The Celts were well established in Ireland a century before Christ, and they dominated the island for nearly a thousand years, resisting challenges and absorbing influences from other cultures for many centuries more. To this day the core of Ireland’s heritage remains unmistakably Celtic. Writing depicts the Celts as tall and warlike, placing their arrival in Ireland more than two thousand years ago.
The term Celtic denotes a group of Indo-European languages. But we transferred the name to the people who spoke these languages. Before 500 B.C. the Celts had come to be known in an area comprising Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and Bohemia. They spread over much of France and part of northern Italy in the sixth century before Christ, invaded northern Spain in the fifth century, sacking Rome at the end of the fourth century and getting a footing in Greece and Asia Minor in the third century. The Greeks called them Keltoi and the Romans Galli.
The Celts were not the first inhabitants of Ireland. At the end of the Ice Age, as the climate became warmer about 6,000 B.C., early immigrants probably crossed the narrow sea from Scotland to the Antrim coast and gradually moved further south. They lived a primitive existence by hunting in the forests and streams and lakes. Next came the first farmers who used stone implements for felling trees and preparing the soil for grain, they also kept large quantities of cattle, sheep and pigs. Perhaps by 2,000 B.C. a new group of settlers had arrived, metalworkers in search of gold and copper, who fashioned the artistic ornaments now in the National Museum in Dublin, the greatest collection of prehistoric gold objects in Western Europe. These were the dominant people in Ireland in the late Bronze Age when the Celts arrived.
The Celts had the advantage of having weapons made of iron. They seem to have moved into Ireland in two waves, one directly from the continent into the west of the country and the other through Britain into northeast Ireland. They may have begun to arrive as early as 500 B.C. and they were well established a century before Christ.
With their arrival a new era had begun in Ireland. The Picts in the north and other pre-Celtic peoples were overthrown. No doubt they still formed a strong element in the population but they became a part of the Celtic language and culture. The Celts dominated Ireland for nearly a thousand years.
Since writing arrived in Ireland only with the Roman alphabet, we know little about Celtic Ireland before the coming of Christianity. Roman writers called it both Scotia and Hibernia.
Stories depict an Ireland divided into five major kingdoms with Connacht and Ulster at war, and the heroic Cú Chulainn defending the north against the forces of Queen Maeve.
Each provincial kingdom comprised a large number of petty kingdoms or tuatha, so that the whole country had ultimately between a hundred and a hundred and fifty of them with a few thousand people in each. Local wars were frequent but not prolonged. The unity of the country was cultural, social and legal rather than political.
It was into this Ireland of warrior princes and cattle-raids that St. Patrick brought the Christian faith in the mid-fifth century. His missionary work was concentrated on the northern half of Ireland.
The marriage of Christianity and Celtic cultures produced in Ireland a society that was essentially conservative; hence some of its features remained unchanged until the overthrow of Gaelic Ireland in the early seventeenth century. It was basically a rural society with no cities or towns. While some of the more important monasteries like Clonmacnoise, Armagh, Clonard and Bangor grew into centres with a large population, one has to wait for the Vikings to see the rise of towns as commercial centres.
The ordinary homestead of the farming classes was the ráth, often erected on a hilltop and surrounded by a circular rampart and fence. These are the ëring fortsí of present-day Ireland. They have often left their imprint as ráth, or lios on the local place-name, as in Rathfriland, Lismore, Lisdoonvarna, and so on. The kingís residence was of course more elaborately built, as at Eamhain Macha, Clogher and Downpatrick.
Gaelic civilization placed great emphasis on family relationships. The normal family group was the derbhfhine made up of all those who were descended from one great-grandfather. Each member of the king’s derbhfhine was eligible to succeed to the throne. The freemen of the tuath elected him when the throne became vacant. The system had the advantage of ensuring that an imbecile or a cripple would scarcely ever become king, but it had the terrible disadvantage of provoking conflict between two or more equally qualified heirs. The ownership of land was also vested in the family group.
The learned class or Aos Dána formed a special group among the freemen. They included judges and lawyers, medical men, craftsmen and most important of all the filí. These were more than poets; they were regarded as seers and visionaries as well.
After the conversion of Ireland to Christianity they inherited much of the prestige of the earlier druids. They wrote praise-poems for the king on appropriate occasions, preserved and updated his genealogy and were richly rewarded for their services. If the honorarium did not come up to expectations, they sometimes had recourse to satire, and were feared not only for their sharpness of tongue, but also for the magical powers which had been associated with the druids of old.
Like most positions in Gaelic Ireland the learned professions tended to become hereditary. In late medieval times the O’Davorens were the experts in law and the O’Hickeys and O’Shiels provided the medical men. The poetic families were particularly numerous: O’Daly’s in many parts of the country, Mac a’ Wards in Donegal, O’Husseys in Fermanagh, MacBrodys in Clare, OíHigginses in Sligo, Mac Namees in Tyrone.
Numerous also were the hereditary families of chroniclers and historians: O’Clerys in Donegal, O’Keenans in Fermanagh, Mac Egans in Tipperary, O’Mulchonrys in Roscommon, Mac Firbises in Sligo. The craftsmen have often ensured remembrance by engraving their name on their work: Noonan on the shrine of St. Patrickís Bell, Ó Brolcháin on the stonework of Iona.
The Celts left many marks on Ireland and its people that have remained. There are thousands of habitation sites dotting the landscape, the bulk of the country’s place names and family names, the majority of its saints and missionaries, its finest manuscripts, sculptures and metalwork, one of the earliest vernacular literatures in Europe, the majority language of the island until the Famine and the only widely-spoken minority language today, a splendid native music, one of the richest folklores in the world. Later settlers added to them and adapted them, but the core remains unmistakably Celtic. They now provide a rich inheritance for the whole people of Ireland.
As far as the Irish language was concerned, it is generally accepted that ‘the demise of the native Irish-speaking aristocracy was to have a disastrous long-term effect on people’s attitude towards the language’. English became the language of legal, political and administrative life, and overwhelmingly the language of economic and commercial life as well. It was the language of literacy, and in the course of time became the language of liturgy also.
Those who were successful or who aspired to succeed under the new English order abandoned Irish and adopted the English language as quickly as the opportunity presented itself. The state system of elementary education from the 1830s, and the fact that English was the language of mass politics in the O’Connellite movements, further accelerated the advance of English even among the poorer peasantry. By 1801 a quarter of the population was Irish-speaking. By 1851 this had fallen to only five per cent, while less than a quarter of the population admitted to being able to speak the language at all.
The heavy famine mortality among the poorer elements in Irish society dramatically reduced the population of Irish-speakers, while large-scale emigration from Ireland from the second quarter of the nineteenth century largely to English-speaking countries strongly reinforced the desire to acquire English, and in effect, though not necessarily, to abandon Irish as obsolete and unprofitable in the modern world.