Walking through Celtic Heartlands

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.IMG_0781

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.IMG_0732

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!


Who are the Irish and Where did their Language come from? Part Three

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.

Insular Celtic

Brittonic or P-Celtic

Goidelic or Q-Celtic,

Ancient British

Welsh Cornish Breton Irish Scots


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

Celtic Italic Germanic Slavonic Greek
Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Breton, Scots Gaelic & Manx Latin, French, Spanish, Italian etc. English, German, Scandinavian languages Russian

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!

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

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

Gaulish Galatian Lepontic Hispano Celtic Tartesian
P-Celtic P-Celtic P-Celtic Q-Celtic Q-Celtic

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.