Conor O'Brien formed Villagers after the break-up of his previous band The Immediate. The very next day, O'Brien wrote the first song after waking up with a hangover. O'Brien's time as a guitarist in Cathy Davey's band was also critical to the development of his style as he had never before performed alongside anyone outside of The Immediate. Villagers gave their first live performance as a support act with The Chapters at a show in Whelan's in November 2008. At that point the band had previously only rehearsed together on two occasions. They had only seven songs, written by O'Brien and passed on to the rest of the band to learn.
Villagers performed on the seventh series of RTÉ Two's Other Voices television programme in 2009. The band's debut EP, titled Hollow Kind, was released in February 2009. It contained four tracks, all of which were written and performed by O'Brien. The EP brought comparisons with Bright Eyes and Sparklehorse. Villagers then went on tour. They were a support act for Neil Young and toured across Europe with Tracy Chapman.
Villagers appeared at several festivals in 2009. They supported Bell X1 when they performed at Live at the Marquee in Cork on 26 June 2009. They performed at several music festivals in Ireland, including on the Sunday of Oxegen 2009, at Indie-pendence on 2 August and at Electric Picnic 2009, as well as at Latitude Festival in the UK. The Irish Times's Jim Carroll recommended their performance in the Body Soul Arena at Electric Picnic 2009 as "A must-see for those who dig ragged pop, eerie folk and heartfelt, emotional songs and sounds". They headlined Hard Working Class Heroes in 2009, with O'Brien attracting the ire of the audience when he requested some quiet during the performance. They gave a live performance at The Music Show in Dublin's RDS in October 2009.
The debut single of Villagers was "On a Sunlit Stage" and was released in October 2009.
On 15 January 2010, Villagers represented Ireland at the Eurosonic Festival in Groningen, the Netherlands. They were involved in efforts to raise funds in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. They embarked on a tour with Tindersticks in March 2010 and released the single "Becoming a Jackal" on 17 April 2010. A debut album Becoming a Jackal was released in Ireland on 14 May 2010, with a UK release in May and a US release due on 8 June 2010. O'Brien's elder sister died within the same week. The album immediately went to number one on both the Irish Albums Chart and the Irish Indie Albums Chart. It proceeded to continuously top the indie chart.
On 13 April 2010, Villagers appeared on Later... with Jools Holland on BBC Two alongside Paul Weller, Hot Chip, Marina and the Diamonds, Gogol Bordello and Paul Rodgers. Shane Hegarty, writing in The Irish Times, noted in his praise that "Irishness wasn't a factor [...] The pithy introduction to his performance didn't mention it. It didn't need to. Viewers could have thought he was from Northampton or New York or anywhere". His appearance included a performance of the single "Becoming a Jackal", but then found himself stranded in Brussels due to the air travel disruption around Europe in the aftermath of the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland and had to miss a live performance on Record Store Day.
Villagers played Meltdown in London in June. In the same month Villagers performed a U.S. tour and performed at Live at the Marquee in Cork on 25 June. There was a performance at Oxegen 2010 in July. They were one of the first acts to be announced for Electric Picnic 2010. They also played on the Festival Republic Stage during the Leeds/Reading Festival 2010 A U.S. tour was announced for October and November 2010. In March 2011, Villagers joined Elbow on a two-week tour of the U.K. and Ireland.