See Also: The History of Ireland after the Norman Invasion


Map of Ireand

Ireland is now an island divided into 2 political countries. The Republic of Ireland is the central, south and west of the island, a thriving independent nation with its own government. Northern Ireland is the north-east area, under the jurisdiction of the British (U.K.) government.

Clonhigh Cross'The Emerald Isle' is a jewel at the edge of the Atlantic. From the east central plain with its thriving city, a hub of art and culture for centuries, home of the fabulous illuminated medieval manuscripts, to the southern hills, and the beautiful rugged west coast with its offshore islands, to the wilds of the north-west, Ireland is a living Celtic wonder.

Ancient stone circles, huge burial mounds (incredibly built to align with seasonal sunrises), cliff fortresses, archaic monastic dwellings and round towers, wonderful carved stone crosses, and imposing medieval castles make this a historians delight. Ireland has one of the oldest cultures and continuous vernacular (local language) literatures in Europe.

The Celtic spirit of the people is overflowing in the wealth of traditional music and dancing to be found across the country. The native name for Ireland is Eire, also called Eirann, and 'Hibernia' by the Romans.


The land was long inhabited when the ancient people built the amazing megalithic tombs of the Boyne Valley in 3000 B.C., the tomb of Newgrange possibly being the world's oldest structure, and the people we think of as Celts were there from at least 300 B.C., controlling the country for 1000 years.

Newgrange megalithic tomb, Co.Meath

Newgrange megalithic tomb, Co.Meath

History and myth are mingled in early Irish times. Ancient Irish manuscripts, the 'Book of Invasions' say that 5 groups of invaders arrived before the Celtic Gaels.

Cessair was descended from Noah, and after her father Bith was denied a place in the ark, they sailed a ship for 7 years, until the Cessair arrived in Ireland 40 days before Great Flood. Only one of her tribe, Fintan, the White Ancient, survived the deluge.

The Partholons arrived next, and battled the Fomorian warlike residents, winning possession of the island for 300 years, until destroyed by plague.

Next were the Nemedians (possibly of Greek or Scythian origin), who beat the Fomorians several times, but were decimated by plague, and were finally were defeated by their foes. Among those that escaped was a Nemedian warrior, Briotan said to have given his name to the island and people of Briton.

Map of Eire Descended from the Nemedians were the next wave, the Fir Bolg, who divided the old land into 5 provinces, Leinster, Meath, Connaught, Ulster and Munster. Meath later merged with Leinster.

The following invasion was by a mystical race known as the Tuatha de Danann (the children of Danann), said to have arrived from the sky. They were a beautiful, artistic warrior race, descended from the Nemedians, and achieved god-like status in Irish mythology. They defeated the Fir Bolg at the First Battle of Moy Tura, only to return there later to fight the ancient enemy, the Fomorians, at the Second Battle of Moy Tura, led by King Nuada of the Silver Arm and their warrior hero Lugh the Il-Dana. Nauda was slain, and so was the Fomorian king, Balor of the Evil Eye, by his own grandson, Lugh, forever ending Fomorian power. The Tuatha de Danann ruled Ireland for 197 years, their main residences being in the Boyne Valley, where the ancient megalithic tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth stand.

Hamish & Jennifer at the entrance to Newgrange

Hamish and Jennifer at Newgrange

The next invasion was by the Milesians, of whom the Celtic descendants were the Gaelic Irish. These people are said to have come from Galiza, on the Atlantic corner of what is now north-west Spain. Mile, the founder of that race, was married to Scota ( who may have given her name to the later Irish settlers of Scotland), and their son Breagon and his sons, are said to have sailed to Ireland from there. Although they beat the Tuatha in battle and settled, mysterious blights on their land and animals forced them to allow the Tuatha de Danann to remain in Ireland, however this magical race retreated to their 'sidh' or 'fairy mounds', and other special natural places in the landscape, where they are still said to live today.

Loughcrew burial mounds

Loughcrew burial mounds

Christianity arrived in Ireland probably in the 3rd to 4th centuries, the most famous missionary being Saint Patrick in the 5th century. He later became Ireland's patron saint but, as a 16 year-old youth in captivity, according to legend, tended sheep on Slemish Mountain (in Irish called Slieve Mish) - a 1437 feet high volcanic rock near Ballymena in Co. Antrim. He was previously captured in Britain by pirates around 401 AD, and sold to local Irish chief Milchu, who put him to work. After 6 years he escaped to France and trained as a monk, coming back to Ireland in 432 as a Christian missionary.

Slemish Mountain, Co.Antrim, Northern Ireland

Slemish Mountain, Co.Antrim, Northern Ireland

As the rest of Europe was in the 'Dark Ages', Ireland was a land of thriving monasteries, with the Irish monks taking the artform of interlaced knotwork (maybe from the earlier stonework of the Picts in Scotland), and refining it in fabulous illuminated manuscripts, illustrated versions of the Gospels. Many of these amazingly detailed volumes have survived to this day. The "Book of Kells", the "Book of Durrow" and the "Book of Armagh" are on display in Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Some of the artists, hundreds of years later, were destined to be made Saints by the Christian Church. Many other Celtic treasures, including religious relics, ceremonial objects, jewellery, weapons and armour, can be seen in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

With the end of the 700s a new menace came to Ireland, the Vikings, persistently raiding the rich monasteries, the monks building the high Round Towers, that can be seen all over Ireland, as lookouts and refuges.

Left - round tower at Clonmacnoise

The Vikings soon established permanent bases at Dublin, Wicklow, Waterford and Wexford, Limerick and Cork. They were defeated in the Battle of Tara in 980, and their expansion was halted by a decisive victory against them in 1014 at the Battle of Clontarf, by the Irish forces led by King Brian Boru.

From the 5th to the 10th century, the Ui Neill (O'Neill) Kings ruled the north, Ulster and Meath, from Tara. Their counterparts in the south, the Eoganacht Kings, followed by the Ui Brianne (O'Brien), ruled Munster, with their capital at Cashel. Connacht was held by the Ua Conchobair (O'Connor) Kings of Roscommon, and Leinster by the Ui Cheinnselaigh then MacMurroughs at Fern. Various regional kings claimed the High Kingship of Ireland, but the first one to actually gain that position was Brian Boru, establishing the Royal Seat at Tara.

Map of IreandThe Normans from France, originally 'Northmen' or Vikings themselves, invaded Britain in 1066 - this affected the Celtic lands more than any other previous invasion. They occupied the Anglo-Saxon areas, and the Celtic lands of Cornwall, Wales, and Scotland, and later invaded Ireland.

Ironically, they were called upon to help a defeated king of Leinster regain his lands. In 1169 the Normans landed and took Wexford and Dublin. A year later they took Waterford, led by Strongbow, a Norman warlord from occupied Wales, who later inherited the kingship of Leinster as part of his deal to help the previous king.

For over 300 years, the immigrant warlords settled in and grew to largely ignore their old Norman, now English, rulers. Irish history after the Normans arrival becomes a complicated story of English occupation, changing land ownership, national identity, politics, and a struggle between 2 factions of the modern Christian religion. It is by no means as simple as described above, and more details can be found on our Irish history after the Norman Invasion page.

Irish High Cross at Kildare

Of relevance to descendants of emigrant Irish, is The Great Hunger - An Gorta Mor - or the Great Famine of 1845-49, which was disastrous, as crops of potatoes, the only affordable food for millions of poverty stricken Irish, failed. 2 -3 million people emigrated or died starving, as rich land owners exported other crops too expensive for their tenants. Huge emigration continued for the next 100 years, mainly to the U.S.A. At the time of the famine, there were maybe 9 million people in Ireland, and even today the population is only 6 million.


Irish Flag

The Republic of Ireland flag is the tricolour of green, white and orange. The green is said to represent the Catholics, the orange to represent the Protestants, and the white to represent peace between them.



'ST.PATRICK' © Hamish Burgess 2012

'ST.PATRICK' by Hamish Burgess © 2012

'ST.PATRICK' © Hamish Burgess 2012. Original Celtic and folk art by Hamish Burgess, a piece for the cover of The Celtic Connection newspaper in Vancouver BC and Seattle, the March issue.

The art shows St.Patrick in later life wearing clerical robes, with his famous bell in one hand, and his treasured staff or crozier and a shamrock in the other. He is depicted with a clerical tonsure, or shaved head, possibly referred to by his opponents the druids, who prophesied his converting the pagan folk of Ireland: “Across the sea will come Adze-head, crazed in the head, his cloak with hole for the head, his stick bent in the head. He will chant impieties from a table in the front of his house; all his people will answer: "so be it, so be it.""
Behind him is the Paschal fire he lit to challenge the High King of Ireland, and the cross represents an invisible circle of divine protection, that he invoked with a chant which is now called “St.Patrick’s Breastplate”. It changed his own party into deer to escape the pagan warriors, and became known as “The Deer’s Cry”.
In the air around him are the ‘serpents’ of Ireland, in tradition likely referring to paganism, and two dragon-like creatures he is said to have cast down, the Caoránach, and the Oilliphéist. Read on for details……

Saint Patrick is the most famous of the saints, celebrated the world over on March 17th as the patron saint of Ireland, but most information about him is open to speculation. The ancient traditions surrounding him, most taken from accounts of his life written many years after his death, are disputed by scholars. Even his birth and death dates vary in different sources. St.Patrick himself left two written texts, the Epistle to Coroticus, and the Confessio containing an account of his own life, in the ‘Book of Armagh’ now in Trinity College Library in Dublin. 

St. Patrick was born around 387-390 AD with the Celtic name Maewyn Succat, in a village called Bannavem Taburniæ in Western Britain, either Wales or Scotland, under Roman rule. His parents were Calpurnius (a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest), and Conchessa. He adopted the title Patricius, or Patrick, upon becoming a priest. He died at Saul, Downpatrick Ireland, on the 17th of March 460 or some say 492. All dates are the subject of some debate.
At the age of 16 he was kidnapped by Irish pirates under Niall of the Nine Hostages, and brought to pagan Ireland. Sold as a slave to Meliuc, a landowner in Antrim, he tended sheep on Slemish Mountain for six years. During this time he learnt to speak Irish and exposed to druidism, as his master was a druid high priest, but found solace in his Christian faith. In a dream a voice told him to escape, and he traveled south for 200 miles and found a ship leaving for Gaul. After landing on 28 day journey with his starving pagan shipmates, he was taunted to use his faith to find them food, and upon praying, a herd of pigs appeared – one of his first religious experiences helping to convert his companions.

He trained as a cleric in France, in monasteries at Tours and Lerins, and was ordained a priest by St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre, then sent to teach Christianity to the Irish. He was to assist Palladius, already there on a mission, but he died and Patrick was ordained bishop himself in 432.
According to the ‘Annals of Ulster’ he landed in Ireland at Strangford Lough, and his first convert under Dichiu gave him land at Saul, and a building for a church. He spent time on his mission at the Ulster capital of Emain Macha and Ard Macha (Armagh), at the court of King Daire.
Murchiú'sLife of Saint Patrick’ (‘Vita sancti Patricii’), one of the first accounts of the fifth-century saint, contains a supposed prophecy by druids showing how Patrick was seen by his opponents at the time:
“Across the sea will come Adze-head, crazed in the head,
his cloak with hole for the head, his stick bent in the head.
He will chant impieties from a table in the front of his house;
all his people will answer: "so be it, so be it."'

Patrick knew that he would have to convert King Laoghaire, the High King of Tara, to take his message around pagan Ireland. On the traditional start of spring all fires in Ireland were extinguished, to be ceremoniously lit from sacred druid fires. In legend, the night before Easter on March 25th 433, Patrick built a Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane, visible in the darkness from the Kings hall, which was strictly forbidden. King Laoghaire was infuriated and rode with his men to see who had challenged him.
According to tradition, he was challenged by the druid Lochru who abused his faith, and Patrick called upon divine retribution – Lochru was raised to a great height and dashed on the rocks below smashing his skull ! Patrick summoned heavy darkness and earthquakes, dispersing King Laoghaire’s host, leaving him with only 7 followers. He then incanted a lorica - a ‘Caim’ or chant to invoke an invisible circle of divine protection,  which is now called “St.Patrick’s Breastplate”. It changed his own party into deer to escape the pagan warriors, and became known as “The Deer’s Cry”.
The next day Patrick went to the court of King Laoghaire, and was challenged to various trials of power by the druid Lucetmael. In the final one, a hut was to be burnt, built with one half dry wood, and the other new green wood. The druid stood on the wet side wearing Patrick’s cloak, and a young follower of Patrick wore the druids cloak on the dry side. The hut was burnt, and miraculously the boy survived unscathed with the druid’s cloak destroyed - but the druid died, with Patrick’s cloak remaining intact ! This convinced many of the people of the power of the new Christian faith, although the king refused to convert, he allowed Patrick the freedom to preach his message.
Folktales say that Patrick used the shamrock with three leaves to explain the Trinity - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  An easy conversion for people used to triple goddesses. In a comparatively short 30 years Patrick managed to convert much of Ireland to Christianity, and effectively destroy paganism.

Irish legends say Patrick dealt with two monsters. The eel-like lake dwelling Caoránach, was said to be the mother of demons and devils, and was banished by Patrick to Lough Derg, or Red Lake, so called after the dragon’s blood. The dragon-like Oilliphéist heard that Patrick had come to drive out it’s kind, and in a rage fled Ireland slamming it’s tail on the land and cutting the route of the River Shannon ! 
It is said that St. Patrick drove the snakes from Ireland, most likely a reference to paganism. On March 17th every year, thousands of pilgrims climb 2,500 feet to the top of Croagh Patrick in pilgrimage. According to legend, at lent one year Patrick was fasting on the mountain (originally called Cruachan Aigli, or Hill of the Eagles) near Westport, Co Mayo. He was attacked by a horde of demons and serpents, rang his holy bell to turn them away, and had to throw it at them in order to make them flee, banishing them to Log na Deamhan, the Hollow of the Demons.
The bell, with it’s elaborate bell shrine container of gold and silver, is now in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. The ancient simple bell is made of iron coated in bronze, and according to the ’Annals of Ulster’ is first mentioned in the Book of Cuanu in the year 552. The bell ‘Clogh Dubh Phadraig’ was one of the three ‘relics of Patrick’ taken from his tomb sixty years after his death by Colum Cille, to be used as religious relics. The others were Patrick's goblet and an ancient book, "The Angels Gospel".

St.Patrick’s Crozier, ‘An Bachall Iosa’ (The Staff of Jesus), was made of wood, and supposedly handed to him by Jesus on an island in the Mediterranean, before he began his mission in Ireland. The ancient books ‘The Annals of Ulster’ and ‘The Four Masters’ both say that it was a symbol of Patrick’s authority. Patrick held the staff in such high esteem that he had an elaborate casing made for it by his companion the goldsmith Assicus, or St.Tussach. Described by St. Bernard of Clairvaux it was ‘covered with gold and adorned with the most costly gems’. As a national relic, oaths and treaties were signed on it, and it survived storms and invasions. It was tragically destroyed during Henry VIII’s Reformation in the 1500s, burnt in front of Christchurch Cathedral in Dublin.

Limited edition prints available on watercolour paper  - approx 8 x 10 inches - $60 plus shipping. 11 x 14 inches - $90 plus shipping.   The original piece measures approx 8 x 10 inches. Original commissioned works to your own concepts are available. Please contact us for details - email Hamish at


'BRIGID' © Hamish Burgess 2012

'BRIGID' by Hamish Burgess © 2012

'BRIGID' © Hamish Burgess 2012. Original Celtic and folk art by Hamish Burgess, a piece for the cover of The Celtic Connection newspaper in Vancouver BC and Seattle, the February Imbolc/St.Brigit's Day issue.

Imbolc - the coming of Spring – a time to honour the feminine aspect of the divine. The great wheel of the year turns again on February 1st, with the ancient sacred day of the Celtic goddess Brigid - Mother Goddess of Ireland and daughter of The Morrigan and the Daghda. She was also called Brigit, Bride, Brighid, Brig, and Brigantia. The root of her name means 'bright' or 'exalted', and possibly 'firebrand'. Tradition has it that she walks the earth Imbolc eve, and the portrait shows Bride with her white wand and open mouth said to “breathe life into the mouth of dead Winter, and bring him to open his eyes to the tears and smiles, the sighs and laughter of Spring” (Carmina Gadelica Vol.1).
She is goddess of the home and hearth, and associated with sacred flames, representing the return of the sun and warmth, coming with the lengthening days. Legend has it that the fire goddess was born at sunrise, in a house that burst into flames, and a pillar of fire was said to have risen from her head when she took the veil. Her 3 fires are the hearth, the forge and inspiration.

Brigid is the triple goddess of Smithcraft (with Celtic warriors invoking her protection before battle) represented here by the hammer and tongs; Healing represented by the serpent (still seen on the medical staff of today); and Poetry and the Arts represented by the smoke coming from the fire of inspiration on her head.  The early La Tène style Celtic art of the smoke is based on the Turoe Stone in Bullaun, Co.Galway, Ireland, with connections to Brigid as a fertility stone. As patroness of Druids and Bards, she ruled over inspiration, poetry, and divination – tradition has it that she curled her palm and ‘looking through it’s pipe’ could see the future.

She is also goddess of Weaving, shown here by her tartan cloak, which in legend she could throw over Ireland for protection, and was famously said to have hung it up to dry on a ray of the sun.
Along with healing, she is the goddess of Childbirth, with the ancient fertility symbol of the Sheelagh na Gig on her right cloak. Her season Imbolc, also spelled Imbolg, has one translation as 'in the belly’.

Our goddess was to cross from the old world into the new - in the later Celtic Christian Church, an extraordinary woman was to become a famous abbess, who after her death in 523AD, became Brigit's counterpart as Saint Brigit. Imbolc is celebrated today as St.Brigit's Day - her sanctuary at Kildare, or Cill-dara (Church of the Oak), was likely continued worship on an older Druidic site to the goddess. The saint had a sacred flame tended by nuns, which was kept alight for about a thousand years. The following church day is Candlemass, a continuation of the sacred fire tradition.
The wickerwork St.Brigit's Cross, a popular talisman since the 17th century, is thought to have origins in the ancient symbol for the sun, a stylized version seen here on her left cloak.

Another symbol of Brigid is the Serpent, who at this time of year was said to come out of her hole, like the badger, to see if the warming weather will affect her winter sleep. A fine frosty day forbode more winter ahead, but a cloudy day meant the quick end of winter. This tradition continued in the Americas, with European settlers seeing this habit from a new animal, and is now Groundhog Day.

Limited edition prints available on watercolour paper  - approx 8 x 10 inches - $60 plus shipping. 11 x 14 inches - $90 plus shipping.   The original piece measures approx 8 x 10 inches. Original commissioned works to your own concepts are available. Please contact us for details - email Hamish at

More of Hamish Burgess' art on our Gallery page.



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