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Fig 2. Conjectural reconstruction of a double-banked ringfort (drawn by D. Crone).
Fig 2. Conjectural reconstruction of a double-banked ringfort (drawn by D. Crone).

It is general practice to begin the Irish `early Christian period' in the fifth century A.D. -the century in which Patrick the Briton is traditionally believed to have Christianised Ireland-and to end it in the twelfth century A.D., near the end of which century the Anglo-Normans (originally Normans, but most of them three generations in England and Wales) settled in, and conquered much of Ireland. These dates are really a convenience for archaeologists and historians, for we must bear in mind that not everything changed when the Christian missionaries came, or when the Anglo-Normans came, nor did everything remain static between those dates. There were momentous events within those seven centuries causing, directly or indirectly, enormous changes in Irish culture. For instance, the great plague of 664 and the monastic ideas entering the country from Gaul in the same century. And again, the Viking raids and, more importantly, trading settlements of the ninth and tenth centuries. Trade from outside the country, and Irishmen abroad sending or bringing new ideas and objects home, are important for the archaeologist, enabling him to fix the dates of objects, and of layers of occupation in sites in which objects are found, by the foreign influences that can be discerned on them. Although the archaeologist is usually able to date objects and sites without depending on direct historical evidence for the actual object or site with which he is dealing, nevertheless the dependence of the archaeologist of this period on historical documentation is enormous.

Culture is not something that usually changes suddenly, or completely. Even if historians accepted, which they do not, that Patrick was the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, no historian would be foolish enough to think that the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century A.D. had the same effect on the people of Ireland as, say, the blinding light had on Saint Paul. Culture change is far more complex than that. We can envisage some of the population accepting some of the tenets of the new faith. But we are hardly going to expect that they suddenly changed the shape of their houses or remodeled their traditional laws or deposed their kings. However, about a century after the introduction of Christianity, the idea of intensive Christian communities, lay and religious together in a spiritually dedicated unit, came to Ireland from the Continent. This monastic ideal changed (he culture of Ireland far more than the mere introduction of Christianity could ever have done. In the first place, these monastic communities built up close links with similar communities in Ireland, Britain and even the Continent. Secondly, they became places of learning and, must important, of writing. Thirdly, by extensive farming, marketing and the collection of donations, they became wealthy, and therefore influential. From the monasteries, ideas and goods spread info the surrounding countryside, and with them spread ideas, and news from far and wide.

Many of these monastic communities had a scriptorium where, among other things, gospels would be copied and illustrated. But the literate monks also, from the seventh century onwards, recorded contemporary events, traditional (often pagan) tales, the genealogies of the ruling classes, the lives of the saints (especially of the one who founded that particular monastery) and the laws and practices of society. Many of these writings have survived, though often in the form of later copies, and from them, historians have been able to reconstruct a remarkably detailed picture of early Christian society, politics 'and behaviour, as well as the yearly happenings in different puts of the country. As two of the greatest scriptoria were located in the monasteries of Armagh and Bangor, we should expect, and we indeed find, that the early history of the north-east of Ireland is well-preserved. Although there were extensive social and cultural changes at various times during the early Christian period, we are able to construct a generalized picture which can be taken as being a reasonable description of, say, ninth century Irish life - about the middle of our period. This `snapshot' is the result of both historical and archaeological evidence: the interpretation of the writings and the artefacts of (he contemporary people, by modern historians and archaeologists.

Fig. 1. Map of the Lisburn area showing the main tribes and places mentioned in the text. Names in bold italics are Old-Irish, names in light print are Anglicised versions of Irish names (drawn by R. Warner).  

We find that society put great stress on ties of kinship, at various levels from that of the family (Irish fine) to that of the tribe (tuath). There were, on 'average, about 150 tribes in Ireland, some large and powerful, others small and dominated by stronger tribes. Their average size might have been around 5000 people, and the population of the country was probably between a half and one million. Indeed, the rural population density may not have been much less than it is today. Society was also hierarchical. Each tribe was headed by a king (rí), below whom were the other nobles, then farmers, then slaves and landless peasants. Most people were tied to those above them in various ways. The very lowest were, to all intense and purposes, owned by their hierarchical superiors. The farmers and nobles, on the other hand, were usually `clients' of higher nobles. This meant that in return for loan of goods, land and animals from their patron, they gave him services and render (animals and animal products for instance). The noble also undertook to make sure his clients had their proper rights under the very detailed and complex laws of the time. These laws applied only within each tribe; few had automatic protection when travelling in other territory unless they had obtained protection from nobles within that territory. This hierarchy and the obligations and benefits of clientship applied also within the monastic community, the bishop and abbot having noble status, and the chief bishop of a tribe having status roughly equal to that of the tribal king. 

In the area in which we are interested, we can say quite a lot about the tribal situation, the names of the kings, the major battles, and the events and places after the sixth century A.D. The Belfast mountains, which seem then to have gone under the general name Ard Sleibe, would have been quite an important barrier between me north and the south of eastern Ulster. There was a strip of land between these mountains and Lough Neagh, through which movement was straightforward. Some of this strip was a forest, particularly in the Stonyford area, known later as Killultagh - the `wood of the Ulaidh'. The Ulaidh (pronounced Ullee) were a people who before the fourth century A.D., claimed control of the whole of the north of Ireland as far south as the rivers Boyne and Drowes. When I call them `a people', I do not imply that all the people in the area were ethnically and politically a unit. We know that there were a number of tribes even then, and that they had different ethnic or racial backgrounds (or so they claimed). The Ulaidh were probably a tribe or even a dynasty within that group of people, who were regarded by the others as politically the most powerful and who had some sort of dominance over the rest. We see a similar sort of structure later throughout the early Christian period, when groups of tribes banded together, because of racial connections, or political convenience, in a sort of federation. One of the tribal kings would then be chosen as over-king of the federation. Such, we believe, were the pre-Christian Ulaidh, with their capital at Emain Macha, now Navan near Armagh. Some time around the fourth century, the Ulaidh kings were evicted from Navan and forced into the area of modern Co. Down by invaders from the south. The great Ulaidh federation was destroyed, the new kings, the descendants of the kings of Navan, having their first capital (place of kingship and royal residence) at Downpatrick (Dún Lethglaise), and later sub-capitals at Rademon and Duneight (Dún Echdach -'the fort of Eochaid'). They, and their tribe, were known as the Dál Fiatach (pronounced dawl veeatagh) end were restricted to the eastern parts of modern Co. Down.

In the western parts of Co. Down (the present baronies of Lower and Upper Neagh), we find a tribe called the (Úi Echach Cobo. They had as their capital the lake dwelling (crannog) in Loughbrickland and their ritual center at Knockiveagh (`hill of the Ui Echach'). North of the Belfast mountains, particularly in the area of the Six Mile Water valley, were the powerful Dál nAraidi (pronounced dawl narridhi), whose capital was Ráith mór (the `great fort', now Rathmore) near Antrim. Other lesser tribes, often offshoots from these main tribes, were also scattered around the area of mid Antrim to mid Down, for instance theÚi Blathmaic around Newtownards and the Latharna around Larne. The heartlands for the three main tribes I have named lay well to the south and to the north of the Lagan valley, which was, as I have indicated, part of an extensive borderland (Fig. 1). Borders were subject to fluctuation and borderlands could change hands frequently. It is therefore difficult to know me tribal affiliations of the Lagan valley at any particular time. However, it seems that late in the early Christian period, both sides of the Lagan belonged to a sub-tribe of Dál mAraide, known as Dál mBuain (pronounced dawl mooin). The Dál mAraidi and the Dál Fiatach were often at war, and their battles were often in the borderland area of the river Lagan, for instance at the ford of Bél Feirsle (Belfast). But despite such inevitable clashes, the tribes of modern Cos. Down and Antrim formed themselves into a political federation, for which they revived the old name of Ulaidh. The overkingship of this federation was always held either by the king of Dál Fatach, or by the king of Dál nAraidi. We must not, therefore, think of the boundary as something uncrossable but as a link between these politically connected, powerful peoples.

We know that important places were often located on borders, in order to benefit from trade and movement. This was particularly so when movement was restricted to a few river crossings. Thus, close to the Lagan, we find the important monastery of Blaris (we do not know its name in the early Christian period) and the possible royal (Dál Fiatach) residence of Lissue (Lios Áedha). We also know that places of ritual and of assembly would also be located at convenient sites for all users. Where such a place was shared between two tribes, we would expect it to be at or near the border. This is the position of the main ritual site of the Ulaidh: Cráeb tulcha (pronounced crave tulgha), now Crew Hill near Glenavy. The name signifies the `sacred tree of the hillock', and indeed a sacred tree and a mound were commonly places of ritual and the inauguration of kings in Ireland, a hangover from pagan times. One of the worst things that could happen to a tribe was the cutting down of its sacred tree, and in A.D. 1099, the Ulaidh sacred tree at Cráeb tulcha was cut down by their enemies the Úi Néll The Ulaidh avenged this act twelve years later by cutting down the sacred tree of the �i Néill at Telach Óc (Tullaghoge near Cookstown).

Early Christian society was basically rural, in that the majority of the people farmed and lived in single family homesteads. The farming was mixed, although cattle raising was the most important thing for those higher up the ladder of wealth. Because cattle were important and a measure of status, cattle raiding was, with slave raiding, the main problem against which the farmer had to take precautions. As the farms were isolated, and housed only a single family (with its dependants), the defence of the farm was secured by the simple means of surrounding the house and sheds with a substantial bank of earth and, outside it, a deep ditch (in stony areas a thick stone wall would serve instead) (Fig. 2). Although this circular enclosure, with a single entrance, was seldom more than 150ft (5Om) across internally, and is not to be thought of as military, it was adequate defence against small bands of hit-and-run rustlers. The substantial nature of the bank and ditch has meant that such enclosures can easily survive the thousand or more years of normal weathering to the present day. Thus, despite a huge rate of destruction in recent agricultural `improvement', these defended farms of the early Christian period (archaeologists call them `ringforts' or `raths', farmers call them `forts' or `forths'), survive today in sufficient numbers to show us how populous Ireland was at that time. The contemporary words used for these enclosures, ráith meaning the `bank' and lios meaning the area inside the bank, have survived today as the `rash-' and `lis-' elements of many placenames (for instance Lisnagarvey, the early name of Lisburn). Occasionally, the most wealthy people, such as the nobles and kings, could afford more than a single bank and ditch, setting one or two more immediately outside it. The labour, of course, was supplied by their clients. Good examples of ringforts can be seen, for example, at Todd's grove (Duneight), Lissue, Ballylacky and Ballymacash and many other places in the Lisburn area. Excavation of Ballymacash ringfort showed it to have had the normal central house, with a courtyard and sheds between that and the surrounding bank. At Lissue, however, the whole enclosure was roofed, an unusual thing which we interpret as due to its high status. Each ringfort would have had between 150 and 500 acres of pasture (for sheep and cattle), arable land, woodland (for the pigs and for wood) and perhaps turbary and lake, associated with it. The early Christian farm was therefore not very dissimilar in size to a modern farm, but was more mixed.

Fig. 3. A `souterrain pot' of Lagan-valley type, with thumb-impressed cordon (drawn by D. Crone). 
Fig. 3. A `souterrain pot' of Lagan-valley type, with thumb-impressed cordon (drawn by D. Crone). 

A second line of defence often available to protect an early Christian family from becoming slaves was an artificial cave running from the house, which the archaeologist now calls a `souterrain'. Souterrains were commonly used, and are still often found, north of our border area, especially in the Six Mile Water valley. But, and nobody knows the reason, they are virtually absent from the Lagan valley and from north and mid Co. Down, appearing again only in Lecale and around the Mournes. It is possible that the people of our area constructed them of wood, rather than stone, which would make them far more difficult to find today. But their absence even from local excavated sites suggests they were not built at all in the Lisburn area. Another piece of contemporary archaeological evidence is, however, well represented in out area. Most of Ireland in the early Christian period was aceramic, that is, did not make and use pottery in any quantity. The people of the north-east, on the other hand, did make and use pottery, a simple saucepan-shaped sort of pot which archaeologists now call `souterrain ware'. This pottery was particularly fine in the Lagan valley and in our `border' zone, having (by the tenth century) a neat thumb-impressed cordon running round it just below the rim (Fig. 3). We do not yet know if it was actually being made in our area, but it seems possible.

I have said that most people of the time were farmers, living in isolated farmsteads. By the tenth century, there were some real towns in Ireland, trading settlements like Dublin founded by, and run by, people originally from Norway (we now call them the `Vikings'). Although these people raided the north of Ireland on numerous occasions, having their fleets for instance in Strangford Lough (Loch Cúan and Lough Neagh (Loch nEchach), we do not believe they established any trading settlements in the north. Even their trading was probably not much more of a nuisance to the people of our area than the cattle raids and plunders by the neighbouring tribes. For instance, when other powerful Irish kings decided to make a foray into the northeast, they often had to pass through this area. We can imagine that on such occasions, they caused depredations to the ordinary farming folk, equal to that the Vikings might cause. The Vikings were, however, particularly interested in raiding monasteries. This was because the monasteries were not only places of religious education and worship, but were, in many cases, extremely wealthy. They were often markets, and almost always had extensive lands and many dependent farmers (clients). As we would expect, the treasures of the monasteries, silver as well as slaves and cattle, were well worth plundering. They defended themselves, as did the farmers, by surrounding the settlement with one or more circular banks and ditches, although so populous were they that these enclosures could he up to a quarter of a mile across. At the centre, the church, graveyard and main ecclesiastical buildings were in an enclosure of their own. Within this enclosure would often have been the `round tower', a high mortared stone tower which served as a repository for treasures in times of danger, as a lookout, and a bell-tower for calling the community to worship and warning them of danger. In the outer enclosures were the buildings, houses and workshops of the community (a good example can be seen at Nendrum, near Comber). I have mentioned the monastery of Blaris already, but perhaps the most important monastery in our area, and the one best preserved today, is Drumbo (Druim b�, the `hill of the cow'). The lower part of its eleventh century round tower can still be seen, and its stone church survived until the last century. There were numerous other early monasteries in the area, but little survives of them now.

The Lisburn area was, therefore, an important place in early Christian times. It straddled two route ways: the Lagan valley from Belfast Lough to the west and the north-south route between the two major powers of the Ulaidh. In part 2 of this essay, we shall deal with some of the places and peoples I have mentioned in greater detail. The bibliography will also be found in part 2.

Richard Warner is Keeper (Acting) of the Antiquities Department of the Ulster Museum, where he specialises in the Early Iron Age and the Early Christian period.