From date is bigger than To date
The tidal, inshore and offshore waters around the coast of Ireland are the source of a rich harvest of sea produce of fish, shell fish and increasingly, sea plants. Our farming is dominated by one crop, standing grass.
Billions of euro worth of beef and dairy produce for export is produced every year, predominantly from animals self feeding on growing grass. Lamb is also reared on growing grass but with specialist production recognising the unique flavour of mountain lamb reared on the heather and varied vegetation of our bog-covered mountains. Wheat for food and barley for our major beer and spirits industries are the dominant tillage crops. It is interesting that within the confines of Belderrig Valley, the deepest roots of the three dominant strands of Irish food; marine, animal husbandry and tillage crops all survive within the archaeological record and have been researched here for many decades.
On the seashore at Belderrig Harbour, the surviving remains of an early fishing community have been discovered and excavated. Thousands of stone implements in the form of sharp stone blades probably used for working light branches and willow shoots for wicker hurdling for fish traps, or alternatively for gutting fish have been found during the excavations. Surviving bone discovered during the excavations allowed the archaeologists to identify the species of fish caught, all inshore fish possibly caught from the shoreline. Other discoveries on the excavated site such as hazelnut shells show that the community also looked inland, gathering the natural produce of the surrounding forests. Radiocarbon dates established that the fishing/gathering community lived here at Belderrig Harbour about seven thousand years ago.
Less than a kilometre from the seashore, stone walls uncovered when the overlying bog had been cut away indicates the earliest evidence for farming in the region. The fields are small but recent research suggests that they are not for cultivated crops but are instead the fields for grazing cattle and sheep. Research elsewhere in the last few years has indicated that the first farmers to Ireland and Britain were dairy farmers, arriving from mainland Europe onto the west coast of Ireland about six thousand years ago. Within two kilometres of the coast on both sides of Belderrig Valley extensive traces of these early farms have been located but by far the most extensive tract of early farming lies seven kilometres to the east at Céide Fields where over ten square kilometres of large Stone Age fields have been mapped in a research programme ongoing for the last half century. These early farmers arrived on the Irish coast about six thousand years ago and while elsewhere in Ireland they cultivated wheat and barley as well as being dairy farmers, in North Mayo there is little evidence for cereal growing at this time.
In marked contrast to the first farmers, farmers of the Bronze Age in Belderrig Valley, two thousand years later are cultivating the land with a primitive plough and with their spades are setting up slightly raised ridges on which they grew wheat and barley. The pollen from these crops has been identified in samples taken from the soil between the ridges. The fortuitous survival and discovery of a few charred grains of barley allowed for the type to be identified. It is naked barley introduced into these islands by the first farmers six thousand years ago but originating in the Zagros Mountains from a single mutation in an ear of hulled barley perhaps two thousand years before that. Naked barley was the food of choice in Scotland during the Stone Age, suggesting that it may be more suited to the harsher climate of Scotland and North West Ireland than is wheat.
By Professor Seamas Caulfield