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  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - Society beyond the frontier



Beyond the seas west of Britain, lived the Scotti, the Irish, who might already have been moving into Argyll, if they had not lived there all along. The examination of barbarian society west of the Irish Sea is plagued by the employment of later Irish sources, held to have a timeless ‘Celtic’ value and indeed to be applicable to other parts of the Celtic-speaking world. Leaving aside the debate between ‘nativists’, who see the information in seventh-century and later sources as representing unalloyed Irish tradition, and anti-nativists, who argue that these accounts are heavily influenced by Christian ideas, to project our sources' information back 300 years or more must be unacceptable. Viewing later ‘Celtic’ sources as a ‘window on the Iron Age’ is simplistic and denies change. The archaeological record is unequivocal in revealing dramatic change in most areas of Irish life, beginning in the fourth century, changes that created the situation attested in the documents and buried the social structures of earlier Iron Age Ireland for good.

Archaeology suggests that society in Ireland was largely pastoral and, as far as can be told, had not changed significantly for some time. The archaeological data suggest a social structure based upon wide kinship groups with weak, but perhaps extensive, political authority based upon communal ritual practices.