1. The Origins of the Celts
The story of the Irish race is inextricably intertwined with the arrival of the Celts in Ireland. But who were the Celts ?
Despite the fact that the Celts have been described as the first pan-Europeans, inhabiting a vast territory from the Black Sea to the Atlantic during the first millennium BC, the impression is sometimes abroad that they were a mysterious, even legendary, people. Indeed, in 1999 some archaeologists went so far as to try to assert that the Celts never existed and were an invention of nationalists. Certain politically-motivated newspaper articles rehashed this theme at a period when regional devolution in Britain was being introduced.
The annihilation of the continental Celtic civilisation by the aggressive Roman Empire is one of the main reasons for the lacuna of knowledge about the Celts. Moreover, the early Celts had a religious taboo against committing their learning in written form in their own language.
Thus, Ireland, which had escaped the Roman aggressions, became the major source of knowledge on the social and cultural traditions of this once mighty European race.
Some Celtic inscriptions have survived using Latin, Greek and Etruscan alphabets but it was not until the Christian period that the Celts felt free to write extensively in their own languages, which by then meant chiefly Irish, but also Welsh. The Celts did, however, produce pre-Christian historians, poets, playwrights and philosophers all writing in Latin.
Today we think of Celtic peoples, mainly in relation to the last remaining vestiges of the Celtic languages, but also in relation to traditions and culture. Within the languages group are the Irish, Scots, Welsh, Manx, Cornish and Bretons. To this may be added the inhabitants of Galicia in Spain and part of the neighbouring Asturias, whose claim to be Celtic is historically and culturally-based, rather than language-based. These cling, as it were, to the western fringes of Europe. They are the remaining vestiges of a once mighty collection of Celtic tribes which spread from a “homeland” in the headwaters of the Danube, Rhine and Rhone to inhabit much of modern France (Gauls), Belgium (Belgae), Switzerland (Helvetiae), Northern Italy (Cisalpine Gauls) and part of Spain (Celtiberians). They even went eastwards to found a separate Celtic state in Asia Minor (Galatia).
This is not to say that descendants of the ancient Gauls, Helvetiae, Celtiberians and Belgae are non-existent today. Descendants no doubt continue to exist in what were formerly Celtic countries, intermingled with other racial groups, but their ancient Celtic culture and civilisation has long since vanished, with only some small groups on the fringe still clinging on to part of their Celtic inheritance.
There are two remaining language families called respectively Q Celtic, which is apparently the older form, and includes Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx and P Celtic, which includes Welsh, Cornish and Breton. These form the so-called “insular” Celtic languages. Even though Breton exists on the continent, the historical presumption is that it represents a language migration from Cornwall and Wales, although a question mark has sometimes been raised as to whether Breton was an amalgam of the British Celtic language with the remnants of a still existing Gaulish language.
The Celtic languages were of Indo-European origin, like most European languages (with the exception of Finnish, Hungarian and Basque) of today. It is interesting that the word Aryan, which in Sanskrit is “aryu” (freeman), still exists in Irish as “aire”, originally a nobleman, and in modern usage denoting an Irish Minister of State. As we will see, the old Celtic traditions and even music, insofar as we see them through Irish and Welsh, have some remarkable parallels with the Indian Vedic culture. Like most European peoples the ancestors of the Celts no doubt arrived from the Eastern Steppes in pre-history, bringing the cultural traditions of the East with them. These were preserved on the insular edge of Europe long after the culture of the continental Celts had become Romanised.
Although literature on the Celts has been abundant, recent archaeological evidence has altered a number of earlier views about them. Misunderstandings had resulted from a too ready acceptance of the writings of Classical writers, including those attributed to Julius Caesar. The traditional enemies of the Celts presented deliberately misleading and malicious accounts of them. The Romans bore in mind their early defeats at the hands of the Celts, which traumatised them and always rankled with them. As a consequence, the Romans continued to fear the Celts as stubborn opponents. It suited the Romans to try to portray them as having an inferior civilisation to that of Rome, no doubt to indicate that conquest by the Romans was for the Celts’ “own good”.
One of the less offensive descriptions of the Celts from Roman times by Diodorus Siculus (first century BC) runs “The Celts are terrifying in appearance. They are tall with moist skins, white flesh: their hair is naturally blond…They wear amazing tunics dyed in every colour…..They are boasters and threateners and yet they are quick of mind. They have also lyric poets whom they call Bards and certain philosophers they call druids”.
It must also be borne in mind that the Romans had the reputation, a bit like the Japanese in fairly recent times, of pilfering knowledge, ideas and inventions from others and adapting them to their own use. It is well known that much of Roman culture was borrowed from the Greeks. What is not so well publicised is that a fair amount was also borrowed from the Etruscans and the Italian Celts. The Celts were quite an advanced people with a sophisticated civilisation. The variety of Celtic words absorbed into Latin give some indication of areas where Romans’ borrowing occurred. Most of the Latin words relating to transport and roads were borrowed from the Celts. To take just one example, the word for a pack horse, caballum, which is capall in modern Irish, later emerged in French as cheval to give the word cavalry in English.
Prior to the iron age, what have been referred to as the “proto Celts” (during the so-called Urnfield culture) occupied the Celtic homeland around the head waters of the Danube, Rhone and Rhine. All of these river names are of Celtic origin. Most probably the discovery of iron working gave the Celts superiority over neighbouring tribes and this led to their expansion from their homeland in Bohemia, southern Germany and Switzerland.
Scholars distinguish two periods of Celtic history:
The so-called Hallstatt period (named after a salt mining area in Austria) dates from around 1 200 BC and was characterised by an iron-using economy with many technological advances. From the 5th century BC the La Tene (named after a Swiss Lake) period saw the emergence of new decorative arts and transport innovations. Living standards were high, the Celts were skilled farmers, demonstrated considerable engineering skills (e.g. their irrigation in the Po Valley, their road building and transport works). They mined natural resources and their craftsmen were second to none. They also traded extensively with the Mediterranean area and had coinage by the 4th century, influenced by the Greeks, and a little ahead of its adoption by the Romans. The La Tene period was one in which the Celtic peoples began their greatest expansion.
There is, however, a version of a very ancient separation of the Q Celts from the P Celts, as recounted in the “Lebor Gabála Érinn” (see section 4 below), to subsequently appear in Ireland many centuries later, having wandered through North Africa and Spain. This account would have the Gaels, then inhabiting the area known as Scythia, who left the northern shores of the Black Sea around 1760 BC and headed south into the Aegean and Mediterranean. They joined with others to form part of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt. They returned to Scythia for a while, then migrated again and for a few centuries became part of the Sea Peoples, who were so destructive at the close of the Bronze Age, devastating the Palace States of the Aegean around 1200 BC. Eventually they settled near what was later the site of Carthage, remaining there for almost three centuries, before invading and occupying northwest Spain. The last move from Spain to Ireland took place about 960 BC. They spoke the Goedelic or what has been called Q Celt language. It was some six centuries later that the first continental Brythonic speaking Celts began to migrate across the Irish Sea. Most significantly, the events detailed in Lebor Gabála Érinn, when placed in their proper time frame, correlate well with historic events of the eastern Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea and recent evidence has been discovered of Q Celtic in Spain .
2. Celtic Expansion from their Central European Homeland
The Celts Versus the Romans at War
The nemesis of the Celts was the expansion of the Roman empire.
To quote Peter Beresford Ellis “To the Celts warfare was a matter of honour which could begin and end in a single combat. It was often a matter of individual courage. Generally the Celts were not interested in central authority and discipline. They thought and acted as individuals and were natural anarchists.” As he remarks, these attributes which are nowadays often regarded as laudable, caused the downfall of the Celtic peoples in ancient times.
For the Romans, on the other hand, war was a cold-blooded, merciless, profession .The legionaries had been drilled to fight as cohesive units, relying on their fellow soldiers to survive. Unquestioning obedience to officers was part of the way of life. Roman generals studied tactics and planning was enormously important. This emphasis on strategy, combined with ruthlessness, gave the Romans military advantage. The Roman legionary had to be more frightened of his superiors than he was of the enemy and this commitment to the will of central power was required for the success of the imperial regime.
Also, as John Keegan in his “Intelligence in War” points out, Rome had a long established system of intelligence gathering even by Caesar’s time, as evidenced by the terminology in existence for different kinds of reconnaissance troops. Moreover, the Roman army made use of local informers (indices) prisoners of war, deserters and kidnapped civilians. While not its inventor, Caesar developed and institutionalised the system. Keegan maintains that Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was as much due to his superior use of intelligence asit was to the legions’ fighting power. As Alexander the Great before him had done, Caesar coldly and cynically assessed the Gauls’ defects and equally coldly exploited these weaknesses. He accumulated a detailed knowledge of the tribal characteristics and divisions and exploited these ruthlessly. Divide and conquer was used to major effect. Caesar also developed a system of short and medium range reconnaissance to spy out the land and enemy dispositions.
The Celtic presence in Northern Italy was of much longer and more permanent duration and was more important than had once been thought. They had moved from their central European homeland across the Alps into the Po Valley by the 7th century BC, defeating the Etruscans and pushing them south of the Apennines. In 390 BC, the Celtic Senones (from the root word for “old”) crossed the Apennines and appeared on Etruscan territory. When the Etruscans appealed to Rome and in July 390 BC the Senones, under their chieftain Brennus, defeated the Romans at Allia and occupied Rome for 7 months in 478 BC, though some Romans continued to hold out in the Capitol. In the end, the Romans paid them a ransom of 100 pounds of gold. When the senior Roman officer objected to the fact that the Senones were using their own weights, Brennus flung his sword on to the scales exclaiming the immortal words “Vae Victis” (“woe to the conquered”). The Senones then moved off to settle in Eastern Italy (Picenum) around the modern Ancona/Rimini coastal strip.
In 374 BC and again in 367 BC and 360 BC the Celtic armies swept up to the very gates of Rome and were in league with the Greek states in the south of Italy who were at war with Rome. Not until 349 BC were the Romans able to gain their first victory over the Celts. An entire Roman legion was destroyed by a Celtic/Etruscan alliance at Cameria, north of Rome, in 298 BC. Despite another Celtic victory in 284 BC, the tide began to turn against the Senones who were then savagely “ethnically cleansed” from their territory.
Then it was then the turn of the peaceful Celts of the Po Valley to come under attack. The Romans told them bluntly that they were not interested in peace. The Po Celts then joined with the Greek King Pyrhhus of Epirus who came to aid the Greek statelets in Southern Italy around 280 BC, in fighting against Rome. After initial victories, Pyrrhus suffered a defeat and returned to Greece, taking some of his Celtic allies with him.
Despite getting help from certain Celtic tribes from beyond the Alps, the Po Valley Celts eventually succumbed to a series of Roman attacks and in 222 BC the Romans began to set up military outposts and to colonise the Po Valley.
When Rome went to war with its rival Carthage, their great general Hannibal could not have crossed the Alps without the help of the Alpine Celts, who constituted a large part of his army. However, despite initial victories, Hannibal’s campaign 218 – 201 BC did not succeed in destroying Rome and he was finally called upon to return to defend Carthage against Roman attack. Even here, the Celtic warriors were prominent in the Carthiginian armies fighting the Romans.
With the destruction of Carthage, Rome turned savagely on the Cisalpine Celts. In 191 BC the Po Valley (Cisalpine Gaul) Celts who had fought against Rome (The Boii, Insubres, etc.) were driven out and their devastated territories colonised, Romanised and turned into a food provider for Rome. This spelled the end the independence of the Gauls in Italy.
Moving from Belgium and South through France, Celtic peoples were in Iberia from the ninth century BC. They had incidentally reached Britain and Ireland at around the same time, if not before. The Carthaginians had already made big inroads into Celtic territory in Iberia, but then sought a Celtic alliance against Rome. When Rome menaced, the Celtiberians won a major victory over them, but then the Romans started playing their divide and conquer game by giving inducements to certain tribes via treaties, etc. When the Celts successfully rallied under a leader called Viriathos, the Romans had him assassinated. In 134 BC, Cornelius Scipio laid siege to the city of Numantia and the 8 000 defenders were eventually starved into submission and sold off into slavery. From 71 BC onwards, schools for the children of Celtic chieftains were established and the old Celtic culture vanished under the onslaught of Romanisation.
Gaul and Britain
Around 125 BC the Celtic tribe Salyes attacked the Greek town of Marseilles and Rome intervened, nominally to protect the Greek merchants there. Soon , however, Rome pushed on into Celtic territory in the south of France to establish Gallia Narbonsis with headquarters at Toulouse. At that time, pressures were building up on the Celtic peoples in Switzerland and Germany from Germanic and Slavic tribes. Some 260 000 Helvetii and other allies (of whom 92 000 were warriors) decided to migrate peacefully to escape these onslaughts in 58 BC. Caesar saw an opportunity, and exploiting a quarrel between two brothers of the Aedui tribe to force the migrating Helvetii into a battle at Bibractae. The slaughter was horrendous and only about one third of the Celts survived to make their way back in Switzerland.
Caesar followed this up by conquering one Gaulish tribe after another individually until he reached the English Channel. Caesar cast envious eyes on Britain, but knew that he could not control the English Channel unless he could defeat a sea faring Gaulish tribe called the Veneti, who had links with Britain. Indeed, cross channel Gaulish kingdoms appeared to have existed at the time. Caesar succeeded in destroying the Veneti and in 55 BC and in 54 BC he twice crossed the English Channel and clashed with the British Celts, using the usual tactic of making treaties with some and attacking others. He thus established a Roman bridgehead in Britain.
But trouble was brewing in Gaul and Caesar faced a massive revolt led by a distinguished leader named Vercingetorix of the Averni who managed to unite the main Gaulish tribes. In 52 BC Cesar trapped Vercingetorix in a city called Alesia. After a long siege in which large numbers of Gaulish allies tried unsuccessfully to break through the Roman ranks, he surrendered to avoid his people being starved, as had happened in Numantia in Spain. The surrendered Gauls were sold into slavery and Vercingetorix was kept a prisoner in Rome for 6 years before being ritually strangled.
Even after that revolts, fanned by the druids continued for quite some time, before Romanisation became complete.
In AD 43 under the Emperor Claudius, the Romans undertook a fullscale invasion of Britain. It took long years of fighting to conquer the southern Britons but the Romans were never able to take Scotland and they acknowledged this by building the famous Hadrian’s Wall in an effort to keep out the Caledonians. Projected Roman invasions of Ireland never materialised. By 410 AD all Roman officials were expelled from Britain. However, not long afterwards a more formidable foe emerged in the form of the Anglo Saxon tribes, who had originally been invited in by a Celtic king to help keep the marauding Irish and Picts at bay and they subsequently pushed the British Celts back into the western part of the country.
Eastern Europe, Turkey and the Middle East
About the 7th or 6th centuries BC Celtic tribes moved relentlessly eastwards along the Danube into Czechoslovakia. Indeed, Bohemia takes its name from the Celtic tribe Boii. The Gauls had migrated eastwards towards Greece by the late 4th century BC but Alexander the Great had pushed them back. Then in 279 BC a three pronged Celtic eastward movement recommenced. They defeated the Macedonians under Alexander the Great’s foremost general, Ptolemy Ceruanos, and settled in Macedonia and Thrace. The second army swept down through Greece, defeated the Athenians at Thermopylae and sacked the Temple at Delphi in 279 BC. The third army which hqd occupied eastern Macedonia, suffered defeat at the hands of a new Macedonian king and while some of these returned to the Balkans, others stayed behind and enlisted in the Macedonian army. About 4 000 of these went to serve with (Greek origin) Pharaoh Ptolemy III in Egypt.
In 217 BC some 14 000 Celts formed the backbone of Pharaoh Ptolemy IV’s army in his victorious battle against Antiochus II of Syria, with the Celtic cavalry playing the winning role in the battle. Some 40 years later, Cleopatra had a bodyguard of Celts and so subsequently did Herod the Great in Israel.
Some 20 000 of the Celtic warriors and their families crossed from Greece into Asia Minor in 278 BC at the invitation of Nicomedes of Bithynia to serve him against Antiochus of Syria. The Galata Bridge in Istanbul is named after them. They established the state of Galatia, around modern day Ankara where they were assigned territory to act as a buffer state, and managed to stay independent for quite some time, despite the hostility of surrounding Greek states. However, they made the strategic error of allying themselves with Antiochus of Syria against Rome and formed the centre of his army at Magnesia when it was crushed by Rome in 191 BC. Once more the Romans saw the Celts as a dangerous enemy and targeted them. In a punitive expedition in 189 BC the Romans slaughtered many non-combatants after winning the battles of Mt. Olympus and Mt. Magaba. Subsequently a leader named Ortagion emerged to unite the three Celtic tribes and by 123 BC they were once again a power in the region. In 88 BC Mithridates of Pontus treacherously murdered 60 Galatian chiefs whom he had invited to a feast. One chieftain who managed to escape, Deiotaurus (Tarbh Dé), eventually wreaked revenge on the assassin. However, by 25 BC Galatia lost its independence, becoming a Roman province.
The Galatians were the first non-Jewish people to accept Christianity and we have St. Paul’s famous epistle to them. St. Jerome states that a Celtic language, akin to that of the Trevi of Gaul, was spoken by the Galatians in the fourth century AD, but probably the language had vanished completely by the ninth century AD.
3. Celtic Religion and Druids
The arrival of Christianity has rendered it difficult to be precise on Celtic religion, since it completely superseded the old Celtic one. Among the things known about it, however, is that (a) the Celts believed that the soul was immortal and (b) like other Indo-European religions and Hinduism it was a polytheistic religion.
Beresford Ellis says that the immortality of the soul for them meant that it went to the Otherworld on death and then re-appeared later as another human being after it had lived out its life in the Otherworld. This is to be glimpsed from stories like Oisín in Tír na n-Óg, The Land of Youth. Beresford Ellis also says that there were gods which were “common” to all the Celts and in addition there were also local ones. For example, the universal gods included Lugh , a kind of Celtic Apollo , who left his name in the Leon in Spain, French cities of Lyons and Laon, Leiden in the Netherlands, Leignitz in Silesia and ,of course, Louth in Ireland.
Although the druids have been linked mainly with religious ceremonies in the popular mind, they were much more than that. Their influence was as much social as religious and they were often the philosophers, scientists, lore masters, teachers, judges and councillors to chieftains. I effect they were the learned class and the reservoirs of knowledge. Their training period was long and all instruction was communicated orally.
Caesar’s assertion that the Celts were very religious and very much afraid of their druids brings to mind a story concening a hospitalised Brendan Behan. When a priest came to persuade him to put his religious affairs in order, the outcome was a Brendan Behan in floppy pyjamas running along to a doctor friend exclaiming at the top of his voice “Rory, help me, the druids are after me” !
4. Celtic Arrival in Ireland
In contrast to the legends of major pre-historic invasions and battles detailed in the 7th or 8th century AD “Lebor Gabála” i.e. Leabhar Gabhála, or “Book of Invasions”, the Celts undoubtedly came to Ireland in successive, relatively small, waves. There is a lot of academic disagreement as to when they actually came, with some writers putting their arrival in Ireland as late as 200 BC. Recent archaeological evidence puts their arrival much earlier, suggesting that they began to arrive in Ireland somewhere before the beginning of the first millennium. The invasion legends do, however, represent an ancient oral tradition which may have some factual elements mingled with them. Possibly the fact that the Celtic arrivals were staggered over so many centuries has caused confusion. Moreover, it may well be, following the argument referred to in Section 2 above, that the Q Celts arrived from Spain around 1 000 BC, preceding the subsequent arrival of Gaulish tribes by many centuries. This would account for differences in culture and language variation between the two groups.
The Greek Alexandrian geographer gave a description of Ireland sometime after 100 AD, which probably was based on information from sailors/traders. It is interesting in that he identifies what were probably the Dãl Riada of Antrim, who were later to complete the conquest of Pictish Scotland, starting with Argyll (literally Eastern Gael). He also speaks of the Iverni (Érainn) of Munster, a version of the name Éire. Seumas Mc Manus in his “Story of the Irish Race” states that “the careful Ptolemy, in the second century, gives a map of Ireland which (from a foreigner of that age of the world) is remarkable for the general correctness of the outline and more noteworthy features. He names sixteen peoples (tribes) inhabiting it “. A certain degree of interpretation has obviously been necessary to recognise a number of these tribes, while some others have disappeares. Ptolemy’s information may have come partly from Carthaginian traders, but one source indicates that a Greek geographer called Pytheas of Massilia is known to have visited Britain and Ireland in the latter half of the fourth century BC and his work may have been available to Ptolemy. The fact that the information was from an earlier period may explain why no trace can now be found of some of the tribes mentioned by Ptolemy, such as the Belgo-Gaulish Brigantes and the Cauci. The Menapii shown in Leinster may have later settled in Monaghan (present day Fir Manach).
At all events, Belgo-Gaulish tribes appear in Leinster at that period, including the Laighin , which are equated by some with the Dumnonii. Dr. Alfred Smyth pointed out at the Borris 2004 Gathering that the Fir Domnainn referred to in “The Book of Invasions” were the Gaulish Dumnonii, known to have migrated to Cornwall and Northern Britain from the continent. The general implication is that the basis for the Leinster population, and by implication, the Caomhánachs, is attributable to this Gaulish migration . It is of interest that the root name stems from the Celtic word for “world”, Domhain in Irish, hence the name Dónal would correspond roughly to the Gaulish Dumnorix (“king of the world”).
Between the 8th and the 6th centuries BC, while the Halstatt Iron Age was developing in Europe, Ireland continued in the Bronze Age. It was then a wealthy country producing beautiful artefacts of gold and silver, with trading links with Britain and parts of Western Europe. The economic system was based on ploughing and cattle raising. Helen Litton in her “The Celts:an Illustrated History”, Wolfhound 1997, claims that though ironworking appeared in both Britain and Ireland around 400 BC, archaeological evidence seems to suggest that it strangely died out again in Ireland for a period, which Litton attributes to a possible worsening of climate and living conditions.
We have no way of knowing how numerous the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland were, but in any event, the Celtic civilisation prevailed over anything which preceded it. The later Celts brought with them the art of iron work, replacing that of the earlier bronze age. What is clear is that the Celts arrived and left their indelible impact on the island by way of civilisation and language. All the evidence is that the Irish and Britons were regarded by the Romans as part of the Gaulish family and that Ireland was both Celtic speaking at that stage and had close trading and cultural links with Britain and France.
La Tene objects seemed to have survived mainly in the Ulster and Connacht, (though this may be partly due to inadequate research) including golden torcs, decorated scabbards, war trumpets and horse bits. These were objects belonging to a warrior society.
Helen Litton says that the essence of La Tene art was its simplicity and sparse use of balanced curves. “It has been described as ambiguous, full of contrasts, many patterns can be seen more than one way, yet retain their perfect balance and harmony. It is a mixture of abstract designs such as curves and spirals, added to by shapes taken from nature: leaves, bird beaks, owl eggs….it is better seen than described. We shall never know if there was a deeper symbolism in the designs as e.g. in Australian Aboriginal art (dream times).
5. Echoes of the Vedic Culture Among the Celts
Peter Beresford Ellis in his “Brief History of the Celts” says that when scholars seriously began to examine the Indo-European connections in the 19th century, they were amazed at how Old Irish and Sanskrit had maintained close links with their Indo-European parent. This applies not only in linguistics but also in law and social custom, in mythology, in folk custom and in traditional music form.
The traditional Irish music expert and composer, Sean Ó Riada argued that “sean nós” (old style) singing and music had ancient Indo European origins. While classical western music rose to a crescendo and fell, the apparent monotony of Eastern music was analogous to the sun rising and falling each day in similar fashion, but within the overall day various events change and the trained ear can pick up these subtle variations or grace notes, representing these individual events. Whether in fact the origins of this traditional singing and music are that ancient is open to doubt, but one is left with a feeling that they are rather exotic in a western setting.
The Brehon law texts, first written down in the 7th and 8th centuries AD are said to be astonishingly close to Hindu Law.
Summary of Major Points of Interest
Cathal Cavanagh - Clann Member