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The historical dimension of uniqueness

Updated Wednesday, 30th March 2016

How does the history of a region contribute to its identity and uniqueness?

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Malin More Standing stones Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Copyright Tom FourWinds 2001-2016 Standing stones at Malin More, Donegal The historical dimension of a region’s character is very important and this uniqueness can be conceptualised as a combination of historical layers. Each layer is part of a different system of interdependencies – or, to put it another way, over time, the region has been linked with different places in different relationships. In geographical terms, then, each layer could be thought of as a new map.

Early settlement 

In a social sense, the location of Ireland in relation to other places on a map of Bronze Age trade links is different to its location on a map of 19th-century emigration. Ireland was the centre of Bronze Age craftsmanship and exported artefacts to markets in Britain and on the Continent, as far as the eastern Mediterranean. In the 19th century, Ireland exported labour to North America. In contemporary terms, for example on a map of industrial employment in Europe, Ireland appears peripheral – or, alternatively, part of a widespread distribution of multinational enterprise.

Major influences into Ireland have largely come from the East, with the Celtic invasions, English colonialism, and now the links with the European Union. Despite a tendency to think of Ireland, and especially the West of Ireland, as ‘Celtic’, there are remnants of an earlier native culture in the form of the Neolithic colonists who came to Ireland from the fourth millennium BC and who left evidence of Mediterranean origins. They faced a thickly wooded environment with Stone Age technology. Their influence remains in the form of distinctive megalithic monuments in the blanket bog which dominates much of the uplands. The bog is thought to result from the clearance of woodland coupled with climatic change. Examples of megalithic monuments are the court tomb, cairn and standing stones at Malin More, County Donegal. Close to Killala, the world’s most extensive Neolithic landscape is preserved under blanket bog at the Céide fields.

Subsequent layers of settlement

This early phase of settlement constitutes a basic historical layer. Subsequent layers of settlement, like the Celts, the Anglo Normans and the Tudor planters, merged with, modified, and were modified by the previous layers, developing distinctive regional characteristics. Because influences came into Ireland across the East, South and Northeast coasts, the new elements were most strongly felt in the eastern half of the island. Although the Anglo Normans gained at least nominal control of most of Ireland, in the West, the Celtic chieftains remained in control of their lands, and in the mediaeval period, a dual cultural pattern emerged between West and East which affected subsequent layers. The relationship with England was firmly established politically after the Acts of Union of 1800, but became most apparent in the East. Government and administration was centred and developed in and around Dublin; the manufacturing industry, in the Northeast around Belfast. In the West, by contrast, the old clustered settlement forms and the traditional folk culture survived well into the 19th century.

Cultural survival in the West is an illustration of how distance – and remoteness – affects the region's character. But it is important to note that this remoteness has been constructed from specific sets of social relations. In the prehistoric layer, when economic relationships with Europe were maintained by sea links, Ireland was well endowed – with natural harbours and a seafaring tradition. In the recent past, Ireland has been locked into cultural, economic and political relationships with England and now more with Europe. Had these recent dominant influences been from the West rather than the East, the role of the West of Ireland might have been very different, since the West of Ireland is remote from Dublin, London and Brussels. The other side of the coin emerges, however, in terms of cultural significance; for while the West of Ireland has remained peripheral to modernising influences, the area is central to an understanding of national identities of the Irish state.


Now move on to read about Culture and regional distinctiveness.


See all the articles in this series

See all the series in the Change in the West of Ireland collection

This article is part of a collection on the 'Uniqueness, Interdependence, Uneven Development and Change in the West of Ireland'. To find out more about the collection, a good place to start is the introduction, Change in the West of Ireland.  





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