Early Christian Ireland

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Along with all other periods of Irish archaeology, the Early Christian period has been the focus of a great expansion in the level of research since the early 1980s. One of the main trends in contemporary studies has been the increasing secularization of the archaeology related to this period. Increasingly, the academic community is realizing that the monasteries and other religious settlements did not dominate the early medieval Irish landscape, although undoubtedly they were an important component of that landscape. The use of the term "Early Christian" to describe this period is now increasingly being seen as overemphasizing the role of the ecclesiastical sites at the expense of the many other settlement types of the era that had no religious connection. As a result, archaeologists now tend to use the terms "Early Historic" or, increasingly, "Early Medieval" to describe this period.

Generally speaking, the period is thought by most scholars to begin in the fifth century a.d., soon after the coming of Christianity to the island. It ends in the twelfth century with the arrival of the Continental religious orders that broadly overlapped with the coming of the Anglo-Normans in 1169 and 1170. Although Ireland was not part of the Roman Empire, it was intimately involved in the empire's trading connections with Roman Britain and beyond. Thus, it is difficult to be sure when exactly the influence of the Roman Iron Age declines and the Early Medieval period, as such, commences. For instance, archaeologist Nancy Edwards has posed fundamental questions about the origins of this period of Irish history that debate the extent to which the impact of Roman culture and the introduction of literacy and the Christian religion initiated the changes that took place.

church archaeology

The church in this period was primarily monastic, and the monastic sites that still survive as ruins in many parts of the island can be seen as a significant reminder of this important phase of Ireland's past. Very little survives archaeologically of the earliest monasteries because their buildings were of wood or wattle-and-mud construction. But it can be argued that some of the small monastic communities established in the western fringes of the country, where stone has always been the principal building material, can give us a good idea of the original appearance of the early monasteries built elsewhere. These include the impressively sited, beehive-shaped dry-stone cells on the island of Skellig Michael, situated in the Atlantic 13 kilometers west of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry. Others are found on the island of Inishmurray in County Sligo. The most famous monastic sites, such as Clonmacnoise in County Offaly and Glendalough in County Wicklow also have the remains of many stone buildings within their monastic enclosures, including churches and round towers. These sites are covered extensively in the later ecclesiastical texts that have survived to the present. Indeed, most of the examples of stone architecture surviving from this period are ecclesiastical in origin, including Cormac's Chapel, built by King Cormac Mac Carthaig on top of the Rock of Cashel in County Tipperary. Dating to the first half of the twelfth century, it is universally considered the most beautiful surviving example of Irish Romanesque architecture. It was in the monasteries that some of the greatest schools of religious manuscript production were located. They produced the masterpieces of illumination, including the Book of Durrow (c. a.d. 650) and the Book of Kells (c. a.d. 800), both on display in Trinity College, Dublin.

It is also important to recognize that there are many other smaller enclosures in the landscape, delineated by either an earthen or stone bank, that originally might have had some kind of monastic function but which have only been identified by aerial photography or field survey. In other words, they do not possess any documentary sources that can positively identify them as such. There are also sites with place names that contain ecclesiastical elements such as "kill" but which, on further archaeological examination, have produced no evidence of ecclesiastical activity. Therefore, it is wise to follow Ann Hamlin's guidance in this by not considering any site ecclesiastical unless it includes clear evidence of a church and burials.

The whole question of urban settlement in this period is also under continuing discussion, especially the extent and nature of indigenous forms of urbanism. Increasingly, it is becoming accepted that some of the larger and more influential monasteries such as Armagh, the ecclesiastical capital of Ireland, were by the tenth and eleventh centuries exhibiting many of the characteristics of urban settlement. Such attributes, including streets and districts with extensive craft production, were largely the norm for the rest of continental Europe. Heather King has located important archaeological evidence of an urban secular settlement alongside the religious core of the monastery of Clonmacnoise, as well as evidence of an extensive vallum that separated the settlement's monastic and secular communities.

rural settlement

The most ubiquitous settlements during the Early Medieval period were the ringforts. It has been estimated that at least fifty thousand examples survived to be mapped by the Ordnance Survey in the middle of the nineteenth century. These are circular settlements, the design of which varied depending on where they were located. Those in the eastern half of the country had an earthen bank and an external dry fosse (ditch), or rath. Those in the western fringes had a perimeter bank built of dry stone and are therefore known as cashels. These settlements have an average diameter of 30 meters, although there are examples that are much larger and many that possess several lines of defensive banks. While the majority of the ringforts functioned as single-family defended farmsteads of the free element in Irish society, which was largely tribal at the time, with many small kingdoms, the larger ones may also have served as centers for particular tribal groups. Although less than two hundred sites have been excavated, the majority of them appear to have been constructed in the second half of the first millennium. It is thought that few ringforts were built after a.d. 1000, but some were still being utilized after the Norman conquest of Ireland that began in 1169. In addition to the archaeological evidence of this late habitation, there is also contemporary written evidence about the destruction of a particular site in Leinster by the Anglo-Normans as late as the end of the thirteenth century.

Despite the fact that surviving ringforts are so numerous, many aspects of their function and chronology still remain very much an enigma. The remains of circular houses have been discovered in two excavations, and they contained important evidence of some of the occupations and crafts that were carried out in these settlements. At Lisleagh 1 in County Cork, several circular structures were located that measured 5 to 7 meters in diameter. In one example, the buildings were arranged as a conjoined pair in a figure-eight plan. Environmental and artifactual evidence indicates that sheep farming, wool production, and the manufacture of bone combs were among the more important aspects of the economy at the Lisleagh site from the end of the sixth century to the end of the eighth century. The other site with circular houses is located at the northern end of Ireland, at Deer Park Farms in County Antrim. There, a "raised" ringfort with a height of 6 meters was caused by a prolonged occupation of the site from the sixth to the tenth centuries. Altogether, twenty circular wooden structures, all between 5 and 8 meters in diameter, were found throughout the occupation levels of this important site. Among the five that could be identified as houses was an impressive double-walled house some 7 meters in diameter (similar to the Lisleagh houses) with evidence of a bedding area and internal screens surviving within it. In the bedding area, a small brooch stylistically dated to a.d. 800 was located. Souterrains or underground passages were usually made with dry stone walls and a roof, then covered by the earth that had been excavated in order to construct the original trench dug to construct the passage. In many cases the souterrains are found located either close to or actually within ringforts. There is one dendrochronological date from the timbers of a fairly untypical wooden example at the ringfort of Coolcrans, County Fermanagh, which produced a date in the early ninth century. Broadly dated to the first millennium, their original function is not fully clear. They may have provided cold storage for food or acted as refuges when a settlement came under attack.

The other major type of defended enclosure of this period is the crannog, an occupation site on an island situated in a lake, which is either natural or built on artificial foundations. Recent archaeological research has estimated that around two thousand examples were constructed in Ireland, but most are found concentrated in the "Drumlin Belt" in the northern half of the island and especially in the Lakeland area of the northwest. These crannogs are being studied as part of a Lake Settlement research project carried out by the Discovery Programme, an archaeological research company entirely funded by the Heritage Council. The origin of the crannogs is found in the prehistoric period, but they were both constructed and occupied throughout the medieval period and afterward. As with the ringfort, only a small number have been scientifically excavated, but all the evidence to date indicates that in the Early Medieval period they were defended homesteads occupied by the wealthier elements of society. Some of them, such as Lagore in County Meath, were sites of royal status. At Moynagh Lough, in the same county, compelling evidence indicates that this crannog was an important center for ornamental metalwork production and other skilled crafts, as well as being a traditional farming unit.

There are also other settlement sites of generally a prehistoric provenance that have evidence of sustained occupation during the Early Medieval period. In particular, the promontory forts of Dalkey Island in County Dublin, Dunbeg in County Kerry, and Larrybane in County Antrim were all reinhabited, even if only as temporary refuges in the many uncertain times of this era. Finally, there undoubtedly were settlements either without enclosures or with very flimsy and partial enclosures that have been difficult to identify archaeologically. With the help of aerial photography and increasingly sophisticated remote sensing techniques some of these have been tentatively identified on the landscape. Indeed, some of the Early Medieval law tracts mention the existence of rural nucleated settlements occupied by the unfree members of Irish society (those people who were both economically and legally dependent on a particular lord). These may have consisted of a small cluster of farmhouses with associated outbuildings arranged without any formal organization or layout. Such settlements in upland areas may only have been occupied at particular times of the year, as part of a transhumant system of agriculture.

Archaeologists are also attempting to understand the complexities of past landscapes by viewing them as a whole, thereby getting away from the focus on individual sites that drove much previous research. Utilizing aerial photography and other prospecting techniques, some attempt has been made to examine the layout of fields and other associated enclosures that are thought to date to this period. Two such research projects are in the valley of the River Barrow in the southeast of the country and in the foreshore area of Strangford Lough in County Down.

artifactual evidence

As regards archaeological evidence, the Early Medieval period in Ireland was largely devoid of ceramic artifacts, as was true for much of contemporary western and northern Britain. One of the few exceptions to this are the surviving sherds of A, B, D, and E ware that were luxury imports from France and the Mediterranean. These date from the fifth to the eighth centuries a.d. The only indigenous pottery type, which was originally called souterrain ware because of its association with these structures, is now better known as early native ware or early historic ware. It is a coarse handmade pottery that has been mainly found on both ecclesiastical and secular sites in the northeast of the country, especially in the two counties of Antrim and Down. There is also some limited evidence of other native, coarse, grass-tempered wares at ecclesiastical sites such as Reask in County Kerry. It would seem, therefore, that wood was used as an alternative to ceramics in this period, as shown from the number of such finds from crannog excavations.

There are also many small, inscribed stone monuments surviving from this period, which are best described as artifacts in their own right. The earliest stone markers generally bear an ogham inscription on them (the oldest form of writing script in Ireland). They mainly date from the fourth to the seventh centuries a.d., are found mainly in the southwest of the country, and are often associated with souterrains. There are also grave slabs, which are found in most monastic sites, usually in the form of flat stones bearing an inscription for a prayer for a particular person along with an inscribed cross. They are generally dated to the end of the Early Medieval period, from the ninth to the twelfth centuries. Undoubtedly the most famous of these decorated stone monuments are the freestanding stone high crosses, the great majority of which are found in monastic sites (fig. 1). They are often elaborately carved, with biblical scenes on their main faces and abstract designs on their sides. There is some evidence that they were originally painted in vivid colors. Most of them are dated from the ninth and tenth centuries. Some of the most impressive examples, possibly still surviving in their original location, are found at Monasterboice in County Louth.

It is in this period that, arguably, many of the finest metalwork artifacts ever produced in Ireland were made. These were fashioned out of bronze, to which precious metals were added. Many of them were manufactured in royal sites such as Tara in County Meath (fig. 2) or in the great monasteries such as Clonmacnoise in County Offaly, on the shores of the river Shannon. Some were made in ringforts, such as the beautiful and unique seventh-century gold "wren" brooch found at Garryduff in County Cork. Others were created on crannogs such as Moynagh Lough in County Meath. Until the seventh century many of these metalwork artifacts were still being broadly influenced by the earlier Celtic La Tène style. But from the middle of the seventh century, the increasing influence of continental-European and Anglo-Saxon styles introduced many new motifs and techniques. These can be seen in the Derrynaflan paten of the eighth century and the Tara brooch that was made c. 700. The metalwork of the following four centuries was influenced by the Vikings, with an increased use of silver, as is shown by the large numbers of pennanular (nearly circular) and kite-shaped brooches. In the period leading up to the Anglo-Norman invasion the construction and repair of many reliquaries took place, including the Cross of Cong.

The evidence for other industries of this period is less apparent, although considerable research has taken place on water-powered mills, both horizontally and vertically driven, and on their ponds and other associated features, which date from the seventh century onward. On the foreshore below Nendrum Monastery, on Mahee Island in Strangford Lough, County Down, there are the remains of three horizontal tidal mills. These were excavated in 1999 and 2000 and date to the seventh and eighth centuries. The mills are of great importance, being the earliest archaeologically dated examples of the use of tidal power in Europe. Other interesting research has targeted the woodworking expertise and woodland management of the time. The expertise of the Early Medieval Irish in wood construction is exemplified by the impressive wooden bridge excavated at Clonmacnoise. Once used to cross the River Shannon, the bridge measures 120 meters long and 5 meters wide. Its structural oak timbers were dated by dendrochronology to a.d. 804.

the viking age

The Early Medieval period underwent a profound change with the coming of the Vikings at the end of the eighth century. In the past their arrival has been used to explain the decay and decline of some aspects of the Irish church at that time. However, modern scholarship has tended to see some of these problems as being present within the church much before the advent of the Vikings. Although Viking raids undoubtedly harmed the more vulnerable monastic communities, attacks on monasteries were not solely confined to outsiders but were also carried out by the indigenous Irish. The other point to stress is that this phase lasted for less than fifty years, until the Vikings started spending winters in Ireland. This led to the construction of longphorts, or defended harbors, for their ships. Most of these defensive bases grew into Hiberno-Norse port towns, which were mainly located on the east coast. Two such towns were Annagassan in County Louth, established in a.d. 841, and Dublin.

To the immediate west of Viking-Age Dublin, at present-day Islandbridge-Kilmainham, the largest Viking cemetery outside of Scandinavia was found in the 1840s, when railways were being constructed. The cemetery has been dated by surviving artifacts to the ninth century. Until recently this had caused scholars to debate whether the original longphort, built c. 841, was located closer to this cemetery and that the urban settlement of Dublin was established later, around 917, at its present location, farther east and closer to the mouth of the River Liffey. But more recent archaeological excavations have produced both radiocarbon dates and structures and artifacts that indicate a ninth-century settlement at Temple Bar, in the center of the existing city of Dublin. Excavations by Linzi Simpson have shown that Dublin was strongly influenced by Anglo-Saxon culture and society in Britain and was intimately involved in the sociopolitical developments of Danelaw, the northeastern region of England that was centered upon the Viking city of York.

The fusion of Irish and Viking cultures led to the development of an important Hiberno-Norse style that had an important influence on the art of the period, metalwork, in particular. The archaeological record of the Hiberno-Norse towns is very rich, especially as a result of sustained archaeological excavations in Dublin and Waterford. To a lesser extent, Limerick, the only example of a Hiberno-Norse town known on the west coast, has also yielded a rich array of artifacts. Both Dublin and Waterford in this period were laid out with streets lined by single-story mud-and-wattle rectangular houses. Each had a central hearth with fixed wooden benches on either side where the inhabitants slept. Larger dwelling houses were often accompanied by smaller storehouses constructed in the same manner. The many excavations have shown that these urban centers traded extensively with the rest of Viking-Age Europe, as evidenced by the remains of the workshops and their products.

In Dublin, archaeological evidence from the Wood Quay site on the southern quays of the city, excavated by Patrick Wallace in the late 1970s, shows that a stone wall was constructed around the core of the nucleated settlement about 1100. This replaced a large earthen embankment with a wooden palisade on top, which encircled the town from the tenth century. Along the southern edge of the river, docking facilities and buildings were constructed as the river silted up, with nine successive waterfronts being identified archaeologically, dating from 900 to 1300. Subsequent changes in Dublin have been revealed by a large number of excavations both within and outside the medieval walls, many taking place as a result of the redevelopment of the historic core of the city.

Excavations within the stone walls of Waterford by Maurice Hurley have uncovered about 20 percent of the Viking and medieval occupation layers there and have been especially valuable in putting the finds from Hiberno-Norse Dublin into a much broader context. The range and quality of the Viking-Age finds from Dublin may arguably be more impressive than those of Waterford, but Waterford has the richer collection of architectural remains from the High Middle Ages. These include four sunken buildings from the late eleventh century and stone-lined entrance passages to two additional structures. This represents the greatest number of such finds so far located in any Irish urban center. Some limited archaeological evidence from Cork and Limerick has provided insight into the Hiberno-Norse histories of those cities. In Limerick, excavations on the southwestern portion of King's Island, at the lowest fording point across the River Shannon, have revealed occupation layers and signs of construction.

Although each of these Hiberno-Norse towns obviously had a rural hinterland supplying them with many of the commodities that were important to their trading functions, the archaeological evidence for Viking rural settlement is almost nonexistent in Ireland, as is also largely the case in Britain. There is, however, some place-name evidence both in the vicinity of Dublin and Waterford to suggest that the extent of Norse settlement inland from the ports has been largely understated. To reinforce this conclusion, evidence of rural settlement came to light in 2003 as a result of development-driven excavation in the "Dyflinarskí," the area of Hiberno-Norse rural settlement around Dublin.


In the twelfth century, ecclesiastical reform was sweeping medieval Europe, so it was hardly surprising that these changes also affected Ireland. The Irish church was finally organized into a hierarchical system of parishes, dioceses, and archdioceses. As a direct result of this reform, many of the monasteries that had been such a mainstay of the Irish church, and which had their origins in Irish society, gradually faded away. They were replaced by the houses of the great Continental orders, as well as by the great cathedrals and parish churches of the Anglo-Norman colony. Of course, this change did not happen immediately. Some Early Medieval monasteries survived the initial Anglo-Norman invasion only to decline as Anglo-Norman diocesan authority grew increasingly stronger in the thirteenth century. In the secular world, it is also important to realize that there were parts of Ireland, especially in the north and the west, that remained under the control of indigenous Gaelic Irish families such as the O'Conors and the O'Briens. In these areas the settlement pattern of the Early Medieval period probably survived and evolved for many years after the fateful year of a.d. 1169, when the Norman conquest of Ireland began.

See alsoLa Tène (vol. 2, part 6); Mills and Milling Technology (vol. 2, part 7); Clonmacnoise (vol. 2, part 7); Raths, Crannogs, and Cashels (vol. 2, part 7); Deer Park Farms (vol. 2, part 7); Viking Dublin (vol. 2, part 7).


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Terry Barry

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Early Christian Ireland

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Early Christian Ireland