by Peter O'Leary


The earliest people in Munster that we know anything about, were Bronze Age Farmers who had established themselves between 3000 and 2500 BC. Their predecessors had been Neolithic or Late Stone Age people who were pastoral and hunters.

The Bronze Age people were much more advanced than the Neolithic men. They settled down and took ownership of pieces of land, tilled it and cut down trees to establish fields and living areas for their communities. Many of the Ringforts were built at this time, and a typical strong farmer would own and live in a ringfort with a wall, ditch or palisade (or all three) around him to protect his stock and supporters from marauding animals and people.

Because they lived in communities we find a tribal system of organisation and eventually ownership lead to an aristocracy and other signs of a new form of economic structure.

Soon these new Tribes had names to distinguish themselves, and these names still survive today in many instances. Each Tribe would occupy a Tuath or petty kingdom, and groups of Tuatha formed the over kingdom under a greater king.

Our present Civil Parish system largely mirrors the Tuath, such as the Parish of Uibh Laoghaire. The next level in our organisational structure was the greater kingdom which got the name of Barony under the Anglo-Normans. Many of these Baronies have names which are based on the old Tribal system. Bantry is the old kingdom of the Tribe called the Beantraige. Muskerry takes its name from the Muscraige, Fermoy from the Fir Maigh Feine.

In the South West corner of the country there were many smaller tribes who were sea faring people and related to each other. These bear names like the Ciarraige Luachra (North Kerry), the Corcu Duibhne (Dingle Peninsula), Corcu Loigde (South Carbery), the Ciarraidhe Cuirchi (Kerricurrihy) and Ui Mac Calli (Imokilly). They tended to live together reasonably harmoniously and had common grounds in survival in the difficult maritime pursuits such as fishing.

In the inland areas there were much larger Tribes who occupied bands or strips of the land in a West to East structure. Many of these were called by names beginning with Muiscraidhe and probably also had a common descent but were now much more militant and protective of their individual rights. The Muscraidhe Mittine occupied today’s Muskerry. The Muiscraidhe-na-dti-Magh were South of Limerick. The Fir Magh Feine the area of Central Cork around present day Fermoy.

The Mythology of the Great Invasions was of course based on the true history of the country even though glamorised to make it more interesting and memorable. The Milesians, or Gaelic people, did not, of course, arrive in a dozen ships of fighting men, who immediately conquered the older inhabitants in one great battle, and seized control of the country. They were in fact the Iron Age Celts from Western Europe, they arrived over a period from 1000 BC to about 100 BC, and they did eventually over a long period, become dominant over the older inhabitants. They were far superior in a military sense because of their iron weaponry which must have seemed magical when confronted with bronze weapons. The newcomers were superior in aggression and in taking the best land, and eventually in imposing their kings over the earlier people’s rulers. They were not superior in culture, civilisation or life style. In these respects they resembled the later Invasions of Norsemen, Anglo-Normans and the English.

In Munster the Gaelic people eventually evolved a Royal Family who were known as the Eberians or Eoganachta. By 300 AD they had established themselves as rulers of Munster with their power base at Cashel, where they constructed their great fortress to overawe the earlier peoples. They were in a small minority but managed to maintain their superiority over the more numerous Erainn people. Even to this day there are in our population more families who descend from the Erainn folk than those whose ancestry was Eberian.

One of their policies was to construct new Eberian Kingdoms which were placed strategically between the older Erainn ones. Thus the Ui Eachach were located in North Carbery in a fashion which allowed them to control the Corcu Loigde to their South, and the Muscraige Mittine to their North. It is probable that both Erainn Tribes had to pay duties to the Ui Eachach kings, provide services and in turn were given protection by them.

This new structure in Munster was very effective and produced a period of comparative stability which lasted for over 600 years. It was eventually to founder under the pressures created by the next great Invasion, that of the Norsemen. When these marauders started to arrive in 800 AD the kings of Cashel, the great Eoganachta, had become weak and lacking in the will to set up powerful deterrents to the Invaders. This was only achieved by a further internal growth of a new, and previously unknown, set of power hungry men, the Deisi Tribe from County Clare.