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Who were the first colonists?

Where did the first people in Ireland come from? It was presumed that Scotland was most likely, simply because it is the narrowest sea crossing and because so many of the earliest sites in Ireland have been found in Antrim and Down. However there is as yet no evidence to suggest that Scotland was occupied any earlier than Ireland.

There are similarities between the earliest stone tools found in Ireland and stone industries found in Cumbria and Northwest Wales. Though the British evidence is from a later date, it is possible that new discoveries will push back the antiquity of these industries. Moreover, northern Britain was radically different to how it appears today. The sea level was much lower and it is thought that the land extended west of the Isle of Man, from where the Mournes would easily have been visible. The communities living along Britain’s coast were experienced in making and using boats, skills necessary for making the journey to Ireland. So it is possible that the remains of the people who first colonised Ireland now lie preserved at the bottom of the Irish Sea.

These first settlers would have crossed in either skin boats or dugout canoes, probably in small numbers. They are likely to have landed on the south Down or Leinster coast and spread from there wherever coastal and river resources permitted settlement. They lived in small extended family groups and moved around the landscape according to seasonal changes in available food resources. This period of hunter-gatherer communities is known as the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age).