The transition to agriculture in Ireland is dated to around 4000BC (Warren 2008) and is one of the key areas of interest for current archaeological research. Based on the lack of evidence to date for a transition economy in Ireland and the UK Peter Rowley-Conwy (2011) proposes that the spread of agriculture by immigration is an increasingly viable explanation for the relatively quick transition to agriculture in Ireland and the UK. A recently published paper 'Genome flux and stasis in a five millennium transect of European prehistory'(Oct 2014) based on new DNA analysis of prehistoric remains further supports the theory that major transitions in prehistoric European material culture were linked to population movements rather than cultural diffusion.
Up to the turn of the century the main evidence for Neolithic activity on the Donabate Portrane peninsula, consisted of dispersed stray finds reported to the National Museum and flint artefacts found by collectors (Liversage 1961; Stacpoole 1963). Neolithic artefacts have been found in many of the townlands on the peninsula and those recorded in the topographical files of the National Museum listed include a stone axehead and two flint waste flakes found in Beaverstown. Several flint flakes and artefacts are also recorded from the surrounding townlands, Balcarrick, Ballymadrough , Kilcrea, Lanestown and Turvey. Two hammer stones from Balcarrick and Donabate may also date to the Neolithic period. The hammer stones are possible evidence of flint knapping on the peninsula. Walking many of the ploughed fields on the peninsula in spring flint nodules, fragments and sometimes worked flint are visible.
Recent excavations on the peninsula and the surrounding areas now give us a better picture of Neolithic settlement activity on the peninsula. At Lissenhall Little, on the west landward boundary of the peninsula an excavation undertaken in advance of construction of the Airport to Balbriggan section of the M1 in 2001 uncovered evidence of early Neolithic settlement. Pottery sherds (Reilly 2001) found, were identified as belonging to an early phase of the Western Neolithic Tradition. One group of post holes found in the excavation have been identified as a possible Neolithic house 9m by 5-6m around a fire pit (Reilly 2001). Analysis of charcoal recovered during the excavation also gives some indication of the possible tree cover on the peninsula during the early Neolithic. Oak predominated the samples analyzed with some hazel also found. Whilst no direct evidence was found on the site for the material used in any of the possible structures discovered, evidence exists for the use of oak planks in Neolithic houses. Hazel was also used as a building material for wattle screens often a feature of Neolithic houses(Cooney 2000). The only dietary evidence recovered in the excavation was a charred hazel nut shell recovered through environmental analysis of samples of pit fill from the site. Hazel nuts provide a good source of essential fat and proteins and were a valuable nutritional source in prehistoric Ireland (Reilly 2001).
Further evidence for possible Early Neolithic settlement on the peninsula itself has been uncovered in a development led excavation in Beaverstown adjacent to Donabate railway station (Hagen 2004). The prehistoric evidence found included Early Neolithic (4000BC-3500BC) pottery sherds. A pit and a cluster of six post holes were uncovered in close proximity on the site, four of which set 0.15m to 0.35m from each other formed a square. This could represent a small structure. The excavated fills of three of post holes contained early Neolithic pottery as did the pit. Whilst in the area excavated no evidence of any early Neolithic houses were found the site does suggest actual settlement on the peninsula during the early Neolithic. The excavation provided no evidence for diet or crops used though given the fertile nature of the local soil it is possible that tillage was also practiced in the Neolithic on the peninsula.
There was also considerable early Neolithic activity on the neighbouring Lambay Island. Evidence for a Neolithic axe production site has been found on the island at Eagles Nest and the site subsequently excavated (Cooney 2009). Radiocarbon dates from the Eagles Nest site indicate quarrying there started in 3800BC. Outcrops of porphyritic andesite rock often referred to as porphyry, remnants of the islands volcanic origins were quarried in the Neolithic to produce axes. This rock fractures easily, however it is its striking appearance is consistent with the use of visually distinctive rock to make many of the axe heads found from the early Neolithic phase (Cooney 2009, 14). It is likely that porphyritic axes found on Feltrim hill originate from Lambay (Keeling 1993). Some outcrops of porphyry are also to be found along the coast at Portrane, however no evidence of quarrying has been found. Similar to the Lissenhall site charcoal evidence from the Eagles Nest excavation indicates the presence of oak and hazel on the island (Cooney 2009). The Quay townland in Portrane is the nearest landfall on the peninsula to Lambay and whilst the shore here is rocky it is probable people travelled by boat in both directions from here or the beach at Portrane. The craft used may have been similar to the prehistoric dug out boat which may have been 7m long discovered further north along the coast at Gormantown during the excavation of the gas interconnector pipeline to the UK (O'Sullivan and Breen 2007).
Other evidence for Early Neolithic activity in North County Dublin includes flint and pottery finds from a rescue excavation on Feltrim Hill undertaken by Hartnett and Eogan (1964) identified as early Neolithic. Howth Demense is the site of nearest surviving remains of a portal tomb which is located on the north facing slope of the hill at the foot of a steep cliff. Portal and court tombs are the tombs associated with the Early Neolithic phase.
The middle Neolithic period (3600-3100 BC) is signified by the remains of the great passage tombs. Pottery styles also continued to develop during this period (Cooney 2000). The excavations at Lissen Hall and Beaverstown produced no evidence for this phase of the Neolithic. Whether any of the stray finds dated to the Neolithic are from this period is not stated in any of the literature referenced.
On neighbouring Lambay island javelin-heads likely to be mid Neolithic in date were found. Cooney (1993) suggests that these were regarded as objects of prestige in the Neolithic, which indicated that there were individuals of some social stature in the community. A cairn was constructed on Knockbane the highest point on the island. This may date to the middle Neolithic as it is consistent with the passage tomb tradition of placing monuments to be seen, part of what Cooney (2009, 16) describes as the interplay between setting and monument found in the Neolithic. Several of the ridges on the Donabate-Portrane peninsula provide very good views across to the cairn on Knockbane and south to the hill of Howth and the Wicklow Mountains including the prominent Sugarloaf Mountain . There are no known Neolithic tombs on the peninsula though Moylan(1960, 27) quoting Edmund Hogan (1910), records that during the construction of St Ita's Hospital in Portrane when excavating for the foundations of the building, workmen found a sepulchral chamber, lined with long stones with a long passage lined with stone leading to it. However the fact a skeleton of a large man was found in the chamber is not consistent with a Neolithic burial practice. To the north of the peninsula lies the site of the passage tomb of Knocklea at Rush recorded before its demolition in the 19th century (Bald and Newenham 1839). Whilst no direct evidence of settlement has been discovered on the peninsula for the middle Neolithic it is probable it continued to be occupied during this period.
3100BC to 2500BC is described by archaeologists as the Late Neolithic phase, though as Cooney (2000) points out, unlike the Early and Mid-Neolithic it is harder to separate out a distinct set of sites and material culture that can be dated to this period. Grooved ware pottery is associated with this period and towards 2500BC the construction and use of wedge tombs begins. The location and dimension of a cairn identified south of Tinian Hill on Lambay island suggest it could be a wedge tomb (Cooney 2009,18).
Just after 2500 BC sees the arrival of what is called Beaker pottery in Ireland. The cultural historical view of archaeology describes the users of this pottery as the Beaker Peoples (Herity and Eogan 1977). Beaker pottery also is associated with the arrival of metal working and the start of the Bronze Age now referred by some archaeologists to as the copper age. In the excavation at Beaverstown (Hagen 2004)some beaker pottery sherds were found associated with a posthole and two pits. Carlin (2006, 17) in a study of Beaker settlement sites in Leinster (Figure 7) suggests that this was a short term site in close proximity to the coast which may have functioned as a flint extraction site. It should be said though that in the case of the Beaverstown site the area excavated was relatively small. As previously mentioned the Beaverstown site was also occupied in the Early Neolithic with a gap in evidence for activity on the site of over a thousand years. A similar pattern of activity was revealed during excavations at Kilgobbin, in south County Dublin where the intervening Middle to Late Neolithic periods were also absent in the artefactual record. This pattern has also been noted on two sites on the route of the N8 Cashel to Mitchestown road scheme (McQuade et al. 2009). Eoin Grogan and Helen Roche indicate that whilst the absence of Middle and Late Neolithic material from the route of the road scheme may indicate a reduced population in the area it is more likely that it indicates similar preferences in settlement
Special thanks to Margaret Gowen & Co. Ltd, NRA and IAC for facilitating access to unpublished excavation and archaeological assessment reports.