The Secret History of Ireland

The Secret History of Ireland
An Essay

The Irish have long been the victims of racial and cultural prejudice, especially from their colonizers in England. Ireland has regularly been portrayed in English thought and literature as a backwater place on the outskirts of civilization, peopled by a race of primitive buffoons. Such bigotry followed the Irish to Europe and America, where many Irish immigrants in search of employment were met with signs reading “N.I.N.A.” for No Irish Need Apply. Despite the whiteness of their skin, many Irish immigrants found themselves lumped in with the Black, Asian, and other non-white immigrants as victims of discrimination. Even in their native land, many Irish are viewed as inherently limited in both intellect and culture, and are blamed -- and blame themselves -- for the poor economy and political strife. The failure of every attempt at rebellion due to miscommunication, mishap, or simple blundering has certainly reinforced in the Irish mind many of the insults leveled at them by their neighbors.

However, even a brief overview of Ireland in ancient times paints a very different picture of the Irish character and their fitness to stand among the other European nations as an equal.

I. Wanderlust

Roughly thirty thousand years ago, the first humans migrated into Europe and gradually spread north. At this time, glaciers still covered much of northern Europe, but they were slowly receding. As new lands opened up in the wake of the traveling mountains of ice, these early human tribes moved into them, never content to remain in one region. For whatever reason, these peoples spread out from the more temperate regions of the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula to make their way into harsher climates.

It was approximately 6000 BC when the first humans found their way to the island that we know as Ireland. Scientists postulate that these settlers had come up through Britain into present-day Scotland and crossed the Irish Sea at its narrowest point. Remains found on Ireland’s eastern coast indicate that these people lived in the Middle Stone Age, using rough flint tools.

The Neolithic Age had dawned by 2500 BC when new immigrants came to Ireland from the regions we know today as Spain and Portugal. These dark-haired peoples were distinct from the more fair-complexioned first peoples. However, as the new arrivals settled the island’s western coast, it is unclear how much interaction there was between the two populations.

A few centuries later, still more immigrants brought with them a skill that would revolutionize life on the island and eventually bring it into regular intercourse with all of European civilization. The art of metallurgy and the beginning of the Bronze Age opened the second chapter in the history of Ireland. Rich in native copper, the Irish imported tin from the continent and set about making the alloy bronze.

II. When Irish Eyes are Smiling

The period from 1750 to 750 BC was Ireland’s first golden age. During this millennium of peace and prosperity for the island, the Irish people, known as the Eirann, exported fine bronze and gold merchandise to all Europe. Ireland was one of the major bronze-producing nations and the quality and artistry of their metalworking was desired as far south as Greece.

At this time, as in no other, Ireland enjoyed a relationship with the British peoples that was marked by reciprocity and mutual respect. Britain was rich in tin, which the Irish needed to supplement their own copper industry. The metals of these two lands were then merged into an alloy, which also served as a symbol of what we would today term international cooperation.

However, relations became strained in the mid-eighth century BC when the island of Britain was overrun by the Celtic peoples from eastern Europe. The Celts drove the Britons to the northern-most reaches of their land, where they would come to be known as the Picts. Once in possession of most of Britain, the Celts were not interested in the bronze trade with Ireland, for they were already moving into the Iron Age. The Irish economy suffered as a result, but their exportation of fine gold ware kept them comfortable. Unfortunately for the Eirann, however, the Celts were nothing if not restless.

III. Hail to the Chieftains

By 500 BC, the Celtic peoples conquered Ireland and supplanted the Eirann, whom legend says were driven into the forests and then underground to become the “little people,” i.e., faeries and leprechauns. Regardless of the Eirann’s true fate, the Celtic colonizers brought with them a new culture and political structure that would not fade completely until the ninth century of the modern era.

The foundation of the Celtic society in Ireland was the Brehon laws, which were surprisingly egalitarian, considering the traditions of most European societies. Men and women had equal rights under the Brehon laws, and the king was as subject to rule of law as the lowest peasant. The society was set up in three class tiers, the highest of which was the nobles, made up of warriors, the law-givers (themselves called Brehons), and scholars. Nobles were not expected to do any real physical labor, for they were supported by their clients among the second class, the freemen, most of whom were farmers or craftsmen. Below the freemen was the slave class. This class structure was not entirely rigid, for if a freeman was prosperous enough to take on other freemen as his own clients, and could maintain these clients to the third generation, his grandson would then become a nobleman.

Kings were elected by the noblemen in a particular region of the country. There was never any one single king of all Ireland until 1000 AD, but rather many kings, whose spheres of influence would sometimes overlap. Since no man could claim any more right to be king than any of his fellow noblemen, there was a good deal of political instability. However, it seems a king did not really have a great deal of extra responsibility, so barring a botched battle or natural disaster, his schedule probably was much like one found in an ancient manuscript: “Legislation on Monday, chess on Tuesday, hunting on Wednesday, the pleasure of the lovecouch on Thursday, horseracing on Friday, and judgment of legal disputes on Saturday. Sunday was for feasting and drinking” (Landon, p. 6).

Kings under the Brehon laws did not have absolute power, nor, as noted above, did they enjoy the doctrine of divine right. Therefore, they were much more akin to modern presidents than what we now think of as a king. If, for example, a peasant’s herd destroyed some of the king’s private land, the king could neither summarily execute the peasant nor divest him of all his property. The king could only take the peasant to court, and was expected to abide by the judgment of the Brehon.

Life under the Brehon laws was much more fair and comfortable than could be found in most European countries, especially as the Roman Empire spread its influence across the continent. The rules were simple and equitable, and everyone knew exactly how much they were worth, for the Brehons had a system for determining this based on the worth of a female slave, which was deemed to be equal to three milk cows or three ounces of gold. Therefore, the Brehons could assess a precise amount in damages to be paid in the case of murder, whether of a slave, a freeman, or a noble, based on the victim’s net worth. Even the king himself had a price on his head.

During the first century AD, the Irish began raiding British seaports and occasionally setting up colonies on Britain’s west coast. How different might the history of the British Isles have been, had not the Romans invaded Britain first? The Romans moved into Britain at the same time with the intent to conquer, but because the north was such a remote outpost of their empire, their ambitions were never fully realized. The Picts in modern-day Scotland successfully checked the advance of the Roman legions, and although a few Roman governors expressed a desire to take Ireland, no serious attempt was ever made. This might be attributed to the scant information the Romans had on the Irish people, which mostly depicted them as bloodthirsty, incestuous, and cannibalistic savages, even though these reports were known to be based on hearsay and unreliable sources. Notably, the Irish accomplished what the Romans could not in the successful colonization of Scotland.

However, by the fifth century AD, Roman control of the British Isles was weakening, faced as they were with constant raiding by the Irish from the west, by the Picts from the north, and by the Saxons from the southeast. Besieged on all sides and with their homeland facing invasion by barbarian hordes such as the Goths and the Franks, the Romans pulled out of Britain, but not before the son of one Romano-British official was kidnapped by Irish pirates.

IV. Faith and Begorrah

That kidnapped boy was taken to Ireland and sold into slavery, where he toiled until his escape many years later. Returning home, he soon realized that his Christian religion had sustained him in his years of bondage and he felt a call to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. He would come to be known as Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland.

While historians have no solid data on the dates of St. Patrick’s life, it is conjectured that he began his mission to the Irish in the 430s and worked there until his death some thirty years later. Unfortunately, much of St. Patrick’s career has been conflated with that of another Christian missionary to the island, Palladius. Some historians believe that Palladius was sent to work with Irish Christians while Patrick tried to convert the pagans. Whatever the truth of the matter, the conversion of the Irish to Christianity was wildly successful -- despite some blundering by a Christian British chieftain named Coroticus, who was raiding Irish ports, kidnapping St. Patrick’s converts, and selling them into slavery. Patrick was understandably furious and convinced Coroticus to desist only by threatening his immortal soul.

The Irish took Christianity, and, in the next few centuries, they ran with it. Many monastic societies were established that reflected their Brehon past, emphasizing egalitarianism, community-mindedness, and personal integrity. Unlike the closed-off monkish sects of the continent, Irish Christians believed in outreach and fellowship, which would prove the saving grace of the Christian church in the turbulent centuries to come.

V. Turnabout is Fair Play

In the fifth and sixth centuries AD, the barbarian hordes that had threatened Rome spread out over the entire European continent. Warlike, unstoppable, and worst of all, pagan, these barbarians threatened to destroy not only Christianity, but all of Classical civilization. The Anglo-Saxons overran Britain, supplanting the natives and renaming the island England, after themselves. In the midst of this terror and destruction, it was the Irish who were seen as the saviors of Europe and the last hope for civilization.

The period spanning the fifth to eighth centuries AD can be considered Ireland’s second golden age, for the Irish were respected and admired as never before or since. Known as “the island of saints and scholars,” Ireland was a mecca for both religious and intellectual pilgrims. The small island had more universities per capita than any other country, and Irish missionaries had spread out from the Scottish Highlands to the Seven Hills of Rome, bringing relief to terrorized Christians and conversion to many barbarian tribes.

In fact, Ireland brought Christianity, education, and civilized culture to the English. It was Irish missionaries who converted both the Picts and the Anglo-Saxons, reclaiming all of the British Isles for the church. Without the dedication and faith of the Irish, it is doubtful Christianity would have survived the sixth century in northern Europe.

The efforts of the Irish missionaries were successful, and they were instrumental in restoring peace to war-torn Europe. Throughout the seventh and eighth centuries, Ireland once again had a peaceful and prosperous relationship with England. Monasteries were expanded and universities grew as well, with students coming from all over the continent. The artistry of Irish monks for illuminated manuscripts was prized throughout the Christian world. Slavery in Ireland was abolished, and the economy was booming. Ireland and the Irish were highly esteemed by all of Europe. Unfortunately, the conditions that allowed Ireland to prosper also made them vulnerable to another invasion, which would prove to have consequences more far-reaching than could ever have been imagined.

VI. New Neighbors

In the ninth century, Ireland was invaded by the newest scourge of Europe, the marauding Vikings, and two hundred years of terror and destruction began. For the first fifty years, Ireland was plagued by fleets of Norwegian seamen, who would take their boats up Ireland’s many rivers as far inland as they could get before disembarking, stealing horses, pillaging, raping, killing, and burning everything in their path. In this way, no part of Ireland was safe from Viking invasion. Ireland’s centers of learning, such as the university at Clonmacnois, were sacked numerous times, until they were utterly destroyed. The monastic campuses were also subject to ruthless attacks by the pagan Vikings, who would steal gold crosses, murder priests and rape nuns, and burn churches to the ground. The Viking onslaught was so overwhelming that Irish culture was all but wiped out, and the last golden age was brought to a fiery close.

After fifty years of plunder by the Norwegians, another wave of Vikings, these from Denmark, swept into Ireland and drove the Norwegians out. It made little difference for the Irish, because the Danes were no less bloodthirsty. They rampaged through Ireland for 150 years, taking over the entire east coast, until finally settling down and assimilating into what was left of the Irish way of life. In time, the warriors became traders, but they had left an indelible mark on Ireland. This was especially evident on the east coast, where they introduced town life to the island, most notably in Dublin, which the Vikings named. By the final century of the first millennium of the modern era, the Vikings had become a relatively minor political force in Ireland as a whole, for the abundance of kings fostered since the early days of Brehon law finally became a real problem as powerful leaders vied for control over increasingly large regions of the island.

VII. The Life of Brian

Brian Boru was the only person ever to rule over all Ireland, and his road to the High Kingship was long and bloody. Brian would also prove to be the last great hero of Ireland, whose death paved the way for the decline of the nation to its present state.

Born into the Dál Cais dynasty in 941, Brian lost his father at the age of three when he was slain in battle. This event set the tone for the rest of Brian’s life, the life of a fierce and cunning warrior. In the 970s, Brian’s brother Mathgamain was king of the Dál Cais, and rival for control of Munster with Máel Muad, king of another dynasty. Máel Muad enlisted the aid of Viking allies, who were able to defeat Mathgamain’s army. Máel Muad had his rival executed, and so Brian Boru succeeded his brother as king of the Dál Cais. Brian wasted no time in exacting revenge. Within a year, he had slain Máel Muad’s Norse allies and shortly thereafter killed Máel Muad in battle.

Brian’s skill as a warrior was unparalleled, though he was never the ablest politician. Throughout his career, he could never win the complete support of his subjects or quell opposition to his reign. Without the doctrine of divine right, Brian’s claim to the kingship was always tenuous, relying both on luck and the strength of his warriors. After spending four years consolidating his power in Munster, Brian began to seek out new territories to conquer. He soon made enemies with Máel Sechnaill, who would be Brian’s nemesis throughout the eighties and nineties. They both sought to expand their spheres of influence across the island, usually fighting off lesser rivals while only occasionally crossing swords with each other.

After twenty years of conflict, Brian and Máel Sechnaill reached an impasse and held a summit in 997. They agreed to split Ireland between them 50/50. Compromises were worked out and Brian took the southern half of the island, leaving Máel Sechnaill with the north. Their relationship improved and they even joined forces to fight against the Norsemen who ruled Dublin.

At the turn of the millennium, Brian found a new nemesis in the king of Leinster, Máel Mórda, who would plague him for the rest of his life. Brian also achieved what no one else had ever been able to do when he turned on his new ally, Máel Sechnaill, and seized control of all of Ireland. Within a decade, Brian had asserted his authority over the island and declared himself High King, forcing other kings to recognize his hegemony. Although his campaign was successful, he did not have long to enjoy it.

In 1012, Máel Mórda allied himself with the Norsemen and instigated a rebellion against Brian’s rule. Brian responded in force, sending his son Murchad with Máel Sechnaill to put down the rebellion. Late in 1013, Brian’s forces had blockaded the rebels in Dublin, but the onset of winter prevented any more fighting until the spring, which gave both sides several months to prepare.

Máel Mórda and the Norse king of Dublin contacted other Viking leaders, primarily Sigurd, the earl of Orkney, who had a mighty fleet of Viking warships, and Brodir of the Isle of Man. Sigurd agreed to arrive in Dublin with his fleet on Palm Sunday. Brian had less success in recruiting allies, for many of the lesser kings of Munster considered him an upstart, and leaders of other regions were also unwilling to help. Then, as spring approached, Máel Sechnaill deserted Brian, taking his warriors and returning home. Brian seemed to have a lost cause.

On Good Friday, April 23, 1014, Brian’s forces joined battle with Máel Mórda and his Viking allies just outside Dublin. The Battle of Clontarf, as it came to be called, was fierce and bloody and raged the entire day. As the sun began to set, Brian’s forces drove the Vikings back to the shore. However, the sea was now at high tide, and the Norsemen were cut off from their ships, which were anchored some distance offshore. Unable to retreat, the Vikings were defeated and Brian Boru had won the day. Though he lost his son Murchad in the battle, Máel Mórda, Sigurd of the Orkneys, and Brodir the Manx were all slain.

The victory was soon spoiled, though, for as the aged Brian was praying in his tent after the battle, he was set upon by a Viking assassin and killed. With Brian’s death, his unification of Ireland collapsed, and decades of fighting over the title of High King followed.

VIII. Stormin’ Normans

Since the early 900s, the Normans had been gaining power in Europe, and after the millennium they turned to the northern islands. In 1066, William the Conqueror took over England, and a century later the Norman king Henry II took Ireland. The political disarray that followed the death of Brian Boru made the island easy pickings for invading foreigners, especially ones as accomplished as the Normans. With the Norman invasion, the old Brehon way of life finally died out completely and new, alien values were forced upon the Irish. From this invasion the Irish have never recovered, and their relations with other nations have declined ever since, to the point where, far from the admiration they were accorded in their past, the Irish are almost universally looked down upon.

The extent to which the Irish peoples have internalized the prejudice against them cannot be measured, but the perception of them as backward and uncultured, perpetual victims, and military bunglers is clearly groundless in the light of their ancient history. This history is largely ignored by their oppressors, and, strangely, by the Irish themselves, who hearken back mainly to their greatest failures, from 1641 to 1798 to 1916 and to the political and economic shambles of today.


Costigan, Giovanni. A History of Modern Ireland with a Sketch of Earlier Times. New York: Pegasus, 1969.

Joyce, P.W. Ancient Irish Civilisation. London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1907.

Landon, Michael de L. Erin and Britannia: The Historical Background to a Modern Tragedy. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, Inc., 1981.

O’Corrain, Donncha. Ireland Before the Normans. Dublin: Gill and MacMillan Ltd., 1972.