One unexpected result of the exceptionally dry summer in Ireland has been a plethora of archaeological discoveries around the country. Over the last few weeks a number of significant prehistoric sites have been revealed as “crop markings” in the water-starved fields along the east coast. In particular, the landscape around the Brú na Bóinne complex of ancient monuments in County Meath has shown up several new locations worthy of further inspection. The riverlands and plains of north Leinster have been a focus of settlement for millennia, and in the pre-Christian period layers of accumulated human activity gave the region a particular importance. In the Late Iron Age a major local population controlled much of the area around the Brú, with their focus on Teamhair, the sacro-political Hill of Tara. This was strongly contested by the kingdoms to the south, grouped under the title of the Laighnigh or the Leinstermen, who may have come close to taking the Hill of Tara in the early centuries CE; or who may have actually succeeded in doing so for a period, usurping or banishing its earlier owners. Echoes of this history might be remembered in the fiery death-tale of the legendary Teamhair king, Conaire Mór, and in the celebrated reigns of such mythical Leinster monarchs as Labhraidh Loingseach son of Ailill Áine and Cathaoir Mór.
Even the Ulaidh or Ulstermen to the north were eager for influence over the fertile and culturally prestigious territories around Teamhair. The broader area was known as Magh Breá, popularly interpreted as the “Plain of Beauty”, though it was actually named after a minor local kingdom. While the region is sometimes equated with the modern county of Fingal or North Dublin it actually ran along the entire east coast from the banks of the River Liffey to just north of the River Boyne and parts of modern County Louth. In the west it stretched beyond the Hill of Tara, some accounts adding the eastern fringes of County Westmeath. The Ulaidh advanced into this desirable territory possibly as far south as the River Boyne before withdrawing in collapse many years later (though this thwarted ambition did not prevent their boasts of lordship over Tara, with the adventurous Baodán son of Caireall of the Dál Fiathach as the most famous – and perhaps plausible – claimant).
The principal architect of the Ulstermen’s hasty turnaround was the bellicose Féine, who burst from obscurity among the heavily forested upstream lands beyond the River Shannon during the 3rd to 5th centuries CE. An intensely expansionist people they spread over much of the western province of Connaught, into south-west Ulster and then down into north-west Leinster (and perhaps south into Munster), displacing, subjugating or absorbing earlier communities, though later claiming kinship with those who traditionally ruled at Tara. This is not an entirely implausible suggestion if we see them as a revival of a larger and more disperse population group which formerly occupied lands across the middle, south and north of the island, known as the Érainn (or at least styled as such by far later Christian chroniclers committing oral histories to manuscript, though the alleged Érainn associations of the Féine are open to question).
From the Féine sprang the dominant Connachta people – also known as the Mic Choinn, Dál Choinn, Cineál Choinn and Síol Choinn – and its two main branches: the western branch, which came to control the sparsely populated west and the name proper, and the ambitious eastern branch, which eventually took the title of Dál Choinn as its own, sitting in residence at Tara. From the latter grouping came the superpower dynasty of Medieval Ireland, the Uí Néill, whose nouveau riche septs exploded in all directions, overrunning the once dominant Ulaidh to the north (allegedly burning their ritual-bound capital at Eamhain Mhacha or Navan Fort in modern County Armagh to the ground), squeezing the Laighnigh to the south-east and pushing against the amorphous – if considerably tougher – Eoghanachta peoples to the south-west (a rival if more diplomatically astute national power in Munster, quite possibly of similar midland Féine origin, which had crowded aside earlier Érainn populations).
This was the period of the symbolic division of the country into the Leath Choinn “Conn’s Half” and the Leath Mogha “Mogh’s Half”; the northern half of the island falling under the control of the legendary Conn Céadchathach, ancestor of the Connachta-Uí Néill, and the southern half under his foe Mogh Nuadhad (from whom came Eoghan Mór, the ancestor of the Eoghanachta, if that was not in fact Mogh’s alternative name). The separating line between both halves followed the Slí Mhór or “Great Road” along the top of the glacial ridges of the Eiscir Riada, from modern Dublin in the east to modern Galway in the west. An elevated course still paralleled by much of the contemporary N6 national primary road.
By the 8h century the Uí Néill peoples and their allies had taken mastery over much of the northern half of Ireland, with their local predecessors or rivals squeezed into ever-smaller enclaves. Their power was such that even the royal houses of Britain – English, Welsh and Scottish – sought friendship or political asylum in the courts of the dynasty’s leading septs and kingdoms: the Cineál Eoghain, Cineál Conaill, Cineál Cairbre (Teathbha), Cineál Mhaine, Cineál Laoire, Cineál Éanna, Clann Cholmáin and Síol Áodha Sláine. Yet, however far they spread from the open plains of counties Westmeath, Meath and Fingal, and however politically divided they became, possession of the vast complex of historical monuments and sites surrounding Teamhair na Rí or “Tara of the Kings” remained central to the group’s common sense of ancestry: both culturally and genealogically. And that possession was one they fought tenaciously to keep when faced by Scandinavian and then Anglo-British invaders in later centuries.
What has largely made these recent archaeological discoveries possible is the new technology of drone-mounted cameras. Aerial photography has been used by archaeologists and researchers for several decades but it was always an expensive and difficult undertaking, with no guarantees of usable results. Especially in an Irish context. Developments in unmanned aerial vehicles and high-resolution cameras, operated by small firms or individuals, have facilitated the rapid exploitation of unusual climatic events; like our prolonged hot summer. As difficult as the current weather is for flora and fauna, and human beings, it has been a boon for our understanding of the cultural landscape around us. The discoveries of the last couple of months provide further evidence that we really should view parts of north Leinster, from the eastern parishes of County Westmeath to County Fingal, from the mouth of the River Boyne perhaps as far south as the River Liffey, as Ireland’s prehistoric “Holy Land” with Tara and its neighbourhood as its “Jerusalem”.