So much of Irish culture, both in today’s society and in the past, has been influenced by the island’s first significant inhabitants – the Celts. Their traditions, activities, language and laws dictated the way of life in Ireland for thousands of years and still form the foundation of many aspects of Irish life today. Our national language is Gaelic, our national sports were invented by the Celts, and our musical instruments come from them too. As well as all of this, they left behind a rich legacy of art and mythology that is still the cause of much discussion and analysis by historians. The Celts are even inspiring artists and craftspeople today – many of our own pieces of jewellery at Claddagh Design have been inspired by their artwork and symbols.
Unfortunately, one thing the Celts didn’t perfect until later on in their existence was writing. So while we have a plethora of objects and other evidence of their early lives and time in Ireland, we can only guess at what their lives were like until they began to write things down, first in the form of Ogham writing carved on stones and wood, and later in illuminated manuscripts after the introduction of Christianity. However, although this meant the Celts now had the skills and equipment necessary to write about themselves for posterity, instead they decided to study Christianity and make endless transcriptions of the bible (albeit intricately decorated transcriptions). Lucky, today’s historians are a smart bunch, and have been able to deduce a lot of information about this mystical ancient society from the traces they left behind.
Where did the Celts come from?
Despite having left such a big impression on the country, the Celts were not the first inhabitants to land on Irish shores. The general consensus among experts is that the first inhabitants crossed over the narrow sea between Scotland and what is now Northern Ireland. This was in 6000BC, so the climate and sea level was very different back then. Crossing a sea on what would have been a small and very basic boat would not have been too difficult! These people gradually made their way from north to south, living very primitive, hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Over time, their skills developed into farming and agriculture, and eventually the people learned how to mould and work with metals, creating various tools to make life easier and more efficient for themselves.
In the meantime, the Celts had come to be known in the central European Alps, and spread throughout the continent in all directions from Greece and Asia Minor all the way up to our shores. The Greeks called them ‘Keltoi’ and the Romans ‘Galli’, which is where the names Celtic and Gaelic originated. Naturally, as they spread across the continent, they brought their music, art, customs and language with them. They were even the first to give Britain and Ireland a name; they called both islands the ‘Pretanic Islands’, which later transformed into ‘Britain’.
Described as tall, dark and great warriors, conquering the ‘Pretanic islands’ required little effort for the Celts. They had a distinct advantage over the people that had come before them; iron. Although the process of extracting metal from ores was more or less the same, iron is a much stronger and more durable metal, so the poor hunter gatherers never stood a chance! They began arriving around 500BC, first directly from the continent and moving westwards, and then from the north moving southwards. Within a few hundred years, their culture was extremely dominant, and all signs of Bronze Age Ireland had been well and truly eradicated. The Iron Age had begun. There is no evidence of a genuine invasion however, and it is equally possible that the Celts arrived gradually and naturally assimilated with the society already in place.
The Celts were celebrated warriors, and so their society did not exactly revolve around peace and quiet! The many tribes and kingdoms were almost constantly fighting amongst themselves, so much of a Celt’s life was spent preparing for or fighting in conflicts of varying scales. Blacksmiths, druids and poets were the most esteemed members of society for the roles they played in warfare; the blacksmith for making weapons, the druids for making prophecies, and the poets for making epic tales about the victorious battles. Along with other skilled people such as judges, medics, and craftsmen, they comprised a group known as the ‘Aos Dána’. Outside of this, the highest rank possible was a successful warrior, for obvious reasons.
Kingdoms were known as ‘tuath’, each with its own leader or king. There were three categories of kings; rí tuaithe, the ruler of a single kingdom, Ruirí, the king of several kingdoms, or Rí Ruirech, the king of a province. At any one time, there were between 4 and 10 provinces in the island. Individual members of a tribe spent their days farming their land, looking after their animals (usually horses and oxen). Family relationships were of the utmost importance for the Celts, with every descendant of a great-grandfather given equal standing. The same was true of the Rí’s family; when a king died, all of his descendants were eligible to take the throne, so it was put up to the freemen of the tuath to vote.
The Celts had their own governing system and laws known as Brehon law, which was surprisingly extensive and complicated. It worked on the basic principle that each person’s identity was defined by the kingdom they lived in. A peasant had no legal standing outside his or her tuath and were bound to it by the king. Land was owned by families rather than individuals, and the penalty for crimes was a fine of the family’s cattle. War between kingdoms was a regular occurrence, but never a long lasting one. The Celts were said to be so fierce in battle that they actually turned up naked, with only a spear in their hands! Every war was very well thought out and meticulously planned, and was only for the seasoned warriors to take part in; the ordinary folk were left to go about their business as usual.
Celtic Houses and Buildings
The Celts quickly spread throughout the entire island of Ireland and settled into tribes, territories and kingdoms. In most territories, a central hilltop fort that was strongly fortified was the centre of the tribe. The fort was used as a residence for the local king, or as a refuge during times of war. They were wattle and daub structures (solidified mud strengthened with wood, with thatched grass on top as a roof), but were surrounded by a defensive stone wall and sometimes a moat or small lake. Other smaller and less well defended structures were built within the general vicinity of the main fort, used as general residences for the rest of the tribe.
Certain sites around the country were believed to be sacred and were very important centres of power for the Celts. Much larger scale structures were built on these sites and they were used for significant political events, ceremonies and celebrations. Instead of stone walls they were fortified with a series of earth banks, many of which still exist in various locations around the country. These sites also contained designated burial mounds and enclosures, where the great chieftains of the region were buried. The Boyne Valley, a region almost in the dead centre of Ireland, is probably the largest example in the country with world famous burial sites such as Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, all topped off with the magnificent Hill of Tara, where the High King of Ireland was said to reside.
As well as burial mounds and political fortresses, the Celts also decorated the landscape with carved stones of varying designs. Many included typical Celtic symbols such as spirals and knots, and are thought to have played some sort of role in ritualistic ceremonies. They also used tall slender stones for writing, carving letters of a primitive alphabet called Ogham onto the edge of the stone. Usually it was the name of a prominent chieftain that was carved onto the stone and they have often been found near a burial site.
Celtic Languages and Art
By far the most significant contribution the Celts have made to Irish society today is the languages they spoke and the art they created. The Celts didn’t have one single language, or if they did it very quickly spread out into a whole range of similar (but at the same time quite different) languages. There are certain similarities in sound and grammar between Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic, and even between Breton (spoken in Brittany, France) and Irish, but they each have their own unique qualities – an Irish Celt would never have been able to make sense of a Brittany Celt was saying if they crossed paths! The Irish language we speak today is not too dissimilar from what the Celts would have spoken, with the exception of spelling changes and some grammatical alterations.
There is no doubt that the Celts loved all things beautiful, and went to great lengths to produce intricately decorated pieces of jewellery, carvings on stones, and various other stunning objects. The majority of their art survives today in the form of precious metals. Among other things, they particularly enjoyed crafting torcs – decorated rings of gold, silver or bronze that were worn around the neck – lunulae, a similar crescent shaped collar; and armlets. In their art, they became very skilled at creating complicated interlacing patterns and symmetrical knot designs. Spirals and triskeles were also regular features of Celtic art.
When Christianity was introduced to Ireland, Celtic culture and the new religion became intertwined and with the addition of writing and paper, Celtic art had a whole new medium of expression. The natural result was illuminated manuscripts, the vast majority of which were transcriptions of the Bible, beautifully decorated with drawings of animals, humans, monsters, and angels all incorporated into the typical interlaced patterns and knot designs. The most exceptional example of this is the Book of Kells.
What happened to the Celts?
In Ireland at least, the Celtic way of life and traditions stayed very strong all the way up until the 17th century when Britain began to gain control of the land. Being an island on the western tip of a huge European continent, trade and cultures were not as interchangeable as they were on the mainland. When the Roman Empire came to the fore, much of the Celtic legacy from France to Rome was lost. The Romans invaded Britain and managed to reach what is now the border with Scotland, where they built Hadrian’s wall to keep the Celts out of the north. They were considering raiding Ireland because of the access it would have given them to France, but decided it was more trouble than it was worth. For that reason, Ireland still has the most tangible Celtic legacy than any other European country. Luckily, this legacy is still kept alive today for everyone to enjoy.