The west of Ireland is Europe’s last stop. To Yeats it was a kind of lost Eden of myth and legend, the green land of heart’s desire in opposition to the gray pavements of the crowded, fallen, modern cities to the east. To its first inhabitants, perhaps, something similar.
All over Ireland, but especially clustered in the north and west are remnants of the first arrivals. Neolithic men who spread from the Atlantic coast of Portugal and northern Spain up through coastal France, Normandy and Brittany, across to England and thence across from the borders with Scotland into northern Ireland.
Except of course, those names and places did not exist after the last Ice Age. It was just land, empty of men until they arrived to claim it. Until they finally fetched up as far west as they could go in Donegal, Mayo, Sligo. And there the evidence stands today where it has been uncovered. I didn’t set out to make an Irish tour of e neolithic but everywhere you turn, there it is.
There are bodies recovered preserved for thousands of years in bogs, nails, hair, fingerprints intact. You can see them in the National Museum of Archaeology in Dublin. At the Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth complex in the valley of the Boyne great passage tombs older than the pyramids. And far up north and west many more, all evidence of these earliest settlers.
Near Raphoe in Donegal, the Beltany Stone Circle, a mini-Stonehenge, occupies a hilltop surrounded by a herd of sheep who eye you as you pass. Outside Sligo is the Carrowmore complex of megalithic tombs, a passage tomb like Newgrange under a cairn, dolmen and smaller rings, as many as fifty at one time, still a couple dozen now on two sides of a road, across fields. And farther off a large cairn, known as Maeve’s grave, to be seen atop the hill of Knocknarea. All these from as long ago as 3500 BC.
They are evidence of burial practices, decorated in strange untranslatable symbols but not nearly as eye-opening as the far less showy but far more instructive dig at Ceide Fields out along the barely inhabited northern coast of Mayo. On steeply sloping bog land that ends in rocky heights overlooking the Atlantic has been discovered not just burial places but an entire civilization. It covers hundreds, perhaps thousands of acres. Farmers’ fields are laid out neatly in long strips then subdivided. They look not unlike the hillsides under cultivation today that you passed on the drive there.The stone walls that divided them have been uncovered. So have shovels and hoes and other tools.
These were farmers and herders who had to bring their cattle and other livestock with them by boat from across the sea. Those animals were not here before them. They also brought a strain of wheat first seen in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East several thousand years before they reached Ireland. The seed was clearly cultivated and handed down and traveled west as these people did. Better than gold.
There is also evidence that these people lived in individual family cottages with hearths, roofs of thatch, supported by great posts for this was forest not bog before they arrived and they cleared it. There is also evidence of not just axes but an axe making industry, a kind of mass production. And of trade for raw materials not available in the region.
There is no evidence of forts or defenses probably because this people, perhaps a thousand strong, had no enemies because they had no near neighbors. Perhaps it really was a sort of Eden with pigs and cattle, land and water, fish and fowl, fruits and vegetables, timber for the taking. No wonder they mourned their dead for leaving such an idyll and perhaps prayed for continued fortune.
In a sense it has all been downhill since. Celts arrived, missionaries, Vikings, Normans, warriors, plunderers, sectarian combatants killing for God or the gods. Who can blame Yeats for waxing nostalgic for lake isles with bean rows, birdsong, bee-loud glades “where peace comes dropping slow.”
No doubt the first men here, 6000 years ago were as fallen as those who came after. There’s a Cain for every Eden. But they lived a life that was hard but relatively benign and bountiful and not that different from every peasant society until a very few years ago when technology made the great change whose world we now inhabit.
Medieval peasants would have been at home in Ceide Fields and American pioneers. To us it is primitive, but we are too arrogant. Now a man designs an app to play a game and is a billionaire and acclaimed a genius. But he has only tweaked something another built and the same for him and so on backwards into the mist. Most invention is refinements on previous work. There are few originals.
But somewhere in the vicinity of the era of Ceide Fields are the greatest geniuses the world has ever known. The inventors of the hearth, the tamers of cattle, the makers of stone tools, and soon of metal, the first to cook raw food, the first to try each sort of meat or grain and figure out how to turn it tasty, how to pen cattle, cultivate crops, build a wall, string a bow, sew a coat, craft a shoe, fire a pot in a kiln, fell a tree with an axe , build a boat and cross the sea, cattle along for the ride.
These are prodigious feats. Newton modestly admitted he had stood upon the shoulders of giants. We all do. And these homely farmer folk are the first of them. The Titans who came before all the rest.