Ireland and the Celtic Culture
From the book In
Search of Ancient Ireland
by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton.
Of all the words now associated with Ireland and the Irish, the most familiar and
hackneyed is probably the word "Celtic." Pick up any
catalogue selling Irish goods and the word is splashed across every
page: Celtic music, Celtic spirituality, Celtic crosses-there are
even "Celtic" mouse pads.
This word coupled with anything Irish is now commonplace and accepted with
total validity. But how valid an assumption is this? How truly
"Celtic" is Ireland? This question is one of the most significant
ones addressed by modem day Irish archaeologists and historians and has
some very interesting answers.
The 19th Century Writers
The widespread use of the word "Celtic" in its application to
things Irish is actually rooted mainly in the nineteenth century, in what
became known as the Celtic Renaissance. This literary and cultural movement
was an attempt by Irish writers and folklorists of the period to establish
a sense of identity for the Irish people at a time when both politically
and socially the country was in a deep malaise. There were valid
sociological reasons for this need to establish a sense of nationhood and a
legitimacy to Ireland. The forced parliamentary union of Ireland and
Britain in 1800 was both an economic and a political failure. The tragic
Famine of the 1840s had taken its toll and the Irish landscape was a
wasteland of misery and confusion. The population had declined dramatically
as a result of death from starvation, disease, and emigration. The slow
draining of the countryside from emigration continued for the remainder of
the century. The Famine was to leave deep psychological scars on the Irish memory.
As one modem Irish historian has written: "The Famine was a crisis
of the mind as well as the body." Celtic revivalists like W. B. Yeats
and Douglas Hyde, working in the 1890s, deliberately set about searching
out Ireland's ancient past to create a sense of identity and self-respect
for the Irish people. In the wake of so much destruction they were
determined to establish or re-establish national pride by seeking out the
origins of Irish civilization and clearing away as much historical debris
as possible. They earnestly sought to discover what Ireland and the Irish
were like before the English invasion of the twelfth century and before
Christian influence. As one of the protagonists of this movement said,
"Ireland is appealing to the past to escape the confusion of the
present." The leaders of this revival accepted at face value the
writings in the ancient texts, written from the sixth to the twelfth
centuries, and used these as historical foundations to create an Ireland
that possibly never existed or at least not as they saw it. They took as
valid history these texts written hundreds of years after the events they
describe. It was in the nineteenth century that the idealized notion of a
long forgotten, homogeneous, Celtic Irish people became the accepted,
popular notion of the origin of Irish ethnicity. This idea has persisted
into our time, as have other cultural developments of the period.
Much of what we think of as being popular Irish culture originated in
the nineteenth century. For example, Irish dance as we now know it was
"developed" in the nineteenth century when set dancing was first
introduced. Irish dancing masters adapted continental dances, like the
quadrille, to the style of solo step dancing, which was introduced into
Ireland in the eighteenth century from Europe. The first céilí was
organized by the Gaelic League in 1894 as a way of gathering people
together to promote a sense of Irish culture, but primarily to encourage
them to speak the Irish language, which was in serious decline. The oldest
known Irish music is hundreds of years old, not thousands, so it can hardly
claim to be of ancient "Celtic" times. The Irish language,
however, does have a long historical link to the past, and this remains one
of the most valid threads in Irish history. Modern archaeological methods
and linguistic evidence offer some answers about what life was actually
like in pre-christian Ireland. Through these methods we can gain perhaps a
more valid assessment of Irish prehistory
Who were the Celts?
We know that prior to the 1700s the term "Celtic" was not in
use in the English language. The eighteenth-century classification came
about as a result of linguistic evidence, which linked the native languages
of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to the continental language of the people
whom Julius Caesar described as Celtae. The word "Celtic" came
originally from the Greeks who, around 600 B.C., called the people who
lived to the north of Greece Keltoi. We know also from references in both
Greek and Roman texts that they inhabited a large area in Central Europe.
Archaeologists do not believe that the Celts were one homogeneous people
but were composed of many tribes speaking a similar language. How these
different tribes came to speak a common language is not known, but these
various peoples, referred to as Celtic, spoke a language which was a
predecessor of modern-day Irish. Thus the word "Celtic" became a
way of describing the people who spoke the Gaelic language.
These continental Celtic speaking people did not commit anything to
writing. This is certainly not to say they were an ignorant people. By
tradition, information was committed to memory and passed on orally. There
are no written records in Ireland before the arrival of Christianity in the
fifth century, but there were sophisticated schools of memory where poets,
storytellers, and lawyers would memorize what their various disciplines
required. So successful was this method that when writing did arrive in
Ireland it merely gave form to the rich culture, which had predated it and
in many ways survived for hundreds of years after the arrival of the first
Christian missionaries. A form of early writing had developed and Ogham, a
complicated script based on the Latin alphabet, has survived, but it was
usually only used on commemorative pillar stones to identify the dead.
The Romans claimed that the Celts were elitists and would not commit
anything to writing for fear that the information would become commonplace
and available to all. Julius Caesar, in his description of the Celts in his
Gallic War, writes that the Celts "consider it improper to commit
their studies to writing," and he adds that they knew Greek letters
and used these for "all other purposes." The Celtic tribes,
Caesar suggests, did not trust the written word because it meant that
knowledge could be dispersed and that druids and poets would lose their
special status within society. But whatever the reason, it means that when
we talk about this period in Irish history we rely on texts written only
after the arrival of Christianity. More valid sources for information are
the archaeological and linguistic evidence, but the texts reveal some
interesting insights about what life might have been like in Ireland so long ago.
The Celts and Ireland - The Monastic Texts
By tradition it was believed that the Celts first came to Ireland around
500 B.C. in one massive invasion. Few Irish scholars now accept this. This
myth was based on an Irish document known as the Leabhar Gabhála, or Book
of Invasions: a text first written down in Christian times by monastic
scribes around the seventh century and perfected in the twelfth. This is
more than a thousand years after the supposed event. Many Irish documents
date from these years, which purport to describe pre-Christian life and
laws in Ireland. Not only do they depict the arrival of the Gaelic-speaking
people in Ireland, they also tell us much about everyday life. These
documents are written in the Irish language, and in modern English
translations the term "Celtic" is often used as a substitution
for the word "Gaelic." The texts also include the great Irish
epic, An Táin Bó Cuailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). But the story is
believed to be older than the period it was written in, and there can be
little doubt that it is a descendant of an older, oral form. With its
fascinating descriptions of gods and goddesses and druids with supernatural
powers, it is obviously rooted in the pre-Christian era. But how much of
the original story remains and how much of it is later invention we do not
know. This written mythology abounds with stories of heroes and heroines
who are said to have lived in Ireland in prehistoric times. There are tales
of strong women and warrior men and gods and goddesses who intermarry with
mortals and produce extraordinary offspring. They give us wonderful
descriptions of love, passion, cattle raiding, poets who have powers to
paralyze with their words, women who train warriors for battle, and druids
who can foretell the outcome of wars.
What the legends Claim
For a long time these texts were taken as being the record of actual
events passed on through oral memory into historical times and then written
down. In the Book of Invasions the original inhabitants of Ireland are said
to have been the mythological Fir Bolg people. The Fir Bolg play a
socio-political role in the development of Ireland. They are, for instance,
credited with dividing Ireland into fifths: the provinces of Leinster,
Munster, Ulster, Connaught, and the royal area known as Meath. They also
are said to have established the classic Irish social system of kingship
and the notion of its sacred character. These first mythological people are
followed by the Túatha Dé Danann -or people of the goddess Danu who are
skilled in magic and druidry. They are said to arrive in Ireland and defeat
the Fir Bolg in a number of battles and take over the country. All of this
long pseudo-history eventually leads up to the main event, the coming of the Gaels, the Celts.
In the Book of Invasions, the Sons of Míl, the ancestors of the Gaels,
are described as arriving in Ireland on the feast of Beltine or May 1st.
They come on shore in the southeast of the country in modern-day Kerry.
Amergin, the chief poet, goes on shore first and sets his foot on the soil
of Ireland. He then immediately recites a poem in which he identifies
himself with the whole of creation. His very words denote the importance of the occasion:
I am an estuary to the sea
I am a wave of the ocean
I am the bull of seven battles
I am the eagle on the rock
I am a flash from the sun
I am the plant of beauty
I am a salmon in the pool
I am the strength of art. . .
This poem is similar to other "foundation" poetry uttered by
the mythological founders of other peoples. The mythmakers who first wrote
this story knew what they were doing. They were giving validity to the
lineage of the Irish. Amergin is claiming the land of Ireland for his
people and staking their legitimate claim as the rightful inhabitants. This
was an important declaration at the time when the history of Ireland was
first being written down.
On the purpose served by these early stories for the society of the
time, Patricia Kelly, a historian from the National University of Ireland,
explains that "One of the functions of the tales is to say how far
back things began. Meaning that this tradition is well established, that is
to say it legitimizes it and argues for its retention." A sense of
belonging to the land and unity in ethnicity is important in establishing
the legitimacy and lineage of a people. In claiming a long and legitimate
ancestry these Irish writers were putting Ireland on par with the great
classical nations of the known world. The law tracts explain that poets
held the highest position in Irish society, so having a poet claim the land
of Ireland would have been very appropriate. It would therefore have given
a legitimate claim to the present.
The Gaels, the mythology asserts, having come on shore and claimed the
land, then go on to defeat the previous inhabitants, the Túatha Dé Danann.
The Gaels then set out toward Tara
, the principal place of worship in
Ireland in ancient times. On the way there they meet, among others, the
goddess Ériu, an important deity who gave her name to the island of
Ireland. She is friendly and welcoming toward them and foretells that
Ireland will belong to the Sons of Míl for all time. A fortuitous prophesy.
Ireland thus rightfully becomes the land of the Gael. This beautiful,
romantic story remained a part of Irish thinking for hundreds of years.
First written down to create and establish a notion of lrishness, it served
that purpose well and became a part of Irish identity. It was common place
then, as now, to trace ancestors back to some declared moment in time, it
gave a sense of righteousness to social claims of nobility. Some innovative
authors could trace a chieftain's or king's family back to Noah and the
flood. This was not a practice unique to Ireland. Origin myths are typical
of any society that wants to make legitimate claims to a noble lineage. The
Romans did precisely the same thing when their early writers invented a
connection with them and the ancient Greek world, giving the Romans a
position of legitimacy within classical Mediterranean civilization.
With the spread of the English language in later Irish history, these
stories written in Irish were largely forgotten by the educated Irish
population who had become almost exclusively English speaking. So when the
nineteenth-century revivalists went looking for the roots of Ireland they
sought out these old texts and took them to be historically legitimate. The
"invasion" of the Celtic-speaking people became a commonly
accepted historical fact. It was this influence that cast such a long shadow
over the twentieth century, and that continues to shape the ideas in Irish popular culture.
Archaeological and Linguistic Evidence
There is a problem with what is written in these ancient texts. In the
mid-twentieth century, when Irish archaeologists went looking for evidence
to support the stories, they found no material evidence in Ireland to uphold
the theory of a mass invasion of Celtic people at the time claimed in the
texts or at any time for that matter.
The year of the supposed Celtic invasion of Ireland, 500 B.C., is the
period known as the Iron Age. The Iron Age artefacts that have been
identified as Continental Celtic were found in modern-day Switzerland and
are known as La Tene style from the region they were discovered. This was an
art form which developed around the middle of the fifth century B.C. The
style, often described as the first nonclassical art of Europe, is full of
scrolls and spirals and waves of lines which twist and turn in a complex
matrix of design. The earliest artefact of this style found in Ireland is a
torc (a neck ornament) found at Knock, County Roscommon, which dates to a
slightly later time, around the third century B.C. Barry Raftery believes
that this piece is obviously an import, but "it is an isolated piece
[found] in the west of the country, so its wider cultural significance
should not be exaggerated." In other words, one swallow doth not a summer make.
Many more imported artifacts would have to be found to support the theory
of a mass invasion and they have not. There are only a few continental La
Tene artefacts from this period in Ireland, and they may have arrived for a
number of reasons. They might simply be the result of trading, or they could
have been brought in by a small elite group. These foreign La Tene artefacts
that have been discovered in Ireland are mostly prestige objects like horse
trappings, scalpels, and trumpets, not the utensils of ordinary people
usually found when there is a mass movement of people into a new area. This
is precisely what puzzles archaeologists like Barry who have done extensive
work on this period in Irish prehistory. He believes that the few articles
found in Ireland of Continental or British Celtic origin "clearly
belonged to an aristocratic elite who may have travelled to Ireland and
settled there alongside the already established community." He goes on
to stress that "nobody believes in large-scale [Celtic] migration into
the country. At best, we're talking about small-scale intrusions."
Barry thinks that the total absence of what ordinary people would have used
is an indication that no large Celtic invasion occurred.
About a hundred years later, native Irish workshops were producing a
local version of La Tene-style decoration. When the La Tene-style of art
came to Ireland, the Irish developed a native version of it, which was to
remain a feature of Irish art well into the Christian period and beyond. How
this importation of style happened no one knows. It is possible that it was
part of an exchange pattern of elite goods between people of high status.
Contrary to what the texts say concerning an invasion, for the most part
there is archaeological continuity in Ireland between the earlier Bronze Age
and the "Celtic" Iron Age. This indicates no shift in population
type. In other words, there is no evidence for any change in lifestyle or of
a major group of new people coming in. As regards burial rites for example,
there is no change in how funerals were conducted between these periods, and
no Continental Celtic-type burial chambers have ever been found in Ireland.
Archaeologists cannot find support for any evident change in lifestyle
between the older period and the period in which the Celts
are supposed to have arrived.
The Irish Celtic Language
In spite of the lack of archaeological evidence we do know that the
Celtic language and culture came to Ireland. There is ample evidence to show
that by around A.D. 100 Ireland was a Celtic speaking country. One major
source in support of this is Ptolemy's map of Ireland dating to about A.D.
150, which shows the country to be Celtic speaking. Ptolemy was a Greek
geographer, and Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin, medieval historian at
University College Cork, believes that this is the strongest evidence for
the arrival of the Celtic or Gaelic language into Ireland. This is the first
absolute proof that the language arrived, and linguistic scholars feel that
it must have been well established by this time. In addition, early Ogham
stones bearing the Celtic script and dating to around A.D. 200 can be found
scattered throughout Ireland. Written texts from the sixth century show the
vernacular language in Ireland to be the Irish language, Gaelic. The
pre-Celtic language, whatever it was, was gone by this time, leaving only
traces behind. These old texts also describe a Celtic society similar to
that found on the Continent with comparable gods and goddesses.
A Migration over time?
According to Donnchadh Ó Corráin, this transference of language could
only be possible by a large number of Celtic-speaking people coming to
settle in Ireland. Not just warriors but whole families must have settled,
possibly over a long period of time-perhaps as long as five hundred years or
more. A once-off invasion as described in the texts is not likely in the
face of the lack of archaeological evidence. Donnchadh explains that it
takes women with families to transfer a language: "In order to make
this country Celtic speaking, a lot of Celtic speakers had to come. This is
not a matter of race; this is a matter of language and speech. And if a lot
speakers had to come they couldn't be just warriors, they had to
be full families because the only way to change the language of a country is
[for the newcomers] to have families. You need women to rear the children
speaking Celtic. Otherwise [the men] go and marry the natives, and of course
they don't wind up speaking Celtic at all."
Just as significantly, he also explains that women are more phatic than
men: women use language for social communication more than men do. So
language tends to travel with women and not with men. Consequently, with
male-only invasions the typical pattern is for them to intermarry with the
local female population and wind up speaking that language and not keeping
their own. This was to happen with the Viking invaders who intermarried with
the native Irish women and quickly lost their own language. Similarly, in
the twelfth century, when the Anglo-Normans came to Ireland, it was a
male-only invasion. Soon after they intermarried into Irish families they
also lost their language. Within a generation the Normans were all speaking
Irish. They became, as the saying goes, "more Irish than the Irish
themselves." So the Celtic language, which did impose itself on the
country, could only have done so, according to Donnchadh Ó Corráin, by the
arrival of great numbers of Celtic families. That is not to say that there
was a massive invasion. The transference of language and culture could have
happened over a very long period of time. Some scholars now believe that
there might have been a slow trickling in of the newcomers, possibly over
half a millennium, and not one huge invasion so romantically described in the texts.
Nevertheless many archaeologists argue that the transference of language
could have happened without any Celtic people coming to Ireland at all. John
Waddell says, "There was a prolonged and persistent pattern of [sea]
contact between the peoples of Ireland, Britain, and the continent extending
over perhaps thousands of years. This contact could have allowed a Celtic
language to slowly emerge in these various localities." This would
explain the total lack of archaeological evidence. Whatever the explanation
of this puzzle, there remains no direct evidence for a presence of
continental Celtic people in Ireland.
In Search of Ancient Ireland
by Carmel McCaffrey and Leo Eaton.
This book traces the history, archaeology, and legends of ancient Ireland
from 9000 BC to 1167 AD when a Normans invaded
Ireland. Written as a companion book to the television series of the same name.
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