I have been guilty of ethnocentricity in my collection of posts about Celtic Iron Age Technology in that I related them solely to the culture and lifestyle associated with Ireland from roughly 300 BCE to the arrival of Christianity some 730 years later. Of course, no one in Ireland during that time would have considered themselves Celts – or Irish – for that matter, but Celtic is what they were.
This year, travelling through France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Croatia and Slovenia I realised that I was in the very heartlands of the people known by the Romans as Galli or Galatae and as Keltoi by the Greeks, but what they called themselves is conjecture. Prehistoric Bronze Age peoples, loosely linked by a common heritage, style, languages, customs and art, from the central and east central plains of Europe coalesced around 750 BCE, with the discovery and use of iron to become the most powerful people in Europe from about 450 BCE – 250 BCE.
Initially a nomadic, pastoral people who favoured the cow and the horse above all other, they adopted agriculture and settled down around La Tène in modern day Switzerland and around the Lake Neuchatel in modern Austria.
Archaeologists labelled certain cultures within the Late Bronze Age over view. The culture known as Urnfield, where the dead were cremated in pots, is considered ‘proto’ Celts followed by the Hallstatt – after a huge site in Austria – in 1200 BCE.
From 450 BCE, Celtic culture was marked by La Tène – after a lakeside site in Switzerland. There, a large quantity of material goods was found. With their discovery of iron, both in agricultural – better ploughshares – and in war – spears and swords – the Celts flooded new areas, urged on by increasing population and the need for more farmland.
Spread out from their base in North East Europe, inevitably they came into contact, and met resistance, from the expanding Roman Empire. Pushed back north and west into Gaul, modern-day France, the Celts were hemmed in by Scandinavian tribes moving south themselves as Slavic tribes pushed in from the east.
Under pressure on all sides, the Celts retreated to Britain and Ireland before even those in Britain were pushed to the extremes of Scotland, Wales and Cornwall by the arrival of the Saxons and other Germanic and Scandinavian tribes with the last remnants of true Celtic culture ensconced in Ireland until the arrival of Christianity circa 400 A.D.
So goes the myth anyway, I suppose, but at the same time, I felt comfortable and at ease walking through these heartlands. Perhaps it was the beer!
(I know, I know this isn’t really Celtic Iron Age Trivia / Technology like the other posts in this category have been but …. well, it was just St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) this day last week so here goes – sorry if I dispell any myths!).
Go into any Irish pub anywhere outside of Ireland itself and no doubt there will be a mural or picture of the saint himself, mitred, robed, smiling beatifically or looking suitably sombre and not a pint of Guinness in sight.
The reality was rather different as it turns out.
Patrick, whose birth name was Maewyn Succat (b.390 CE), was the son of Conchessa and Calpurnius, a tax collector appointed by the Roman administration in western Britain. Patrick’s family were local stock who had long accepted Roman rule and custom and would be considered well to do in that they themselves were slave-owners.
Constantine the Great had earlier exempted Christian clergy from city council duties and, as increasingly frequent raids on the coastal districts made collecting taxes difficult, Maewyn’s grandfather, Potitus, had taken full advantage of the exemption by entering into a relaxed form of Christianity.
Calpurnius, however, was obliged to resort to harsh methods to collect the amounts demanded by Rome as, if less than demanded was collected, the “exactor,’ as Calpurnius was known, had to make up the deficit from his own pocket.
Stillicho, a Roman legate, was insisting on the full tax levy and Calpurnius was under a lot of pressure to buy and sell slaves to redress the difference
In 406 CE, Irish raiders attacked their Roman style villa and enslaved the 16 year old Maewyn to herd and tend sheep in the rugged countryside around Slemish, Northeastern Ireland. By 410 CE, all Roman forces had withdrawn from Brittania, leaving the country exposed to continuing raiding by Goidels or Irish raiders.
The youth spent 6 years in thrall to Irish pagans, where he discovered both his “anam cara” – the friend of his soul with his God and an empathy for his captors as much cut off from the true religion as he felt himself to be. Guided by a voice only he could hear, he escaped captivity and, convinced of his divinely inspired mission, studied under Bishop Germanus in Auxerre and again in Rome, determined to bring salvation to the people controlled by their pagan druids.
In 431 Pope Celestine I, concerned more at the growth of Pelagianism in Britain than the rife paganism in Hibernia, sent his bishop to suppress the Pelagianheresy but Palladius died with no success in Scotland in 432.
Maewyn, meanwhile, had received the tonsure at Lérins Abbey and taken the name Patroculus, and jumped at the chance to return to the island of his slavery and pagan druidism. Celestine sensed that Patroculus was made of sterner stuff than his former envoy and as a womaniser, a fighter, a hard man of his times, well used to both the power of the word as well as the sword, he would be an invaluable bulwark against the bishops in Britain who stuck to their heretical ways. Patroculus certainly never claimed to be a saint but by his death in 461 he had founded a base for Christianity in the far-flung western isle that has never wavered since.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day for next year if you missed it!
According to Julius Caesar and other writers and chroniclers from the first century BCE, such as Strabo, a Greek geographer, and Diodorus Siculus, an historian from Sicily, the ancient Celtic druids were more than just a semi-mystical priesthood.
Caesar certainly saw them not only as an organised inter-tribal brotherhood who acted as living repositories of their tribal histories and legends, negotiating, legislating, judging and officiating over all individual and community oaths and sacrifices but also as a rival authority to the extension of Roman power among the so-called barbarian tribes of the north.
Others regarded druids as poets and bards, seers, teachers, historians, astronomers, medical practioners and – later through the distorted lens of early Christians – as devious wizards and magicians who kept their people in thrall with simple sleight-of-hand tricks.
Probably all of the above is true, in some sense, in that they were, without doubt, the learned men of their people who had the recognised and unquestioned power to ‘excommunicate” individuals from community events. All commentators agree that they had a vast store of knowledge which they acquired orally and passed on to their followers over a 20 year training period.
No doubt they were poets and bards as the easiest way to memorise huge tracts of knowledge relating to tribal law and ownership was to make use of standard poetic functions such as alliteration, rhyme, onomatopoeia, simile and metaphor as a way of preserving and keeping alive tribal history and legends.
However, as no written records*1 exist of what the druids knew or learned, it is mere conjecture to say what they actually did.
Nevertheless, it is feasible to consider how the classical ancients described them and to put that knowledge into a suitable context.
It is likely that the druids became the sole provider of laws and customs among the widely varied nomadic and pastoralist Celtic people inhabiting Europe from the Early Iron Age, c.800 BCE. Being outdoors as a way of life, the druids would have become very receptive to the divine powers inherent in nature and would willingly have entered into a communion with them, having gradually assimilated facets from other existing codes of law and belief into their own oral bodies of knowledge. As nomadic people settled and adopted agriculture, more elaborate rituals and sacrifices were needed and the druids eventually became the predominant social and political bond uniting all Celtic people that Caesar feared so much and vowed to destroy.
What is known is that druids could be both male and female, with the men shaving their head across the forehead, leaving the hair long at the back, and that they were exempt from taxes and military service. Extraordinary attention was paid to the human head, which was seen as the location of the human spirit or soul. Heads, taken as a trophy in battle, implying control of an enemy’s spirit, were later preserved in cedar oil. Shrines often contained these mummified skulls or artistic representations of them.
With the rise of the hill forts and their ascendant chieftains, druids gravitated to the throne where they acted as trusted advisors. Regarding their role as seers and astronomers, they believed in a future or imagined worlds such as Tír na nÓg, Uí Breasail and Magh Mell.
Such powers they may have exercised would have depended upon their knowledge of the seasons and seasonal change, and their priveledged status, as intermediaries in the communion between men and gods, giving them the authority to initiate the planting and harvesting of crops and rites of thanks for success.
Seasonal change may have involved a close study of nature with such signs as frogs spawning deeper than usual or the trees showing the backside of their leaves and so on, being an imminent sign of changing weather patterns.
Similarly, like shamans world-wide, they perhaps used local plants to alter their worldly perception and also that of their people through the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants such as foxglove or belladonna or perhaps, on a more one-to-one situation, hypnotism.
Oak groves were sacred to the druids as were certain rivers, and natural features of their landscape such as hilltops and valleys. Certainly, sacrifice of plants and animals took place while classical writers shuddered in scandalised horror at the idea of human sacrifice, ignoring their own brutal histories of slavery, torture and sacrifice in the public arenas.
Caesar seemed to feel Druidism originated in Britain, most especially in the modern day region of Anglesley Island off Wales, known then to the Romans as the Isle of Mona and that druidism spread to most of Europe but not as far south as Spain or Italy but it is more likely the other way round. As Caesar advanced into Gaul, gradually pushing back the barbarian tribes, the old knowledge retreated along with the population until further encroachment from Germanic tribes in the north meant that remaining Celts retreated to the islands of the Atlantic or clung to the northernmost fringes of Europe. Pushed again and finally hemmed in by the legions in Britain, the druids reputedly met their end facing off against advancing Roman legions who stormed the Isle of Anglesey in 60 CE, wiping out the last stronghold of Celtic druidism. That he knew of, anyway!
Inevitably druids continued, unhindered in their ways, in the far flung western isle of Ireland, relatively untouched by Roman rule, for a further 500 years until the arrival of Christianity on the shores, (not taking into account of the hundreds of Christian enslaved from raids on both the European mainland but also from the west coast of Britain, a trade that was to continue for many more centuries).
The Hindu Link
Recent Celtic scholarship*2 has shown that the origins of druidism share a common Indo-European heritage with the Brahmins of Vedic India. Strong parallels exist between ancient Celtic and Hindu society, with their common Indo-European roots in law and customs going back to the Early Bronze Age or even the Neolithic period.
As far back as 1786, Sir William Jones discovered close links between ancient Sanskrit – the language of the Vedas – and Greek, Latin, Celtic and Germanic languages. Linguistically, Italic and Celtic (the fore-fathers of Latin and Old Irish) and Indo-Iranian (Persian, or Avestan, and Sanskrit) were part of the much greater family of Indo-European languages sharing many common features and lexical cognates.
By the third millennium BCE, The Indo-Aryan cattle-rearing nomads roaming the Eurasian steppes west of the Urals dispersed west to Europe and, circa 1500 BCE, arrived in the north west plains of India from the mountain passes of Afghanistan where their beliefs merged with pre-existing ones to form the basis of Hinduism. Similar to the Celts of Western Europe, their culture was characterised by domesticated cattle and horses, chariots, spoked wheels and elaborate metalworkings.
Certainly, early Celtic society was based on a shared or common language – (Proto-Celtic), an authoritative priesthood (Druids), a strict social hierarchy (Chieftains / Kings – Nobles / Warriors – Priests / Druids – Farmers / Craft-workers – Slaves) with acknowledged descent from a single, known ancestor and where cattle represented both wealth and prestige. The Indus valley civilization at a comparable time was remarkably similar as society was based on the pillars of language (Sanskrit), an authoritative priesthood (the Brahmins) and a social hierarchy of chieftains supported by the Brahmin priestly caste overseeing a warrior nobility with ordinary people below them and subjugated people or slaves at the bottom).
The Celtic grouping of families into four generations – the Irish “derbfine” is similar to the Indian notion of “sapinda.” Ancient Irish marriage laws paralleled ancient Indian ones, so too did the laws of inheritance through the female line. The use of fasting – a hunger strike – to “dishonour” a transgressor is common to this day in both societies – think Gandhi, Bobby Sands and the many others who have pledged their life for a principle! The ancient oral Irish legal foundation, the laws of Fénechus, transcribed from the 7th century CE by Christian scribes and constantly annotated and added to, and later known as the Brehon Laws, share many similarities with the Vedic culture and laws of the North West Indus valley in modern day India.
According to The Book of Invasions, (see earlier post on Epochs and the Books of Invasions) a collection of poems and prose narratives that presents itself as a chronological “history” of Ireland and the Irish, the earliest of which was compiled by anonymous scribes during the 11th century, Amergin was a Milesian seer or druid who fought against the Tuatha De Danann and is chiefly remembered even today for his song where he subsumes the world into his own being with a philosophic outlook that parallels the declaration of the Lord Shri Krishna in the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita. *3
The Song of Amergin
I am the wind that blows across the sea;
I am the wave of the ocean;
I am the murmur of the billows;
I am the ox of the seven combats;
I am the vulture on the rock;
I am a beam of the sun;
I am the fairest of flowers;
I am a wild boar in valour;
I am a salmon in the pool;
I am a lake on the plain;
I am the skill of the craftsman;
I am a word of science;
I am the spear point that gives battle;
I am the God who creates in the head of man the fire of thought.
Who is it that enlightens the assembly upon the mountain, if not I?
Who tells the ages of the moon, if not I?
Who shows the place where the sun goes to rest, if not I?
Who is the God that fashions enchantments – The enchantment of battle and the wind of change?
Compare with Chapter 10, The Divine Manifestations, of the holy book of the Bhagavad Geeta *3
I am the electric Force in the powers of nature
I am the mind
and I am the intelligence in all that lives,
I am the Whirlwind among the winds
of the waters, I am the Ocean
I am the Thunderbolt of weapons
of cows I am the Cow of Plenty
I am the Eagle among birds
I am the passion in those who procreate
I am the eternal present,
I am the lion among beasts
I am the beginning, the middle and the end in creation
I am time inexhaustible
I am all devouring death
I am the origin of all that shall happen
Whatever is glorious, excellent, beautiful and mighty,
be assured that it comes from but a fragment of my splendour.
Whatever the case, it is beguiling to think of a single strand of humanity sowing the seeds of civilization from Bengal to Donegal as attested by this dedication from the 1935 edition of The Geeta to W.B. Yeats!
*1 The Coligny Calendar, dating from the first century CE has sixteen columns of months covering a period of five years and has been compared with Vedic cosmology. Major festival, according to Diodorus Siculus were held every five years and festival days were marked on the calendar.
Binchy, D. A. 1972. “Celtic Suretyship, a fossilized Indo-European Institution?” The Irish Jurist 7, 360–72.
Charles-Edwards, Th. 1980. “Nau Kynwedi Teithiauc.” In D. Jenkins and M.E. Owen (eds.), The Welsh Law of Women. Studies presented to Professor Daniel A. Binchy on his eightieth birthday, 3 June 1980. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 23–39.
*3 The Geeta – the Gospel of the lord Shri Krishna
Put into English by Shri Purohit Swami 1935 Faber & Faber Ltd.
Along with the rise of the hill forts circa 1000 BCE, and the emphasis on items both as weapons and ornamentation, the stratification of society, into chieftains or kings surrounded by nobles and warriors supported by priests or druids interceding for farmers, craft-workers and slaves, was firmly established. This hierarchy inevitably involved the notion of the hero or champion and was marked by a leader able to distribute gifts and largesse while, at the same time, host feasts and celebrations where warriors would vie with each other for the favour of their liege. Such restrained power necessitated the rise of the heroic warrior, the hero, to stand alone and unbeaten. No doubt the flowering of literature of the twelfth century French Romance and Mallory’s later Arthurian romances must all have stemmed from the Iron Age concept.
Not everyone would – or could – be a hero. While all young boys played fierce physical games with wooden sticks – a proto Hurley? – before weapons could be handled, a hero was always set apart. Never having recognised parents and a mysterious background, Arthur is fostered at an early age just as Oedipus is brought up in ignorance of his parents and Lancelot of Arthurian legend is raised by the shadowy Lady of the Lake while Cú Chulainn’s birth is similarly shrouded in mystery.
Not obvious parentage means the hero has no name and must acquire one through his own actions – Sétanta kills the forge hound and becomes Cú Chulainn, while later Celtic heroes, Finn and the Welsh, Gwion, gain their later names of brilliance and light. The significance of having no family means a concomitant feeling of standing alone – the hero can expect no aid in his quest for glory but at the same time no limits are placed on his ambitions for his name to live on, forever, on the lips of men.
Never accepted in his own country, the Iron Age hero must leave his comfort zone, undergoing training at the hands of learned druids or experienced warriors. Tests of physical prowess, – ability to jump or vault over a stick their own height, run barefoot through a forest without breaking a twig underfoot, defend against 9 men throwing spears, remove a thorn from his foot while running – must be passed, but the hero must also be erudite and knowledgeable about poetry. Strangers approaching the territory of a chieftain had to undergo single combat or compose a poem on the spot.
Cú Chulainn trained under the tutelage of the warrior woman, Scáthach, who presented the fearsome gae bolga to the hero, along with a warning of its consequent use. Beowulf sought out sea monsters before going on to defeating Grendel and its mother, Arthur trained under the venerable Sir Ector de Maris, all to achieve the fame they sought. Beowulf leaves for the court of Denmark; Tristan of Arthurian legend travels to Ireland from his native Cornwall.
Nowhere in the manuscripts is it ever suggested that Cú Chulainn is not from the kingdom of the Ulaidh (modern day Ulster in Northern Ireland) nevertheless, when all the fighting age men of the area are stricken with an ancient curse, Cú Chulainn alone is exempt. Like all his fellow outsiders, having no ties to hamper his actions, the hero inevitably becomes a force for disruption, change and catastrophe.
Heroes must claim their weapons forcibly or obtain them from supernatural forces – Lancelot receives his sword from the Lady of the lake, Beowulf discovers a sword in the lair beneath the lake, and Cú Chulainn smashes King Conor’s armoury before the king himself presented the nascent hero with his very own weapons while the youthful Arthur plucks the sword from the stone.
A tipping point occurs in all the lives of the heroes when the focus on honour and glory supersedes the needs or bonds of their society. Achilles rejects his mother’s help and chooses to die before the walls of Troy. Cú Chulainn hears the druid’s prophecy of bloody and glory but still chooses to seek the latter. This tipping point influences the remaining portion of the heroes’ life. Every further irrevocable action with the umbrella-like spear, the gae bolga, that Cú Chulainn accepts from the hands of Scáthach maintains or furthers the glorification of his name. Chulainn, in his killing fury, is just as prepared to slaughter his enemies as his compatriots once his battle fury descends upon him.
Mortal enemies of the heroes often involve demonic or supernatural forces as human weapons have little effect upon them, Achilles is dipped in the pool of immortality, Arthur is protected by the power of Excalibur and Cú Chulainn is unassailable when he is in his battle fury. The inevitable downfall of the hero is, therefore, always linked with the breaking of a vow or the forsaking of an oath. Arthur is killed at the hands of his illegitimate son, Cú Chulainn dies alone after breaking the taboos that ruled his life, Beowulf meets his demise by neglecting his role of kingship and acting as if he were still the hero.
Ireland was a different story – relatively untouched by Rome, society there did not change dramatically until the advent of Christianity 500 years later. Groups of Celtic speaking people continued to arrive and leave, bringing with them La Tène styles and influences. Iron Age Celts thus survived in Ireland long after it had been wiped out elsewhere.
Linguists refer to the languages spoken in Britain and Ireland as Insular Celtic which can be further subdivided into Brittonic or P-Celtic and Goidelic or Q-Celtic, as in the table below.
Brittonic or P-Celtic
Goidelic or Q-Celtic,
Whether the ancient Celts can be identified with the Gauls that Caesar defeated, the Insular Celtic languages are closely related to one another and to the other Celtic languages of Europe, now sadly extinct. Although the earliest record of what is now known as Irish dates from the 5th century A.D. in the form of a simple inscription, there is no doubt that Irish is a branch of Celtic which is a branch of Indo-European and Irish cannot have arrived in Ireland before the spread of the Indo European languages.
Despite the similarities and inter-relationships between the Celtic languages, it is not possible to pinpoint the exact origin of Irish. Linguistically speaking, the more similar two languages are to each other, the less time they have spent apart and the languages of Ireland, Britain and Gaul are remarkably similar and related to Proto Celtic.
Obviously, languages like French, Spanish and Italian bear striking similarities, so much so that they can be viewed as cousins, with their parent language being Latin, as spoken during the Roman Empire.
Similarly, Irish can be seen as cousin to Welsh, Cornish and Breton on one hand and to Scots Gaelic and Manx on the other and the original parent language would have been Common Celtic.
A subset of the Proto- Indo European Family of Languages
The shared vocabulary of all Indo European languages, including Celtic, indicates there could have been no separation of the Celtic group into divergent dialects before the development of farming soon after the end of the Stone Age as the ancestors of Indo European flood in from Eastern Europe and Western Asia in four main Language groups – Graeco-Latin along the Mediterranean, the Germanic around the Baltic, the Slavonic in the east and the Celtic in the centre and west. It is impossible to see “Irish” arriving during the Neolithic period as that would postulate a physical split between the earliest speakers of Irish, British and Gaulish back to 4000 BCE.
Equally, it is next to impossible to imagine a Celtic language entering Ireland much before 1000 BCE. Although Ireland was in contact with Britain and Europe for nearly a thousands years prior to this, as seen through the distribution of ceramics, polished stone axes and megalithic tombs, and that link continued throughout the Bronze Age, with the exchange of weapons and ornaments, but again there is no direct evidence for Irish having been introduced as a “trade” language or as a “lingua franca”. Neither Irish nor any other Celtic language have the aspect of a pidgin or trade language nor are they simplified in any way while their respective grammars and vocabularies retain the full range of their Proto-Indo European ancestor.
By 300 BCE, archaeological evidence indicates the spread of La Tène culture and the arrival of small groups or bands but no sign of a major settlement of a foreign population. Nevertheless, the evidence of tribal names suggests that Celtic speakers, both Goidelic and Brittonic with the former gradually subsuming the latter, occupied large areas.
So, if the accounts in the Book of Invasions are discounted as to the origins of the Irish and their language and Irish was not a trade language introduced during the Bronze Age, what is left?
Although multiple opportunities for a language shift in Ireland have been postulated, the one most likely to have been the direct ancestor of Irish aligns itself with the rise of the hill forts from 1000 BCE as the sites assumed significant religious and ceremonial features. The spread of regional centres in areas of Ireland – Crúachan in the west, Eamhain Macha in the north, Dún Ailinne in the east, Cashel in the south and Tara in the middle – might also herald the arrival of a new language.
So, although Irish was not native to Ireland, there would have been Celtic predecessors brought in multiple times by small groups from similar areas of the Atlantic seaboard and Britain who introduced their language, not through warfare but more likely, through having a more productive economy or just by simply outnumbering the sparse native population and whose identity became subsumed under a continuing influx of Celtic people. Bi-lingualism is the first stage when two languages meet and the native Irelanders would have adopted Proto Irish if it had been in their interests to do so.
Languages represent social phenomena with no language being intrinsically superior or inferior to another. Instead, language is used to fulfil essential social contacts in areas such as religion, law, sport, trade, literature and so on. Linguists refer to these social contexts as “language domains”. The new or target language is often linked with specific domains and, in the case of a “proto Irish” arriving in Ireland, the new language must have either filled in an existing domain or else created a need for a new one so that the native inhabitants would have thought it worth their while to embrace the new language.
So, the most probably reason for the adaptation of a “proto-Irish” by native Irelanders was that the new language offered the people access to something they did not have before – perhaps it was a tighter form of social organisation,
based on stratification, feasting, gift giving or some type of social prestige – a warrior elite or a new religion. Traditionally, the spread of world religions often carried with it a new language, Islam and Arabic, for example or Christianity and Latin.
The spread of hill forts and the regional centres they controlled, along with the rise of iron weaponry, leading to a warrior elite such as the Red Branch (Craobh Ruadh), with society forming clearly delineated stratification lines between tribal chiefs, religious leaders or druids, the warrior elites and the trade and craft people all tended to attract the native Irelanders to a new social system and the language that came with it. The overall result might have caused the native “Irelanders” to identify with and behave like the early speakers of “proto Irish”.
So, on the basis of archaeological, linguistic and genetic evidence, it seems most likely that from 1000 BCE, “proto Irish” would have arrived with different Celtic groups, pushed to the fringes of Europe from the inhabited La Tène lands into Britain and then further west into Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Certainly by 100 AD, a Celtic language, the predecessor to the modern Irish language, was in place. Linguistically, Old Irish was a monolithic language, meaning that, if it had been in Ireland for millennia, it would have developed dialects, which it did not do until more recent times.
In conclusion, it seems that the language known today as Irish arrived in Ireland sometime between 1000 – 100 BCE with evidence for both Brittonic and Goidelic groups establishing central foci for existing communities and ultimately providing a means of dividing Ireland up into different social groups, tribes and clans. Nevertheless, it would be nonsense to think of the people then as an Irish nation, the first reference to which only occurred nearly 1800 years later!
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.
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:
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