Creation to Christian: Ireland from 7000BC to 700AD

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The geophysical formation of the Irish island and its peopling in the Stone and Bronze Ages set the scene for a dynamic Celtic cultural realm from around 700 BC. Celtic vitality was harnessed to Christian purposes from around 400 AD. The Conversion was well underway yet hardly complete by 700 AD. After the relative isolation of Celtic Ireland from the Continent, Early Christianity heralded Ireland’s increased participation in Dark Age Europe and laid the foundations for modern Irish cultural identity.


  • Aideen Cremin, Celts in Europe, Sydney, Centre for Celtic Studies, 1992
  • Barry Raftery, Pagan Celtic Ireland: The enigma of the Irish Iron Age, London, Thames & Hudson, 1994
  • Lloyd Robert and Jennifer Laing, Celtic Britain and Ireland: Art and society, London, Herbert, 1995


  • Irish Genesis: The geomorphology of the Irish island describes the creation of its natural features; their size and scale, its uplands and lowlands, rocks and rivers, plants and animals. Geology also introduces the effect of topography on ancient settlement patterns. Isolation prescribed a line of development that carved out a unique landscape for earliest human settlement.
  • The Ages of Ireland: Ice, Stone and Bronze Ages in succession see human existence rise from marginal hunter-gathering to sophisticated, settled communities that farmed at places like Ceide Fields, built the necropolises around Newgrange, the huge ‘Megalithic Cemetery’ of Carrowmore and more isolated dolmens, court and wedge tombs.
  • Celtic Realm: The Irish island and its relationship to Britain and Europe, as the Celts arrived around 700 BC, explain its attractiveness to this remarkable people. Commentary by Classical authors on Celts and the Irish and Irish archaeology of settlement and assimilation does not bear out the Celts' own mythology of successive invasions. But it explains how Celts appropriated the terrain and its existing peoples and artefacts into their own imported culture. Evidence of social structures, values and change indicates a relatively turbulent country.
  • Golden Age: ‘Heroic’ or ‘golden’ age myths, origin-stories, laws and epic poetry compare favorably with prehistory’s understanding of government under the kingship system in the island’s regional divisions. Irish language names for persons, families and places reveal the genealogies of kingships and kinships. Faith systems and their practitioners, the Druids, manage Celtic relations with the Otherworld.
  • Christians come to Ireland: Ireland’s first Christian contacts came via trade and raiding routes between Ireland, Britain and the Continent. The first Christian missioners in Ireland, Romanised Celts from Gaul, start arriving around 400 AD. They used a variety of methods to attract converts: analyse some of the ‘miracles’ described in the ‘lives’ of the early saints to understand the impact of the new religion on the old.
  • St Patrick and the ‘Conversion’: The large-scale conversion of Ireland attributed to St Patrick was the work of many before and after him. The development of the cult of St Patrick and other early founders illustrates the process of christianisation. The political role of the cult of St Patrick and its take-over of others highlights the complex relations between church and state up to 600 AD.
  • Celts and Christians together: Irish monasticism was the powerhouse of Christianity in Ireland, from isolated hermitages to monastic cities. By contrast, the Roman system of diocesan administration took root more slowly. The ecclesiastical tension between the two was resolved in tandem with the centralising kingship system. Sample the Christian scholarship and Latin traditions in the Annals and Chronicles and legal texts for an impression of Irish society as it appeared under direct Christian influences. Trace the way the Brehon Laws were written down to incorporate Christian values and Church property.
  • Celtic Christian Ireland by 700 AD: Christianity made important inroads during the 500s and 600s though the attractions of the Celtic order and its faith systems were still powerful. The assimilation of the two cultures was by 700 irrevocable yet incomplete. All the elements were present: and the shape of the next 700 years was set.

At the end of this course students should be able to:

  1. Understand the course of 7,000 years from the Ice Age through the settlement of the Celts and their initial conversion to Christianity.
  2. Compare and contrast the essential differences between, and processes of major cultural change from, ‘Pagan’ to ‘Christian’.
  3. Introduce the sources and methods of Early Irish History, Literature and Mythology order to understand the limits on our understandings.