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True OriginsContentsPrefaceIntroductionChapter OneChapter Two

Chapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter Eight

Chapter NineChapter TenChapter elevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter Fourteen

Chapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenBibliography

[The True Origins of Irish Society Copyright © 2003 by Desmond Keenan
Hard copy of book available from and]

Chapter One

                      Population and Society

Summary. This places Ireland in its geographical, climatic and social contexts in the post-glacial period, and indicates where we must look to find the features which influenced the people of Ireland.


The Physical Environment

The Social Environment



The Physical Environment

The Writing of History

            By history is normally meant the accurate recounting of conditions and events in the past as recorded in written sources, or at times oral sources. In Ireland, writing did not come into common use until the sixth or seventh century. Even then the matters recorded in writing often merely reflected an unreliable oral tradition. Therefore, before the age of writing we have to deduce as much as we can from surviving material sources. If we find field systems and pollen from a given period we can deduce not only that agriculture was practised, but also we can determine what crops were sown. Similarly, if many weapons are found we can deduce that warfare was common. With regard to matters like social organisation, we can draw conclusions from the practice in other societies that were until recently at a similar stage of social development. With regard to the Palaeolithic period we can look to practice among the Eskimos and among the aborigine people of Australia.

            We can also draw on writing from other parts of the area, from the Near East and the Mediterranean. Not only do these record information about those places in ancient times, but also ancient accounts are preserved of their observations of other contemporary peoples. Scholars therefore can draw on a variety of sources. It remains true however that what we call political history, the political events and the wars, the names of rulers and the dates of battles cannot be written without written sources. Before that date we have social and economic history and archaeology.   

Throughout this book the terms Middle East and Near East are used interchangeably, and refer to the lands of the Fertile Crescent from Egypt to Iran. Formerly the name Near East was used, but from about the time of World War II, the term Middle East was preferred. Older reference books refer to Near East.)

Social Influences on Ireland 

            When we study the history and society of Ireland we must consider the factors which influenced them, both those peculiar to Ireland and those from outside. Soil, climate and communications are obviously important. So too are the various peoples, their cultures, and their institutions, which influenced the development of Ireland. Some of these could have had a distant origin, agriculture, the use of horses in warfare, the stirrup, the use of writing, and so on, but all eventually affected Ireland. At times the influence was indirect. The horsemen from the steppes never invaded Ireland, but the development of feudalism and heavy cavalry, which were responses to the mounted warriors from the steppes had a powerful influence over Ireland. The Romans never came to Ireland, but Roman culture was to have a preponderating influence over Irish society after the introduction of Christianity. The development of Irish society was influenced by events such as the development of cities in Mesopotamia, the development of agriculture in the Near East, the interaction between the nomads of the steppes, and the agriculturists of the settled lands. It was to be profoundly influenced by the development of religion and religious ideas in the Near East. The culture of Greece had little direct influence on Ireland. Such influence as it had was due to the incorporation of some of its facets in Roman civilisation or Christianity. It should be noted that most of these developments had an almost identical influence on nearby Britain.

The Geographical Region

            From the preceding section flows the determination of the Geographical Region, that part of the world which influenced the development of Irish society directly or indirectly. Ireland is part of the land-mass continuum comprising Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its people are obviously part of the white branch of the human race whose geographical extension is bounded on the south by the Sahara Desert and to the east by the deserts and mountains of central Asia. With regard to the spread of agriculture, the tropical forests of Central Africa formed the southern boundary and the dark-skinned peoples of the savannahs or tropical grasslands belonged to the same culture area as the pastoral peoples of the European steppes. Historically the black pastoralists of North Africa impacted very little on Eurasia, while the white pastoralists of the steppes and the Arabian shrublands impacted continually. So in this case also the Sahara must be regarded as the boundary. In the eastern part of Central Asia some of the peoples might be regarded as belonging to the Mongoloid or yellow race, but linguistically and culturally they belong to Central Asia, and had a profound impact on much of Europe, and the Middle East. Places like China, India, South East Asia, Australia, South Africa, and the Americas are consequently excluded.

            Except perhaps for the spread of monasticism from India the influence of the first two centres on Ireland was probably negligible.


            The period we are concerned with is from approximately 10000 BC to the present. The earliest users of tools may date back to about half a million years ago, but modern Homo sapiens sapiens does not antedate 100000 BC. About 50000 BC at the height of the last Ice Age, he apparently spread out of Africa and split into the great divisions of the human race, commonly called black, white and yellow. With the fall in sealevel there would have been low coastal plains all along the continents providing easy routes. About 20,000 BC the temperature of the earth suddenly started to rise, and by about 15000 BC the last Ice Age was deemed over. The pattern of the winds changed and the Sahara dried out as forests and grasslands spread over Europe and Asia.

 A great growth in the human population occurred after the ending of the Ice Age. The hunter-gatherers moved north as the ice retreated and the forests and the herds of animals revived over the lands that had been covered with ice and permafrost. The average temperature of the world continued to rise until it reached a maximum about 5,000 BC and continued to decline ever since that peak. The decline was not smooth or continuous but rose and fell from time to time. As the average temperature might be a few degrees higher than at present living conditions would have been satisfactory at levels hundreds of feet higher than at present. Roman forts on Hadrian’s Wall or in the Welsh mountains were probably more comfortable than they would be at the present time. This is especially true if rainfall is taken into consideration.

            But besides the fluctuations in temperature there were fluctuations in the wind pattern. At times like the present the cool moist winds from the Atlantic prevailed; at other times hotter and colder winds from the North (Boreas in Latin and Greek) or from central Asia were dominant. These changes naturally caused changes in the vegetation, especially in the growth of bogs. Since Romans times the changes have been less, but may have been quite significant with regard especially to sea conditions in the Viking period.

            The distribution of rainfall and temperature meant that the whole region was covered in basically four different kinds of vegetation. North of 56 degrees north, the southern tip of Sweden, lay the coniferous forest belt. South of this was the region of the deciduous forests. This was triangular in shape with its base extending along most of the Atlantic coast of Europe narrowing to a point in the Ural Mountains about 53 degrees north. The further east one went from the Atlantic coast the lower the rainfall became, so that grass became the dominant crop. These grasslands were called steppes in Russian. In southern Europe and along the coasts of North Africa, and into the Middle East, shrubs and scrubland predominated. Where the rainfall fell below a certain level, deserts prevailed. These are only broad generalisations, and the transition from one zone to another was rarely sharp.

Ireland lay entirely in the region of the deciduous forests, and the natural cover was thick forests of alder, oak, and elm. Vegetation too could be affected locally by the type of soil and underlying rock, chalklands being more lightly covered than clay soils. Poor drainage meant that a considerable amount of the land was covered by bogs and marshes. In Ireland, an effect of the glaciation was the eskers, or lines or banks of well drained gravels that provided routes east and west across the country. As the Neolithic period developed cultivation altered the cover, but as soon as cultivation ceased, the spot reverted to its natural covering.

             Warfare and travel were largely confined to the summer half of the year. As the writer of the 2 Book of Samuel noted, ‘In the spring of the year, the when kings go forth to battle...’ (2 Sam 11.1). And Chaucer noted too, ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote, the droghte of Marche had perced to the rote....Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages’ (Canterbury Tales.) Time and time again we observe the constraints of geography and climate on the events of Irish history. As late as 1690 there was only one major route which an army could use between Carrickfergus and Dublin and this was blocked by the Jacobite army. But William was guided by a local man sideways on to the road from Armagh to Dublin. The Jacobite army withdrew to the Boyne and William’s army was ravaged by disease as it camped in an unhealthy area around Dundalk. Malaria and dysentery destroyed more foreign troops than swords or muskets. Again, up to the year 1000 AD the Northern O’Neills were consistently among the most powerful chiefs in Ulster and indeed in Ireland. But as the horse became more important in warfare, and the economy of Ulster did not develop to the same extent as the rest of Ireland, the keeping of a sufficient number of horses for cavalry imposed significant limitations on their power. There simply was not enough grass to maintain a large cavalry force. But by the same token, an English army under the Tudor governors could not advance into Ulster or maintain itself there except in the summer and autumn when there was plenty of grass. The remedy was to plant Ulster with farmers who would drain the soil and produce crops. These problems were not unique to Ireland but applied over the entire region from Mongolia to the Atlantic. [Top] 

The Social Environment

The People

            The present human race began to spread out of Africa between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago during the last great Ice Age. Slight differences in the original gene pool produced considerable variations resulting in the great diversity of mankind. The inhabitants of any given place are the descendants of those who colonised the area during the Ice Age. Former theories which held that successive waves of incoming invaders wiped out and replaced the existing populations are now discarded. Peoples like the Indo-Europeans gave their languages and ruling classes to huge areas but did not replace the existing population. Indo-Europeans, Turks, Semites, etc. are linguistic groups not distinct peoples. Rather surprisingly too it was discovered that the spread of agriculture in Neolithic times did not significantly affect the population of Europe, which remains essentially what it was in the Palaeolithic period. It is always essential to keep the ideas of population or gene pool, the linguistic groups like Indo-European or Semitic, and artistic styles like Grecian or La Tene separate in one’s mind. Nationalist theories in Ireland, England, and elsewhere perished on the fact that there was not the slightest archaeological evidence of such invasions.

The Economic Systems

            Man had existed during the last Ice Age as a hunter-gatherer for at least a hundred thousand years or four thousand generations. He had learned to use fire and clothing. He had language and developed art. His tools were of wood, horn, or flint. But after the last Ice Age, during the last 10,000 years or four hundred generations there came a series of developments, rapid indeed compared with the virtually static period which preceded it, but at first the changes were scarcely perceptible to those who lived through them. We, looking back, might notice significant changes over an interval of a thousand years or forty generations. As generation succeeded generation small experiments were tried, and if they proved successful they were adopted or adapted by others and spread through most of the inhabited world. Instead of gathering fruits and seeds men learned to gather some seed and plant it in favourable spots and to harvest it. This led increasingly to more-or-less permanent settlements in place of the wanderings of the hunter-gatherers who followed the herds of animals. Animals too were gradually domesticated, so that instead of following wild flocks, the herdsmen kept them under control. A herding life was also to some extent nomadic for the flocks had to be kept together to a certain degree for protection against theft or the ravages of predators, and moved around as the grass was eaten up. If some crops were cultivated the movement would be circular around the crops. But in the drier areas of the steppes the migration area might be larger. The change to farming and pastoralism antedated the use of metals. The carving of stone for example was done in Egypt without using metal.

            In addition, the use of metal gradually replaced flints, but the introduction of metal weapons and tools did not mean that stone tools were abandoned. Most people probably could not afford a metal tool. Pottery made from baked clay became increasingly used among the sedentary peoples especially for making vessels, but these were too heavy and too brittle for the nomadic peoples to use. Almost anything at any time could be made of wood or leather. Where there are no finds of objects made of stone, pottery, or metal we can suspect that everyday objects were made of wood or leather. These only survive if preserved under water.

Agriculture produced an increase in population, and the production of surpluses which we call wealth, and the differentiation of social structures into rich and poor, powerful and weak, the minority who controlled and the majority subject to them. The growth of ruling elites of interrelated families was probably the reason why so few language systems covered the entire geographical areas. Firstly, a successful group of families conquered a wide area, and every one then adopted the language of the conquerors or of successive conquerors. The same is true of religion.

            Primitive buildings could be made from branches covered with grass of the skins of animals. But in those parts of the Middle East where wood was scarce, even before the invention of pottery which is a baked clay bricks made of sun-dried clay, earth, or mud was used. These mud bricks were effective as long as they were kept dry so sloping roofs with wide eaves were essential. But by baking the clay, waterproof tiles could be used. Roofs then could be flat and this allowed rainwater to be collected and stored. The flat roofs were made simply by laying lengths of wood flat from one wall to the opposite one, covering them with branches, grass and earth, and finally with a layer of tiles.

            Outside the dry belts of the Mediterranean lands and the Middle East wood was used universally for buildings, and usually in conjunction with earth for fortifications. In China and Japan wood was used for almost every building until recent times, and even the great Wall received a facing of stone only a few centuries back. In North West Europe the use of stone and brick was introduced by the Romans and largely disappeared as the Romans withdrew. The return of the use of stone and brick can be an indicator of the ending of the Dark Ages. The use of stone for buildings was probably introduced into Ireland from Wales about the beginning of the ninth century. Building in stone had been reintroduced to Northumbria by St Benedict Biscop about 650, and probably earlier to Kent by St Augustine about 600.

At the beginning of Neolithic times civilisation or life in towns, developed chiefly in three centres each possessing great rivers and fertile soils. These were in the North China Plain from which Chinese civilisation developed, the upper basins of the Indus and Ganges in North-west India in which the Indian or Hindu culture developed, and the so-called Fertile Crescent, the basins of the Euphrates and Tigris in South-west Asia and of the Nile in North-east Africa. This latter region eventually came to consist of a belt of village and town civilisations in the Fertile Crescent, with extensions outwards from that in various directions, especially along the Mediterranean Sea. Outside of that belt to north, east and south, were various peoples with pastoral or semi-pastoral economies.


            Much study has been done over the past hundred years into the origin and distribution of languages. Almost all of them can be placed in the major groups, like the Semitic, Turkish, or Indo-European groups spread over vast areas. It is a curious fact that no common origin for these groups of languages can be discerned. The Indo-European language group covers most of Europe and stretches across Iran into North-west India. Whatever the date of its origin, it spread widely after the invention of writing in the Middle East so scholars can make reasonable estimates regarding the times it reached various districts, and the times various members of the group, like Celtic or Latin, split off from the original language. Along the southern side of the Mediterranean the Semito-Hamitic group of languages spread and were prominent if not dominant by the time language began to be recorded. Oddly, the oldest written language, Sumerian, was like ancient Etruscan and modern Basque, unrelated to other languages. Across the steppes into central Asia the Turkish and Mongolian language groups are dominant. Sometimes a member of the subgroup, like Russian or Arabic, themselves spread far and wide, replacing the previous languages. The spread of a language does not indicate the spread of a population. It is usually sufficient that a small military upper class to impose their language. Or it can be the language of traders like ancient Aramaic or modern Swahili. [Top]


Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.