Meanwhile, in Europe, Celts originated in central and east-central Europe during the Early Iron Age, about 850 BCE. Various groups or tribes assimilated during the Bronze Age and gradually developed a single culture around the discovery and use of Iron. Referred to as Hallstatt, from an area in Austria where major archaeological finds were discovered, this Celtic culture developed into a major trading centre with the Mediterranean and the Greek port of Massalia (modern day Marseilles).
By about 450 BCE, during the Late Iron Age in Europe, the Hallstatt culture was succeeded by a period known as La Tène after a site in modern day Switzerland. This was a major shift in culture and style focusing on decorative metalwork such as gold torcs and horse gear with iron being cheaper and more available than bronze. Despite later descriptions of the Celts being unruly and warlike, they were predominantly an agricultural and pastoral people and iron plough shares cleared the land more efficiently while iron swords, spears and shields gave them a tactical advantage as their need for farmland kept pace with their growing population and inevitably, groups reached Britain and Ireland.
Further south, Celtic tribes began their expansion over the Alps and into Italy (sacking Rome in 390 BCE) and down through the Balkans, eventually reaching Turkey where they were known as the Galatians (the object of many of St. Paul’s future letters!). The Romans called them Celtae or Galli and the Greeks referred to them as Galatae or Keltoi but it is not clear what they called themselves. The first written reference to them was in Greek c.500 BCE.
By c.600 BCE, during the early Irish Iron Age, the former trade links with Europe apparently collapsed, isolating Ireland from events in Europe. The former communal interdependence relied on Ireland being a source of copper, essential for Bronze Age metallurgy but with iron being relatively widespread in Europe, trade declined. After 600 BCE and before the start of La Tène in Ireland by about 300 BCE, nothing much is known yet it is during this time, from about 300 BCE – 400 AD that the Irish language most probably arrived in Ireland.
The shift from Bronze to Iron technology varied widely within Europe. The majority of metal finds in Ireland from this period were not, in fact iron, most being bronze which remained in widespread use throughout the Irish Iron Age. It was not until the 3rd century BCE, that La Tène items such as ornaments, weapons and tools appeared in Ireland and this Celtic influence may have been the greatest single cause of the creation of both the “Irish” people and their language. This was also the period when Ireland came into regular contact with the Roman world through Roman traders and “Irelanders” travelling to Britain and beyond.
Despite the archaeological evidence, once again there is no direct evidence of a substantial population movement from Europe to Ireland. In fact the opposite seems to have occurred, with the land becoming re-forested and agriculture declining, suggesting a sharp fall in population. Nevertheless, two streams of La Tène culture continued to enter Ireland, the first direct from Europe to the west of Ireland and the later input from Britain to the north.
From 300 – 200 BCE as Roman power extended in the south and east, the Celts were being pressed on the north by the Germanic tribes moving south. Rome continues to squeeze Celtic lands, and by 150 BCE their area of influence continued to decline until Caesar conquered Gaul a century later ending their hegemony and, more slowly but just as surely, the languages of the continental Celts. By 100 – 1BCE only Britain & Ireland retained a Celtic lifestyle.
Celtic Languages of Europe
As a distinct entity, Celtic language and culture were wiped out in Europe. In Britain, Celtic tribes were driven north into Scotland and east into Wales by the numerous incursions, first by the Romans themselves and then later by the Angle and Saxon invasions.