The Celts were well established in Ireland a century before Christ,
and they dominated the island for nearly a thousand years, resisting
challenges and absorbing influences from other cultures for many
centuries more. To this day the core of Ireland's heritage remains
unmistakably Celtic. Writing depicts the Celts as tall and warlike,
placing their arrival in Ireland more than two thousand years ago.
The term Celtic denotes a group of Indo-European languages. But we
transferred the name to the people who spoke these languages. Before
500 B.C. the Celts had come to be known in an area comprising Bavaria,
Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and Bohemia. They spread over much of
France and part of northern Italy in the sixth century before Christ,
invaded northern Spain in the fifth century, sackomg Rome at the end
of the fourth century and getting a footing in Greece and Asia Minor
in the third century. The Greeks called them Keltoi and the Romans
The Celts were not the first inhabitants of Ireland. At the end of the
Ice Age, as the climate became warmer about 6,000 B.C., early
immigrants probably crossed the narrow sea from Scotland to the Antrim
coast and gradually moved further south. They lived a primitive
existence by hunting in the forests and streams and lakes. Next came
the first farmers who used stone implements for felling trees and
preparing the soil for grain, they also kept large quantities of
cattle, sheep and pigs. Perhaps by 2,000 B.C. a new group of settlers
had arrived, metalworkers in search of gold and copper, who fashioned
the artistic ornaments now in the National Museum in Dublin, the
greatest collection of prehistoric gold objects in Western Europe.
These were the dominant people in Ireland in the late Bronze Age when
the Celts arrived.
The Celts had the advantage of having weapons made of iron. They seem
to have moved into Ireland in two waves, one directly from the
continent into the west of the country and the other through Britain
into northeast Ireland. They may have begun to arrive as early as 500
B.C. and they were well established a century before Christ.
With their arrival a new era had begun in Ireland. The Picts in the
north and other pre-Celtic peoples were overthrown. No doubt they
still formed a strong element in the population but they became a part
of the Celtic language and culture. The Celts dominated Ireland for
nearly a thousand years.
Since writing arrived in Ireland only with the Roman alphabet, we know
little about Celtic Ireland before the coming of Christianity. Roman
writers called it both Scotia and Hibernia.
Stories depict an Ireland divided into five major kingdoms with
Connacht and Ulster at war, and the heroic Cú Chulainn defending the
north against the forces of Queen Maeve.
Each provincial kingdom comprised a large number of petty kingdoms or
tuatha, so that the whole country had ultimately between a hundred and
a hundred and fifty of them with a few thousand people in each. Local
wars were frequent but not prolonged. The unity of the country was
cultural, social and legal rather than political.
It was into this Ireland of warrior princes and cattle-raids that St.
Patrick brought the Christian faith in the mid-fifth century. His
missionary work was concentrated on the northern half of Ireland.
The marriage of Christianity and Celtic cultures produced in Ireland a
society that was essentially conservative; hence some of its features
remained unchanged until the overthrow of Gaelic Ireland in the early
seventeenth century. It was basically a rural society with no cities
or towns. While some of the more important monasteries like
Clonmacnoise, Armagh, Clonard and Bangor grew into centres with a
large population, one has to wait for the Vikings to see the rise of
towns as commercial centres.
The ordinary homestead of the farming classes was the ráth, often
erected on a hilltop and surrounded by a circular rampart and fence.
These are the ëring fortsí of present-day Ireland. They have often
left their imprint as ráth, or lios on the local place-name, as in
Rathfriland, Lismore, Lisdoonvarna, and so on. The kingís residence
was of course more elaborately built, as at Eamhain Macha, Clogher and
Gaelic civilisation placed great emphasis on family relationships. The
normal family group was the derbhfhine made up of all those who were
descended from one great-grandfather. Each member of the king's
derbhfhine was eligible to succeed to the throne. The freemen of the
tuath elected him when the throne became vacant. The system had the
advantage of ensuring that an imbecile or a cripple would scarcely
ever become king, but it had the terrible disadvantage of provoking
conflict between two or more equally qualified heirs. The ownership of
land was also vested in the family group.
The learned class or Aos Dána formed a special group among the
freemen. They included judges and lawyers, medical men, craftsmen and
most important of all the filí. These were more than poets; they were
regarded as seers and visionaries as well. After the conversion of
Ireland to Christianity they inherited much of the prestige of the
earlier druids. They wrote praise-poems for the king on appropriate
occasions, preserved and updated his genealogy and were richly
rewarded for their services. If the honorarium did not come up to
expectations, they sometimes had recourse to satire, and were feared
not only for their sharpness of tongue, but also for the magical
powers which had been associated with the druids of old.
Like most positions in Gaelic Ireland the learned professions tended
to become hereditary. In late medieval times the O'Davorens were the
experts in law and the O'Hickeys and O'Shiels provided the medical
men. The poetic families were particularly numerous: O'Daly's in many
parts of the country, Mac a' Wards in Donegal, O'Husseys in Fermanagh,
MacBrodys in Clare, OíHigginses in Sligo, Mac Namees in Tyrone.
Numerous also were the hereditary families of chroniclers and
historians: O'Clerys in Donegal, O'Keenans in Fermanagh, Mac Egans in
Tipperary, O'Mulchonrys in Roscommon, Mac Firbises in Sligo. The
craftsmen have often ensured remembrance by engraving their name on
their work: Noonan on the shrine of St. Patrickís Bell, Ó Brolcháin on
the stonework of Iona.
The Celts left many marks on Ireland and its people that have
remained. There are thousands of habitation sites dotting the
landscape, the bulk of the country's place names and family names, the
majority of its saints and missionaries, its finest manuscripts,
sculptures and metalwork, one of the earliest vernacular literatures
in Europe, the majority language of the island until the Famine and
the only widely-spoken minority language today, a splendid native
music, one of the richest folklores in the world. Later settlers added
to them and adapted them, but the core remains unmistakably Celtic.
They now provide a rich inheritance for the whole people of Ireland.
As far as the Irish language was concerned, it is generally accepted
that 'the demise of the native Irish-speaking aristocracy was to have
a disastrous long-term effect on people's attitude towards the
language'. English became the language of legal, political and
administrative life, and overwhelmingly the language of economic and
commercial life as well. It was the language of literacy, and in the
course of time became the language of liturgy also.
Those who were successful or who aspired to succeed under the new
English order abandoned Irish and adopted the English language as
quickly as the opportunity presented itself. The state system of
elementary education from the 1830s, and the fact that English was the
language of mass politics in the O'Connellite movements, further
accelerated the advance of English even among the poorer peasantry. By
1801 a quarter of the population was Irish-speaking. By 1851 this had
fallen to only five per cent, while less than a quarter of the
population admitted to being able to speak the language at all.
The heavy famine mortality among the poorer elements in Irish society
dramatically reduced the population of Irish-speakers, while
large-scale emigration from Ireland from the second quarter of the
nineteenth century largely to English-speaking countries strongly
reinforced the desire to acquire English, and in effect, though not
necessarily, to abandon Irish as obsolete and unprofitable in the
| Gaelic is the Celtic branch of the Indo-European
family of languages. About one person in five in Ireland can speak
Irish today, but only one in 20 use it daily. In Scotland
approximately 80,000 people speak Gaelic. |
first literary reference to the Celtic people, as keltoi
is by the Greek historian Hecataeus in 517 BC. He
locates the Keltoi tribe in Rhenania (West/Southwest
Today, the term Celtic
is often used to describe the languages and respective
cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall
(England), the Isle of Man(UK) and Brittany. (France)|
most spoken Celtic language in the world is Welsh. |
The term Celt, is pronounced Kelt.