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Beaker folk and Celts: 2000 BC - AD 400

Neolithic Ireland, forming part of the megalithic tradition of the Atlantic coastal regions, can boast one of the most spectacular examples of a passage grave at Newgrange - dating from about 2500 BC.

The most significant arrivals in the centuries soon after Newgrange are the Beaker folk. And at some time after 500 BC the Celts arrive - providing Ireland with its lasting character. Thereafter neither immigrants nor invaders cross the Irish Sea in large numbers. The Romans, in particular, decline the challenge. Celtic chieftains are free to establish their own hierarchies. But the greatest influence on early Irish history is perhaps that of a single visitor from England - St Patrick.

Christianity in Ireland: 5th - 6th century AD

The most telling images of early Christianity in Ireland are the beehive cells on the inhospitable rock of Skellig Michael, off the coast of Kerry. In these, from the 5th century, Celtic monks live in an ascetic tradition which relates back to the first desert fathers in Egypt. Cold, rather than heat, is here their local penance.

Missionary efforts in Ireland during the 5th century - including those of St Patrick - give the Christian religion a firmer footing. By the 6th century the time is ripe for the founding of the great Irish monasteries (powerful establishments, as opposed to the cluster of hermits' cells on Skellig Michael) from which Celtic Christianity exerts its far-flung influence.

Charismatic leaders, founding monasteries and being remembered as saints, are a feature of 6th-century Ireland. The first is St Finnian, who establishes the monastery of Clonard in Meath. Then there is St Ciaran, the father-figure of Clonmacnois on the Shannon, and St Brendan, the founder of Clonfert in Galway. Pre-eminent among them is St Columba, responsible for two foundations on the mainland - at Derry and Durrow - before setting sail (Christ-like with twelve companions) to take the faith to Scotland.

In 563 he and his party make their base on the island of Iona, from which offshoots are later established as far afield as Lindisfarne (known for this reason as Holy Island) off the coast of Northumberland.

Illuminated manuscripts: 7th - 11th century

Irish monks of the 7th and 8th century create illuminated manuscripts which are among the greatest treasures of Celtic and early Christian art. The beautiful calligraphy (the scribes sometimes add Complaints in the margin about their difficult working conditions) usually provides the text of the four Gospels. The earliest is the Book of Durrow, from about 650. Others include the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.700) and the Book of Kells (c.800).

The glory of these manuscripts (in addition to their wonderfully inventive images of the evangelists) is the intricate decoration, with the famous 'carpet pages' formed of interlacing patterns - reminiscent of the complex linear designs in Celtic metalwork.

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