Mesolithic Age

(c.7000-4000 B.C.)

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Flint hoard from Mount Sandel, Co. Derry 

(Can be seen in Ulster Museum, Belfast)

Although Ireland probably had earlier inhabitants pre-Ice Age as had been suggested by the finding of human bones in Kilgreany, near Cappoquin in Co. Waterford embedded in a layer of stalagmite, underneath and therefore older than, a layer of early post-glacial deposit.* 

It was later discovered to be a skull from the Neolithic c.3000 - 2500 B.C. period due to carbon dating done by the Harvard Archaeological Mission in 1934, the reason for the mix up - it was claimed that the skull had fallen down a pit shaft and embedded itself in the layer of stalagmite. Only the top part of Ireland was covered by the glacier the southern part called Munster was free of ice for 50,000 years so it is possible that it was inhabited at a very early stage.

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 Archer's wrist-guards

(Can be seen in Ulster Museum, Belfast)

 Practically all traces of these early inhabitants are either gone or buried very deep in the stratae of modern Ireland.   Many archaeologists concentrate on the Mesolithic Age onwards,  very little research has been done to establish who the first inhabitants of Ireland were.  The research that has been done on the pre-historic peoples of Ireland centres mainly on the remains of tools, weapons and other artefacts they left behind, little else is known about them.

Meso-Lithic means Middle-Stone, and stone is used as the chief resource for many of their artefacts.  They chose different types of stone for specific purposes.  Hard stone which was capable of resisting fractures and could be ground and polished was particularly prized.  Porcellanite is an example of this type of stone and it was mined from the basalt volcanic vent at Tievebulliagh, County Antrim, and Brockley on Rathlin Island. 

porcellanite axe hoard

(Can be seen in Ulster Museum, Belfast)

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Porcellanite was so popular that axe 'factories' were set up at these sites and the products produced distributed over most of Ireland and even parts of Scotland and England.  Flint was also highly prized and used for spear heads and polished to a high sheen.  Lambay porphyry is another very prized stone, and many of the finds of stone axes made from this material were recovered in the east of Ireland, near the location of Lambay Island, which is near Portrane, Co. Dublin.  Also used for heavy slab axes is sidiritic ironstone a number of  which were found at Lough Boora in County Offaly.  They were once called 'River Ford Axes' because of the large number of finds at river-crossings.

polished flints

(Can be seen in Ulster Museum, Belfast)

The many uses of  stone are as follows: flint spears, porcellanite axes, heavy ironstone axes, sandstone for sharpening and siltstone for giving the final edge to implements.  Quern-stones were used for grinding grains, granite and white sandstone were used for this purpose.  Querns were also used to grind out ores from stones.  Fine grained stones such as flint or jasper were used to make archer's wrist bracers.  Shale, soapstone, slate or micaschist was used for items that needed to be thin with perforations for uses such as spindle-whorls, loom weights or line-sinkers.

Soapstone, stealite and talc were used for making stone lamps, stone beads, and stone bowls, and funerary urns.  Lignite was used for making bracelets and beads and there were deposits of lignite around Lough Neagh, and Armoy, County Antrim

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Most of the information we have of the Mesolithic period in Ireland comes from excavations at Mount Sandel in County Derry (see pic of flints) where many flint artefacts were uncovered as well as evidence of settlement and the remains of carbonated bones (burnt bones) of wild pig (boar), rabbit, dog, capercaillie, salmon, hazelnuts and some sea-fish which gives us an idea of what they ate.  It would seem that the boar was their main form of sustenance in the winter months and that salmon were a large part of their summer diets which would explain why the boar and the salmon have such a high place in ancient irish symbolism.

Another site of archaeological importance is Lough Boora near Kilcormac in Co. Offaly, the archaeologist Michael Ryan excavated the remains of a Mesolithic settlement dating from c.7030 - c.6400 bc, showing that it was contemporary with the Mount Sandel site.  400 leaf-shaped and over 200 microliths were found at the site.  Black chert was used by the people at this site.  Also excavations in the Munster Blackwater area by Peter Woodman has uncovered earlier Mesolithic flints than those at Mount Sandel.

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There is evidence that a changeover in production methods occured in the late Mesolithic age as flint spear heads are made all of one piece at this time.  There probably was a lot of woodworking done also at this time but no remains have come down to us to support this theory.  Ireland was covered with deciduous forests at this time and wood was plentiful particularly oak, hazel, alder, elm, ash and rowan.


It is obvious that these people were very inventive and used their environment to its full potential, they had of necessity to be self-sufficient but would have welcomed trade.  They probably wore furs, and leather and hemp based fabrics, nettles were also used to create fabrics also used was wool from sheep.  They may have used birds feathers for ornamentation.  Natural dyes from plant sources may also have been used.  We can look to some of the peoples still living a 'Mesolithic' way of life even today in our modern era such as the peoples of the deep Amazon to give us clues to the way the people of this obscured time lived.

*R.A.S. Macalister - Ancient Ireland, Methuen & Co. Ltd. London, pub.1935 (p1)

Sources: Irish Archaeology Illustrated edited by Michael Ryan pub. Dublin 1994

Harbison, Peter - Pre-christian Ireland, from the first settlers to the Early Celts, pub. Thames&Hudson 1998.


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