Ireland: Culture History and Cultural Landscape

Fado, fado, with the end of the Ice Age, 12,000 years ago, the glaciers retreated. They left Ireland covered with glacial debris and tundra vegetation. It was a barren land, with limited varieties of plant and animal life. This is the setting in which Ireland's changing culture history and cultural landscape takes place.

Over the next 2,000 years, Ireland's climate warmed from tundra (sub-arctic) to temperate. As the climate warmed, oak and elm trees grew. Based on existing archaeological evidence, the first human occupants of the island arrived in the north, sometime between 8000 to 7500 B.C. They most likely arrived in present-day Northern Ireland from Scotland.


With the arrival of Neolithic (Stone Age) people about 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, came the initial development of a uniquely Irish cultural landscape. Since that time, the cultural impacts of successive peoples, cultures, and generations have all left their imprint on the Irish landscape.

A cultural landscape is the visible imprint of human activity on the land. For example, one could look at the monuments, museums, and government buildings on the Mall in Washington, D.C. These structures indicate that American culture values its history, memorializes important historical figures, and appreciates an ordered layout of buildings and planned spaces. Cultural landscapes are layered, and each successive human group occupying a place changes the landscape to reflect its culture. Changes in cultural landscapes can be seen when people use the land, create architectural styles, construct buildings, and develop their roads and towns differently than the generations who preceded them.

The cultural landscape of Ireland is particularly rich because, as an isolated island with a temperate climate and blessed with stone, it has escaped many of the more destructive attacks of erosion, warfare, and time. In recent years, the Irish government and the European Union have invested millions of euros to restore and preserve the many layers of Ireland's cultural landscape.

When Neolithic people arrived, they began to change the natural landscape by clearing forests to plant grain crops. Clearing forests spurred the formation of blanket peat bogs in western Ireland. Impressive burial mounds, such as the Passage Tomb at Newgrange, are another notable example of the presence of Neolithic people. These tombs provide clear evidence of their presence in the Valley of the River Boyne. Some Stone Age archaeological evidence points to linkages with peoples as far away as Greece.

About 4,000 years ago, Bronze Age peoples from France and the Mediterranean area began arriving on the island. The Irish commonly refer to these people as the Firbolgs. They used copper found on the island, and mixed it with tin (likely from England) to make metal. The metal tools of the Bronze Age quickly replaced Stone Age artifacts. These new arrivals made jewelry, tools, bronze weapons, and beautiful pottery. Examples of these artifacts are in museums across the land.

Bronze Age peoples lived in hill forts, which were small communities surrounded by stockade fences. Over time, the forts decayed, although some outlines of their shape can still be found. They hunted, farmed, and raised the same varieties of crops and domesticated animals found today on Irish farms. Bronze Age wedge tombs and burial pits remain as fascinating parts of Ireland's cultural landscape.

Almost 3,000 years ago, the Iron Age reached Ireland and lasted until approximately 500 A.D. The Iron Age had a phenomenal impact on Ireland and its people. This is the era in which Celtic influences first appeared, about 2000 B.C. Exactly how these influences arrived is unknown, but Celtic designs began appearing in jewelry and weaponry.


The Celtic people lived as far north as Ireland and as far south as Italy. During the Celtic Iron Age, Ireland's cultural landscape consisted of as many as 200 small kingdoms, each with a ruler. Both men and women served as rulers and warriors in Celtic society. The impact of these small Celtic kingdoms can still be seen in the toponyms (place names) on the map of Ireland today. There were actually three levels of kings and kingdoms. The simplest type of king ruled a small kingdom. The second type of king ruled over the kings of several small kingdoms. The third type of king ruled over provinces that were comprised of the small and combined kingdoms. Over time, four of these provinces ruled by the most powerful kings survived. Today, the names and extent of those kingdoms still survive on maps as the four provinces of Ulster, Connaught, Leinster, and Munster.

The sites and cultural landscapes of the more famous and extensive kingdoms are preserved today as Office of Public Works Heritage Sites in Ireland, or National Trust Sites in Northern Ireland. In County Meath, the Hill of Tara is the most important of these ancient sites. It was the most important royal site during the entire Iron Age and into the Age of Christianity because it was still the seat of the high kings of Ireland as recently as 1,000 years ago.Other major royal sites and forts of the Iron Age include Dun Ailinne (Kildare), Rath Cruachain (Roscommon), and Dun Aonghasa (Aran Islands). The cultural landscape of Iron Age Ireland was covered with raths (ring forts). The kings positioned the ring forts on prominent hilltops. Often, the rath enclosed farmsteads, especially cattle and sheep. These forts discouraged cattle raids and theft.

Little is known of the religion of the ancient Iron Age Celts. Druids were important people in the kingdoms. They were somewhat like a combination of priests, judges, doctors, and prophets. It is known that many of the places held sacred to the Celts have maintained their status today, often being adopted as sacred by Christians.

The Celtic Age in Ireland coincided with the age of the Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. The Roman Empire reached as far north as Scotland. The Irish are proud that the Romans never claimed their land. However, Roman culture diffused into Ireland despite the absence of the Roman army. The most important invasion of Ireland in the last 2,000 years was not military but religious. This Roman-based invasion had more impact on the cultural landscape than any other event in the history of Ireland. It began in 430 A.D., when Pope Celestine, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, sent Palladius to Ireland to establish Christianity. Palladius died in 431 A.D. The following year, the most celebrated person in the history of Ireland arrived.


In 432 A.D., Saint Patrick arrived in Ireland. Saint Patrick was born in Scotland in 387 A.D. and died at Downpatrick, Ireland, on March 17, 493 A.D. According to these dates, Saint Patrick would have lived to be 106 years old.

The common story is that slave raiders kidnapped Saint Patrick when he was a young boy and sold him to an Irish chieftain. He then tended sheep for six years. He learned the Celtic language and culture, but eventually escaped slavery and returned to Great Britain. There, Saint Patrick joined the priesthood and returned to Ireland as a missionary in 432 A.D. The Irish still tell stories of his experiences and miracles. It was during Celtic times that poets in Ireland developed the oral tradition of verse and storytelling. This tradition continues in Ireland today. In Ireland, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish fact from fancy. Through the storytelling tradition, fancy can become as real as fact. The stories of Saint Patrick are an excellent example of this.

In the United States, there is the story of Saint Patrick driving all of the snakes out of Ireland. In Ireland, the story most commonly heard about Saint Patrick is his confrontation with the Celtic high king on the hills of Slane and Tara in the Valley of the River Boyne. Fado, fado, the high king of Ireland had summoned all the kings and chieftains to Tara for the celebration of a great feast. Saint Patrick saw that as an opportunity to meet Celtic leaders, confront the powers of the Druids, and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. On Easter Sunday, Saint Patrick and his followers proceeded to the Hill of Tara. The Irish say a series of mystical confrontations took place between the saint and the Druids. Patrick prevailed, and the high king gave him permission to preach Christianity in Ireland.

No person, artifact, feature, or event has had more impact on the cultural landscape of Ireland than did Saint Patrick. He established the Roman Catholic faith in Ireland, constructed churches and monasteries, and set the foundation upon which monastic societies were built. Evidence of Saint Patrick's impact on the cultural landscape is virtually in every corner of the land, in churches, sacred wells, schools, hospitals, organizations, feasts, and celebrations.

For the next three or four hundred years, Christianity developed in Ireland. During that time, a new Irish culture also developed because outside influences were few. In 455 A.D., Saint Patrick built the church at Armagh. Today, Armagh remains the island's predominant religious center. It is home to major religious leaders and the cathedrals for the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland.

Saint Patrick's followers, such as Saint Ciaran, Saint Kevin, and the famous Saint Brendan the Navigator (who some historical geographers believe may have reached North America long before Christopher Columbus) founded monasteries such as Clonmacnoise, Glendalough and Armagh. These monasteries became the Irish centers of learning, literature, and knowledge.

In fact, as the dawn of the Dark Ages arrived, these monasteries were the only centers of learning freely operating in Europe. Irish monasteries flourished for over a thousand years despite various attacks. Their missionaries spread Christianity to many lands. They influenced religious art and artifacts. They produced the beautifully hand-illustrated books of Kells, Armagh, and Darrow,which contain the four gospels of Christianity. The Irish monasteries became a major religious, political, cultural, and economic force in Europe.


With the approach of the ninth century, Ireland began experiencing an influx of Scandinavian people, generally referred to as the Vikings, or the Danes as the Irish called them. Their arrival in Ireland was not unique because they were also raiding and occupying lands as far east as Russia. In Ireland, the Vikings found food and wealth. Food was found across the countryside, and wealth was concentrated in the monasteries.

The Vikings were pagans for whom objects used in the practice of religion had only monetary value. The real threat of Viking attacks is still very evident. Many monasteries built tall, round towers to protect their wealth from the Vikings. Over 100 of these towers can still be seen on Ireland's cultural landscape. The Vikings also modified the cultural landscape. In 841, they built a fort where the River Liffey and River Poddle join.

The junction of those two rivers was called a “blackpool” (Dubh Linn), hence the name Dublin. That site is occupied today by Dublin Castle. On the west coast, the Vikings also established the city of Galway where they built a protective wall around the settlement to keep the Irish out. The Vikings brought urban life to Ireland. Before their arrival, the Irish did not live in cities and towns. Vikings also developed forts in harbors where forests provided wood and rivers provided access to the interior.

The Vikings established trade and commerce in the forts, and outside the walls they began farming. They also reintroduced the Irish to weapons and warfare. Soon after the Vikings arrived, the Irish were making swords and building ships.

In the early tenth century, more Vikings began arriving in Ireland. They also raided the land and this time tried to occupy it. In the northern part of the island, the Irish were able to resist those attacks. Along the east coast and in the south, the Vikings began controlling the land. One major exception was in a portion of the Province of Muenster ruled by Brian Boru. He was a warrior king who wanted to rule all of Ireland.

He successfully led his forces against the Vikings. In 1014, they drove the Vikings from Ireland, although Brian Boru died in battle. His sons then fought over who was to be high king. In the end, his grandson Turlough O'Brien became high king of all of Ireland in 1072.


In 1169 A.D., Henry II, King of England, sent Anglo-Norman armies under Richard Strongbow to help Dermot MacMurrough, King of Leinster, regain control of his lands. Instead, Henry II claimed all of Ireland for himself. This began the British colonization of Ireland and over 800 years of conflict that resulted from that occupation.

Once in control, King Henry II gave Anglo-Norman nobles control over about two-thirds of Ireland. They again modified the cultural landscape. They built stone castles, maintained powerful armies, and consolidated ownership of vast land areas. Among these nobles were Catholic people of English, French, Flemish, and Welsh origin. The family names of these nobles included FitzGerald/Desmond, Costello, Gautier, deBurgo/Bourke, deCourcy, deLacy, Burton, and Butler. In Ireland today, some people still refer to their descendents as “the Normans.”

The British retreated to Dublin to focus on economic and political control of Ireland. This move soon changed the economy and the cultural landscape. The area around Dublin, known as the Pale, was the focal point of British colonialists. Here, the British developed castles and manor houses on large estates that often included designated living spaces for their Irish employees. They brought in people from Britain to control the estates and towns, thereby marginalizing the Irish. They established market towns along the major transit routes to get their products to European markets.

Religious centers shifted from monasteries to more Anglo-Norman-based medieval abbeys and parishes such as St. Mary's, Holy Cross Abbey, and the Rock of Cashel. The abbeys controlled vast acreage and even villages. The Anglo-Normans also used the Irish to construct stone fences and walls around the lands. Actually, stone fences and walls have been part of the cultural landscape of Ireland since the Neolithic Period. Today, there are over 250,000 miles of stone fence and walls in Ireland.

In 1533, King Henry VIII of England broke from the Roman Catholic Church. He established the Church of England and dissolved the Catholic monasteries. In Ireland, Henry VIII's church is known as the Church of Ireland. Henry VIII's actions took place within the context of the Protestant reformation in Europe. Henry VIII was the first monarch to form his own church and declare himself ruler of his subjects' spiritual and temporal (secular) lives.

In the 1600s, the British began to build plantations in Ulster province. They brought loyal Protestants from Scotland and England to occupy the farm lands. Irish nationalists resisted and General Oliver Cromwell, a merciless British soldier, landed armies in Ireland to punish them. They killed thousands of Irish people and burned churches, abbeys, and monasteries in an effort to destroy Catholicism. The ruins of these religious centers are found across Ireland.

By 1688, much of Europe was at war and Ireland became one of the battlegrounds. The armies of Catholic King James II of England and William of Orange, a Protestant from Holland, met at the Battle of the Boyne in June 1690.William and his armies defeated James II and his troops. The treaty following this battle enacted discriminatory laws against Catholics and Presbyterians.


The nineteenth century was an especially difficult period in Ireland's history. From 1845 to 1848, potato blight struck the most significant food crop on the island and the Great Famine ensued. Over 8 million Irish were dependent on potatoes as their primary food source. By 1846, the people were starving and many died from hunger. In weakened conditions, people also died from other diseases such as typhus and dysentery. The solution to one's survival was to emigrate to America, Canada, or Australia. In five years, the population declined by death or emigration to fewer than 6 million people. In parts of Ireland, the cultural landscape still carries the scars of this disaster, reflected in row after row of abandoned potato mounds.


From 1876 until recently, Ireland faced hard economic times. It has only been within the last 25 years that the standard of living for the average Irish person began to improve. During the last 125 years Ireland experienced a change that led from servitude to independence. This change came about as a result of a combination of rebellion, negotiation, conflict, civil war, death, and peace. The cultural landscapes of this process vary. The sites of the rebellion at the Post Office building in Dublin, to Bloody Sunday at Croke Park, the independent Dail Erieann (Irish Parliament), intellectual centers at University Colleges in Dublin, Galway, and Cork. The literary and theatrical geniuses symbolized by Coole Park near Gort mark this era.

In reality, nowhere in Ireland better symbolizes the culture history and cultural landscape of Ireland in the last 125 years than does the Glasniven Cemetery in Dublin. Here rest the remains of 1,500,000 people. Included are heroes of independence and revolution, politicians, religious leaders, writers, saints, as well as commoners.

The monument to Daniel O'Connell, the leader of Catholic emancipation, dominates the entrance to Glasniven. Nearby are the graves of several heroes of Irish independence. Charles Stewart Parnell, leader of Irish Nationalists who in 1876 fought the eviction of Irish farmers and called for an independent Irish Parliament, is buried in Glasniven. Michael Collins, a true revolutionary, a powerful figure in various Irish republican organizations, and the 1921 signer of the Anglo-Irish Treaty that created the Irish Free State, is buried there.

Also buried nearby is Brooklyn, New York-born Eamon de Valera, who in 1917 became the head of the political party Sinn Fein and later founded the Fianna Fail party. He served as Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland from 1932 to 1948, 1951 to 1954, and 1957 to 1959. He also served as president of Ireland from 1959 to 1973. He provided much of the groundwork and vision that led to Ireland's economic progress.

Writers, leaders, and saints buried in Glasniven include literary giants such as Gerald Manley Hopkins, John Keegan Casey, and Brendan Behan; labor leader James Larkin; suffragette Hanna Sheehey-Skeffington; and religious leader Frank Dunn. Their graves, along with those of other Irish citizens, provide an understanding of Ireland's cultural history and a fitting monument to mark the cultural landscape of this great land.

In April 1998, another historic event took place in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement. It is an effort among leaders on all sides from Northern Ireland, Great Britain, and Ireland to end “The Troubles.”

The story of The Troubles is a complex one that will be explored in Chapters 5 and 7. The first step in understanding the story is to see that the animosity extends far beyond religious differences. The Troubles are rooted in stories of marginalization, colonization, violence, poverty, wealth, inclusion, and exclusion. The vast majority of the Irish people, Protestants and Catholic alike, simply hope, ask, and pray for peace. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement changed the landscape as guard towers, walls, and chain fencing came down.


Fado, fado, the Celts brought storytelling to the Irish culture. The last 800 years of conflict in Ireland have been fodder for stories about brave political leaders and unfortunate people caught in conflicts. Some of these stories are true, some are grounded in truth, and some are pure fabrication. No matter, they have become part of the way the people of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Great Britain perceive each other and themselves.

Understanding the story of the geography of Ireland through time helps explain why the island is divided into two sections—the north that is part of the United Kingdom, and the south that is independent. Thus far, the physical environment of Ireland and the country's cultural development over time have been examined. In the following chapter, the focus is on how Irish culture and environment provided the basis for the development of those geographic factors that are unique to the Ireland of today and tomorrow.