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Four Green Fields: Trollheart's History of Ireland

I'm going to start off with this one, which just seemed like a natural fit for me. Though it will be hard work (what endeavour worth anything is not?) I think it could be both fun and educational. So welcome, one and all, to
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If Irish people go abroad, they're generally welcomed more than, say, English people. You're heard speaking English in a foreign country and they say “English?” and you shake your head and say “No, Irish.” Immediately there is a change in attitude, and you're more welcomed. Why is that? Well, part of it certainly has to do with our amazing sports supporters, the rugby and especially soccer fans who follow the national team when they're in international competitions such as The World Cup or the European Championships. Their impeccable behaviour abroad, compared to some (cough) Russia (cough) has earned them the deserved respect and love of just about every country they visit. They are a credit to our nation, without question. There has never been, to my knowledge, a single instance of one Irish fan being involved in any trouble in all the time they've been travelling supporting their country. And given how we Irish are known for drinking, that's damned impressive.

Another reason though could be that, to totally simplify things, just about everyone (with the possible exception of the English) love us and identify with us because we are a small country that has been occupied for most of our history. We have never made war upon anyone, we have never invaded anyone (couldn't remain sober long enough to do so probably! 😆) and therefore we are not seen as an oppressive nation, unlike Britain, Germany and the USA among others. We have only been an independent, free country for less than a century, which makes us a very young country in comparison to most of the rest of the world, and we have been on the receiving end of occupation, oppression, injustice and discrimination.

However, all is not rosy in Irish history, far from it. Without any means to invade other countries, without a standing army or anything even close to a navy, trapped on our own little insular island for thousands of years, we Irish have in the past typically turned to fighting ourselves. Clan chief fought clan chief, territories were disputed, civil war erupted and of course we had “The Troubles” for over thirty years. So I began wondering what Irish history was like, and having been very interested in it while at school, I thought I'd like to explore the story behind my native country.

I'll therefore be looking into the very beginnings of Ireland with the ancient Celts and Druids, the Viking invasion, the Norman occupation, everything up to the Easter Rising and the eventual procurement of freedom when we became a free state in 1923. I'll then be going on from there, to meet up with the present, where, after over eighty years of freedom and self-determination we handed back our sovereignty to Europe in return for an IMF bailout caused by greedy bankers. This will be, simply put, the entire history of Ireland, which is deeper and more interesting than many might think, and is littered with treachery, betrayal, wars, tragedies and a struggle for freedom that would take centuries to eventually achieve. Like most countries, it's a story of heroism and failure, or cowardice and reversal of fortune, of strength and honesty and belief and faith, and it has its heroes and its martyrs while standing alongside those are its traitors and its villains.

I'll be using multiple sources, and will include any relevant music I can find, but overall this will be a written journal, not a music one, and perhaps the first one to focus solely on history, and within that, the first to concentrate on the history of one small country. It will obviously take a long time and will be a work in progress, but as ever you're all welcome to join in and comment.

Which just leaves me to issue the traditional Irish welcome: Cead mile failte (A hundred thousand welcomes) and hope you enjoy what I write here.

Chapter I: Meet the Irish

Timeline: 1200 BC - 500 AD

So, where did the Irish come from? Was there some prehistoric pub from which, Flinstones-like, we all fell out of the door at closing time and started fighting in the street? Well, quite possibly, but historians and archaeologists link us to the ancient Celts, a pagan people who migrated from the Russian Steppes into northern Europe around about the time of the Iron Age, somewhere around 1200 BC, and ended up in the general areas of what was known at the time as Bohemia (part of Germany today) and Austria.

Before I go any further, I would like to qualify the rest of this by quoting from Richard Killeen's A Brief History of Ireland when he says ”What follows is not entirely true. No history can be complete. The sources on which it is based are always partial, often in both senses of the word ... For here we are dealing with the era before written records – reliable or otherwise – and have only the inferences drawn from archaeology and certain artifacts to guide us.” Worth bearing in mind, certainly.

The Celts were a deeply spiritual people, and though they worshipped goddesses as well as gods they were very much a male-dominated society, with few if any examples of female leaders having been discovered. They also are believed to have practiced ritual sacrifice, including human, to appease their gods and ensure bountiful harvests, fruitful women and victory in battle.
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However, even these ancient people, though they became acknowledged as the ancestors of we modern Irish, were not the first people to live in Ireland. An unknown and vanished society which flourished from, it is thought, about 9000 BC (that's eight thousand years before the Celts got here) were responsible for the building of ancient tombs and monuments, such as the burial chambers in Newgrange, Co. Meath, which archaeologists believe were constructed five hundred years before the great Egyptian pyramids and over one thousand years before one of the most famous of the English monuments, Stonehenge. Hah! In your faces, ancient civilisations! ;) Newgrange is therefore more or less accepted as one of the oldest monuments in the world today. It is probably well known (but I'll tell you anyway in case you aren't aware) that it is more than just a simple burial chamber. It is of the type known as a “passage tomb”, due to its long narrow approach to the burial chamber itself.

As a child I remember visiting this as part of a school trip, and being a child (probably nine, ten years old, I can't quite remember but young definitely) I was less than impressed. For me, as for all my schoolmates, all this was was a chance to skip a day in school, ride on a bus and go somewhere we had never been. I wish I could have known at the time how important that visit should have been, but all I truly remember of it is it being cold, dark and just the tiniest bit disquieting as you descended into the dark, hoping the guide would be able to help us all find our way back out into the light.
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The truth about Newgrange though, which I never witnessed personally but is a matter of record and draws people to it in almost pilgrimage every year, is that it is so constructed that there is a point on the very top of the cairn (the burial mound) through which the sun will shine only on one particular day – the Winter Solstice, December 21 – and when it does, it travels along the passage until it illuminates, with perfect accuracy and precision, an ancient symbol of renewal and rebirth carved on the back of the furthest wall.

As a religious symbol, this marks the return of the sun, the giver of life, into the darkness to renew the spirit and bring hope. It is said to be a powerful, even religious experience to those who are lucky enough to see it for themselves, and it proves that ancient though the people were, they had enough knowledge of mathematics, astronomy and construction to be able to build such a thing, and they were obviously a people for whom religion was not just something you did; it was their whole life, perhaps their very reason for existence. They certainly worshipped what would be known today as pagan gods, but they were as faithful to (perhaps fearful of) them as the ancient Egyptians were to theirs.

The first known (given Mr. Killeen's important caveat above) inhabitants of Ireland were a Mesolithic people, meaning Stone Age (well, technically, Middle Stone Age, but you don't care about that, do you?) who were hunter-gatherers, and are believed (or assumed) to have come over from the mainland of Scotland to settle in what is now Northern Ireland, or the province of Ulster. This then essentially makes Northern Ireland the oldest civilised part of Ireland, which sucks for us in the Republic, but at least we have a better soccer team! As for the Mesolithics, they were supplanted or succeeded by a new race in around 4000 BC who began to settle and farm the land, these being Neolithic, or New Stone Age, and they created the first real settlements of people, farms and attempts at agriculture, sowing crops, raising cattle and building walled enclosures. With a good and regular supply of food and permanent settlements the population grew and expanded.

With the arrival of the Celts however, these people were either fought to extinction or intermarried with the newcomers, with the Celts becoming the ancient forebears of the modern Irish people. Unlike the Native Americans or the Australian Aborigines, there are no descendants of this original race that inhabited Ireland and nothing exists of them now but some fossils and the impressive structures they left behind. The future of Ireland would be written by the Celts.

Although we know virtually nothing about them, the original inhabitants of Ireland left no evidence behind to allude to any real sort of hierarchy or system of justice. Undoubtedly they had them, as even the most primitive society cannot exist without rules, laws and punishments for those who break them, but the first properly organised system of law, perhaps even a form of government, comes with the arrival of the Celts and the rise of their religious leaders, the Druids.
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Best likened these days to a cross between judges, historians and wizards, Druids kept the ancient beliefs alive, ensured the proper gods were worshipped, passed and enforced laws, and were answerable to no man, not even the king or chieftain. They were what we would call today “freelancers”, and their word was law. Being outside the hierarchical structure of Celtic society, they could even call a king to account if he had transgressed the law. Despite what might seem though as unlimited power – an ancient form, perhaps, of Executive Privilege? - Druids did not challenge their leaders and were not involved in any military undertakings. They were peaceful men, whose main mission in life was to honour and preserve the Celtic way of life, to pass down the stories of their mythology – by mouth alone, for the Celts had no form of writing, beyond Ogham, of which more shortly – and to revere and placate the ancient gods.

They were poets and storytellers, judges and arbiters – none could be more partial in a dispute than a Druid – and even advisors to kings. They held great power, yes, but in this one instance power did not corrupt. While the Druids who served the Celts in Britain and Gaul rose up against the Roman occupation of their lands and led the resistance against the invaders, Irish Druids did not take up arms at all, remaining completely peaceful.
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Although the Celts did not or could not write, they did have a very rudimentary alphabet. It consisted of a number of straight lines, sometimes slanted and/or crossing other lines. This was called Ogham (I was brought up to believe it is pronounced “oh-am” but most documentaries on the Irish or the Celts I have watched seem to think it should be pronounced “og-ham”. I'm not sure which is right) and was used mostly to decorate tombs, often by way of huge stone crosses which can still be seen on graves today, though of course the ones that mark headstones these days are replicas and copies. Still, originals can be found in various archaeological sites, and most people know what you mean when you speak of a Celtic Cross. If you don't, then look below.
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Ogham was a very simple alphabet, with twenty-five characters but was apparently very limited in what it could say: basically, they used it for inscribing the name of the person buried under the cross, and that was about it. But writing isn't everything, and the Celts must have had great memories as they passed their stories on down, word for word, through successive generations. Many of these were of course the exploits of kings or leaders, but much of their lore centred around the deeds of heroes, whether real or imagined, that came to make up the basis of Celtic mythology. Like most peoples, the Celts did not relate made-up stories for entertainment; they actually believed these events took place in a far-off time. Some of them may have – the idea of a young boy killing a dog who was attacking him by hitting him with a hurley ball and thereafter having to take the dog's place as the chief's guard (the genesis of the legend of one of Ireland's most revered heroes, Cuchulainn) could be seen to have happened – others perhaps might be a little more fanciful, such as tales of frost giants and warp spasms and the Salmon of Knowledge, to say nothing of Tir na nOg.

But in time, as Christianity took hold of the world and spread to Britain and Ireland, the Druids and the Celtic beliefs would be toppled, their gods either banished to fairy stories and myths or appropriated and metamorphosed into saints and martyrs, making Ireland in time one of the most Christian countries of the world. Old beliefs would die out as the new took hold, and civilisation of a different type would come to the Emerald Isle as we exchanged a group of powerful gods for one who couldn't even save his own son from death. Not the greatest bargain, in my view.
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