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Sometime between 12,000 BC and 8,000 BC Ireland raised her head and emerged from the Ice Age. Flowers and animals began thriving on a diminishing land bridge that connected Ireland and Great Britain. The waters rose. Animals scattered throughout Ireland, and the seeds of plants were buried in her soil. Ireland was on her own, surrounded by wild seas.
The first people probably arrived in Ireland around 7,000 BC. They walked, arriving on native Irish soil with muddy feet or leggings. Ireland became the last piece of Europe to feel the footprints of people on the move after the Ice Age.
We don’t know exactly who these first people were. We do know this: hunters and gatherers do not make many marks upon the land in the form of buildings, nor do they carve up the land. Because of this, they leave few traces of their daily lives. We have found the remnants of a campsite here and there in County Offaly at Boora Bog. Mount Sandel, in County Londonderry, carries the remains of round huts woven with branches. Because of the area they chose to live, we know these first Irish had an easy time finding food, and would have eaten fish, berries, wild pig, salmon, trout, pigeons and ducks, plus hazelnuts.
By 5,000 BC the number of camps had spread through Ireland. We see vestiges of people and their small communes in the east, south and west of Ireland in Sutton and in Dalkey near Dublin, as well as in Cork, Waterford, and the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. The hunter-gatherers dug in and became farming communities with complex lifestyles and beliefs. This changed the face of our island. Where once there were no walls or fences they grew up and enclosed bands of people and their livestock. After the people settled, existence would have become easier. At that point religions, legends, and mystic beliefs become part of daily reality.
Then, around 4,000 BC, people who were farmers on the mainland started moving to Ireland in boats. They carried livestock and seeds, along with their own religious beliefs, and the necessary tools to build communities. They cleared the land with their Neolithic axes. Over time, regions once heavily covered with forests became soft pastures and fields for crops.
This era produced a bonanza for archaeologists and others interested in the ancient Irish people. Two of the most fantastic sites for looking into this particular past are Ceide Fields in County Mayo, and County Limerick’s Lough Gur. They are among the finest Neolithic spots in Ireland. There is evidence that their communities were highly organized and that the residents worked well together for common goals. In one area of Ceide Fields, over four square miles of forest were cleared by the community. Stones were dug up, walls were built, and livestock and crops were separated.
Here is something to turn inside your mind, like turning a gemstone in the light: By the time work had begun on the Egyptian pyramids, these Irish areas were already abandoned by the early settlers. These people were not only good farmers and community organizers, they were extraordinary stone masons—this was the time that the Megaliths were built. Here’s another thought to play with: We are not sure where this second wave of people came from, so no one knows if the first Irish were the heirs of the Megalithic era or if they began it. (We vote for the latter.)
Regardless of where they came from and how they evolved to become the people they were, their buildings still leave us speechless. It doesn’t matter if we have planned a trip to visit ancient sites, or if we stumble upon them—the effect is identical. We are completely awestruck and transported to a new place of wonder inside our imagination.
Any trip to Ireland will include ancient sites. You can hardly pass through the countryside without stumbling upon a mound or passage cairn or ancient well. But, if your intention is to see the culmination of the finest Neolithic builders, you’ll want to include these places in your itinerary: Carrowmore and Carrowkeel in County Sligo; Lough, County Meath; and the grandest achievement of all in the Boyne Valley, County Westmeath. This is rightly called the Valley of the Kings, and it includes Newgrange—first and foremost—along with Dowth, Knowth and the Hill of Tara.
There are over 1,200 huge stone tombs, dating back to at least the Neolithic period, in Ireland. There are passage tombs, court tombs, wedge tombs, and portal tombs. There are also markers that accurately measure time and the movement of stars. The stones are intricately carved and some are engraved with an alphabet we have yet to unravel.
Over thousands of years, legends, tales, stories, and religions have been passed down to explain the meanings of the Megaliths and the ceremonies held within by the first Irish. In every story there is some grain of essential truth, for truth and facts do not always walk hand and hand. Truth is larger; it’s something we feel, whereas facts are learned. And so we listen to the ancient stories and we wonder and sometimes we have a glimpse of those who went before us.
These ancient sites speak of power, respect for life death, and honoring the land. These are things we already know, but when we need to be reminded of their lessons, who better to give us a nudge in the right direction than our ancient ancestors?