The Story of Ireland (2011) s01e01 Episode Script

The Age of Invasions

There is an Ireland shrouded in cliché of heroes and villains, lost battles and sad songs.
Perched on the margins of Europe, a claustrophobic island cut off from the world, its people turned in on themselves, victims of their own ancient hatreds and of a powerful neighbour.
That is not the Ireland of this journey.
Our earliest writings show that we looked to worlds beyond the green island.
From the patterns of our landscape to the roots of our cities, we were shaped by waves of migration and invasion.
New languages, faiths, cultures came from outside, and still do.
I will travel through the physical landscape and the ideas and peoples of a story striking because it is so unpredictable.
But it is also a journey through other worlds whose history changed Ireland.
Crossing continents - from Europe, to America, to Africa.
The old view, which saw the complex history of Ireland solely within the boundaries of what happened on this island, or simply through the prism of conflict between the British and the Irish, is mistaken, but above all, self-limiting.
The real story of Ireland is so much bigger.
I remember walking in this garden of remembrance in 1966 with my father.
It was the 50th anniversary of the Rising of 1916 and a great wave of patriotic sentiment swept the country.
Here, they constructed a memorial, which celebrated revolution, faith and an idealised ancient world.
At its centre, this sculpture of the mythical Children of Lir, condemned by an evil stepmother to wander the oceans as swans until the coming of Christianity sets them free.
It was intended as a symbol of national resurrection, but also to say to my generation and those that followed that we belonged to an unbroken line, stretching back into a glorious Celtic past.
Our leaders stressed our difference to the departed British.
The idea of an ancient people of one faith was central to our identity.
The real Irish were Gaelic and Catholic.
In the Ireland of the mid-1960s, I knew little of an outside world or of the Ulster Protestants, with their British identity.
They seemed to me an alien tribe, marching to what the poet Louis MacNeice called "the voodoo of the Orange drums".
But a decade later, in the mid-1970s, the story of Ireland I was being taught had changed.
School was no longer an echo chamber of the like-minded.
In the shadow of the northern Troubles, the old certainties would not do.
We were being asked to imagine a more complex set of Irish identities.
The idea of Irishness, of what it meant to be an Irishman, that you grew up, that I grew up with, was pretty simple, wasn't it? I suppose it was a standard version.
It was a Republican tradition and you didn't see outside that.
We all marched to that song and to that drum, you know.
It took a long time to change it.
When you came here to teach people like me, did you have a sense, a feeling that you had to broaden our minds? I suppose what I was trying to do was to show that there were other ways of looking at maybe the same thing.
I always remember giving an essay, you know, "Carson, Irish patriot.
" The great Unionist Loyalist leader in the North? I left it at that.
I remember one kid said, "Sir, that doesn't make any sense.
" I said, "How do you mean, it doesn't make any sense?" I said, "Carson wanted the union of Ireland and Britain.
" He wanted what, for him, was the best thing for Ireland.
Now, can you say that he's not a patriot because he doesn't agree with you? I was trying to do that kind of thing.
And telling the true history is key to that, isn't it? It is.
But you see, you come back then, "What's truth?" Walking the streets of Cork now, I find the city proud of its links with the world beyond, and willing to acknowledge a history made of many influences, in which Irishness embraced different allegiances.
Our story of Ireland begins by going back through a landscape marked by the change of centuries, through the scattering of tribes the rise and fall of kings through prosperity and war and a revolution of faith.
The first waves of settlers are thought to have come from Europe about 10,000 years ago.
This ancient burial site at Newgrange is the oldest known building in Ireland.
Across the ancient world, men build monuments to their dead.
But this structure at Newgrange predates some of the most famous.
It was built 500 years before the Pyramids of Giza, 1,000 years before Stonehenge.
But what can it tell us about the lives of some of the earliest inhabitants of this island? People first came to Ireland about 8,000 BC, after the end of the Ice Age.
Farming comes into Ireland about 4,000 BC and Newgrange is built in the centuries just before 3,000 BC.
Why would they build something like this? What were they trying to say? I think, for early farmers, the notion of ancestry, that's really the central focus of this world.
The monuments themselves contain selected bones of the ancestors.
This is the world of the dead, but it's capable of influencing the lives of the living which of course is very much orientated around the farming cycle, the importance of the seasons.
So, of course, you want to align your monuments to the critical points of the year.
In the case of Newgrange, on sunrise at the winter solstice.
Newgrange is part of a sort of international Atlantic phenomenon of passage tomb building which takes us from Spain to southern Scandinavia.
So they were conscious of being part of a wider human race, - not just stuck on this island? - Very much so.
Absolutely, and I think these early farmers building this monument would have realised and would probably have had stories about places that were far away, how things worked in other areas.
Neither archaeology or genetics can tell us the names of any of the tribes who settled in this early Ireland.
But in the beautiful artefacts of the Bronze Age, we can see a culture shared with groups in Britain and Europe, whom later historians would call the Celts.
Tiny decorations.
This lovely collar was worn for decorative reasons, one presumes.
What does that tell you about the people who made it and about the times they lived in? Beyond being just decorative, they are actually a way of identifying particular people in society, because, no more than our own age, um you know, I'm not decked out in diamonds, and I'm hardly likely ever to be, but if I was at that particular level of society, whether it's a question of wealth or position, then I would have needed a particular status in order to be entitled to wear these objects.
Of course, if I was male, I might have been entitled to wear a lunula.
So we know there was a hierarchy by this stage.
Yes, there definitely has to be a hierarchy.
You also have here something which fascinated me when I heard about it because it comes from so far away, and that's amber.
And you go all the way to the Baltic to find it.
Yes, amber really comes into its own in Ireland in the late Bronze Age.
We're really lucky in this country because most of it has been buried in peat bogs and as a result it's extremely well-preserved.
- We've got some here.
- Yes.
- This is part of a necklace - How did it get here from the Baltic coast, from Poland or somewhere like that? - You always ask difficult questions! - Well, that's my job! This does at least tell us somebody comes from Northern Europe here, with this material in quite considerable amounts.
Well, somebody may not have come, somebody may have been handing it on, and it may have come through many different hands before it reaches Ireland.
What we do know is, a lot of it came and a lot of it has been preserved, because of this tendency to deposit these hoards in bogs.
There is a surface landscape which offers immediate clues to our past.
And there is the Irish story concealed beneath our bog land.
One-sixth of Ireland, more than any other European country, lies under bog, formed after early farmers began to clear the upland forest 2,500 years before Christ.
This is a patch of bog in North Kerry that's been dug by my family for fuel for the fire for several generations.
The poet Seamus Heaney described the men who worked the bogs as "our pioneers, driving inwards and downwards.
"Every layer they strip seems camped on before.
" And as today's farmers have dug deeper, they have found evidence of our earliest ancestors, and links with a wider world.
This is Clonycavan Man, a 2,000-year-old Irishman, whose body was preserved by the unique chemistry of the bogs.
Do we know anything about this man - who he was, where he came from? Well, we know he was found in a bog on the West Meath border.
We know that he was killed ritually more than 2,000 years ago.
- How was he killed? - He was struck first in the face, which broke his nose.
And when he fell down, his head was split with an axe.
His stomach was cut across, he was probably disembowelled as well.
- Why would they have done that? - We think that this man was probably a king who was killed, and a number of means of execution were employed because the goddess to whom he was being sacrificed appears in a number of forms, so they had to sacrifice in all her forms.
You can see, he had this very unusual hairstyle.
The front of the forehead is shaved and the rest of the hair was bundled up a bit like a Mohawk.
An that was held in place with a hair gel which was made using resin imported from the Pyrenees.
The very fact that you find resin from the Mediterranean in his hair suggests we were trading with that region.
Ireland's position as an island doesn't isolate it in ancient times.
It makes it more accessible because travel by sea is much easier than travel over land.
Clonycavan Man gives us our first sight of an Irishman.
And here in the National Museum, we see some of the finest examples of what we now consider Celtic art.
But the idea of the Irish as racially Celtic, unlike the Anglo-Saxon English, belongs to the 19th century.
For nationalists and their English enemies, much depended on belonging to an imagined finer race.
So, was Clonycavan Man a Celt? He would have been Celtic in the sense that he would have spoken a Celtic language, he would have spoken an early form of the Gaelic language, the Irish language.
And the art is associated with Celtic people on the Continent.
I don't think it means that we are racially descended from a Celtic nation.
Genetically, this man doesn't have a lot to do with the Gauls of France or the Celts of central Europe as described by the Greeks and the Romans.
So we Irish - let me just nail this one down, because it's critical - we are no more racially Celtic than our English neighbours, are we? No, we're no more so, nor less so.
Our cousins on the other island have certainly as much a claim to their Celtic past, I think, as we have.
The murdered man from the Meath bog reveals something of how the Irish lived several hundred years before Christ.
Their gods were the gods of nature, whom they appeased with sacrifice.
They had developed a social organisation, with kings at the pinnacle of power.
Their artwork was delicate and distinctive.
And they were already linked by trade to the cultures of the classical world.
Clonycavan Man and his contemporaries left no written record.
Our distant ancestors exist for us as tantalising shadows.
And when the story of that ancient Irish world starts to be written, the narrative is scripted for us by others.
The writers of their classical world conjured their own stories of Ireland.
In the 9th century BC, the Greek poet Homer described the whole of northwestern Europe as, "A land of fog and gloom, "beyond it is a sea of death where hell begins.
" But our first detailed account of Ireland comes long after Classical Greece has been overtaken by an all-conquering new power.
750 years after Homer, the Romans invaded Britain.
Julius Caesar landed here on the Kent coast in 55 BC.
Now, given his restless ambition, it would have seemed natural for him to complete the conquest of Britain and then move on to invade the neighbouring island.
But in Caesar's mind, Ireland was a place of fearful myth.
He called it Hibernia, the land of winter.
A geographer living under Caesar's rule described the Irish as a cannibal race who deemed it commendable to devour their deceased fathers and who lived a miserable existence because of the cold.
But Mediterranean traders had long been immune to such dire warnings and with the knowledge they brought back, a scholar created a geographical masterpiece.
In this medieval copy of his book, Geographia, we can see how Ptolemy mapped the world as it was known to the Romans around 150 AD.
And there, on the westernmost point, is Hibernia.
This is the first map of Ireland and its peoples.
We can recognise some of the names.
For example, Eblani is usually interpreted as Dublin.
The river names - the Shannon is there, for example.
The River Lee, I suppose, which all Cork people would like to see mentioned.
There are some names, interestingly enough Here we have Brigantes, for example, and the Brigantes over here in West Wales, and they are clearly related.
What does that tell us? Well, it works two ways.
Either it means that there were Brigantes here in the west of Britain first of all, who then migrated to Ireland.
But it is possible that they might actually represent population groups that originated in Ireland and then came to the western province of Britain, because you do have quite substantial Irish settlement in western Britain, in Wales as we know it nowadays.
This notion of the Irish colonising parts of Britain, it rather turns our historical sense of things on its head, doesn't it? We always like to see ourselves as the eternally put-upon - It could be problematical.
conquered by the other lot.
- We were doing the same.
- In this day and age, we're insisting that everybody apologise to us, including our nearest neighbours.
But I suppose if you go back far enough, we invaded them before they invaded us.
So, if there are apologies to be bandied about, we might take the first step, you know.
It seems the Romans did briefly contemplate an invasion until trouble in Scotland called the legions away.
And so Ireland was never subordinated to Roman law or government.
But they didn't need to dispatch an army to exert an influence that extended well beyond trade, into the realms of society and culture.
This is a small bronze figure of one of the minor Roman deities.
It was found in the River Boyne at Navan.
- So, this is pre-Christian, this? - This is pagan Roman.
It's a bit like if Ireland was on the edge of the European Community, you would expect that it would be trading with it.
Ireland had cattle.
Cattle would have been shipped over to Britain.
Items like leather.
The Roman army consumed vast amounts of leather.
The cattle lords out on the central plains, they start getting notions of grandeur and they become important provincial kings of early medieval Ireland.
You have the establishment of dynasties that continued in power for hundreds of years afterwards.
But again, they were looking to the Roman world, to model themselves on the Roman emperors.
By the 4th century, some Irish outposts on the west coast of Britain had expanded into kingdoms as more settlers came.
"They desire to go eastwards," wrote an early Gaelic poet, "into the broad long-distant sea.
" A medieval scholar would later write that, "The power of the Irish over the Britons was great.
" And there's some evidence that Irish traders were venturing into the heart of Roman Britain.
Here in 1893, in the middle of the Home Counties, Victorian archaeologists excavating the Roman town of Silchester made a fascinating discovery.
It was a 4th-century clue to the existence of a long-vanished Irishman.
This type of inscribed stone is usually found only in Ireland or the far western fringes of Britain.
These lines represent the oldest form of the Irish language.
Michael, what is this stone? Well, it's a it's a small Roman column.
But what's very different about it is it's got this inscription on it in Ogham, and this transliterates into a man's name.
And here on this line, he's beginning to describe his lineage - just as you'd find on any Ogham stone.
- I mean, I've seen these, you know, tucked away in graveyards in Ireland or in the middle of fields, - surrounded by trees.
- Yes.
- Here it is, an hour's drive from London.
- Yes.
Away, away, away from other finds of such stones.
It's extraordinary to me, this idea that you have an Irishman who sets out, settles among people from everywhere, from all corners of the empire.
It truly was a multicultural, - multilingual world that he lived in.
- Yes.
And it's not just the one person, but it's a group, it's a family, and it's other people supporting a community.
Now, it may be he was a big figure, he was a local king.
I mean, who knows? Because we have another Celtic man from another end of Roman town story up in Wroxeter, who did describe himself as a king.
So, you may have had Irishmen who had his domain here in those sort of end days of the Roman world, in the 5th, 6th century.
The Roman Empire in which Tepicatus lived was already in decline.
But its impact was still profound.
Christianity had become the state religion.
Clerics were dispatched all over Europe to spread the word.
The faith that would come to be seen as a core part of Irish identity was brought to an island steeped in the worship of pagan gods.
Rome's first Bishop to Ireland was dispatched in AD 431.
He was Palladius, the son of a Roman general, who found, by one account, that, "The fierce and cruel men did not receive his doctrine readily.
" His memory would be obliterated by events which would create Ireland's first and most enduring cult of personality.
It is the story of a spiritual revolution born in an age of imperial collapse.
Since the beginning of the 5th century, barbarian attacks on Rome had escalated and the legions were called from Britain to defend the eternal city.
In the vacuum after the departure of the army, Irish raids on the British coast expanded.
The expansion was driven by a lust for plunder and by trade, and one of the most lucrative markets of all was slavery.
From harbours up and down the Irish coastline, slave raiding boats set out to attack British settlements.
But one of those raids would have consequences that the rough warriors on board could never have imagined.
For amongst the thousands carried off was a Welshman who would become the most celebrated Irishman of all.
The St Patrick we commemorate each March 17th escaped from Ireland, but returned after a vision in which the pagan Irish called him back to spread the Christian faith.
But much of what was taken to be the truth of his life was invented by others, like the 18th-century clergyman who claimed the shamrock was used by Patrick to explain the Holy Trinity.
Patrick hovers between the pagan past and the Christian future.
He is the man who vanquishes troublesome kings with magic spells, banishes the snakes from the face of Ireland.
But what do we know of the real Patrick, beyond myth and symbol? What is his practical impact on Christianity's development here? He himself says that he went where no man went before.
It's a famous expression that survives down to the present day, and he clearly did go where no other Christian missionary had gone before, and that's important, because in the history of the Western Christian Church, that wasn't the practice.
People, generally speaking, didn't head out into the brave blue yonder cos it was too dangerous a thing to do.
And you certainly get the impression from his own writings that he was able to get on with the Irish to a degree which wasn't possible, say, for continental missionaries.
Patrick was not the druid-destroying figure of myth.
He left two documents, the most important, his confession, notable for its humility.
"I am a sinner,"he apologised, "the least among all Christians.
" It was these writings that would provide the later Church with a vital unifying symbol.
At the end of the 7th century, the Church has an interest in a far more stable society, the idea of a single island, and therefore a single people, and therefore a single nation, and therefore a single faith.
Every other Church could look back to the great converting saint.
"Gosh, we need to be as good as that.
" And it looked back to its origins and it had no documents, with one exception, and that was Patrick's apology, so that had to be carefully edited and that becomes the myth of the great patron saint.
Patrick died around 460 AD.
But there were other missionaries who blended Gaelic traditions with the Christian faith.
Monasteries were founded.
As a later Gaelic poem put it, "Heathendom has gone down.
"God the Father's kingdom fills heaven, earth and air.
" But Ireland was not luxuriating in a Celtic idyll.
The early missionaries moved through kingdoms frequently at war with each other.
Tell me what happens when the monks arrive.
They would have first of all made their way to the local king, the local lord or something like that, because you couldn't just arrive off the next available flight and announce, "I am your new local Christian mission.
" You'd end up dead.
So, you'd have to get some kind of physical protection.
Once you had the king's protection, on that basis go around, spread the message.
Certainly with the passage of time, monasticism is the growing trend, if you like, and it's a cool thing to have a monastery on your land, it's cool to have a member of your family a member of a monastic community.
If you can have a brother, a sister who's actually a saint, somebody who's so high in the hierarchy, then obviously that adds a certain prestige as well.
As the influence of Patrick and his successors expanded, the monasteries would emerge as the focal points of intellectual and artistic life.
Patrick was born a child of the Roman Imperium.
But by the time of his death in the 5th century, that empire had disintegrated, and across Europe there was a catastrophic decline in learning.
In the 6th century, the scholar Gregory of Tours wrote that, "In the cities of Gaul there could be found no scholar "trained in ordered composition, "who could present a picture in prose or verse, "of the things that have befallen.
" Everywhere except Ireland.
There, a cultural revolution was under way.
The Church in Ireland was untouched by the traumas afflicting Europe.
And as the kings of Ireland were converted, the monks found protectors and patrons, a culture that blended the native and the Latin flourished.
At the centre of this flowering were the monasteries.
And this is the great settlement of Clonmacnoise.
As you sweep round this turn in the River Shannon, you get the round towers, the churches and everything, and you get the first idea that this is a really substantial monastic foundation.
Had we arrived here at the height of its powers, what would we have seen coming around the bend? If you believe the sources, there were several thousand people here living already in the 6th and 7th centuries, so you can imagine a pretty dense settlement.
There would have been an obvious substantial farming element.
This would have looked like a very prosperous economic unit.
And there would have been markets and people would have been coming both by land and here on the sea as well, on the water.
And the whole place would have been pretty much a bustling, buzzing kind of place.
Not just trade, of course, but the whole business of setting down in text.
A place like Clonmacnoise would have had a thriving school of people who were coming here, not only from other Irish monasteries, but we know of people who would have been travelling from either England or even from continental Europe.
- From that far away? - Oh, yeah.
We had a reputation as scholars all the way back, and certainly it was the place to be in the 7th century.
If you wanted higher learning, if you wanted advanced knowledge of the Bible or grammar or something like that, then you came to Ireland.
Perhaps the greatest bequest of the monastic tradition in Ireland was literary.
The monks transcribed the Bible and set down in writing ancient laws.
But not only in Latin.
They developed a written form of the people's Celtic tongue.
Religious and legal texts were translated into Gaelic by the intellectual elite.
Ireland had the most abundant vernacular literature in Europe.
One of the greatest examples is the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Book of Invasions, an imagined history of Ireland.
This extraordinary book is the first written story of Ireland.
It purports to tell the story of how the Irish came into being.
The tales here come from the 7th century, and they would have a profound impact on the way the Irish came to see themselves.
What it says is that the Irish are at the centre of the world.
They are not a small, insignificant people.
It was woven together in the 11th century from earlier sources as a statement of Irish uniqueness.
They didn't want to be seen as peripheral people living at the edge of Europe.
One of the main themes in early Irish history is the sense that Ireland is central, culturally, to what happens in the Christian world.
So, what they do is they insert the Irish at various points into key events in world history.
So, what they're doing is they start off with the creation of the world in the Book of Genesis, so it's almost like the Scripture of Ireland, the Old Testament of Ireland.
And then they show the ancestors of the Irish appearing at various key events.
So, when Moses goes on the exodus, an Irish guy sort of pops up so he can find out what the Ten Commandments are.
They look about the sort of origins of their own language, and an Irish guy pops up at the Tower of Babel and he makes Irish from all of the best bits of the languages when they're divided up.
At a very early point, the Irish begin to write in Irish, and one of the things that Lebor Gabála does is it brings in an awful lot of traditional lore.
So you get elements of popular culture and elite culture being brought in together, along with sort of the learning of the Old Testament or of Christian writers.
What were they trying to do by setting it in such an international context, this idea that we came from everywhere? The basic framework which it takes is that Ireland has been populated by various waves of people over time.
Some of these people are invaders, some are more refugees than invaders, for example, and they admit that not everybody who lives on the island in the early medieval period are descended from one group of people.
So there is an acceptance in the Lebor Gabála that the Irish are of multiethnic origins.
At what point do we lose that sense of being part of something greater and take on board this narrow idea that it's us in a misty Celtic past - Yeah a people alone? Certainly from the 18th century.
If you look at the Irish themselves during this period when they're putting together the Lebor Gabála and the very elements that go into it, the one element they don't pick themselves is Celtic.
They know about the existence of groups called Celts and Gauls from classical writers.
They never identify with them.
In fact, they're far more confident about their identity, you could say, than maybe modern people are about theirs.
Irish monks would carry their Gospel across the seas.
Men like Brendan the Voyager, Colum Cille in the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata in Scotland, or Aidain at Lindisfarne in Northumbria.
"Now the Lord had said, 'Get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred "'and from thy father's house unto a land that I will show thee.
"' The words of Abraham, from the Old Testament, and they would echo in the minds of Irish monks.
At their heart, a simple concept in the Latin, potior peregrinatio, a lifelong pilgrimage for Christ.
And it would bring some of those Irish clergy here to the lands at the heart of the old Roman Empire.
The monks arriving in northern Italy in 613 had already established monasteries in Gaul.
Their zeal persuaded the powerful king of the Lombards to offer them land at Bobbio, in the Apennines.
These Irish churchmen brought their own version of Christianity.
They were told to avoid earthly temptation and Church power.
"Fear women and bishops," their leader said.
He was austere and querulous and a fierce disciplinarian.
His name was Columbanus.
It meant "dove".
But this reforming Irish monk railed against the abuse of power, sparing neither clergy nor princes from his censure.
Columbanus even had the temerity to confront the Pope.
It was a complex dispute about the dating of Easter.
To Columbanus, it wasn't simply spiritual pedantics, he felt he was standing up for something he truly believed in.
And when the Gallic bishops summoned him to account for himself, he simply refused to go.
He saw them as an elite, ministering only to the chosen few.
But Columbanus was deeply loyal to the idea of a Church led by the Pope from Rome.
He was a dissenter, not a revolutionary.
He looked beyond the monastery walls, imagining a Europe united in faith and culture.
In the letters and words of Columbanus, Europe heard an Irish voice that was learned, sometimes uncompromising, and always thoughtful.
At Bobbio he established one of the greatest libraries of the medieval world.
Columbanus described himself as a "dissenter whenever necessary".
I can't help thinking of James Joyce writing about setting out to forge the uncreated conscience of his race.
Columbanus, it seems to me, was doing it centuries before.
By the time he died, here in Bobbio, Columbanus had established a thriving monastic centre, and he would look back, too, at Ireland with some satisfaction.
For the monasteries were still producing great works of art.
He might have been less enamoured at the political manoeuvring.
The status of clergy could have much to do with their alliances and family ties with the local aristocracy.
Indeed, from the earliest times, monasteries could be the launching pads for earthly ambitions.
The Abbot here at Ardmore in County Waterford came from a powerful local family.
Declan was said to have been a contemporary of St Patrick.
The story goes that, together, they went to a banquet of local nobility and, together, chose the new king of the region.
Was this story true? Well, we've simply no way of knowing.
But it does underline a significant truth - churchmen were becoming increasingly powerful political players.
And this foreshadows an enduring theme of the Irish story - that embrace between spiritual and temporal power.
Christ and Caesar together.
So the abbot of the monastery is much more than a spiritual man.
He becomes a major political player.
He controls a vast number of people and enormous resources.
And if you think the Abbot was getting up in the morning to say a five o'clock Mass, he was not.
He was much more like a Medici prince.
Because the church is rich, the church gets involved in political violence.
There's one famous one in which there was a battle between Cork and Clonfert in which the annals say there was "an innumerable slaughter" of the ecclesiastical men and superiors of Cork.
It sounds an extraordinary idea that you have religious men, spiritual figures, going to war with each other.
I mean, it doesn't fit the notion we have of this island of saints and scholars.
It doesn't fit the notion, but it is the reality.
The Abbot of Armagh or the Bishop of Clonmacnoise had a social status equal to that of a king.
But a new power was to loom out of the northern seas.
In 795, monks on an island near Dublin saw a fleet of ships approaching.
The long ships with a dragon's head carved on the bow carried a force of warriors who would plunder the treasures accumulated by the monastery over two centuries.
A monk wrote later of the terror of Viking attack.
"There were a hundred hard-steeled iron heads on one neck, "and a hundred sharp, ready, never-rusting brazen tongues in every head.
"And a hundred garrulous, loud, unceasing voices from every tongue.
" The age of the Vikings had arrived.
We're probably standing about three metres under street level, and this is where people would have been walking in the Viking age.
I mean, there's no whitewashing the incredible terror that they sowed.
From a fairly early stage, once Vikings are raiding the Irish coast, they're taking people captive to sell them on as slaves.
So a good early example of that is in 821, the Vikings raided Howth, just north of Dublin, and took a great prey of women.
So I think their fate was probably the slave market.
It must have stricken absolute fear into the hearts of people, the idea of being captured and then sold abroad.
Yeah, absolutely.
I mean, there are some kind of snippets of Irish poetry testifying to the fear that people had.
"Lord protect us from these foreigners coming in and taking people away.
" There's an early 11th-century tale about an Irish poet who's said to have been taken captive by Vikings and, and even as a man, he's been gang-raped by the Vikings on the ship.
There's also a record in 940 of an Irish bishop taken captive from Dalkey Island, and he's so eager to escape he tries to swim out from the island and he drowns.
The Vikings offer us the earliest example of those figures who will dominate the written and spoken stories of Ireland, the foreign invaders.
But where did the raiders come from? And what drove them to Irish shores? The Vikings who would eventually descend on Ireland had their ancestral roots here in Norway.
From these fjords, they created a maritime empire that stretched from the shores of America in the West to central Russia in the East.
The Viking world of the 7th and 8th centuries was in a state of flux.
Warrior clans fought for control of the best land.
Land meant wealth and power.
But there was too little to go around.
In an early Norse poem, a mother says to her son, "Get thee a ship "and go out on the seas and kill men.
" They're lines which reflect a society where a man's worth was defined by his skill with the sword.
What kind of society did these Viking warlords inhabit? Competition was actually the key element in this society.
Who could travel the furthest, who was the bravest in battle, who could eat the most, and who drank the most.
What is the principle dynamic that's driving them out of these fjords towards Ireland? It was important for the local chieftains to be able to give good gifts to their followers, their friends, or throw big parties.
And there was not a lot of wealth in Norway.
So I think that one of the main reasons they actually left for Ireland was just to plunder some Irish monasteries and churches and steal the goods.
The Irish, in popular memory, tend to see the Vikings as rapists, pillagers and killers.
Is that something you'd go along with? Partly, yes.
But you have to look at the Vikings, that they can actually change shapes over the night.
One day they're actually killers, the next day they are actually traders.
And on the third day they are cattlemen.
On the fourth day they're settlers.
For over 40 years, the Vikings raided Ireland's coastal villages and monasteries, carrying off plunder and slaves in their longboats.
They struck suddenly and caught the Irish unawares.
So the Vikings became bolder and began to sail down the rivers of Ireland.
The raiders were to become settlers.
The east coast of Ireland was strategically well placed for trading with an expanding Viking world.
In the winter of 842, a substantial Viking fleet rounded the headland at Howth and sailed up the River Liffey.
Here, at the "black pool" - in Irish, Dubh Linn - the Vikings hauled their longboats ashore.
And just a few yards away from the banks of the River Liffey, they began to construct the first defensive stockade.
From these small beginnings, Ireland's greatest city would emerge.
Over the next century, Dublin would become a boom town, with the largest slave market in Europe.
The Vikings had a huge trading network, which spread all the way down the Russian river systems to the Middle East, Constantinople, all the way across the North Atlantic, and Dublin was quite centrally placed within these long-distance routes.
Ten bananas there, one euro.
What kind of things would people have been buying in these markets? Amber from the Baltic, silk from Byzantium.
Gold, silver, looted goods from Irish monasteries, all would have been traded through the port of Dublin.
It would have been a very noisy place, bustling, crammed, houses next to each other, narrow streets.
Lots of people milling around, shopping, exchanging things, gossiping.
Kids, pigs, everything.
And you'd probably have seen people from right across Europe in Dublin at this point.
It would have been a really cosmopolitan place, with traders from all over Europe.
And this is followed by a series of royal intermarriages and a lot of cultural interchange.
So, by the 10th century, you've got a whole new culture emerging which is a kind of hybrid of Scandinavian and Irish, and it's very distinctive.
You can see it in art styles and the culture of these two peoples.
By the 11th century, the Vikings who had settled in Ireland, the Hiberno-Norse, had been here for over a century and a half.
They'd intermarried, become Christian and formed local alliances.
They'd founded thriving port cities, like Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick.
They became enmeshed in Irish politics.
They would learn the lesson of all conquerors here - the longer you stay around, the more likely you are to become drawn into the quarrels of your neighbours.
This was a country where local Gaelic kings were fighting for land and supremacy.
They did so as power was being centralised across Europe.
Small kingdoms were eaten up by the leaders of emerging dynasties.
In northern France, Rollo the Viking had founded the Norman empire.
In England, power was consolidating around the house of Wessex.
Such change could hardly have escaped the attention of an ambitious Irish king.
This new leader was a man with the ruthlessness and energy to humble kingdoms.
He stormed the strongholds of his enemies, and in four years was able to come here, to the great Rock of Cashel, and proclaim himself king of all Munster.
He demanded tributes from the defeated - of wine and gold, and the most precious commodity of the age - cattle.
They called him Brian of the Cattle Tributes.
In the Irish, Brian Boru.
Brian did not see himself as a king among equals, but as high king of all Ireland.
And with a mighty army, he set about trying to control the island.
In the only statement of his that we know about, he describes himself as Imperator Scottorum, Emperor of the Irish.
Imperator means a man who rules over many different peoples, and he saw himself as ruling equally over the Irish and the Vikings.
He subjected Limerick to himself and made Limerick a dynastic capital.
He subjected Cork and Waterford to himself.
Dublin was next on the list.
In Dublin City Hall, the legend of Brian is commemorated on the dome.
In the telling of Ireland's story, he would become an icon of native resistance - the first nationalist hero his soldiers holy warriors who defeated a Viking invasion.
But the truth is more complex.
In 1014, after defeating the city of Waterford, Brian moved to confront the Gaelic kingdom of Leinster and the Viking port of Dublin.
Irish and Viking united in defence against Brian.
They recruited Viking mercenaries from Britain.
It's thought Brian too had Vikings in his army.
For both sides, Dublin was the glittering prize.
The Battle of Clontarf is not a battle between savage Vikings and the Irish.
It's not the saving of Holy Ireland from the pagans.
It is a power struggle in which Brian Boru was finally going to get Dublin, because every king wanted to control the trading cities.
On Good Friday 1014, the opposing forces faced each other at Clontarf, outside Dublin.
There were two Irish armies, but both with their Viking allies.
Of these Vikings, it was said they carried arrows, anointed and browned in the blood of dragons.
The monks who wrote this account were highly partisan.
After all, they'd been commissioned by a descendant of Brian Boru.
Of his men, they said they had beautiful white hands.
Hands that they would now use to hack, hew and maim.
The battle lasted all day.
Late in the afternoon, the Dublin men and their allies began to fall back to the River Liffey and into the advancing tide.
An account written years later records that they "retreated to the sea like a herd of cows, "tormented by heat and insects.
They were pursued closely.
" By nightfall, bodies drifted on Dublin Bay, and the field at Clontarf was strewn with corpses.
Brian had won the battle, but he wouldn't live to enjoy the fruits of victory.
A Danish Viking called Brodar came hacking his way through the Irish lines and found Brian's tent.
Entering inside, he saw the old king on his knees at prayer, and lifting his giant battleaxe, he cleaved Brian's head from his shoulders.
In this version of the story, Brian becomes the first martyr for faith and fatherland in Irish history.
Without Brian, his dynasty declined.
There would be no all-powerful high king of Ireland.
Clontarf resolved nothing.
Indeed, so great was the fighting after Brian's death that one annalist described how competing kings had turned the country into a trembling sod.
Ireland was now a ripe prize for foreign adventurers, and they would come here in the shape of the greatest military force in Europe, to launch on these shores a fateful conquest.
Next week, we will see how the rise of the Norman empire changed the Story of Ireland.