What are the true roots of Ireland’s relationship with America? Most of us, if asked this question, would immediately begin to answer it in terms of the human connections between these two lands, swiftly tracing a line backwards in time from, perhaps, the Northern Ireland peace process to JFK and the Great Famine all the way back to the arrival of the first Irish in America in the seventeenth century. Some might even go back as far as the sixth century when some Irish legends hail the Irish monk St. Brendan “the Navigator” as the first European to cross the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, claiming the discovery of North America for the Irish.
However, in truth, this human dimension of the relationship between Ireland and America is only a thin veneer crowning a much more ancient association. The roots of these two lands coil and intertwine far into the deep past, to a time long before the first human set foot in America or Ireland, and even far beyond the birth of humanity itself. Indeed, for Ireland, this relationship stretches back to the very dawn of its existence as a land.
When Ireland first emerged into the world almost two billion years ago, the great bulk of today’s continental crust had already been created, including much of what is now North America. That is not to say, however, that this crust was arranged in the shape of the continents as we know them today.
North America, for instance, was just one part of a much larger entity, a vast continent called Nena. This is simply an acronym for North Europe, North America but it contained far more lands than this name implies, including much of western Russia as well as Siberia and Greenland.
As gigantic as this great continent was, though, it was not yet fully grown and it was in the crucible of its continental expansion that Ireland’s relationship with North America was first forged.
The first pieces of Ireland (which today likely constitute the basement rock of the very northwest of the island) rose from the bowels of the Earth as part of a chain of volcanic islands in the ocean bordering Nena. This independence was short-lived, however, as this island chain soon collided with Nena’s outer rim, with Ireland becoming part of a continuous continental margin extending from what is now northeastern Canada to southern Greenland.
Although the other members of Nena would eventually split off, this marriage between Ireland, North America and Greenland would endure for hundreds of millions of years. They would remain faithful partners in a continental dance which would see the landmasses of the world converge at times into huge supercontinents before breaking away again to resume their independent odysseys across the face of the Earth.
Between around 1.6 billion and 600 million years ago, at least two or three of these mighty supercontinents are thought to have existed, and as they formed and fragmented Ireland and North America were escorted on an epic voyage, at times resting north of the equator, at others being dragged almost as far as the South Pole.
They also had some surprising continental neighbors, Ireland at one point bordered by Amazonia – a large block of what is today South America, which lies around 5,000 miles from Irish shores – while what is now the western part of North America was faced by South China, Australia and East Antarctica.
However, the truly crucial events in the assembly of these two lands occurred around 400 to 475 million years ago.
Firstly, the furious collision of an island chain with the margin of North America and Ireland fused pieces of New England to North America while expanding Ireland’s borders greatly, with much of the northern part of the island now constructed. This mighty impact also drove up the first peaks of the Appalachian mountains which still bestride North America’s eastern lands.
In the meantime, a second Ireland, which now accounts for much of the southern half of the island, had emerged into the world and was sitting on the outer margin of the mighty landmass Gondwana, composed of today’s southern continents.
For millions of years, this new Ireland had rested in a nook between northwest Africa and the north coast of South America, sitting just above the Antarctic Circle, separated from the older Ireland and North America by thousands of miles of ocean stretching towards the equator.
However, this southern Ireland soon embarked on a fateful voyage to meet its northern counterpart, as part of a micro-continent called Avalonia which ripped free of Gondwana’s grasp.
Avalonia contained not only southern Ireland but most of England, Wales and parts of Europe, while its western end held the remaining parts of New England as well as much of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. For tens of millions of years, Avalonia surged north before finally making contact, completing the assembly of much of the eastern coast of North America and creating the land we call Ireland today.
Avalonia’s collision was followed by many far mightier ones, West Africa’s tremendous impact with North America’s east coast thrusting up the Appalachians even higher and sealing Ireland and North America into the northern limb of the iconic supercontinent Pangaea. However, the destruction of this continental colossus around 200 million years ago would finally end the almost two-billion-year marriage between these two lands.
This divorce was not entirely acrimonious, however. The opening and continued widening of the Atlantic Ocean, which would tear Ireland and North America apart, and eventually rip Greenland away from Ireland too, would gift Ireland many of its mountains as its crust was placed under incredible stress.
The continental upheaval preceding the final rupture with Greenland would also leave Ireland with perhaps its most spectacular parting gift. This turmoil caused oceans of lava to stream across Ireland’s northeast, some of it cooling to become the mythic columns of the Giant’s Causeway – a suitably monumental tribute to a relationship which had spanned an eternity.
Stephen Daly is the author of an upcoming book called 'The Evolution of Ireland', which is a two-part project telling the story of Ireland from beginning to end. He is currently running an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for the completion of Part One of the book which can be accessed at. Campaign ends on November 4th 2014.