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Climate, environment and farming in Ireland during the last two millennia: insights from palaeoecology

Climate, environment and farming in Ireland during the last two millennia: insights from palaeoecology

Paper by Michael O’Connell (Palaeoenvironmental Research Unit, National University of Ireland Galway)

Keynote Presentation at Study of Irish Historic Settlement, Climate, Environment, Settlement and Society: changing historic patterns in Ireland conference, held at All Hallows College, Dublin on February 25, 2012

Abstract: The last two millennia are characterised by major environmental change at most spatial scales including global and European scales, and indeed on the island of Ireland. As regards climate, the period is characterised by climatic anomalies including the Little Ice Age, which, if duration as well as intensity is taken into account, is arguably the major anomaly of the post-glacial period. During the last two millennia, terrestrial environments and farming practices also underwent major change. The early first millennium AD saw the expansion of the Roman Empire, the influence of which extended far beyond its administrative boundaries to include Ireland. As the Roman Empire ended, the so-called Dark Ages, during which farming and economic activity was greatly reduced in most parts of central Europe, contrast with developments in Ireland where most indicators point to renewed human activity and, in particular, increased pastoral and arable farming, and woodland clearances that were probably more widespread than at any time prior to this. Thus, a series of changes was set in train that ultimately led to the landscape and settlement patterns that we are familiar with today. As elsewhere in Europe, the post Medieval period and particularly the Industrial Revolution and the development of the chemical industry profoundly changed farming and farming practices in much of Europe and, ultimately, the effects of these later developments had a bearing on even the most peripheral regions, including those parts of Ireland on the Atlantic seaboard. Against this general background of major environmental and technological change, farming and its long-term impact on the Irish landscape will be considered from a palaeoecological perspective and illustrated by results from recent investigations. The interplay between farming, changes in soil fertility, cultural developments, demographic trends, settlement patterns and climate change will be explored.

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