The Celts of Ancient Ireland

The first historical record of the Celts was by the Greeks about 700 BC, 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. The Celts first arrived in Ireland about 500 BC, there is no reliable information on how or when the Celts became the dominant Irish ethnic group. It is thought that the Celts arrived gradually, spreading slowly across the country, a process that could have taken several hundred years. By the fifth century AD and the arrival of Christianity, the Celtic language was being spoken all over the island of Ireland.

Ireland remained beyond the reach of the Roman Empire, so there is little in the way of historical record for the Celts of Ireland, other than mythology, that undoubtedly has its origins in historical fact, but unravelling the truth is problematic.

Celtic scholar, T. F. O’Rahilly, based a study on influences on the Irish language and a critical analysis of Irish mythology and pseudohistory. This was called O’Rahilly’s historical model and gives us some understanding of Ireland’s Celts. His study has been the topic of debate for many historians.

O’Rahilly came up with how the Celts may have invaded Ireland in four separate waves:

The Cruithne or Priteni arrived between 700 – 500 BC
The Builg or Érainn arrived around 500 BC
The Laigin, the Domnainn and the Gálioin arrived around 300 BC
The Goidels or Gael arrived around 100 BC

The first group of Celts that arrived in Ireland approximately 700BC were named Priteni. They settled in parts of Ulster and Leinster but would later be replaced by other tribes.

The second arrival wave was the Bolgic’s who arrived around 500BC and would take control of nearly half of Ireland. Four tribes of the Bolgic’s included:

The Uluti who took control over the northern part of Ireland
The Darini and Robogdii who settled in the north-eastern part of Ireland
The Iverni who settled in Munster
The Ebdani who settled in the east

The Laginians who were the 3rd group to arrive, around 300 BC, settled in the west coast, what is known today as the province of Connacht. They had also taken over the Leinster area. It was also around the same time the La Tène culture may have been introduced to Ireland. The La Tène were fierce Celtic warriors with chariots, cavalry and used warrior equipment such as large fighting spears, swords, and shields.

The Goidelic or Gaelic would be the last Celts to arrive in Ireland. These people came in two different groups the Connachta and then the Eóganachta. The Connachta tribe arrived and pushed their way to the Hill of Tara and sacked the Ernean king. They carved a new region between Ulster and Leinster and it became known as Mide (the fifth province). The Eóganachta tribe arrived more quietly than the previous Connachta tribe. The settled in Munster and gradually became more powerful and dominant in the province. Although early events in Ireland remain unclear, five kingdoms (provinces) emerged.

When the Celtic culture did arrive in Ireland it brought a totally different and new culture, languages, art, technology and beliefs. They had introduced using Iron for making tools and weapons, but, more importantly brought the sense of kingship, kingdoms and power. They divided their lands up with each being ruled by different kings.

They also had a strong sense of honour, especially in battle. To be bold and show courage in a battle gave a Celtic man honour and a high reputation. However, unlike times to come in the future, in this Iron Age it was the aristocracy who fought in battle. Peasants and people of a lower class were not forced to fight or take part in battle, but to stay on their farming plots and act as slaves for their King.

Celts had a reputation as head hunters. Amongst the Celts the human head was venerated above all else, since the head was to the Celt the soul, centre of the emotions as well as of life itself, a symbol of divinity and of the powers of the other-world. Arguments for a Celtic cult of the severed head include the many sculptured representations of severed heads in La Tène carvings, and the surviving Celtic mythology, which is full of stories of the severed heads of heroes and the saints who carry their own severed heads, right down to the tale of Connemara’s St Feichin, who after being beheaded by Viking pirates carried his head to the Holy Well on Omey Island and on dipping the head into the well placed it back upon his neck and was restored to full health.

Many of the Celtic cultural elements integrated with Christianity. The most religious aspect of Celtic culture, Druidic practice, diminished, and many say that the Druids were systematically suppressed and killed. However, many cultural elements lasted, including ancient oral stories which were recorded by Irish monks in both Irish and Latin (without much editorial interference).

Image | Cahergal Stone Fort, Cahersiveen, Co Kerry | Roberta Photography

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Stair na hÉireann is steeped in Ireland's turbulent history, culture, ancient secrets and thousands of places that link us to our past and the present. With insight to folklore, literature, art, and music, you’ll experience an irresistible tour through the remarkable Emerald Isle.

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