Irish Tribes and The Iron Age


Ireland’s Iron Age (600 BC to 400 AD) is one of the most mysterious and enigmatic periods of Irish history which is why – I guess –  it’s always appealed to me. In many ways the period is a blank canvas. We know very little about it and the limited snippets of information we do have are tantalizingly vague and easy to interpret in a multitude of different ways.

A key part of the problem is that there are no documents or records for this period that have been written by Irish hands (the skill of writing wasn’t introduced to Ireland until the fifth century with the arrival of Christianity). There’s also a dearth of archaeological evidence linked to that period. This latter is particularly striking when you consider the fact that millennia before, thriving communities existed who not only carried out extensive dairy and cereal farming but constructed complex and well-designed stone structures as well. The Boyne Valley mounds at Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth for example, were built around 3200 BC. The extensive dairy farms at the amazing Céide Fields, are almost 6,000 years old.

For this reason, there’s always been a sense in some Irish historical circles that human activity subsided or stagnated over the Iron Age. To be fair, this is confirmed to a degree through pollen analysis which shows evidence of substantial forest regeneration (i.e. lands that had been cleared for farming purposes were simply left grow wild again) over this period. Some historians refer to the Iron Age as the ‘Irish Dark Ages’. One Irish archaeologist (Barry Raftery) described the population of this time period as ‘the Invisible People’ because of the scarcity of archaeological evidence of their existence.

Numerous theories have abounded for this decline in human activity and these range from climate change to natural catastrophes (e.g. Icelandic volcanos) to plague and warfare. This truth is that no-one really knows for certain. What we do know however, is that human activity picked up and recovered dramatically in the third and fourth centuries. In general, this recovery is usually attributed to the influence of the increasingly wealthy Roman Britain which provided a great source of trade, knowledge transfer (and booty and slaves for Irish raiders)

As you’ve probably guessed, given the above, very little is known about Irish tribes before the fifth century. Again, we do have some clues – the earliest source of tribal information is a map compiled by Ptolemy (a Graeco-Roman who lived in Alexandria during the 2nd century AD.). Unfortunately, it’s very hard to reconcile the tribes identified in Ptolemy’s map with those identified in later records. Some of the names are teasingly familiar; the Brigantes, for example, might be related to a tribe known to have been living in what is now northern/ midland Britain and another tribe mentioned – the Manapii – are potentially linked to the Menapii, a Belgic tribe of northern Gaul. Other tribes Ptolemy mentions however, have disappeared completely from history, fallen out of time never to be heard of again.

When writing a narrative set in Ireland’s Iron Age, such information – or rather such ambiguity – is absolute gold dust in terms of inspiration. It’s essentially the equivalent of being given an outline of a mysterious and fantastic world with specific detail for some elements and absolute free rein for others. When I write the Fionn mac Cumhal series, for example, I tend to use a lot of reference books (historical, archaeological, language mostly) to give parameters such as culture, topography, belief systems and so on, an authentic flavour but in terms of activity, characters and action, that world is my oyster.

As a writer/historian, it really doesn’t get better than that.