A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes  – Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Irish History
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A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes – Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Irish History

Fascinating Snippets of Irish History from the Ice Age to the Peace Process

Jonathan Bardon

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eBook - ePub

A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes – Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Irish History

Fascinating Snippets of Irish History from the Ice Age to the Peace Process

Jonathan Bardon

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About This Book

THE ONLY BOOK ON IRISH HISTORY YOU'LL EVER NEED!From invasions to rebellions, heroic martyrs to pragmatic politicians, industrial development to mass emigration, A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes by renowned Irish historian Jonathan Bardon will take you on a sweeping journey through Irish history, getting behind the historical headlines to reveal the lived experience of Irish people. Written in easy-to-read bitesize episodes, Bardon's original and engaging style will make you feel as though you're alongside William Smith O'Brien and his rebels at the Battle of Widow McCormack's Cabbage Patch, traversing the country to banish snakes and convert Celts with St Patrick, and feasting with the Spanish Armada's Captain Francisco de Cuellar and his wild Irish hosts. From taking up arms with the United Irishmen at Vinegar Hill to standing in solidarity with the workers of the Dublin 1916 Lockout, A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes will take you right to the heart of Irish history.Featuring a cast of characters that leap off the page, from the well-known, like the hero of the War of Independence, Michael Collins, to the quirky, such as Susannah Cibber, the first soprano to sing Handel's Messiah, A History of 250 Episodes will thrill, excite and inform you from start to finish. Whether you dip in and out of episodes or devour it from cover to cover, Bardon's must-have book will teach you everything you've ever wanted to know about Irish history and much, much more beyond.

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Episode 1


It is an arresting thought that human beings had been living in Australia for 40,000 years before the very first people came to live in Ireland. Indeed, Ireland became inhabited very late in all the time that homo sapiens has roamed the Earth. The explanation for this is the last Ice Age.
Today Ireland is a detached fragment of the Eurasian landmass, from which it is separated by shallow seas. It was not always so, and if the ocean was to drop a mere hundred metres, the country would be joined again, not only with Britain but also to the European mainland. Around two million years ago severe cold conditions set in over north-western Europe. The Ice Age had begun. Then the ice relented to give way over the last 750,000 years to alternating cycles of warmth and cold.
The Munsterian Ice Age, lasting between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago, covered the entire country with two great elongated domes of ice, in places a mile thick. After a warm spell of some fifteen thousand years during which the woolly mammoth and musk ox roamed over chilly grasslands, the last Ice Age, known as the Midlandian, spread over the northern half of the country, with additional ice caps in the Wicklow and the Cork and Kerry mountains. The ice sheets began to dissolve about 15,000 BC, and two thousand years later they had all but disappeared. They left behind a landscape which had been scoured and smoothed by flowing ice. Retreating glaciers carved out U-shaped valleys and steep-sided corries. Soil and rocks had been shifted enormous distances and dumped as rubble in huge mounds of boulder clay, known as drumlins, in their tens of thousands, particularly around Clew Bay and stretching across southern Ulster from Strangford Lough to Donegal Bay. Meltwater flowing under the ice left behind sinuous ridges of gravels, known as eskers; often several miles long and up to twenty metres in height, these provided invaluable routeways later on across the boggy midlands.
The bare earth was first colonised by grasses, sorrels and dwarf willow. Half a millennium later juniper and birch flourished. Reindeer and the giant Irish deer grazed over this tundra. Then these pioneering species were all but killed off by a six-hundred-year cold snap known after a Co. Wicklow lough as the Nahanagan stadial. Around 8000 BC the process of colonisation had to begin again. As the permafrost melted the tundra, grasslands attracted willow, juniper, birch and hazel, and the larger trees soon followed.
It was now a race against time for plants and animals to reach Ireland. At first so much water was still locked up in ice further north that land bridges with the European mainland remained open. Then sea levels, which had been about sixteen metres lower than they are today, began to rise. Oak, wych-elm, holly, yew, ash, hawthorn, blackthorn and alder made it in time, but the last land bridges across the Irish Sea were almost certainly swept away by 8000 BC. Trees such as beech and sycamore remained on the British shore until brought over by man in the Middle Ages. Curiously, the strawberry tree seems to have come directly from north-western Spain to Ireland without ever having reached Britain. Animals including brown bears, wild boar, wolves, otters, badgers, red deer, stoats, pine martens, red squirrels, mountain hares, wild cats, pigmy shrews and woodmice arrived in time to make their home in Ireland. Fallow and roe deer, beavers, weasels, harvest mice, voles and polecats were left behind. The range of freshwater fish was also limited to little more than salmon, trout, arctic char, shad, lampreys and eels. Perch, pike and other coarse fish had to await later introduction by monks.
Were the first people to arrive in Ireland able to travel across land bridges running across the Irish Sea? It seems unlikely that they could walk further than the Isle of Man without getting their feet wet. The climate which greeted the first humans was much like our own, but the landscape was dramatically different.
A dense forest canopy covered the island so completely that a red squirrel could travel from Ireland’s most northerly point, Malin Head, to Mizen Head in Co. Cork without ever having to touch the ground. Sessile oaks and wych-elms dominated the wild wood, particularly on the rich glacial soils; ash was locally prominent on light limestone ground, especially in Co. Fermanagh; hazel woods flourished on thinner soils and, in season, provided rich feeding for wild boar; alder preferred the wetter lough margins; and the Scots pine, once Ireland’s most dominant tree, was confined to hill slopes and the western seaboard. Only the highest peaks, the loughs, the rivers and peat bogs, beginning to form as the rains became more persistent, were bereft of trees.

Episode 2


Just south of Coleraine a great ridge of basalt lies in the path of the Bann, and, after a serene passage from Lough Beg, the river is funnelled between bluffs to cascade in rapids and through weirs and sluices into a long estuary leading north-west to the Atlantic. Here in 1973, where waters draining off nearly half the surface of Ulster meet the tide, archaeologists began to unearth evidence of the very first human presence in Ireland.
Worked flints had been brought to the surface the year before close to Mount Sandel Fort near Coleraine when land was being prepared for a new housing estate. In 1973 Peter Woodman and his team of archaeologists began what seemed a routine investigation only to discover—after the carbon dating of charred hazelnut shells—that human beings had dwelt here between 7000 and 6500 BC. The generally accepted date of the arrival of people in Ireland had been put back by more than a thousand years. Over five seasons the site was meticulously excavated and its contents sieved, sifted and chemically analysed by specialists. Their findings cast a unique shaft of light back over nine millennia to focus on life in a Mesolithic encampment in Ireland.
In an artificially enlarged hollow the remains of four large huts were found. The slope of the post-holes showed that large saplings had been driven into the ground in a rough circle and bent over to form a domed roof by being lashed together. Lighter branches may have been interwoven to add strength and rigidity. Then each hut was covered with bark or deer hide and reinforced against the north wind with grass turfs lifted from inside. Around six metres wide, each hut gave shelter to perhaps a dozen people gathered a round a bowl-shaped hearth in the centre.
The last ice sheets had retreated only about three thousand years earlier, and the sea level was around five metres lower than it is today. The falls and rapids by Mount Sandel must then have made a majestic sight; below them, in early summer, salmon waited in thousands for a flood to take them upstream to spawn, and sea bass foraged at high tide in pursuit of crabs, flounder and smolts. Scale-shaped flints found in abundance almost certainly had been set in poles to harpoon these fish, together with myriads of eels moving down from Lough Neagh in autumn. Autumn too was the season for gathering hazelnuts: these were supplemented by crab-apple, goosegrass, vetches and the seeds of water lilies—these last resemble popcorn when dropped into hot fat. In midwinter wild pigs, fattened on the abundant hazel nuts, began their rutting, and male yearlings, driven out by mature boars, were vulnerable then to hunting parties armed with flint-tipped spears and arrows. This too was the time for trapping birds in the forest and overwintering wildfowl.
Flint had to be carried from as far away as the beaches of Portrush in Co. Antrim and Downhill in Co. Londonderry, and was utilised to give service for as long as possible. At a tool-working area to the west of the hollow, flint cores were roughed out and fashioned into picks and axes, while the smaller blades struck from them were shaped into knives, arrowheads, hide-scrapers, awls and harpoon flakes. One axe had traces of red ochre on its surface, which gives a hint that these people painted themselves on ceremonial occasions.
Clearly these people of the Middle Stone Age moved about in bands from place to place. The coastline has yielded up the most numerous sites, concentrated around Strangford Lough, along the Antrim coast, around Dublin and Wicklow, as far south as the Dingle peninsula and as far west as Galway Bay. Here shellfish, limpets in particular, formed a central part of the diet.
The Antrim coast was particularly attractive because here in the chalk layers is the largest area of exposed flint on the island. Elsewhere in Ireland these early inhabitants used chert, like flint formed of silicon dioxide but found embedded in carboniferous limestone. Certainly this was the case at Lough Boora, a major Middle Stone Age site in Co. Offaly, where chert was fashioned into implements very similar to those found at Mount Sandel.
For at least three thousand years these hunter-gatherers lived undisturbed in Ireland. Over the whole island these Stone Age people may not have numbered more than a couple of thousand. Certainly they made little impression on the landscape. During those three thousand years the rains became more persistent, cold winters and hot summers became less frequent, and oak, alder and elm began to tower over the hazel. Pine and birch woods covered the hills and mountains. The only technological advance that these early inhabitants made in these millennia was an increase in the size of the stone implements they made.

Episode 3


From around 4000 BC a dramatic transformation of the Irish economy began. Until then a small scattered population had lived exclusively by foraging, trapping and hunting. Now they began to clear the land of trees to create pastures for domestic stock and cultivation ridges for growing cereals.
Intrepid family groups began to venture across the Irish Sea and the North Channel in dug-out canoes and skin-covered boats. The perils of crossing the sea in frail craft with frightened and thirsty horned beasts can be imagined. Some of these people were newcomers, but it may be that some of the original inhabitants had learned of these farming techniques—first developed in the Middle East—and crossed over to obtain grain, cattle, sheep and pigs from Britain.
On landing, the first task was to find a stand of elm, a reliable guide to fertile and easily worked soil. Perhaps because conditions were generally too wet in Britain and Ireland for burning the forests, farmers there preferred to spread out through the wood girdling the trees with their stone axes, causing them to die back and open up the canopy. Meanwhile the women and children put up shelters and gathered leaves, twigs and other fodder to carry the cattle and sheep through their first critical winter. When the clearings lost their fertility, the farmers simply moved on to create new pastures.
In the fourth millennium BC farming was helped by a significant improvement in the climate, with average temperatures one or two degrees centigrade higher than present temperatures. The tree line was around three hundred metres higher than today, and this allowed these people to till the soil and graze their stock on high ground. The main crops were barley and emmer wheat, and, when cut with stone edged sickles, the cereals were ground with rubbing-stones on saddle querns and eaten as gruel or bread and perhaps converted into fermented drinks.
The flaked flint axe-heads of Mesolithic settlers could not easily cope with the task of ring-barking and tree-felling. Heavier polished axe-heads replaced them, and it has recently been demonstrated that one person using one of these axes can cut down a young birch tree in fifteen minutes. In a bog at Roosky, Co. Longford, one axe-head was found still in its haft of alder. Archaeologists have recorded no fewer than 18,000 axes in Ireland fashioned from a wide variety of rock types including mudstone, shale, schist and sandstone. The most highly prized stone was porcellanite, formed sixty million years earlier when hot Antrim lavas poured over clays to compress them into this hard china-like stone. Specialist factories emerged at Tievebulliagh, Co. Antrim, and on Rathlin Island; from here polished porcellanite axe-heads were traded as far away as Dorset and the Shetlands.
As techniques improved and the population rose communities became more settled. Substantial houses began to replace simple huts and shelters. At Ballynagilly, near Cookstown in Co. Tyrone, the oldest Neolithic house in either Britain or Ireland was found in 1969. This rectangular dwelling, six metres by six and a half metres, was partly made of wattle-and-daub walls, the remainder consisting of radially split oak placed upright in trench foundations. Substantial posts evidently marked the position of thatched roof supports. During construction work on a natural gas pipeline at Tankardstown in Co. Limerick in 1988 a similar house was unearthed, except that it was built entirely of oak planking with corner posts and external roof supports. Even more sophisticated dwellings were excavated at Lough Gur in Co. Limerick. The largest possessed a stone-lined damp-proof course and cavity walls insulated with brushwood and rushes.
These early Neolithic farmers generally moved on when the fields they created had lost their fertility, but not always. One of the most remarkable discoveries in recent times is a complex settlement in north Mayo known as the Céide Fields. Here a series of rectangular fields had been created by a series of low stone walls, some as long as two kilometres. An enormous amount of labour and co-operative effort must have been required over several centuries. Cultivating cereals in the smaller fields and keeping cattle in the large ones, this area was intensively farmed between 3700 and 3200 BC.
On nearly all excavated Neolithic sites fragments of pottery were found. Even the earliest pots, known as Carinated Bowls, were carefully fashioned from well-kneaded clay from which air bubbles and grit had been removed; the finished vessels were then meticulously polished before firing. Distinctive styles emerged, named by archaeologists as Lyles Hill ware, Goodland pottery, Carrowkeel ware, Grooved Ware and the like, with lugs, incised ornament and cord-impressed decoration. Many pots have been located at ritual sites, demonstrating that belief in the afterlife was powerful in Neolithic Ireland.

Episode 4


Just west of Sligo town on the top of Knocknarea mountain glistens a massive cairn visible from many miles around. Known as Queen Maeve’s tomb, this is just about the largest Stone Age monument to be seen anywhere in Europe. Clearly, over many years, a well-organised...

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