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is a MULTI-PART BOOK at the centre of a multimedia project which aims to chart the evolution of Ireland's land, life, and people from their origins in the deep past right up to the present day, as well as exploring what Ireland might be like in the near and distant future.

The Evolution of Ireland

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... that Ireland was once split into northern and southern halves which each belonged to different continents separated by thousands of kilometres of ocean?

That since these halves came together to form Ireland, its surface has been covered by deserts, rainforests, oceans, and ice, and populated by everything from hyenas and mammoths to mighty Sequoia trees and dinosaurs, possibly including some early relatives of Tyrannosaurus rex?

That ancient relatives of modern marsupials may have lived in Ireland before they ever set foot in Australia, or that polar bears may be partly descended from brown bears that lived in Ice Age Ireland?

That Neanderthals are among the ancestors of the Irish, that the early Irish likely had dark skin, or that the ancient megalithic tomb Newgrange is over 500 years older than the Great Pyramids of Giza?

That Brian Boru may have actually lost the Battle of Clontarf, that there was once an Irish messiah, or that Darwin's voyage on the Beagle was commissioned by an Irishman? 

That the Soviet leader Lenin spoke English with a Dublin accent, that Mussolini was once shot by an Irishwoman, or that Hitler had an Irish sister-in-law?

the idea

The Evolution of Ireland is a work of creative nonfiction concerned with the search for the answers to two simple questions:

What is Ireland?


Who are the Irish?

These questions are not new, of course, but there has been a REVOLUTION in recent years in how they can be answered.

New and advanced geological models are painting an ever richer picture not only of what Ireland has been in the deep past but what it could be in the future.

WE CAN NOW TRACE IRELAND'S EVOLUTION AS A LAND FROM ITS ORIGINS c. 1.8 BILLION YEARS AGO through its membership of a number of ancient supercontinents up to the present,  as well as tracking the evolution of its landscape over that vast time span.

For instance, here you can see the position Ireland would have occupied in the most recent supercontinent, Pangaea, around 250 million years ago.

We can even project what place Ireland might hold in Pangaea Proxima, the next supercontinent that will form 250 million years in the future.

In the  mighty collisions creating this massive future landmass, Africa's titanic impact with Europe will cause the whole continent to rotate clockwise, leaving Ireland lying on its side compared to its orientation today (see top right of image).


New discoveries are also being made regarding Ireland's life. So, although Ireland's fossil record is relatively poor, it is ever-growing, meaning that we have an increasingly better understanding of the life-forms that have inhabited its lands and waters at various points over hundreds of millions of years, from dinosaurs to dogs, hyenas to hares, marine reptiles to mammoths, tiny early plants to towering giant redwoods (Sequoia), to name but a few.

DNA RESEARCH HAS ALSO OVERTHROWN LONG-HELD VIEWS OF WHO THE IRISH ARE, where they come from, and the appearance of their ancestors, while also providing spectacular insights into how they relate to the animals and plants they share the island with, and how these animals and plants relate to one another.

Our knowledge of Ireland's people and their past has also been bolstered by a flood of riches in terms of new archaeological evidence surrendered by the earth in recent times as the island was dug up during the economic boom of the 1990s and 2000s, as new roads, apartment blocks, and shopping centres were constructed.


Even very recent events have illuminated new aspects of Ireland's past, the heatwave of summer 2018 having revealed the outlines of a number of man-made features of the landscape spanning thousands of years of human habitation on the island, from Newgrange to Birr Castle and beyond.

All of this fascinating new Irish evidence will be combined with evidence found worldwide to paint a GROUNDBREAKING NEW PICTURE OF IRELAND'S PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE.

For instance, either side of a point around 400 million years ago, Ireland has some internationally renowned fossils, including some of the earliest evidence for the transition of plants and vertebrates onto land. However, Ireland's fossil record for the last 300 million years is extremely poor, and so it is virtually impossible to reconstruct a picture of its life from this record alone.

The Evolution of Ireland will RECLAIM THIS LOST AGE IN IRELAND'S PAST by using the fossil records of Britain, France, and wider areas – as well as the latest palaeogeographical maps to establish when Ireland was connected to these lands – to build up a rich and vibrant picture of Ireland's ancient animals and plants. Possible past inhabitants include some fantastical forms, such as the giant bird Gastornis, pictured here.

This use of evidence from across the globe will also, of course, be inval​uable in reconstructing the deeper background to Ireland's humans, especially in terms of the evolution of Irish culture.

For instance, TRACING THE ROOTS OF ART from the earliest evidence in pre-human apes and hominins all the way up to the sophisticated cave art of Lascaux, Chauvet, and other similarly-aged sites in Europe, Africa, and even Australia, will provide an extremely firm foundation from which to look at early Irish art, such as that from Newgrange, anew, giving us a deeper appreciation of its true meaning and significance.

Similarly, THE ROOTS OF MUSIC will be traced in this manner, providing a background to the oldest evidence of a musical instrument in Ireland, a 4,000-year-old pan pipe called the Wicklow Pipes, which, along with the horns and trumpets and other instruments of the Bronze and Iron Ages, formed the bedrock of Ireland's musical culture before the emergence of traditional music in the Middle Ages. Click here to listen to some Bronze Age horns from Co. Kerry, which sound amazingly like a famous instrument from Australia.

The ORIGINS OF THE IRISH LANGUAGE will also be examined in this way, Part One of The Evolution of Ireland looking at the origins and evolution of language itself, and the earliest evidence for its appearance on Earth.

Later parts of the book will then trace the roots and emergence of the major language groups in the world today, including the Indo-European group which Irish (and English) belong to. Who the Indo-Europeans really were will also be investigated, as will the theories on the arrival of Indo-European languages in Ireland. There will also be a brief look at some of the linguistic evidence for the nature of some of the pre-Indo-European languages spoken in ancient Ireland.

An Epic Story

The Evolution of Ireland, then, seeks to pull a huge amount of new and exciting information together and combine it with the best of existing knowledge to provide A COMPLETE STORY OF IRELAND FROM BEGINNING TO END.

It will trace Ireland's development from the geological evolution of the island itself and the biological evolution of the life which has come to inhabit it, to the evolution of humans, their migrations from Africa, occupation of the island from the time of the first settlers, and the subsequent political, social, and cultural development of Ireland from this point on.

The possibilities of what Ireland will be like in the near and distant future will also be investigated.

Although based on the best and most up-to-date research, as well as consultation with academic experts worldwide, this book will be no dry collection of scientific data. Instead, this information will be used to weave together AN EXCITING STORY OF VOLCANOES AND SUPERCONTINENTS, DINOSAURS, GIANT MAMMALS, AND MASS EXTINCTIONS, BRUTAL ICE AGES AND WORLD-SPANNING HUMAN MIGRATIONS, NOT TO MENTION THE RISE AND FALL OF GREAT KINGDOMS.

However, this will be a book that is also very concerned with the lives of ordinary people and will seek to shed light on those who are so often forgotten by history  women, children, and the elderly. Whether exploring the ordinary or the extraordinary, though, FREQUENT DESCRIPTIVE PASSAGES will place the reader directly in a time and place, evoking the sights and sounds they would experience if they could be right there themselves, enlivening their understanding of any particular period with a sense of immediacy.

The lighter and lesser-known aspects of Irish history will also be explored  to pick one example, how it came to pass that Samuel Beckett sometimes drove a young André the Giant to school in the 1950s.

An Exciting Story

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a global story

With such a scope, The Evolution of Ireland is more than just the story of Ireland – it is the story of the whole world.


Tracing the origins and evolution of Ireland's land and life will take us all over the globe, revealing hidden connections between Ireland and lands near and far, from the Arctic to Antarctica, the Americas to Australia, and everywhere in-between. And the same is true of Ireland's people.

Because of the depth of this book's approach, Part One could, of course, be read by any human anywhere on the planet and they would find answers to the deeper questions of their existence as humans too. And beyond our evolution as a species, the answers keep coming, as the end of Part One and later parts of the book will reveal how humanity diverged into the many groups across the world today.

So, whether you are American or Australian, British or Brazilian, Japanese or Jamaican, Indian or Icelandic, Maasai or Maori, the story of The Evolution of Ireland is your story too.

similar books

In terms of breadth, scope, and approach, The Evolution of Ireland would be most similar to:

Bill Bryson's

A Short History of Nearly Everything

Jared Diamond's

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Mark Kurlansky's

The Basque History of the World






It is divided into SIX CHAPTERS, and each of these is further subdivided into around 15 SECTIONS to make the book as easy to read as possible. A preview of each chapter is provided below.

Chapter One

A Land is Born

Chapter One explores the deepest origins of Ireland as a land, from the creation in the early universe of the elements it is made from, to the emergence of its first rocks c. 1.8 billion years ago, all the way up to around 400 million years ago when it was finally united as a single land from the fusion of a number of separate blocks. The fascinating parallel story of the origins and evolution of Ireland's life-forms is also told, tracing their development from the earliest microbes around four billion years ago to the complex, large animals and plants that had emerged by around 500 million years ago.

Covering such a vast period of time, this chapter is full of epic events and drama. The various parts that now constitute Ireland arise from the bowels of the Earth and are dragged right across the face of the planet, at times some well inside the Northern Hemisphere, at others flirting with the equator or even so far south that they would lie inside the borders of Antarctica today. During these wanderings, these proto-Irelands become provinces in a succession of mighty supercontinents that preceded our most recent one, Pangaea; are buried under kilometres of ice during the Snowball Earth episode around 700 million years ago; and, finally, the two main blocks meet after the closure of a precursor to the Atlantic Ocean that once separated them by thousands of kilometres.

The story of the origins and evolution of the countless life-forms of myriad design which now inhabit Ireland and its seas is, of course, no less dramatic. Life is traced from its deepest origins, with the last universal common ancestor – a form of 'living rock' – giving rise to free-living microbes in the sea, one branch of which becomes ever more complex and splits into a number of great lines, such as the plants, fungi, and animals. By around 500 million years ago, the seas have begun to look far more like they do today, filled with predators and prey belonging to the main animal groups which inhabit the lands and waters of modern Ireland. Just how life can change so profoundly over time is also illuminated through the outlining of the main principles of the theory of evolution.

Chapter Two

The Long

journey North

Chapter Two follows Ireland's journey northwards from its position south of the equator around 400 million years ago up to almost 30 million years ago when  it was far closer to its location  in our modern world. The story of its life picks up a little earlier, around 500 million years ago, and sees its surface colonised by plants and animals for the first time, setting in train the rise of great rainforests and woods through which fly, plod, and stalk a wild diversity of fantastic forms, from giant insects to dinosaurs, and pterosaurs to ancient mammals.

As a land, Ireland experiences a number of profound transformations during this time, which endow the landscape with some of its most characteristic features. Around 400 million years ago, Ireland is clothed in the sands of a gigantic desert, which persist today most notably in the southern province of Munster in the form of the great sandstone peninsulas of Kerry or sandstone mountains like the Macgillycuddy's Reeks, the latter thrust up by the mighty collisions creating the supercontinent Pangaea. At other times, Ireland is inundated by oceans, in whose waters the death of countless sea creatures over millions of years creates the extensive limestones which underlie almost half of modern Ireland, outcropping at the surface in the form of some unmistakable features, such as the limestone pavement of the Burren in the west, or 'Ireland's Uluru', Ben Bulben, in Co. Sligo in the northwest. Oceans of a different kind also create perhaps Ireland's most singular feature, the invasion of the northeast just under 60 million years ago by oceans of lava resulting in the formation of the iconic columns of the Giant's Causeway.

The changes in the types of life-forms inhabiting Ireland over this time span are also breath-taking. At the beginning, plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates are emerging from the sea for the first time, but by its end mammals have risen to conquer the lands of the Earth, become masters of the oceans as whales move from land to sea, and have even invaded the air in the form of bats. In-between these two poles there are many more monumental alterations in the forms of life inhabiting Ireland; the small, terrestrial pioneers among the plants give rise to gigantic, sprawling rainforests, insects become the first animals to take to the air and soon become giants – seagull-sized relatives of the dragonflies soaring over other massive invertebrates, including human-sized relatives of the millipedes. Superficially reptile-like ancestors of the mammals too have their day, only to be ousted from their seat of power by the rise of the true reptiles, with dinosaurs rampaging across the land, mighty marine reptiles ruling the waves, and pterosaurs sailing the skies, which are also invaded by the birds.

Chapter Three

Life in the Trees

Chapter Three delves into the deep evolutionary background of the people of Ireland, beginning with the origins of the primate order around 90 million years ago and ending with the extinction of apes in Europe and much of Eurasia by around seven million years ago. The story of the evolution of Ireland as a land is also advanced, as is that of its life, picking up where we left off in Chapter Two over 30 million years ago and  witnessing the formation of features like the Lough Neagh basin and the dominance of the Irish landscape by a very strange mix of archaic, familiar, and exotic plants, mammals, reptiles, and birds.

The background story to the evolution of Ireland's humans is truly an eye-popper, and it is one that takes us on a world-spanning journey, from North America to East Asia, and from Ireland deep into southern Africa. Along the way we learn some fascinating things about the people of Ireland, including that some of their closest relatives on the island today are rats and mice, as well as revealing how they relate to all the other members of the primate order through following the successive splits of their line from those leading to today's lemurs, tarsiers, New World monkeys, and Old World monkeys. This approach also illuminates Irish people's place among the apes, showing when their line split from those of the gibbons and orangutans, leaving the story of how and when they split from the lines leading to the gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos to be told in Chapter Five. This epic story also allows other stories to be told, including how colour vision evolved in animals, and why Irish people today see their island and its seas in a very different way to the insects, reptiles, birds, and mammals they live alongside.

The story of Ireland's landscape and life is also bursting with jaw-dropping vistas, filled with outlandish features, plants, and animals. Buckling of the crust in the northeast creates the basin in which Lough Neagh now sits, although its ancient counterpart is far larger than this modern lake. And draining this super-lake is possibly a super-river far greater than today's Shannon, carving its way south through the emergent Irish Sea basin. And in the woods there are super-trees, with giant redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), the tallest tree on Earth, looking down upon a fantastic array of animals. These range from alligators, crocodiles, snakes, and ostriches, to a legion of extinct mammals, including huge gargoyle-like pig-relatives called entelodonts, hippo-like anthracotheres, bear-dogs, wolf-like hyaenodonts, gliding rodents, marsupial relatives, hyenas, and false sabretooth cats. More modern mammals also begin to appear, some with relatives still living in Ireland and its waters today, while others are far more exotic, including ancient relatives of the bears and beavers, rhinos, raccoons, and red pandas, pikas, tapirs, and even the elephants.

Chapter Four

modern life

Chapter Four focuses on the fascinating developments in the evolution of mammals during the late Miocene (11.2–5.3 million years ago), which saw the emergence of the modern forms of many of the mammals that inhabit Ireland today, as well as those which have lived in Ireland in the geologically recent past, such as the spotted hyena or the brown bear. The late Miocene origins and evolution of some extinct mammals that also inhabited Ireland relatively recently, such as the mammoths, is also explored. Another central strand in these mammal stories is the mighty tale of the rise and spread of a plant that now utterly dominates Ireland – grass.

This chapter begins by painting a picture of the strange mammal fauna that existed in western Europe at the beginning of the late Miocene, around 11 million years ago, with many archaic and exotic mammals still living alongside those of a more familiar form. Thus, bear-dogs, false sabretooth cats, and massive gorilla-like, knuckle-walking relatives of the horses called chalicotheres share the land with ancient relatives of the rhinos, elephants, giraffes, tapirs, bears, hyenas, pikas, hyraxes, great apes, red pandas, and even giant pandas, as well as those of mammals that can still be found in Ireland today, such as the horses, bovids, deer, and cats. But even these more familiar mammals are strange, all belonging to lineages that are now extinct, the horses present, for example, still having three toes, while the dominant cats are true sabretooth forms. From around nine million years ago onwards, though, the archaic forms begin to disappear, with the bear-dogs, false sabretooth cats, and many other forms going extinct, and the mammals begin to take on a far more modern appearance.

Of those that have lived in Ireland relatively recently but no longer do, the hyenas give rise to forms that resemble typical modern forms like the spotted hyena for the first time, while the bears lose their more archaic, dog-like members and become more modern in form and size. Of those mammals that still have representatives in Ireland today, pigs also take on a more modern appearance, and the weasel family to which Ireland's badgers, otters, stoats, and pine martens belong also experiences many of the divergences leading to living forms, while the first members of the family of Ireland's mice and rats also make their earliest appearance in western Europe. The main stars of this chapter in terms of the rise of modern mammals, though, are the earliest direct relatives of today's horses, cattle, sheep, deer, cats, and dogs, the evolutionary story of which takes us on a mesmerising journey through space and time, across the continents and from the late Miocene back to the Eocene (56–34 million years ago). Great milestones in the evolution of the people of Ireland are also included, the chapter ending with the migration of great apes to Africa which will give rise to the first hominins on Earth. 

Chapter Five

the descent

of humanity

Chapter Five returns the focus almost completely on the evolutionary journey of the people of Ireland, tracing their story from the emergence of the very first hominins on Earth around seven million years ago right up to a point just under one million years ago when humans first begin to appear in Britain. The nature of the landscape and life of Ireland at times during this time span is also explored, including the great changes that were brought about by the onset of the Ice Age over 2.5 million years ago, something which also, of course, profoundly affected the path of human evolution.

This chapter, then, plays a key role in answering one of the central questions this book is concerned with – 'Who are the Irish?' – revealing many of the great evolutionary shifts responsible for fundamental aspects of how Irish people look, move, and behave today. The physical changes over this time span are perhaps the most stark, with hominins rising to walk on two feet, increasingly moving more on the ground than in the trees, and eventually becoming so terrestrially adept that they evolve into long distance runners, while they also become far less hairy and start to look much more like humans do today. Parallelling these mighty physical changes are no less significant ones regarding cultural and social evolution, with the making of stone tools, the harnessing of fire, and the origins of language, music, and art. The nature of the evolutionary relationship between Ireland's people and their closest living relatives – the chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas – also comes under the spotlight, and an attempt is made to reconstruct the appearance of the last common ancestors we share with these modern great apes, using the best of available evidence.

The evolution of Ireland during this time is also very colourful. During the Pliocene (c.5.3–2.6 million years ago), for example, in some respects Ireland's life looks similar to today, with modern-looking deer, bovids, and otters present. However, this ancient Ireland remains very strange and exotic in many ways, populated by three-toed horses, tapirs, rhinos, hyenas, monkeys, beavers, as well as ancient relatives of the red panda and giant panda, not to mention exotic trees like the giant redwood (Sequoia) and the Japanese umbrella-pine. And lumbering through the forests, a variety of ancient relatives of the elephants can be found, the most impressive of which is undoubtedly Mammut borsoni, which may have weighed an astonishing 18 tonnes and sported huge five-metre-long tusks! A true elephant also appears in the form of the mammoth, Mammuthus rumani, a hairless ancestor of the woolly mammoth which will come to rule Ireland during the Ice Age. A similar picture is seen in the seas, with a variety of whales (including dolphins), seals, and walruses belonging to modern groups, while extinct whales  and exotic marine mammals like dugongs also splash in these waters.

Chapter Six

the first irish

Chapter Six is largely driven by the search for the answer to one of the greatest questions regarding Ireland's past – when did humans first arrive in Ireland? The evidence for the presence of a succession of human species in Britain over the last almost one million years is looked at, as is the issue of these ancient Britons' proximity to Ireland, their capacity for boat-building, sea levels, etc., to investigate the likelihood that any made a crossing to Ireland. The evolution of the land and life of Ireland at this time is also explored, concentrating on the later part of the Ice Age, when mammoths, hyenas, giant deer, bears, and many more roamed.

Modern humans were present in Ice Age Ireland, but are only known from the very end of this great age, under 13,000 years ago. In contrast, Britain has been inhabited by humans at various times over the last almost a million years, with footprints from eastern England dating to around 850,000, or possibly even 950,000, years ago that may belong to the archaic species Homo antecessor. Among the highlights of later occupations are the powerfully-built hunters of the species Homo heidelbergensis at Boxgrove in southern England around 500,000 years ago, the Neanderthals known from various sites across the southern half of Britain from around 60,000 years ago, while members of our own species, Homo sapiens, first arrive in this land around 44–41,000 years ago. This chapter assesses these ancient human occupations of Britain to discover if modern humans were indeed the first Irish, or if this title could be claimed by Neanderthals or some other extinct species. The evolution of all these species is also explored, as is the issue of the interbreeding between modern humans and archaic humans, something which means that most Irish people are part-Neanderthal.

The search for the nature of Ireland's wider mammalian fauna at this time is a more straightforward affair. Although there is only sparse evidence relating to Ireland's mammal life for much of the Ice Age, there are abundant fossils from the last glacial period (117,000–11,700 years ago). So, we know with certainty that Ireland at this time is inhabited by some mammals that are still found on the island today, such as horses, red deer, hares, and stoats, but also by a very interesting collection of extinct and exotic mammals, such as woolly mammoths, musk oxen, giant deer, and reindeer, spotted hyenas, wolves, and brown bears, as well as smaller forms like arctic foxes and arctic lemmings. The amazing connections between some of these ancient Irish mammals and some mammals now found only very far from Ireland is also looked at, with recent evidence having shown that modern polar bears may be partly descended from brown bears that inhabited Ice Age Ireland. The possibility that some fascinating mammals known from Britain at this time were present in Ireland too is also investigated, to see if this land was home to the woolly rhino, cave lion, bison, or aurochs.

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