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Ireland’s ancient landscapes

Ireland, the land of myths and legends, is known for its spectacular rainbows, rolling green hills and dramatic seascapes. But the landscape also reveals centuries of human occupation. From megalithic tombs, dating back to 5,800 years ago, 1,000 years before the first pyramids were constructed, to deserted villages emptied because of famine in the 1840s, Ireland is an archeological treasure.According to the “Atlas of Irish History,” by Sean Duffy, the first people reached Ireland 8,000 years ago, after the last ice age. Little evidence remains from this hunter/gatherer society, but 6,000 years ago, Neolithic people began raising crops and domesticating animals, which had an impact on the landscape of Ireland. Their pottery and stone tools can be found throughout the island.However, they also were responsible for “the earliest example of true architecture known anywhere in the world,” Duffy writes. More than 1,200 megalithic monuments, many adorned with art work, can still be seen today. These tombs, scattered throughout Ireland, hold the secrets to a civilization that tracked astronomical events and displayed a deep reverence for the dead.Some of largest and most impressive Irish megaliths are located in the Boyne Valley, in eastern Ireland about 35 miles north of Dublin. Newgrange, the most famous tomb, attracts thousands of tourists each year. Dominating the landscape, the mound stands 39 feet high and 262 feet across. “The base of the mound is held in place by 97 large greywacke kerbstones,” reports Liam Mac Uistin, in his book, “Newgrange.” Many of the kerbstones are decorated with spirals and other geometric designs.Today, people enter the tomb via a wooden staircase. But during Neolithic times, the entrance was blocked by an elaborately decorated kerbstone about 3 feet high. Those wanting to enter the tomb climbed over the stone. Archeologists speculate this physical barrier may have been seen as a threshold that separated the living and non-living world. Certainly, the megaliths were burial sites containing both cremated and other human remains.A passageway lined with standing stones 5 feet high leads into a main chamber at Newgrange, where a vaulted ceiling reaches to 19 feet. While parts of this tomb have been reconstructed, the main chamber has been intact for more than 5,000 years, and the ceiling has been water-tight the entire time; an impressive fact in a country that averages 35 inches of rain a year.People flock to Newgrange during the winter solstices because of the way the roof box is constructed. The box, made from a beautifully decorated stone that rests on the front part of the passage roof, allows the rays of the rising sun to penetrate the chamber, filling it with light.Myths and legends surrounded Newgrange, misleading 19th century archaeologists into believing it was built more recently. The Irish name for Newgrange translates into the Fairy Mound on Boyne. Celtic myth claims Aonghus, the god of light, lived at Newgrange. Other legends said it was the burial place for King Cormac, one of the High Kings of Ireland, who ruled around 224 A.D.Not until the advent of Carbon-14 dating techniques did anyone realize Newgrange and other sites like it were built before Stonehenge or the pyramids. While Irish legends mislead scholars about the age of the megaliths, they proved to be correct about the origins of the builders. Legend claims the first people to move to Ireland came from Iberia, present day Spain. Recent DNA studies reported in the “Journal of Science,” show 98 percent of the people living in western Ireland are genetically related to the Basques in Spain.While the Newgrange site is very impressive, access is controlled much like it is in our national parks. This is not the case for many other megalithic sites around Ireland. Carrowkeel, located in County Sligo, contains 14 cairns in what appears to be the oldest Stone Age cemetery in Ireland, according to “A guide to the Carrowkeel/Keshcorran Megalithic Complex.”Cairn is an Irish word meaning “pile of stone,” which is what the tombs look like from a distance. Carrowkeel stands on a hillside overlooking Lough Arrow, and no major development exists in the area. Not all the tombs are accessible, but visitors can crawl inside a few without a crowd or guide. During the summer solstice, the setting sun lights up the interior of Tomb G; other tombs throughout the site are aligned to different celestial events.Moving forward in history, the BBC history Web site reports the Celts may have arrived in Ireland as early as 750 B.C. Archeological evidence shows no major invasion took place, but over a few hundred years, people migrated to Ireland from England and other parts of Europe.The Celts are not a separate race; instead, they represent a culture with a distinct language and customs. They brought with them the ability to create fine objects out of metal. They crafted bronze into swords, scabbards, horns and other objects. Most of their sites are found in northern and western Ireland, but hordes of golden collars, called torcs, along with gold bracelets, earrings and ingots have been found throughout the country.Duffy reports Christian missionaries from Gaul came to Ireland late in the 4th century. About 50 years later, Patrick, who first entered Ireland as a slave and later returned as a priest, began successfully spreading Christianity. But his first church in Armagh is located close to Emain Mach, the site of a Celtic temple that was destroyed in 95 B.C. The tendency to locate Christian sites next to pagan ones can be observed today all over Ireland. Thousands of “Holy Wells,” small pools of water considered to be sacred by Irish Christians, were used centuries before in pagan rituals.In 923 A.D., large crosses were built at Monasterboice in County Meath. One is close to 18 feet tall and was carved from a large block of sandstone. Near it stands a tall round tower thought to have been used as a watch tower during the time of the Viking invasions in the 10th century.The aftermath of Cromwell’s invasion, 1649 to 1650, left ruins of monasteries, abbeys, and early churches scattered throughout the country. Today, it is not unusual to find modern graveyards within sight of church ruins dating from the 16th century.According to the “Atlas of Irish History,” castles and manor houses also are part of the Irish landscape. So are the small stone-house ruins in deserted villages dating back to 1845.More than 1 million people died during the Great Famine, and an additional million emigrated to America and Australia. Their houses melted into the hillsides and are far less visible than the 5,000-year-old megalithic tombs, but they are part of the centuries of history recorded in the Irish landscape.

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