Irish Farming – 6,000 Years Ago

The Céide Fields Visitor Centre

The Céide Fields Visitor Centre





How did we farm in Ireland in Neolithic times? Turns out, much as we do now!

We’re just back from an inspiring trip to Mayo, the highlight of which was a visit to the largest Neolithic site in the world – the Céide Fields (pronounced Kay-jeh, for our non-Irish readers).

Collapsed field walls under the bog. The white stakes mark the line of the uncovered wall

Collapsed field walls under the bog. The white stakes mark the line of the uncovered wall

When we think of the Neolithic (or New Stone Age, or Early Farming) period in Ireland, we automatically think of the megalithic tombs – spectacular sites like Newgrange and Loughcrew, or the smaller portal tombs, like Poulnabrone or Arderrawinny. But how did these people make their living? What were their daily lives like? We found the answers, going back almost 6,000 years, at the Céide Fields.

The extent of the fields around the Visitor Centre

The extent of the fields around the Visitor Centre

The Céide Fields is an extensive system of enclosures, stretching for kilometres from the sea over the hills, used for livestock farming. Occasionally, besides grazing fields, there is evidence for corrals, grain-growing, and farmhouses. In fact, much like we see around us in West Cork nowadays, people lived in their own farmhouses, surrounded by their fields, within sight of their neighbours.

This enclosure surrounded a farmhouse

This enclosure surrounded a farmhouse

Society was cooperative – it had to be, in order for such an enormous network of fields to be constructed. And life was peaceful: there is no evidence of defensive structures. The weather was warmer than now – warm enough so cattle could graze outside all winter – and there was enough land and food for everyone.

They quarried rocks for fences and for structure like court tombs

They quarried rocks for fences and for structure like court tombs

They had a spiritual life, building their own version of megaliths – the Court Tombs. We were fortunate to meet the manager of the Céide Fields site, Gretta Byrne, who gave us directions to Rathlackan Court Tomb – a site she had excavated. Court tombs are a type of chambered tomb, generally oriented towards the east and featuring a forecourt at the front of a long mound that covered the chambers. Rathlackan is a fine example, with three chambers and a nicely preserved forecourt. It took a highly organised society to build a complex structure such as this.

In the 1930s a local schoolteacher, Patrick Caulfield, first discovered what were clearly pre-bog collapsed walls when cutting peat in the deep blanket bog that covers this part of Mayo. Decades later his son, Seamus, now an archaeologist, headed the investigations that led to the realisation of how extensive the field system was. Mostly this was done by probing – sending a thin metal bar down through the soft peat until it hit a rock. This technique was so successful that miles of walls could be charted without the need to excavate. Excavation focussed on uncovering small sections of wall and features like enclosures and house-sites.

I take a hand at probing

I take a hand at probing

About 5,200 years ago, a combination of climate change and forest clearance led to the development of the blanket bog that covers the land today and ultimately forced these Neolithic people, after 500 years of successful farming, to abandon their fields. The ecology of bogland and the conditions that create it are the subject of some of the museum exhibits and also of the excellent guided tour that covered two hectares behind the Visitor Centre.

A section of wall disappears under the bog

A section of wall disappears under the bog

If you find yourself in this part of Ireland, do plan a visit to the Céide Fields. Take some bug spray – although they weren’t in evidence when we were there, the Céide midges have a reputation for ferocity. Enjoy the display in the award-winning Visitor Centre first and fortify yourself with a coffee and cake.

This pine came from the bog

This pine came from the bog

Once outside, as you walk along beside the ancient stone walls, look across the valley towards Downpatrick, and marvel at the continuity of a way of life – small cattle farms among stone-walled fields – that began almost 6,000 years ago.

This scene, in Galway, could have happened 6,000 years ago in North Mayo

This scene, in Galway, could have happened 6,000 years ago in North Mayo

We’ll let Seamus Heaney have the last word. His poem, Belderg, was inspired by the Céide Fields:

When he stripped off blanket bog

The soft-piled centuries

Fell open like a glib;

There were the first plough-marks,

The stone-age fields, the tomb

Corbelled, turfed and chambered,

Floored with dry turf-coomb.

A landscape fossilized,

Its stone wall patternings

Repeated before our eyes

In the stone walls of Mayo.

Looking towards Downpatrick Head from the Visitor Centre

Looking towards Downpatrick Head from the Visitor Centre

14 thoughts

  1. The wildness of these places draws me in also, fascinating site and all the more so for its covering blanket, reminds me of the Scord of Brouster on the Shetland Isles, little to see there on the surface and similar period I recall. Adding the Ceide Fields to my things to see list when I next come over! Nice post Finola thanks – Pete

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  2. Thank you. Excellent. The debate about the relative importance of climate change versus deforestation in the demise of this environment is interesting – but either way your photo shows clearly how bleak the landscape is now.

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    • One man’s bleakness is another man’s beauty, I think. Maybe because I was raised with it, I love the bare-mountain and the windswept bog. I have a hard time appreciating those plantations of dark serried-rank trees covering our valleys and hills. But a natural mixed-wood forest is another thing.

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