Who are the Irish & Where did their Language come from?

In a few recent posts – Epochs & the Book of Invasions and Anthropocene – Waves and Epochs – way back in September or October I have been wittering on about past times and after months of dithering, I have decided to put it all together and explain who the irish are and where they came from! No smallorder, I admit. Here goes:

Part One

According to the 11th Century Book of Invasions, the Lebor Gabála Érenn or The Book of the Taking of Ireland, (see earlier blog entry), the Milesians, the last of the six groups of “invaders,” brought the Irish language and constituted what are now known as the Irish people (the Gaels) and arrived sometime between 1700 – 1000 BCE after extensive travelling from Scythia, Greece, Egypt and Spain. These Gaels / Gauls were Celts and preserved their culture in Ireland, untouched by the heavy hand of Rome, where Celtic traditions live on, unhampered until the advent of Christianity 1500 years later.

That’s what I learned in school, anyway and it remains good copy for tourist brochures, I suppose. So the question remains, where, then, did the people and the language come from and when?

Pre-Aryan people initially occupied Ireland, probably from circa 8000 BCE arriving via the then existing land bridges, connecting Ireland with the Isle of Man, Scotland and mainland Britain. Judging by the number of polished stone axes found throughout the island dating from this Mesolithic period c. 8800 – 4900 BCE, there was more than likely a common language among these early inhabitants. Whatever that language was, it most certainly was not Irish or anything remotely connected with it. These hunters and gatherers, the first “Irelanders” left little behind them that archaeologists could use other than a handful of small stone tools – microliths – and the recently discovered remains of two people dated from 7200 – 6500 BCE. However, both Britain and Ireland were abandoned when the glaciers expanded and northwest Europe became too cold so that populations retreated to southern France and northern Spain before moving north again as the climate warmed.

The start of the Neolithic Period, roughly 4900 – 2000 BCE, ushered in the rise of farming communities with the arrival, at different times, of different groups of people, some from the north and some from the southern Atlantic seaboard.

These indigenous, pre-Celtic people built massive stone structures sometime between 4900 – 2000 BCE. Most notable among them are New Grange or Brú na Bóinne, just north of modern day Dublin, indicative of a noticeable change in the material and spiritual culture which had gone before.

The Bronze Age, c 2000 – 500 BCE, brought, along with metallurgy, a new style of ceramics – Beaker ware – which quickly superimposed itself on the earlier Grooved ware pottery but there is no direct evidence that “Beaker people” moved from north-west Europe into Britain and then on to Ireland despite the abundant evidence for a Beaker presence in Ireland. Ideas travel, not just people. What is clear is that the Beaker people established, or maintained, a network of trade both within Ireland and between Ireland, Britain and Atlantic Europe, which, of necessity, would have involved communication and immigration in all directions.

The early Bronze Age (2000 – 1500) was also the Age of the Megaliths and examples can be found along the Atlantic seaboard where trade flourished. Ireland was a vital part of a chain of contacts extending into Europe by reason of it being a source of gold and copper, the latter abundant in Ross Island in southwest Ireland.

Between 1500 – 1200 BCE – the Middle Bronze Age – Ireland underwent extensive land clearance, along with improvements in transport with the establishment of track ways across bogs and the rise of the hill forts. Prior to this time, Irish circular dwellings had their entrance on the north side, but after 1500 BCE entrances moved to the south and the east, another possible indication of a change in customs brought about by new immigrants, but again not sufficient to warrant the introduction of an Irish language.

However by 1000 BCE, there are signs of a society splitting into tribal societies with regional centres such as Eamhain Macha and Crúachan. These hill forts usually consisted of a ditch surrounding the summit of a raised area, the up thrown soil forming an inner wall, enclosing easily defended internal areas. Some of the larger hill forts would have up to three defensive rings around the protected centre. These massive structures, the products of community labour and effort over an extended period, must have been for defence or as trade and exchange centres or ceremonial sites used for communal feasting, but whatever their purpose, they served to focus communities in the vicinity. Nearly 5000 Fulachta Fiadh, stone troughs used for a variety of purposes, including cooking, brewing and so on, are in close proximity to these centres, again indicative of a communal purpose outside of the individual home. By 800 BCE, the largest architectural structures of the entire Bronze Age had been completed.

Because hill forts required massive co-operation, society became characterised by the rise of the elites, including that of the warrior in search of fame and glory, marked by advanced weaponry and ornamentation. By the Late Bronze Age, c. 600 BCE, Ireland was changing again with substantial reforestation and a decline in agriculture with settlements reduced down to small family groups.

(To be continued)

Further reading: J.P. Mallory – The Origins of the Irish

Simon James – The Celts

Helen Litton – The Celts

Kenneth H Jackson – The Irish Language and the languages of the world


Author: serkeen

I am Irish, currently living in West Australia. I have a degree in Old & Middle English, Lang & Lit and, despite having worked in Kuwait, Italy, Malaysia, USA, Brunei, Australia and Hong Kong over the last 40 years, I have a strong interest in Ireland’s ancient pre-history and the heroes of its Celtic past as recorded in the 12th and late 14th century collection of manuscripts, collectively known as The Ulster Cycle. I enjoy writing historical novels, firmly grounded in a well-researched background, providing a fresh and exciting look into times long gone. I have an empathy with the historical period and I draw upon my experiences of that area and the original documents. I hope, by providing enough historical “realia” to hook you into a hitherto unknown – or barely glimpsed - historical period.

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