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Ireland, Culture

Fionn mac Cumhaill, Cuchulain, Ossianic, menhirs, Medb

Ireland was first inhabited around 7500 bc by Mesolithic hunter-fishers, probably from Scotland. They were followed by Neolithic people, who used flint tools, and then by people from the Mediterranean, known in legend as the Firbolgs, who used bronze implements. Later came the Picts, also an immigrant people of the Bronze Age. Extensive traces of the culture of this early period survive in the form of stone monuments (menhirs, dolmens, and cromlechs) and stone forts, dating from 2000 to 1000 bc. During the Iron Age, the Celtic invasion (about 350 bc) introduced a new cultural strain into Ireland, one that was to predominate. The oldest relics of the Celtic (Gaelic) language can be seen in the 5th-century Ogham stone inscriptions in County Kerry. Ireland was Christianized by Saint Patrick in the 5th century. The churches and monasteries founded by him and his successors became the fountainhead from which Christian art and refinement permeated the crude and warlike Celtic way of life.

Ireland is famous for its contributions to world literature. Two great mythological cycles in Gaelic—the Ulster (Red Branch) and the Fenian (Ossianic)—tell the stories of legendary heroes such as Cu Chulainn (Cuchulain), Maeve (Medb), Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool), and Deirdre. After a long and bitter colonization by England, Ireland gave the world some of the greatest writers in the English language, including Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, and George Bernard Shaw. Associated with the struggle for independence in the 20th century is the Irish literary revival, which produced the works of William Butler Yeats and Sean O’Casey. James Joyce was a formative influence on much of later 20th-century European literature.

Saint Patrick’s Day, March 17, is the most important national holiday in Ireland. The national sports are hurling, a strenuous game similar to field hockey, and Gaelic football, which resembles soccer. Horse racing is a highly popular spectator sport throughout the republic.

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