and colonizing western Britain and Scotland. Most of these colonies were all defeated by the Britons within the next century or so, although Irish kings seemed to be still ruling in south Wales as late as the tenth century.

By 400 AD there were probably between half a million and one million people living in Ireland.


Christianity started in Palestine (what is now Israel) around the year 1 AD. The early missions around the eastern Mediterranean are chronicled in the book of Acts in the Bible, as well as the letters of St Paul. Despite widespread persecution under the Romans, during which time thousands of Christians were thrown to the lions or crucified, the Roman Empire ultimately adopted Christianity as its religion. From the Mediterranean it spread northwards into Gaul and it reached Ireland around the late 300’s or early 400’s.

For some unknown reason, the conversion from pagan worship to Christian worship was bloodless in Ireland, as was not the case in the rest of Europe at the time. It is often misstated that St. Patrick brought the faith to Ireland, but it was already present on the island long before Patrick arrived.

The first recorded missionary to Ireland was Palladius, who was probably from Gaul (France). He was sent by Pope Celestine I to be bishop to the "Irish who believe in Christ". Although St. Patrick stated that Palladius' mission was a failure, other historical documents from outside Ireland indicate that the mission of Palladius was very successful, at least in Leinster, and that he set up a number of churches. Tradition says that Palladius' visit to Ireland was in the year 431, and was probably active in Ireland until the 460’s.

Many of the traditions later ascribed to Saint Patrick were likely associated with Palladius. This has led to the idea that their really were two “Saint Patrick’s” and the histories of each became woven together over time. This referred to as the “Two Patrick’s” theory.

Palladius was not the only early cleric in Ireland at this time. The Irish born Saint Ciaran Saighir (the Elder) lived in the late 4th century (352–402 AD) and was the first bishop of Ossory, a region of southeast Ireland. Ciaran the Elder, along with Saints Auxilius, Secundinus and Iserninus are also associated with early churches in Munster and Leinster.

St. Patrick

Perhaps the most famous missionary to Ireland was St. Patrick. However, a small point of caution is needed here. It is widely believed by historians that the missions of St. Patrick were embellished and enshrined by Patrick's monastery at Armagh in their ultimately successful bid for primacy over the church in Ireland. In creating what is referred to as the 'Cult of Patrick', Armagh exaggerated the importance of Patrick and diminished the importance of the other missionaries, possibly even attributing some of the work of these other missionaries to Patrick. Nevertheless, St. Patrick is such an important part of Irish culture that it would be a mistake to ignore him. It is quite true that when St. Patrick did come to Ireland paganism was the predominant belief and that at his death it had been supplanted by Christianity.

We know very little for certain about Patrick. The dates of Patrick's life cannot be fixed with certainty, but on a widespread interpretation he was active as a missionary in Ireland during the second half of the 5th century.

Two Latin letters survive which are generally accepted to have been written by Patrick. These are the Declaration (in Latin: Confessio) and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus (in Latin: Epistola). The Declaration is the more important of the two. In it Patrick gives a short account of his life and his mission.

Patrick was born in Roman Britain - probably near Hadrian's Wall in northern England - the son of a wealthy official. His mother may have come from Gaul (France). When he was 16, sometime in the early 400’s, he was kidnapped by an Irish raiding party and sold into slavery in Ireland. As Roman Britain collapsed, it was increasingly common for Irish and other raiders to pillage its coastal settlements and it seems that Patrick fell victim to one of these raids. Patrick worked as a slave for 6 years tending sheep, traditionally believed to be on Slemish Mountain, county Antrim. However, it seems possible that he was, in fact, somewhere near the Atlantic Ocean in County Mayo or Sligo.

Patrick says in his Confession that he discovered God during his time of captivity and took to praying a hundred times a day. After 6 years, Patrick managed to escape from captivity, walked the 200 miles to the east coast and managed to negotiate passage aboard a trading ship to Gaul (France). There, he probably trained to be a Christian Priest and spent time in Auxerre. He then received prophetic dreams where he heard the people of Ireland near the 'western sea' call him to come and walk among them again. He then travelled to Ireland as a missionary, and it seems that he never left. The year traditionally given is 432, but it seems more likely to have been around 460.

Patrick concentrated his work in northeast Ireland, and his first church was at Saul, near present-day Downpatrick. He preached to the Kings and their households and met with varied levels of success. One of his methods was to 'Christianize' the Celtic Pagan festivals. For example, Patrick reputedly lit an Easter bonfire on Slane Hill near the Hill of Tara while the King was having his own Pagan bonfire nearby. The King was enraged, but Patrick took the opportunity to preach and managed to make some converts. He is famously said to have used the 3-leaved Shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity: God as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (although this story is almost certainly a myth). Patrick died in Ireland and is traditionally believed to be buried on the Hill of Down in Downpatrick, county Down. A stone marking the traditional burial spot was added in 1901 and the site is now a popular tourist attraction.

One of St. Patrick's highest priorities was to establish a native ministry. For this purpose he selected the leading men, men likely to attract the respect of the people, and ordained them, after a little training, and often with minimal education. In about 450 a college was established at Armagh under Benignus; other schools arose at Kildare, Noendrum, and Louth; and by the end of the fifth century these colleges sent forth a sufficient supply of trained priests.

According to the latest reconstruction of the old Irish annals, Patrick died in AD 493 on March 17. Therefore, Saint Patrick's Day is observed on March 17, the date of Patrick's death. It is celebrated both in and outside of Ireland, as both a liturgical and non-liturgical holiday. In the dioceses of Ireland it is both a solemnity and a holy day of obligation and outside of Ireland, it can be a celebration of Ireland itself.

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