Who Were Ireland’s First Inhabitants?

"The Coming of the Sons of Miled", illustration by J. C. Leyendecker in T. W. Rolleston's Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 1911

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Let me make one thing immediately clear:

There were humans in Ireland well before the arrival of any Celts or Celtic influence.

That much all academics can agree upon. 

Know those incredible earthen Irish mounds, like the 280-foot-wide one at Newgrange in the Boyne Valley?

The mounds which, in Irish mythology, were the homes of (Celtic-inspired) Irish gods and monsters?

The mounds that would later lend their names to the fairies of Irish folklore, the aes sídhe (“people of the hills”)—of whom there is perhaps none more famous than the banshee, or bean sídhe “woman of the hills”).

Yeah, so the ancient Celts didn’t build those.

Ditto the dolmens and many of Ireland’s other famed megalithic sites.

photo of the Newgrange stone monument in Ireland
A front view of the Newgrange monument taken from outside the grounds (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Newgrange, for example, was constructed around 3200 BCE, making it older than the pyramids at Giza.

And Stonehenge.

And Celtic culture itself, which—going by the split-off of the Proto-Celtic language from Proto-Indo-European—wouldn’t develop until 1300 BCE at the earliest.

Even the controversial Celtic From the West theory, which pegs the development of Proto-Celtic to (an unlikely) 3000 BCE, can’t place the Celts in Ireland for the creation of many of the island’s Neolithic wonders. 

When the ancient Celts—or Celtic-speaking peoples, I should say—arrived in Ireland, they attached their own religious beliefs and mythology to the structures they encountered, and they forced their own language, Celtic—specifically the Goidelic/Gaelic branch of Celtic—onto the island’s original inhabitants.

As history professor Caomhín De Barra thusly summarizes:

“In the popular view of Irish history, our island was invaded in the distant past by the Celts, who brought a language and culture that was to dominate Ireland for millennia.”

source: TheJournal.ie

And while Ireland’s so-called “Celtic past” is often highlighted both in folklore and more modern storytelling traditions, we rarely hear about what Ireland was like before the Celtic “invasion.”

We rarely hear about Ireland’s original inhabitants.

Let’s talk about them. 

The Irish of the Old Stone Age

For decades, the arrival of Ireland’s very first inhabitants was dated to between 7000 and 8000 BCE. But in recent years, radiocarbon dating has pushed that date further and further back, from the Stone Age to the Old Stone Age, or Paleolithic era. 

In 2016, the butchered knee bone of a bear, which had been discovered in a cave in County Clare back in 1903, was dated to 10,500 BCE

Then there’s the more recent discovery of a butchered reindeer femur in a cave in County Cork, which has been dated (at least preliminarily) to 31,000 BCE.

Of course, evidence of human presence is not the same as evidence of human residence. These Stone Age hunter-gatherers were seafarers, after all. How else would they have gotten to Ireland?

Granted, thousands of years ago, sea levels were lower, and thus Ireland’s first human visitors—who likely came from Britain (according to researchers Robin Edwards and Anthony Brooks)—did not have as far to travel compared to today (source: The Irish Naturalists’ Journal). 

Is it possible Ireland’s first human visitors arrived via a land bridge to Britain?

Only if there actually was a land bridge between Ireland and Britain; and only if that aforementioned 31,000 BCE arrival date for humans in Ireland can stand up to further scrutiny, as the (hypothetical) land bridge is thought to have disappeared around 16,000 years ago (according Edwards and Brooks).

But I digress.

The first human settlements in Ireland likely clung to the coastlines, and the prehistoric Irish diet was rich in shellfish. Life was hard, but simple.

All that would soon change.

(And by “soon” I mean, like, thousands of years later.)

The Irish of the New Stone Age

By the 5th century BCE, Ireland had entered the New Stone Age, or Neolithic period, as evidenced by its agricultural, livestock-keeping, and stone monument-building practices.

Indeed, the earliest clear evidence for farming in Ireland or Britain was found at Ferriter’s Cove on the Dingle Peninsula. Cattle bones, a sheep’s tooth, and a flint knife from the site were dated to 4350 BCE.

"Rock formations. These steeply dipping rocks near Ferriter's cove are some of the oldest in the Dingle Peninsula." source: geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons
“Rock formations. These steeply dipping rocks near Ferriter’s cove are some of the oldest in the Dingle Peninsula.” (source: geograph.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, it’s important to recognize that the cereals these Irish farmers planted and the goats, sheep, and cattle they raised were not native to Ireland. They were imports from continental Europe—the southwest of Europe, specifically.

More cultural imports were to follow.

The Irish of the Bronze Age

The Bell Beaker culture arrived in Ireland no later than 2400 BCE, bearing not only its signature, inverted bell-shaped pottery, but also the practice of metallurgy.

This is the time period when bronze tools, bronze weapons, and even bronze musical instruments (care for a toot on a horn-shaped trumpet, anyone?) became staples of Irish civilization. 

The Drumbest and Derrynane horns. Two Late Bronze Age Horns from Co. Antrim, 900-600 BC (© The National Museum of Ireland)

And while it is widely accepted that the Bell Beaker people ushered in the Bronze Age in Ireland, disagreement persists among academics as to whether or not the Bell Beaker people spoke a Celtic (or more accurately, Proto-Celtic) language.

The “Celtic from the West” theory posits that Proto-Celtic (a.k.a. Common Celtic) originated with the Bell Beaker people in Iberia around 3000 BCE before spreading east (and up to Ireland, of course).

However, the more prominent view on the origins of the Celtic language says that Proto-Celtic originated in what is now modern Hungary (or thereabouts) around 1300 BCE and spread west, reaching Ireland sometime around 500 BCE—an era that just so happens to coincide with…

The Irish of the Iron Age

Now, a big caveat:

Ironworking already existed in Ireland prior to the arrival of Celtic language and culture. Those Bell Beaker folks really do deserve more credit than we probably give them in terms of their metallurgic prowess.

That being said, it’s also clear that the Iron Age was when the La Tène style—a highly ornamental style of Celtic art named for an archaeological site discovered in what is now Switzerland—began to flourish across Europe. 

La Tène influence reached Britain around 400 BCE and Ireland around 300 BCE—if not earlier (source: Encyclopedia Britannica). And while our cups don’t runneth over with the remnants of La Tène material culture in Ireland, the examples that have been unearthed (like the Turoe stone in County Galway) do indeed showcase the style’s signature swirling forms. 

“Stone of Turoe, Co. Galway, Ireland” (source: Wikimedia Commons

Now, does the arrival of Celtic culture and language mean that the Irish people became Celtic? 

And, more specifically, do modern Irish people share “Celtic” DNA? 

Those are questions for another article.

The bigger takeaway I want to highlight right now is that the early Irish were not some singular group that developed in isolation from the rest of the world.

People arrived in Ireland in waves, which, interestingly, matches what Irish myths tell us about the origins of the Irish people.

Irish Mythology’s Book of Invasions

According to the 11th-century Lebor Gabála Érenn, or Book of Invasions (literally: The Book of the Taking of Ireland), there were six distinct groups that settled in Ireland. They were, in order, the…

  • Cessair. The leader of Ireland’s first inhabitants, Cessair was, according to myth, Noah’s daughter (yes, that Noah) and she arrived in Ireland before the biblical flood.
  • Partholónians. Also known as the Muintir Partholóin (People of Partholón), Ireland’s second inhabitants are credited (in the myths) with bringing agriculture to the island. They arrived some three centuries after the biblical flood.
  • Nemedians. Also known as the Muintir Nemid (People of Nemed) and Clann Nemid (Offspring of Nemed), Ireland’s third inhabitants arrived some three decades after the Partholónians—the latter of whom had all been wiped out by a plague. The Nemedians are oppressed by the raiding Fomorians. Many are killed, but some flee to other parts of Europe, giving rise to the…
  • Fir Bolg. Descendants of the Nemedians who return to Ireland as its fourth inhabitants, the Fir Bolg (“bag men” or “men of bags”) had been enslaved by the Greeks and forced to lug around bags of earth (hence the name). They are eventually defeated during the First Battle of Mag Tuired by the…
  • Tuatha Dé Danann. Finally, the Irish gods we’re all familiar with. I write about these folks quite a bit, so let’s skip right ahead to the juicy bits. After defeating the Fomorians in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired, the Tuatha Dé Danann are themselves defeated by the invading…
  • Milesians. The last settlers of (mythological) Ireland. They are the descendants of Míl Espáine who, as his name suggests, was from Spain—specifically Galicia. The Milesians are often seen as representing the Gaels/Goidelic Celts. They form the foundation of Ireland’s modern human population.
“Milesius, 16th century Renaissance artistic rendering by Hermann tom Ring held in the Bavarian State Painting Collections.” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

So there you have it. The six mythological waves of Irish settlement. 

Now, a fun exercise is to look at what we know from the archaeological evidence and see if anything lines up.

For example, we can equate the Cessair with the Irish of the Old Stone Age (Ireland’s first inhabitants), while the Partholónians—with their introduction of agriculture—seem like a sure fit for the Irish of the New Stone Age.

And could the Tuatha Dé Danann, known for their magical weapons and musical instruments, actually be a representation of the Bronze-Age Bell Beaker folk who brought metallurgy to Ireland?

They say all myths, legends, and folktales are based on kernels of truth.

Perhaps we’ve uncovered a few.

P.S. Interested in Celtic culture? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

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