The ancient Celtic year was divided into four main parts, according to the seasons, each of which was preceded by a great religious festival and accompanied by feasting, sports, games and religious observances.
In the Celtic world, Bealtaine (end of April or May 1)* marked the start of the summer quarter and the return of the sun’s warmth and the consequent fertility of crops and animals and was observed by lighting bonfires, the smoke of these holy fires associated with the Celtic sun god Belenos. Druids officiated at these ceremonies, muttering incantations and throwing handfuls of bones of both animals and warriors into the flames that flared orange against the darkening sky to the west, while the people and their cattle walked around and between two great fires, and young boys dared each other to leap over the flames and embers from the burnt offerings which the druids believed had purifying powers used to kill pests on cattle before they were driven out to open grazing
May Day customs – dancing at crossroads – still remain popular in many parts of the Celtic world with all hearth fires and lamps extinguished as night fell and the only light coming from the two sacrificial fires lit by the druids. All domestic new fires had to be kindled from these new sacred fires.
Yellow flowers of gorse, hazel and marsh marigold were used to decorate the entrances to the dwellings so that their sweet scent permeated the warm night air of early summer. Bealtaine dew was also thought to enhance beauty and maintain youthfulness if one rolled naked and washed in the dew or it could be collected in a jar and left in the sunlight, for the ‘filtered essence’ was thought to maintain youthfulness and increase sexual attractiveness!
Bealtaine, like its counterpart festival, Samhain, was a time most auspicious for the Sídhe, or the fairy folk, who were particularly active at the start of Bealtaine, emerging from their ancient passage mounds, leaving their gold and treasure momentarily unguarded for the greedy and the unwary.
Bealtaine may also refer to the Bilé, the Celtic god of life and death and may have associations with Baal, the Eastern deity.
Christianity’s first major confrontation with Celtic and pagan Ireland also took place during the festival of Bealtaine when St. Patrick, later to become the patron saint of the island, lit the paschal fire at Slane before the druids of king Laoghaire first lit the sacred fire of Bealtaine on the holy mound of Tara in 433 A.D.
In Australia, of course, the seasons are revesed and Bealtaine would be held at the end of October or the very beginning of November
Well, it’s that time again – Saint Paddy’s Day. Amazing really, what the day inspires – from massive street parades with green beer to the most unlikely people – Genghis Khan, that sort of thing – discovering that they have Irish ancestry hence it is ok to wear lurid green t-shirts, hats, ties and, (God help me), male and female briefs with stupid slogans – “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” or “Top of the morning to you.”
I broke down recently, for the first time, ever. Really. I promise. I actually bought St. Patrick whatdymecallit – gimcracks? – from an outlet here imaginatively and (honestly called) The Reject Shop – Why Pay Too Much?.
A pack of four small, moulded plastic hats in bright green with tight elastic chin string cost $3. Anyway for the past week or so, The Reject Shop – and possibly such places as The Five Dollar Store – have offered an array of Irish themed crap while the TV here has bombarded viewers with ancestry ads offering family searches back over many generations.
So, I beg to ask, is St Paddy just for the Irish or is he a “Kissable Everyman” for all comers.
What have we done to deserve this? Are Irish people, gender indiscriminate, so cuddly adorable that they deserve to be smothered with kisses like some sleepy koala cub, or cheeky kitten? And is it anything actually to do with Saint Patrick at all. How does that reflect on Irish people in general? Does it apply to other nations’ National Days?
Country National Day
Ireland 17 Mar St Patrick’s Day
USA 04 July Indolence Day
England 23 Apr St George’s Day
Scotland 30 Nov St Andrew’s Day
Wales 01 Mar St David’s Day
France 14 Jul Bastille Day
Italy 02 June Festa della Repubblica
China 01 Oct National Day
Vietnam 02 Sept National Day
Belgium 21 July National Day
Australia 26 January Australia Day
Does anyone in Australia give a tinker’s curse about Belgium’s National Day (and vice versa) and do the Scottish go out of their way to celebrate the festa della Republica? Yet punters, (including myself this year) really do buy ridiculous paraphernalia (green bowler hats, scarves, commerative plates and plaques, t-shirts, key rings, dolls, fake red hair and beards, hideous plastic shillelaghs and grinning leprechauns sitting atop spotted toadstools) otherwise such price conscious emporiums wouldn’t stock them, I suppose.
How much junk is produced for France’s National Day for example, – model guillotines, and plastic strings of onions? Are mini dragons or bravely waving plastic or ceramic flags sold in bulk for other National Days. Who, except perhaps the Americans who actually go so far as to dye their beer green for March 17, would treat their national drink with such disrespect as to add food colouring. Imagine the French dying their wine green or blue!
Ok, so Paint Saddy’s day is both a Feast Day – and a Holy Day of Obligation! (Roman Catholics in Ireland are obliged to attend Mass) – but does that mean we deserve (unreservedly?) to be kissed? So, my point, labouriously, is this, why are Irish, and not specifically other nations, to be kissed on their National Day. Not reviled, despised, thanked, rewarded, recognised, applauded, awarded but kissed? How did this come about?
Is it the culture, the music, the quaintness, the far flung western isle sort of thing, the heavy Arran-knit sweaters or is it more likely that 17 March falls conveniently halfway through the period known as Lent, when Christians “voluntarily” beginning a period of penance by refraining from something or other. In my childhood, it was giving up sugar or chocolate (later it was cigs and the pints) until the breakout on Easter Sunday with chocolate rabbits and eggs, However, on St Paddy’s Day, the traditional Lenten restrictions on eating and drinking alcohol were lifted for the day, which probably has done more to encourage and promote the Saint Patrick’s Day tradition of alcohol consumption in terms of Messrs Guinness & Jameson than any other thing.
Maybe that’s why the Irish are kissed? Because we found a way to have a bit of a knees-up in the middle of a drab penitential period.
I’ll definitely make an effort (not much required, actually, if the truth be known) to drink a Guinness on Paddy’s Day- either draught in some non-local pub or drink the elegant long cans sedately in my own garden. I’ll probably have a whiskey too, a Jameson, for old time’s sake, I’ll tell myself. I’ll pin up the green plastic mini top hats so thanks Paint Saddy, or Naomh Pádraig, as I knew him when I was a kid.
Here are a few misconceptions about Ireland’s Patron Saint?
He never drove the snakes out of Ireland, as there were never snakes in the island. He is responsible for starting this idea of the ‘island of saints and scholars”. Possible an accomplished womaniser and not too adverse to accepting a back-hander from local chieftains apparently, as, at his trial, he was accused of both. He certainly raised the ire of the British heretical bishops following the Pelagian branch of Christianity at the time while he reviled slavery and its widespread practice.
I don’t think he ever left the “blessèd isle” from when he arrived in his second coming, as it were, in 432 until his death in Four Sixty something A.D. I’ve always admired perseverance, dedication and effort and I’d have to give the Saint full marks there.
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!