Today, we commonly refer to the Irish, Scottish and Welsh as Celts who were thought to have migrated from central Europe around 500 BC. Much of what we think we know about the Celts was actually created in the 19th century during the Celtic Revival. This version of history has, however, been challenged in recent times so where did the Irish come from?
The word ‘Celt’ (Greek Keltoi) was first used in writing in the 6th Century BC to describe the people who lived north of the Greek Colony of Massalia, modern Marseille in southern France. The Celts were a loose grouping of tribes that lived in an area north of the Alps around the Danube river in central Europe. Over the next few hundred years they spread east and west across Europe and arrived in Ireland about 500 BC. By the fifth century AD and the arrival of Christianity, the Celtic language was being spoken all over the island of Ireland.
The relatively modern concept of an identifiable Celtic identity tends to focus on similarities of languages, works of art, and literature. Earlier theories suggesting a common racial origin for all the Celtic peoples have been rejected in favour of a common cultural and language heritage rather than a genetic one.
The Celtic languages form a branch of the larger Indo-European family of languages. The earliest examples of a Celtic language are Lepontic inscriptions from the sixth century BC. Lepontic was spoken in Italy’s Po Valley at this time. By 400 BC there were Celtic language groups spread throughout Europe including Ireland and Britain.
Only a limited number of records written in the Celtic languages survive from pre-Christian times and consist mainly of inscriptions written in the Roman and Greek alphabets. Ogham script, an Early Medieval alphabet, was mostly used in early Christian times in Ireland and Scotland for ceremonial purposes such as inscriptions on gravestones.
Four Celtic Languages continue to be spoken in modern Europe: Welsh, Breton, Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic. Two other languages - Cornish and Manx Gaelic - survived into recent historical times. While the Celts spoke similar languages and shared much common culture, Continental Celts and those living in Britain and Ireland were different in important respects.
The ancient Celts were not so unlike the ancient Greeks, Romans and Germans in their values and beliefs. It has been suggested that, given time, the Celts would have developed an urban and technological civilisation of their own. If the Celts had settled in Rome after they seized the city in 390 BC instead of withdrawing, the history of European and European civilisation might have been very different.
The Celts worshipped hundreds of gods and goddesses. Celtic gods included Lugh and Dagda. Goddesses were associated with natural features such as rivers. For example, Boann was the goddess of the River Boyne.
In Celtic religion, druids acted as priests but also performed such roles as judges, sacrificers, teachers, and lore-keepers. The druids were an educated priestly class who had to serve up to a twenty-year apprenticeship in law, history, magic, medicine, poetry, astronomy and divination.
|Gold Torc - National Museum of Ireland|
The Celts are noted for their beautiful works of art. They wore brooches and armlets including the torc, which was a neck collar made of metal and, sometimes, gold. Examples of Celtic art can be seen in the intricate and beautiful metal work recovered from burial sites throughout Europe including Britain and Ireland.
Tribal warfare appears to have been a regular feature of Celtic societies. The Celts had a reputation as head hunters. The human head was venerated since the Celts saw this as the soul, centre of emotions and life itself. Slavery, as practised by the Celts, is thought to have been similar to the practice in ancient Greece and Rome. Slaves were acquired from war, raids, and penal and debt servitude.
Ireland's remote geographical position has meant that the Irish gene-pool has been less susceptible to change and the same genes have been passed down from parents to children for thousands of years. Research into both British and Irish DNA indicate the people of both islands have much in common genetically. In other words, most people in the British Isles are descended from the same Stone Age Spanish settlers.
The latest research into Irish DNA has confirmed that the early inhabitants of Ireland were not directly descended from the Keltoi or Celts of central Europe. The closest genetic relatives of the Irish in Europe are to be found in the north of Spain in what is now known as the Basque Country. We share this common ancestry with the people of Britain and, in particular, with the Scottish.
Researchers believe that the movement of people from the north of Ireland into Scotland in the period 400 – 800 AD has meant that Irish and Scottish people share very similar DNA. Not only did Irish invaders bring the Gaelic language and culture to Scotland, they also brought their genes.
The Welsh were found to be 'pure Britons', according to the research. Scientists were able to trace their DNA back to the first tribes that settled in the British Isles following the last ice age around 10,000 years ago. The research found that there is no single 'Celtic' genetic group. The Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and Cornish were found to be the most different from the rest of the country.
Much of what we understand about our Celtic heritage derives from the so called Celtic Revival and has been challenged by scholars. The ancient Celts were a loose grouping of tribes that lived in an area north of the Alps around the Danube, sharing a common cultural and language heritage. They gradually spread east and west across Europe and arrived in Ireland about 500 BC. They were a religious, warlike people noted for their beautiful works of art. Research into both British and Irish DNA indicate the people of both islands have much in common genetically.