Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton wrote In Search of Ancient Ireland,
and the television series that accompanies it (produced for PBS and RTE) because Irish prehistory is
undergoing massive re-evaluation in light of recent discoveries. Ireland
has yielded up more of her secrets in the past few years than she has in
the past century. Research for the book and series took place together, as
much out in the field as in the archives. It is not essential to "walk
the ground" in order to write history, but when one has an opportunity
to do so, the past comes alive in a completely different way.
To stand on the summit of the remote monastery island of Skellig Michael and see the Atlantic waves crashing against its sheer mountain cliffs is to understand in a visceral way how seventh century monks created a different kind of Christianity, seeking isolated hermitages in the middle of the ocean that took them as far afield as Iceland and perhaps all the way to America. To venture deep in the heart of a 5000 year old passage tomb is to marvel at the ingenuity, organization, and architectural skill of Irish Neolithic farmers who raised such ancestral temples a thousand years before the first pyramids were built in Egypt.
To explain the history of Ireland, we chose also to give a sense of "place," for in Ireland, history and landscape are inseparable. Every mountain and valley has its story, just as every major event over the past five thousand years is anchored in a particular place. The authors visited monasteries and ring forts, climbed mountains and delved deep into sacred caves, and we were accompanied on this journey through the historical landscape by many of Ireland's best known scholars, historians, and archaeologists. For months on end the authors tramped the ancient sites with historian Donnchadh Ó Cornáin and archaeologists Pat Wallace, Barry Raftery, and John Waddell. They and many others explained and interpreted Ireland's ancient past in the places where history actually happened, generously sharing with the authors their knowledge and love of Ireland. Their scholarship and insights appear frequently in these pages.
Many times in the past 5000 years this small island has stood at the heart of European culture. In the middle of the eighth century B.C. it may have been the wealthiest place in Europe, its gold ornaments and beautiful bronze musical instruments unequalled anywhere north of Egypt. Because Ireland was never absorbed into the Roman Empire, it retained into the second millennium A.D. unique cultural traditions stretching back perhaps to the Bronze Age, if not earlier. When Christianity arrived in the fifth century A.D., a strong spiritual presence was already on the island. Yet there was no conflict between the newly arrived religion and the pagan past, instead there was an extraordinary convergence of the two which developed into a unique Christian church whose influence would eventually spread throughout Europe. After the fall of Rome, Ireland kept scholarship alive for Europe and ultimately carried civilization back to the new barbarian kingdoms rising among the ruins. By the tenth century A.D., European kingdoms did not think themselves well served unless they had Irish philosophers and theologians advising their courts.
Ireland has always been a place where myth and reality existed side-by-side, but the latest research is now making clear the distinction between them. This book is full of new information, some of it at odds with what many Irish descendants believe about their ancestral home. Interestingly, most of what we think of as Irish is rooted in the nineteenth century. It was then that Ireland began reinventing itself as a nation and culture separate from the "occupying English." Poets and writers of the Celtic Revival reached back to old Irish legends and stories to provide a cultural foundation for their newly emerging national identity. The term "Celtic" was little used prior to this time, so Ireland's view of itself as a Celtic nation is a modern invention. But this reaching back into an ancient past has always been at the heart of the Irish character. Past and present, myth and reality are inexorably mixed. Nothing is forgotten, and the past continues to color the present. Stories sometimes take on a life of their own. When Irish rebels rose up on Easter Monday of 1916 to proclaim a republic, they invoked the name and spirit of Cú Chulainn, Ireland's mythological hero who stood single-handed against the armies of Queen Mebd of Connaught when she invaded the province of Ulster. This is the central story of The Táin, Ireland's greatest literary epic and one of many pre-Christian stories that have defined Ireland's view of itself and its people.
Are the stories a memory of a half-forgotten past committed to writing centuries later, or are they just invention? The further back in time we go, the less certain we are of answers. Ireland's ancient past is still full of many mysteries (like how Ireland developed a Celtic culture and language when there is little archaeological evidence of any Celts in Ireland). But because of a cascade of new archaeological discoveries and new techniques for interpreting them, the truth about this past is coming into sharper focus. Ancient history is most often concerned with the great empires of the world. Much more has been written about the Greeks, the Romans, the Egyptians, or the Chinese, to name just a few. But the vast majority of our ancestors never lived in great empires. Whether in Europe, Africa, Asia, or the Americas, they lived in tribal warrior cultures like those of Bronze and Iron Age Ireland. So this book is not only a history of a people who have had a tremendous impact on the world for many thousands of years, it is also a glimpse into the way most people lived for much of human history. Above all, however, it is a search for the roots of a people now called Irish.