This article is part of the Irish History Week series.
About 80 years ago, in the village of Belderrig in County Mayo in western Ireland, a man named Patrick Caulfield was cutting peat from the ground overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. He pulled up a layer of peat–which many rural Irish have used for centuries as fuel to heat their houses–and noticed a row of stones beneath which couldn’t have been natural. Because they were under the peat, the stones were placed there before the bog developed, and the bog had been there for as long as anyone could remember.
Although this was a significant discovery not much was done with it until the 1970s when Patrick’s son Seamus, an archaeologist, began investigating further. Probing the spongy ground with iron rods, Caulfield eventually uncovered an extensive complex of stone-walled farm fields, the remains of houses and even tombs. All dated back to Neolithic (Stone Age) times. This place has come to be known as Céide Fields, and it’s one of the most extensive and well-preserved Stone Age communities ever found.
As I’ve observed before, life in the Stone Age must have been pretty horrible. But, as ancient communities go, it seems that life in Céide Fields was about as good as it got at that time. The people who lived there farmed and raised cattle as their sustenance. They plowed with wooden plows drawn by cattle and lived in simple round houses. The stone walls around the fields seem to have been put there for boundary purposes only, not defense–meaning the residents of Céide Fields do not seem to have been afraid of enemies. If any evidence of weapons has been found here, I’m not aware of it.
There are no trees at Céide Fields today. Back when it was a thriving community, things were different.
There is one significant environmental factor about Céide Fields: when people lived here thousands of years ago, the area was heavily forested. In more recent times nothing will grow there because the soil doesn’t contain the nutrients needed to support crops, which is why a peat bog developed there. This suggests that something happened at Céide Fields to denude it of its trees, and this deforestation may have been what eventually caused the disappearance of the community here. Did the residents, competing with each other (or other communities) for resources, cut down the trees so as to cultivate more farm and ranch land? Or did climatic conditions change naturally, leading to the death of the forest and the eventual abandonment of the site?
We may never know, but it’s clear that environmental factors played a huge role in the decline of Céide Fields. Yet it’s interesting to think about the lives that were once lived here, in an out-of-the-way corner of western Ireland, when the world was young and the history of the human species had just begun. The ancient Irish of Céide Fields were on the vanguard of that history.