Ancient Irish/Ulster History
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Ancient History

The first settlers came to Ireland around 6,500 BC, in the period known as the Mesolithic Age, archaeological evidence suggesting that they probably came from the Galloway region of Scotland and Cumbria in northern England to the east coast of Ulster. In the following Neolithic period the inhabitants have left us widesprea evidence of their presence, in the form of intriguing stone burial monuments, such as dolmens and court cairns. Some of Europe's largest and most impressive Stone Age monuments are those erected by the Neolithic Irish in the Boyne valley, the best known being the great passage tomb at Newgrange. The court cairns, which are distributed mainly around the northern half of Ireland, are also found in south west Scotland, leading Sean O Riordain to comment: "The tombs and the finds from them form a continuous province joined rather than divided by the narrow waters of the North Channel."

Such a link is hardly surprising. With Ireland and Scotland separated, at their closest points, by only thirteen miles, and considering that much of the land was covered with dense forest, the North Channel of the Irish Sea would have acted not as a barrier but rather as an effective means of communication. Indeed, commenting on the archaelogical evidence for contact across the Irish Sea, John Waddell suggested:

"We may be seeing just the archaeologically visible elements of a much more complex pattern of social interaction across and around the Irish Sea. Perhaps we have greatly underestimated the extent to which this body of water linked the two islands in prehistoric times."

The earliest known reference to the British Isles, made between 330 and 300 BC by the Greek geographer and voyager Pytheas in his Concerning the Ocean, describes them as the Isles of the Pretani, the 'Pretani' thus becoming the most ancient inhabitants of Britain and Ireland to whom a definite name can be given. In Ireland these ancient British Pretani (or Britanni) were later to become known as Cruthin, while in Scotland they became known as Picts. In the writings of the medieval Irish it is clear a definite kinship was believed to have existed between these ancient peoples. We are not in a position to ascertain the full extent of their relationship, but the proximity of north-east Ulster to south-west Scotland, coupled with the archaeological evidence of ongoing contact, would certainly lend weight to the strong possibility that it was very close. Indeed, as Liam de Paor has commented:

"The gene pool of the Irish... is probably very closely related to the gene pools of highland Britain... Within that fringe area, relationships, both cultural and genetic, almost certainly go back to a much more distant time than that uncertain period when Celtic languages and customs came to dominate Great Britain and Ireland. Therefore, so far as the physical make-up of the Irish goes... they share these origins with their fellows in the neighbouring parts - the north and west - of the next-door island of Great Britain."

So here we have our first anomaly: the peoples of Ireland and Scotland, who, in popular imagery, are deemed to have had only minimal contact with each other prior to the 17th century Plantation and are assumed to be of quite different ethnic stock, in reality show evidence of extensive contact as far back as the Stone Age, and scholars now acknowledge that in all probability the two peoples share a close cultural and genetic inheritance.

Scholars also accept that both peoples owe their predominant ancestry to their pre-Celtic past, an ancestry consolidated during the Neolithic period. It is now believed that any intrusions into Ireland which occurred subsequent to this period involved relatively small numbers of people. This applies even when we consider the Celts. A seminar held by the Irish Association of Professional Archaeologists in 1984 acknowledged that any Celtic intrusions into Ireland were more than probably carried out by numbers "far inferior to the native population(s)". As archaeologist Peter Woodman has pointed out:

"The gene pool of the Irish was probably set by the end of the Stone Age when there were very substantial numbers of people present and the landscape had already been frequently altered. The Irish are essentially Pre-Indo-European, they are not physically Celtic. No invasion since could have been sufficiently large to alter this fact completely."

Liam de Paor also asked:

"But was there a displacement of population, with tall, blond, blue-eyed Celts coming to take over from the small dark people (if such they were) of Mesolithic and Neolithic origin? Not at all. The Celts were, at best, the Ascendancy of their day, a minority powerful enough to impose their language."

We cannot be certain as to when the first groups of Celtic people rived in Ireland, but it is now clear that, contrary to a once popular belief, they were not present in Ireland from time immemorial, and are - in historical terms - of much more recent origin. At present there is no evidence which can place Celtic settlement in Ireland, as laracterised by intrusive burial customs, before the 1st century AD. However, despite their small numbers, the Celts, particularly those known to us as the Gaels, soon acquired a dominant position in Irish political life, perhaps because of their martial skills, perhaps because of the dynastic manner in which they divided out their conquests. Once Gaelic power had begun to consolidate itself, their most Important dynasty, the Ui Neill, embarked upon the conquest of the north of the island, the territory associated with the ancient province . Ulster. The progress of this conquest, however, was resisted by the pre-Celtic Cruthin population in alliance with the Celtic Ulaid the Old British people from whom Ulster gets its name. Nevertheless, under relentless Ui Neill pressure the Ulster leaders were forced to retreat eastwards, and it was possibly this contraction of their territory which occasioned groups within the Northern population to move across the North Channel, in particular the Dal Riata, who settled Argyll and the islands along the western seaboard. It was these settlers, who had been labelled 'Scotti' by the Romans, who bequeathed the name 'Scotland' to their new homeland.

The kings of Dal Riata soon claimed sovereignty over territory on both sides of the North Channel, and from the kings of 'Dalriada' , there is a direct link to the kings of Scotland, and thus to William and James themselves. (As grandson and son respectively of Charles I, the two kings were also both directly descended from the Breton (Old British) nobility, the progenitors of the House of Stuart, who had 'returned' to Britain with William the Conqueror.) Apart from the political changes the Celts wrought within Irish society, their most important cultural legacy was the introduction of a vibrant and beautiful language which, when later complemented by an intense outpouring of creativeness, would place Ireland to the forefront of Western European literature. The Ulster emigrants to Scotland were to take this Gaelic language with them and it spread throughout the Highlands and islands - perhaps one of the most remarkable examples of the extent of the interrelationship between the two peoples.

With the arrival of the Christian period Ireland witnessed an upsurge in intense missionary activity which not only spread across the North Channel to Scotland, but was to have a fundamental impact on European history, epitomised by the great missionary journeys of Columbanus. Another of the great religious figures of Ireland was Columba (Columb-Cille) , a prince of the Ui Neill. He became a close friend of Comgall, the Cruthin abbot of the monastery at Bangor - from whence Columbanus was to set forth - even though the political and ethnic rivalries between their respective kinsmen must at times have sorely tested their shared Christianity. Columba's legend would have us believe that it was these political and ethnic distractions which finally persuaded him to leave Ireland and set up a new community out of sight of its shores. Whatever the reasons, the history of the Church was to be so much the richer, for the community he founded, on the small island of Iona, close to the coast of Argyll, was destined to be the cultural apotheosis of Scotland, and the place some scholars believe the magnificent Book of Kells was executed. During this period the cross-fertilisation between Scotland and Ulster was to reach new heights, particularly in the flowering of literary creativeness. As Proinsias Mac Cana wrote:

"Isolation tends towards stagnation, or at least a circumscribed vision, while conversely intercourse and cultural commerce encourage a greater intellectual curiosity and awareness, a greater readiness to adapt old ways and experiment with new ones. For such intercourse the east-Ulster region was ideally situated. It was a normal landing-place for travellers from northern Britain, which during the sixth and seventh centuries probably presented a more dramatic clash and confluence of cultures than any other part of Britain or Ireland; and, in addition, the religious, social and political ties that linked north-eastern Ireland and northwestern Britain - particularly in that period - were numerous and close. Archaeologists speak of an 'Irish Sea culture-province' with its western flank in Ireland and its eastern flank in Britain; one might with comparable justification speak of a North Channel culture-province within which obtained a free currency of ideas, literary, intellectual and artistic."

The Gaelic Ui Neill (later synonymous with the O'Neills) had still failed to complete their subjugation of the eastern part of Ulster when that task was accomplished by another body of armed men. In 1169 the first 'Anglo-Normans' arrived on Irish soil, by 'invitation' rather than 'invasion', answering a request by Dermot Mac Murchada, deposed King of Leinster, for assistance in regaining his kingship. In 1177 one of these adventurers, John de Courcy, marched north and captured Downpatrick. The Ulstermen at first strongly opposed this new threat to their independence but increasing raids by the O'Neills forced them to ally with de Courcy. His successor, Hugh de Lacy, was created Earl of Ulster by King John of England.

These first 'Anglo-Normans', however, only retained a tenuous foothold in Ireland, and the Gaelic chiefs continued to resist their presence. Then in 1314 the Scots, under Robert the Bruce, defeated the English at the battle of Bannockburn. O Neill of Tyrone offered to make Robert's brother Edward King of Ireland, and in May 1315 Edward landed at Larne harbour on the Antrim coast. Following a campaign of devastation Edward Bruce of Scotland was eventually crowned King of Ireland on 1 May 1316, in the presence of a large assembly of Irish and Scottish nobles. He had brought with him 6,000 Scottish mercenaries - the galloglasses - and over the new few centuries the Irish imported a constant stream of these Scots, many of whom were rewarded with land. Edward finally perished in battle near Dundalk in 1318. One important consequence of the 'Scottish invasion' was that the power of the Earls of Ulster was crushed, and the Q'Neills were finally able to fulfil their ultimate ambition of controling the whole of the North. Now at last they could claim to be kings over all of Ulster and the territory of Ulster stretched once again to its ancient boundary of the River Boyne.

The English intensified their efforts at conquest during the reign of Elizabeth I. Despite notable successes for the Gaelic leaders their resistance was finally broken at Kinsale in 1601. Then, on 4 September 1607, after continued harassment by Crown officials, many of Ulster's Gaelic chieftains, including the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell, chose voluntary exile and sailed from Rathmullan for Europe. This act was tantamount to abandoning their people to the mercy of the English, although perhaps for the Irish peasantry the 'Flight of the Earls' was viewed as little more than the replacement of one set of landowners by another, for, as A T Q Stewart pointed out with regard to other Gaelic lords displaced some centuries later: "The lament of the Gael is their lament, the poets were their poets."

The departure of the Gaelic leaders gave the English government the opportunity to declare their lands forfeit, and some 750,000 acres were confiscated by the Crown. King James I decided to plant settlers in Ulster, hoping that it might prove an effective way of civilsing' this most rebellious part of Ireland once and for all, thus the idea of the "Plantation" was conceived.