People of the Geopark
Over many centuries, the special landscapes of what is now the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark have presented both opportunities and challenges for the people that have lived there, and also contributed to the extraordinary diversity of settlers that have called this area their home. Ranging from the very first prehistoric people of Ireland right up to the present day, a near continuous history of settlement can be found within the Geopark, influenced and dependent on the wonderful natural landscapes around them.
The First People
The first settlers who arrived in Ireland around 10,000 years ago during the Mesolithic period mainly foraged on the shores of seas, lakes, and rivers as the densely forested lands were simply impenetrable to them. Evidence of how Mesolithic people lived is very rare as they were a nomadic people, but the remnants of their microliths or stone tools are sometimes found. Stone tools such as axe heads and scrapers made from locally sourced rocks have been found along the shoreline of Lough MacNean.
The first farmers marked the beginning of the Neolithic period, and this meant a change from the hunter and gatherer lifestyle of the Mesolithic period to a more settled way of life that included building permanent dwellings. Neolithic settlers cleared large areas of upland forests for agriculture as they were much easier to clear than the dense, swampy, lowland forests. One of the most important legacies of the Neolithic farmers was their megaliths, or large stone burial sites. The Cavan Burren Park near Blacklion is a stunning place where Neolithic hut sites as well as many Neolithic megaliths can all be seen. There are also several other examples of Neolithic megaliths in the Geopark, including the Aghnaglack court tomb in Boho.
The Bronze Age
The discovery of metal was a key event in human history and bronze was the first metal that could be moulded into any shape. The Bronze Age did not begin in Ireland until 4,000 years ago, but slowly this new culture became integrated into the Neolithic way of life and the Irish Bronze Age began. Settlers during the Bronze Age began to move away from the traditional megalith type tombs preferring simple burial pits or cists. A new type of tomb appeared in the west of Ireland, the wedge tomb; a spectacular example of which can be seen in Cavan Burren Park, known as the Giants Grave.
Giant’s Grave, Cavan Burren Park
The Celts arrived in Ireland around 2,500 years ago and within a few hundred years, Ireland’s Bronze Age culture had all but disappeared. The Celts had one major advantage, in that they had discovered iron, giving rise to the Iron Age. Iron was a far superior metal to bronze, being stronger and much more durable. It did however have one major disadvantage as it required much hotter fires to extract it from its ore. The Iron Age people left their mark on the Geopark landscape in the form of several promontory forts, the best example of which is again found within Cavan Burren Park.
The Early Christians
Perhaps the most famous missionary to arrive in Ireland was Saint Patrick, although he was not the first and according to many historians his importance was greatly exaggerated. The churches founded by Saint Patrick and other missionaries were fairly simple affairs and during the late 5th century, hundred of churches were set up. In time, the Irish church matured and by the 6th century a number of monasteries were also set up. Initially intended to be places of retreat, they attracted the patronage of kings and became influential institutions in their own right. Many of these monastic sites were located along watercourses as this was the main method of transport of the time. As a result several Early Christian sites can be found in the Geopark including Devenish Island monastic site and Inishmacsaint High Cross on Lower Lough Erne, and Drumlane Abbey on the shores of Lough Oughter.
Devenish Island (Copyright Tourism NI)
By the 12th century, Ireland was divided politically into a shifting hierarchy of small kingdoms. The Norman invasion of Ireland took place in 1169 at the behest of Dermot MacMurrough, the King of Leinster, and led to the end of the Irish High Kingship. Many changes were brought about by the Anglo-Normans after the invasion including the founding of borough towns, castles and churches, the importing of tenants and an increase in agriculture and commerce. Evidence of the Anglo-Normans in the Geopark area can be seen at the Anglo-Norman motte and bailey on Turbet Island in Belturbet and Clogh Oughter Castle on Lough Oughter.
The Plantation of Ulster was a planned process of colonisation that took place in the northern Irish province of Ulster during the 17th century. English and Scottish settlers took over lands that had been confiscated from Catholic Irish landowners in the counties of Ulster including Fermanagh and Cavan. These armed settlers helped to prevent further rebellion in Ulster, which had proved to be the most resistant of Ireland’s provinces to English invasion. There are many Plantation Castles dotted across the Ulster landscape some of which can be seen within the Geopark at Monea, Tully, Portora and Castle Caldwell.
Farming in Ireland
Ireland’s population increased rapidly between 1700 and the time of the Great Famine in the 1840’s. Poor farmers grew food mostly for subsistence, and due to the ever decreasing availability of land, many people had to resort to farming poor quality lands. Many farmers devised ingenious solutions to this problem such as burning peat rather that wood or coal, and creating ‘lazy beds’, a method of tillage specially adapted to poor or thin soils. There are many derelict farm cottages dotted across the Geopark that are a reminder of those hard times and the remnants of ‘lazy beds’ can often be seen in the land adjoining these cottages.
Farming is still an important industry within the Geopark although many of the techniques used have changed dramatically. Tourism is overtaking farming as the most important industry in the region while manufacturing, insurance services, forestry and quarrying all make a valuable contribution to the economic development of both Counties Fermanagh and Cavan.
For more information on the archaeology and built heritage of the Geopark please visit the following websites: