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Advances in farming, toolmaking, and fighting methods entered Ireland. The introduction of the simple ox-drawn plough eliminated the hard work of breaking up the soil by spade. Sharper, more finely honed knives and cutting tools made possible finely wrought, more refined work in metal and wood. Shields of  A Brief History of Ireland Replica of a crannóg by the lake at Graggaunowen, County Clare (Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY) bronze, wood, or leather, along with short, heavy swords, facilitated close fighting in warfare.

Excavations reveal that stone axes were mass-produced at Rathlin Island and Tievebulliagh in County Antrim in what constituted Ireland’s first factories. The axes, made of a distinctive speckled stone, were traded locally and also to the Dublin area, to Lough Gur, and even to southern England, thus initiating Ireland’s first export trade. It is during this period that we learn of the earliest religious beliefs to have played a part in the lives of people in Ireland. The Neolithic Irish were the first in Europe to build in monumental-size stone, constructing not dwellings in which to live but rather burial places for their dead and perhaps temples for their gods.

A mythological character who some early scholars affirmed was modeled on an actual historical figure, Cúchulainn returned to prominence during the Irish cultural renaissance of the late 19th century. Nationalists in the early 20th century readily adopted him as the image-perfect warrior champion of Irish independence. The Ulster Cycle contains all the elements that make for engaging storytelling, including love, betrayal, heroism, war, jealousy, and revenge. The Táin tells of gods and goddesses and mortal kings and queens.

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