Ireland and the Celtic Culture

In Search of Ancient Ireland From the book In Search of Ancient Ireland by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton.

Of all the words now associated with Ireland and the Irish, the most familiar and hackneyed is probably the word "Celtic." Pick up any catalogue selling Irish goods and the word is splashed across every page: Celtic music, Celtic spirituality, Celtic crosses-there are even "Celtic" mouse pads.

This word coupled with anything Irish is now commonplace and accepted with total validity. But how valid an assumption is this? How truly "Celtic" is Ireland? This question is one of the most significant ones addressed by modem day Irish archaeologists and historians and has some very interesting answers.

The 19th Century Writers

The widespread use of the word "Celtic" in its application to things Irish is actually rooted mainly in the nineteenth century, in what became known as the Celtic Renaissance. This literary and cultural movement was an attempt by Irish writers and folklorists of the period to establish a sense of identity for the Irish people at a time when both politically and socially the country was in a deep malaise. There were valid sociological reasons for this need to establish a sense of nationhood and a legitimacy to Ireland. The forced parliamentary union of Ireland and Britain in 1800 was both an economic and a political failure. The tragic Famine of the 1840s had taken its toll and the Irish landscape was a wasteland of misery and confusion. The population had declined dramatically as a result of death from starvation, disease, and emigration. The slow draining of the countryside from emigration continued for the remainder of the century. The Famine was to leave deep psychological scars on the Irish memory.

As one modem Irish historian has written: "The Famine was a crisis of the mind as well as the body." Celtic revivalists like W. B. Yeats and Douglas Hyde, working in the 1890s, deliberately set about searching out Ireland's ancient past to create a sense of identity and self-respect for the Irish people. In the wake of so much destruction they were determined to establish or re-establish national pride by seeking out the origins of Irish civilization and clearing away as much historical debris as possible. They earnestly sought to discover what Ireland and the Irish were like before the English invasion of the twelfth century and before Christian influence. As one of the protagonists of this movement said, "Ireland is appealing to the past to escape the confusion of the present." The leaders of this revival accepted at face value the writings in the ancient texts, written from the sixth to the twelfth centuries, and used these as historical foundations to create an Ireland that possibly never existed or at least not as they saw it. They took as valid history these texts written hundreds of years after the events they describe. It was in the nineteenth century that the idealized notion of a long forgotten, homogeneous, Celtic Irish people became the accepted, popular notion of the origin of Irish ethnicity. This idea has persisted into our time, as have other cultural developments of the period.

Much of what we think of as being popular Irish culture originated in the nineteenth century. For example, Irish dance as we now know it was "developed" in the nineteenth century when set dancing was first introduced. Irish dancing masters adapted continental dances, like the quadrille, to the style of solo step dancing, which was introduced into Ireland in the eighteenth century from Europe. The first céilí was organized by the Gaelic League in 1894 as a way of gathering people together to promote a sense of Irish culture, but primarily to encourage them to speak the Irish language, which was in serious decline. The oldest known Irish music is hundreds of years old, not thousands, so it can hardly claim to be of ancient "Celtic" times. The Irish language, however, does have a long historical link to the past, and this remains one of the most valid threads in Irish history. Modern archaeological methods and linguistic evidence offer some answers about what life was actually like in pre-christian Ireland. Through these methods we can gain perhaps a more valid assessment of Irish prehistory.

Who were the Celts?

We know that prior to the 1700s the term "Celtic" was not in use in the English language. The eighteenth-century classification came about as a result of linguistic evidence, which linked the native languages of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to the continental language of the people whom Julius Caesar described as Celtae. The word "Celtic" came originally from the Greeks who, around 600 B.C., called the people who lived to the north of Greece Keltoi. We know also from references in both Greek and Roman texts that they inhabited a large area in Central Europe. Archaeologists do not believe that the Celts were one homogeneous people but were composed of many tribes speaking a similar language. How these different tribes came to speak a common language is not known, but these various peoples, referred to as Celtic, spoke a language which was a predecessor of modern-day Irish. Thus the word "Celtic" became a way of describing the people who spoke the Gaelic language.

These continental Celtic speaking people did not commit anything to writing. This is certainly not to say they were an ignorant people. By tradition, information was committed to memory and passed on orally. There are no written records in Ireland before the arrival of Christianity in the fifth century, but there were sophisticated schools of memory where poets, storytellers, and lawyers would memorize what their various disciplines required. So successful was this method that when writing did arrive in Ireland it merely gave form to the rich culture, which had predated it and in many ways survived for hundreds of years after the arrival of the first Christian missionaries. A form of early writing had developed and Ogham, a complicated script based on the Latin alphabet, has survived, but it was usually only used on commemorative pillar stones to identify the dead.

The Romans claimed that the Celts were elitists and would not commit anything to writing for fear that the information would become commonplace and available to all. Julius Caesar, in his description of the Celts in his Gallic War, writes that the Celts "consider it improper to commit their studies to writing," and he adds that they knew Greek letters and used these for "all other purposes." The Celtic tribes, Caesar suggests, did not trust the written word because it meant that knowledge could be dispersed and that druids and poets would lose their special status within society. But whatever the reason, it means that when we talk about this period in Irish history we rely on texts written only after the arrival of Christianity. More valid sources for information are the archaeological and linguistic evidence, but the texts reveal some interesting insights about what life might have been like in Ireland so long ago.

The Celts and Ireland - The Monastic Texts

By tradition it was believed that the Celts first came to Ireland around 500 B.C. in one massive invasion. Few Irish scholars now accept this. This myth was based on an Irish document known as the Leabhar Gabhála, or Book of Invasions: a text first written down in Christian times by monastic scribes around the seventh century and perfected in the twelfth. This is more than a thousand years after the supposed event. Many Irish documents date from these years, which purport to describe pre-Christian life and laws in Ireland. Not only do they depict the arrival of the Gaelic-speaking people in Ireland, they also tell us much about everyday life. These documents are written in the Irish language, and in modern English translations the term "Celtic" is often used as a substitution for the word "Gaelic." The texts also include the great Irish epic, An Táin Bó Cuailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley).

But the story is believed to be older than the period it was written in, and there can be little doubt that it is a descendant of an older, oral form. With its fascinating descriptions of gods and goddesses and druids with supernatural powers, it is obviously rooted in the pre-Christian era. But how much of the original story remains and how much of it is later invention we do not know. This written mythology abounds with stories of heroes and heroines who are said to have lived in Ireland in prehistoric times. There are tales of strong women and warrior men and gods and goddesses who intermarry with mortals and produce extraordinary offspring. They give us wonderful descriptions of love, passion, cattle raiding, poets who have powers to paralyze with their words, women who train warriors for battle, and druids who can foretell the outcome of wars.

What the legends Claim

For a long time these texts were taken as being the record of actual events passed on through oral memory into historical times and then written down. In the Book of Invasions the original inhabitants of Ireland are said to have been the mythological Fir Bolg people. The Fir Bolg play a socio-political role in the development of Ireland. They are, for instance, credited with dividing Ireland into fifths: the provinces of Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Connaught, and the royal area known as Meath. They also are said to have established the classic Irish social system of kingship and the notion of its sacred character. These first mythological people are followed by the Túatha Dé Danann -or people of the goddess Danu who are skilled in magic and druidry. They are said to arrive in Ireland and defeat the Fir Bolg in a number of battles and take over the country. All of this long pseudo-history eventually leads up to the main event, the coming of the Gaels, the Celts.

In the Book of Invasions, the Sons of Míl, the ancestors of the Gaels, are described as arriving in Ireland on the feast of Beltine or May 1st. They come on shore in the southeast of the country in modern-day Kerry. Amergin, the chief poet, goes on shore first and sets his foot on the soil of Ireland. He then immediately recites a poem in which he identifies himself with the whole of creation. His very words denote the importance of the occasion:

I am an estuary to the sea
I am a wave of the ocean
I am the bull of seven battles
I am the eagle on the rock
I am a flash from the sun
I am the plant of beauty
I am a salmon in the pool
I am the strength of art. . .

This poem is similar to other "foundation" poetry uttered by the mythological founders of other peoples. The mythmakers who first wrote this story knew what they were doing. They were giving validity to the lineage of the Irish. Amergin is claiming the land of Ireland for his people and staking their legitimate claim as the rightful inhabitants. This was an important declaration at the time when the history of Ireland was first being written down.

On the purpose served by these early stories for the society of the time, Patricia Kelly, a historian from the National University of Ireland, explains that "One of the functions of the tales is to say how far back things began. Meaning that this tradition is well established, that is to say it legitimizes it and argues for its retention." A sense of belonging to the land and unity in ethnicity is important in establishing the legitimacy and lineage of a people. In claiming a long and legitimate ancestry these Irish writers were putting Ireland on par with the great classical nations of the known world. The law tracts explain that poets held the highest position in Irish society, so having a poet claim the land of Ireland would have been very appropriate. It would therefore have given a legitimate claim to the present.

Hill of Tara in Ireland's Ancient East
Hill of Tara, Celtic Royal Site in Ireland's Ancient East

The Mythology

The Gaels, the mythology asserts, having come on shore and claimed the land, then go on to defeat the previous inhabitants, the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Gaels then set out toward Tara, the principal place of worship in Ireland in ancient times. On the way there they meet, among others, the goddess √Čriu, an important deity who gave her name to the island of Ireland. She is friendly and welcoming toward them and foretells that Ireland will belong to the Sons of Míl for all time. A fortuitous prophesy. Ireland thus rightfully becomes the land of the Gael.

This beautiful, romantic story remained a part of Irish thinking for hundreds of years. First written down to create and establish a notion of lrishness, it served that purpose well and became a part of Irish identity. It was common place then, as now, to trace ancestors back to some declared moment in time, it gave a sense of righteousness to social claims of nobility. Some innovative authors could trace a chieftain's or king's family back to Noah and the flood. This was not a practice unique to Ireland. Origin myths are typical of any society that wants to make legitimate claims to a noble lineage. The Romans did precisely the same thing when their early writers invented a connection with them and the ancient Greek world, giving the Romans a position of legitimacy within classical Mediterranean civilization.

With the spread of the English language in later Irish history, these stories written in Irish were largely forgotten by the educated Irish population who had become almost exclusively English speaking. So when the nineteenth-century revivalists went looking for the roots of Ireland they sought out these old texts and took them to be historically legitimate. The "invasion" of the Celtic-speaking people became a commonly accepted historical fact. It was this influence that cast such a long shadow over the twentieth century, and that continues to shape the ideas in Irish popular culture.

Archaeological and Linguistic Evidence

There is a problem with what is written in these ancient texts. In the mid-twentieth century, when Irish archaeologists went looking for evidence to support the stories, they found no material evidence in Ireland to uphold the theory of a mass invasion of Celtic people at the time claimed in the texts or at any time for that matter.

The year of the supposed Celtic invasion of Ireland, 500 B.C., is the period known as the Iron Age. The Iron Age artefacts that have been identified as Continental Celtic were found in modern-day Switzerland and are known as La Tene style from the region they were discovered. This was an art form which developed around the middle of the fifth century B.C. The style, often described as the first nonclassical art of Europe, is full of scrolls and spirals and waves of lines which twist and turn in a complex matrix of design. The earliest artefact of this style found in Ireland is a torc (a neck ornament) found at Knock, County Roscommon, which dates to a slightly later time, around the third century B.C. Barry Raftery believes that this piece is obviously an import, but "it is an isolated piece [found] in the west of the country, so its wider cultural significance should not be exaggerated." In other words, one swallow doth not a summer make.

Many more imported artifacts would have to be found to support the theory of a mass invasion and they have not. There are only a few continental La Tene artefacts from this period in Ireland, and they may have arrived for a number of reasons. They might simply be the result of trading, or they could have been brought in by a small elite group. These foreign La Tene artefacts that have been discovered in Ireland are mostly prestige objects like horse trappings, scalpels, and trumpets, not the utensils of ordinary people usually found when there is a mass movement of people into a new area. This is precisely what puzzles archaeologists like Barry who have done extensive work on this period in Irish prehistory. He believes that the few articles found in Ireland of Continental or British Celtic origin "clearly belonged to an aristocratic elite who may have travelled to Ireland and settled there alongside the already established community." He goes on to stress that "nobody believes in large-scale [Celtic] migration into the country. At best, we're talking about small-scale intrusions." Barry thinks that the total absence of what ordinary people would have used is an indication that no large Celtic invasion occurred.

About a hundred years later, native Irish workshops were producing a local version of La Tene-style decoration. When the La Tene-style of art came to Ireland, the Irish developed a native version of it, which was to remain a feature of Irish art well into the Christian period and beyond. How this importation of style happened no one knows. It is possible that it was part of an exchange pattern of elite goods between people of high status. Contrary to what the texts say concerning an invasion, for the most part there is archaeological continuity in Ireland between the earlier Bronze Age and the "Celtic" Iron Age. This indicates no shift in population type. In other words, there is no evidence for any change in lifestyle or of a major group of new people coming in. As regards burial rites for example, there is no change in how funerals were conducted between these periods, and no Continental Celtic-type burial chambers have ever been found in Ireland. Archaeologists cannot find support for any evident change in lifestyle between the older period and the period in which the Celts are supposed to have arrived.

The Irish Celtic Language

In spite of the lack of archaeological evidence we do know that the Celtic language and culture came to Ireland. There is ample evidence to show that by around A.D. 100 Ireland was a Celtic speaking country. One major source in support of this is Ptolemy's map of Ireland dating to about A.D. 150, which shows the country to be Celtic speaking. Ptolemy was a Greek geographer, and Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin, medieval historian at University College Cork, believes that this is the strongest evidence for the arrival of the Celtic or Gaelic language into Ireland. This is the first absolute proof that the language arrived, and linguistic scholars feel that it must have been well established by this time. In addition, early Ogham stones bearing the Celtic script and dating to around A.D. 200 can be found scattered throughout Ireland. Written texts from the sixth century show the vernacular language in Ireland to be the Irish language, Gaelic. The pre-Celtic language, whatever it was, was gone by this time, leaving only traces behind. These old texts also describe a Celtic society similar to that found on the Continent with comparable gods and goddesses.

A Migration over time?

According to Donnchadh Ó Corráin, this transference of language could only be possible by a large number of Celtic-speaking people coming to settle in Ireland. Not just warriors but whole families must have settled, possibly over a long period of time-perhaps as long as five hundred years or more. A once-off invasion as described in the texts is not likely in the face of the lack of archaeological evidence. Donnchadh explains that it takes women with families to transfer a language: "In order to make this country Celtic speaking, a lot of Celtic speakers had to come. This is not a matter of race; this is a matter of language and speech. And if a lot of Celtic speakers had to come they couldn't be just warriors, they had to be full families because the only way to change the language of a country is [for the newcomers] to have families. You need women to rear the children speaking Celtic. Otherwise [the men] go and marry the natives, and of course they don't wind up speaking Celtic at all."

Just as significantly, he also explains that women are more phatic than men: women use language for social communication more than men do. So language tends to travel with women and not with men. Consequently, with male-only invasions the typical pattern is for them to intermarry with the local female population and wind up speaking that language and not keeping their own. This was to happen with the Viking invaders who intermarried with the native Irish women and quickly lost their own language. Similarly, in the twelfth century, when the Anglo-Normans came to Ireland, it was a male-only invasion. Soon after they intermarried into Irish families they also lost their language. Within a generation the Normans were all speaking Irish. They became, as the saying goes, "more Irish than the Irish themselves." So the Celtic language, which did impose itself on the country, could only have done so, according to Donnchadh Ó Corráin, by the arrival of great numbers of Celtic families. That is not to say that there was a massive invasion. The transference of language and culture could have happened over a very long period of time. Some scholars now believe that there might have been a slow trickling in of the newcomers, possibly over half a millennium, and not one huge invasion so romantically described in the texts.

Nevertheless many archaeologists argue that the transference of language could have happened without any Celtic people coming to Ireland at all. John Waddell says, "There was a prolonged and persistent pattern of [sea] contact between the peoples of Ireland, Britain, and the continent extending over perhaps thousands of years. This contact could have allowed a Celtic language to slowly emerge in these various localities." This would explain the total lack of archaeological evidence. Whatever the explanation of this puzzle, there remains no direct evidence for a presence of continental Celtic people in Ireland.

In Search of Ancient Ireland by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton. This book traces the history, archaeology, and legends of ancient Ireland from 9000 BC to 1167 AD when a Normans invaded Ireland. Written as a companion book to the television series of the same name.

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