The cow's the thing in ancient Ireland


The Irish aren't really Celtic, St. Patrick didn't really convert the Irish and without the Vikings the Irish wouldn't be who they are today. It's not quite how we first heard it, but it is the history of Ireland according to Leo Eaton, producer of a new documentary series, In Search of Ancient Ireland, to be screened on RT╔ over the next three Thursdays.

The series traces the myths, legends and facts of Ireland from pre-history to the coming of the Normans in a way the British-born producer hopes will make the period, "come alive". Don't cringe yet - as the producer of Conquistadors and In the Footsteps of Alexander, Eaton comes with quite a reputation.

"There are many different ways of telling history. There's stones and bones or re-enactments - trying to pretend the audience is seeing real things - but a historical documentary is never going to have the same budget as a movie so it just distances people from what they are seeing," he says.

Instead, Eaton spent a year talking to his "brain trust" of historians and archaeologists and filming cattle marts, festivals, parades, changing seasons, and the odd stone and bone, while M∅cheβl ╙ S·illeabhβin, head of the music department of the University of Limerick, composed the soundtrack. The result is a single narrative covering thousands of years with often subtle connections to the present - which never neglects the importance of the cow in Irish society.

"The key to the understanding of Ireland - Irish history, Irish archaeology, Irish culture, the great sagas - everything is based on cattle. Cows are everything and everywhere," Dr Patrick Wallace, director of the National Museum of Ireland tells us. Cut to a shot of cattle, presumably off to the fair.

Ireland's first cows were probably brought by boat from mainland Europe more than 6,000 years ago. The series works hard to give a sense of the order of society at the time. There were no towns or cities or nations as we understand them, just farms. The sea wasn't seen as something dividing countries as we see now it, but as a bridge to other places. The presence of similar burial mounds in Ireland and mainland Europe shows a shared culture.

The series follows two geophysicists, Joe Fennwick and Conor Newman, as they work on the Rath Cruachan mound, once the seat of the kings and queens of Connacht. They use a form of magnetic imaging to visualise the structures that would have been on the ancient sites, but even they have to admit that while they can tell what may have happened there, the explanations for why sometimes come from myth.

Not myth, however, were several dramatic climate changes, which certainly affected how the early Irish thought about themselves and nature. By examining the rings of trees preserved for millennia in Irish bogs, dendrochronologist Michael Bailey can pinpoint 1159 BC as the first of 18 years where the sun seemed to stop shining on Ireland.

The darkness was probably caused by volcanic ash or dust from a meteor crash and Eaton is convinced it was a fairly worldwide phenomenon. "It's the time of the Trojan war, the fall of the Chinese ruling dynasty, refugees from the Aegean flooding into Egypt. It was cataclysmic. Imagine what it does to rural, gregarious society. They look to who can protect them, the beginnings of a military."

But Eaton is adamant the Irish never needed protection against the Celts. The series talks about an invasion of the ideas and cultures of the Celts, but Eaton is adamant that "conquering didn't happen". A similar weather change, around 540AD, seems to have helped to spread Christianity around an Ireland receptive to answers about the darkness and hoping for deliverance from a plague that had spread from eastern Europe.

But conversion was slow, certainly longer than the lifetime of St. Patrick, and the Christianity Irish missionaries spread was modified to incorporate pagan beliefs. So Christianity in Ireland developed quite differently from other parts of Europe.

Just before the Normans landed, Rome decided to try to assert its jurisdiction over what were increasingly being viewed as a barbaric people who, according to one contributor, were seen as "exchanging wives as fast as they did horses".

Eaton wishes he had had a time-machine, but is satisfied the series, will make people sit back and say: "I didn't know that before".

In Search of Ancient Ireland starts on RT╔1 on Thursday at 10.15p.m.