Celtic Europe is that part of the Eurasian continent under the influence of the Celtic language family, a subset of the Indo-European group of languages. In very early Classical times, this included most of the European subcontinent west of a line running roughly between the modern cities of Gdansk, Poland, and Odessa, Ukraine, and north of the Alps, then south onto the Iberian Peninsula. In later Classical times, the area east of the Rhine and north of the Danube was considered Germanic; the area west of the Rhine and north of the Alps was considered Celtic, as well as Iberia. In the most strictly technical sense, the name Celt comes from a first millennium BCE tribe, the Keltoi, which occupied a very rough triangle of ancient Gaul, stretching north from a line between Marseille (Massalia) and Bordeaux (Burdigala) along the Garonne River, north of Aquitaine (Aquitania), and east to Seine. Their name has been applied to the entire culture. The names of various Celtic tribes still survive today, disguised as modern European place names, for example, the Parisii gave their name to the city of Paris, and the Boii lent theirs to Bohemia. The modern Celtic parts of Europe are influenced more by an understanding of common origins and cultural elements, such as legends and music, and less by the Celtic language family; they include Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall on the island of Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Brittany in France, and Galicia in Spain.
Ancient Celtic Europe
Pre-Celtic Europe in the Late Neolithic and Copper-Bronze Ages
Prior to the spread of Celtic culture from central Europe, Western Europe was occupied by Neolithic and Copper-Bronze Age farmers. These people farmed the land and built huge megalithic burial chambers, such as New Grange, in the Boyne Valley, and ritualistic and ceremonial centers, such as Stonehenge, in England, and Carnac, in France. Some of these sites may have served as calendrical devices or celestial observatories. It is unlikely that these Neolithic farmers were wantonly wiped out by the later Celtic invaders in a wholesale slaughter. Rather, it is more plausible that they were conquered and absorbed as the agricultural lower classes who supplied the food to an invading, pastoralist elite (see below), a story that repeats itself throughout the modern ethnographic literature as well. Quite possibly, some of the later megalithic people were speakers of a Celtic language themselves but had moved westward prior to the development of an Iron Age pastoralist economy. The influence of these early farming people can be seen in the continuation of an art style that emphasizes flowing tendrils and spirals from the Neolithic through the Iron Age, from the carvings on the great entry stone at New Grange, to the illuminated manuscripts in the Book of Kells, and the Lindisfarne Gospels nearly 4,000 years later. This art style may have influenced the later La Tene style, or led to its wide acceptance.
The Coming of the Celts From Central Europe: Their Earliest Archeological Appearances at the Iron Age Sites of Hallstatt and La Tene
The earliest (not the oldest) archaeological evidence for the Celts comes from two sites in central Europe, Hallstatt and La Tene. Hallstatt is a salt mine in Austria in which the 2,000-year-old brine-preserved body of a man was found in 1734.The body has been lost, the local people having assumed at the time that he was pagan and unworthy of Christian reburial. A century later, the area was excavated archeologically and found to have been an extensive Iron Age Celtic settlement that carried on long-distance trade in salt. Salt-preserved tools, clothing, and shoes have been excavated from this site. This mid-European mining culture may have developed out of the earlier Urnfield culture and been influenced by or converged with the equestrian Cimmerian peoples from north of the Black Sea, migrating onto the Hungarian Plain and up the Danube after being pushed west by the expanding Scythian people. During the Hallstatt period, we witness the development of mobile, warrior elite with several different centers of development from Spain to the areas north of the Danube. We know them from large pit burials that included four-wheeled wagons, long slashing swords, horse trappings, and, later, gold and Mediterranean trade items, such as are found with the rich burials of the “Princess” of Vix, in France, and the “Prince’s” tomb from Hochdorf, near Stuttgart, Germany, which contained a magnificent 9-foot-long bronze couch supported by small human figurines who appear to be riding unicycles. The Hallstatt period came to an end around 500 BCE, when it was replaced by the La Tene era.
La Tene is the site of a prehistoric lake dwelling in Switzerland, as well as the name of an art style associated with the Celts. Celtic lake dwellings are known from Central Europe to Ireland, where they are called crannogs. They consist of artificial islands upon which homesteads were built on pilings and connected to the mainland by causeways, or in some cases by boats. Etruscan trade goods, especially bronze vessels and flagons, began to appear, and the burials now contained two-wheeled chariots, daggers, spears, and helmets in addition to the swords found in earlier graves. It was in the 4th century BCE that Pytheas of Marseille, the first European anthropologist, traveled into the northern and western regions and described the lands and their inhabitants (although labeled a liar by Strabo several centuries after the fact, Pytheas’s observations since have been vindicated). It was during the early La Tene period that the Celts under Brennus invaded the Po Valley and sacked Rome in 390 BCE. A century later, Celts under another Brennus (hence H. D. Rankin’s belief that it may have been a title rather than a name) invaded the Balkans following the death of Alexander, attacked Delphi, and invaded Asia Minor, where they settled and became known as the Galatians. Their Celtic identity remained distinct at least into the 1st century CE, when they were addressed as such in an epistle by Saint Paul.
By contrast to the archeological record that the Celts came from central Europe, the Irish Book of Invasions (An Leabhar Gabhdla Eireann) states that the last protohistoric invaders of Ireland came from Spain: the Sons of Mil Espaine, or Milesians; Spanish Galician sources also reflect this point of view. Mil Espaine may be a corruption of the Latin, miles Hispaniae, a soldier of Spain. According to Daniel Bradley of Trinity College, Dublin, DNA analysis shows a common genetic link between the peoples of the Atlantic “Celtic Fringe” and Iberian populations. It is possible that the bulk of the people were descended from pre-Celtic or early Celtic Iberian settlers (based upon linguistic evidence) but that the elite culture came from the east with warlike Iron Age pastoralist invaders (see below). Rankin, however, believes that the linguistic evidence points to the mirror-opposite conclusion. Oxford archeologist Barry Cunliffe ties the Atlantic populations together into a separate subculture area from that of the mid-European Celts in a cultural line dating back before the Iron Age. He sees the rise of a mobile warrior elite during the La Tene phase that either spread out of development centers in central Europe or whose style influenced elites in other areas, leading to the spread of Celtic culture, if not necessarily chromosomes.
The Earliest Historical Sources and Linguistics
It is possible that Homer’s equestrian Cimmerians in a cloudy land by a sea to the north may have been Celts. Some sources nominate the Cimmerians’ neighbors, the Scythians, as the ancestors of the Celts on the basis of some linguistic cognates: The early Irish claimed that they were descended from the Scythians through their ancestress, Scota; thus, they were known as the Scoti, a name that transferred to north Britain when an Irish tribe, the Dal Riada, colonized it in the early Christian era, making Scotland the “land of the Irish.” The Celtic love of horses is documented by classical authors, and a major goddess was horse-related, the Gaulish Epona, known to the Welsh as Rhiannon and to the Irish as Macha. A 6th-century BCE Greek description of a sea voyage, Massiliote Periplus, describes Celts living in Spain and France and mentions the two islands of Ierne (Ireland) and Albion (Britain). In the mid-5th century BCE, Herodotus calls them the Tin Islands because of their importance as sources of tin to make bronze. Herodotus says that the Celtic lands stretched from Spain to the Danube and that they were among the most western-living people in Europe. About 325 BCE, Pytheas of Marseille (Massalia) described the Irish and British (Pritani) as cattle and sheep pastoralists. The earliest historical sources provide linguistic evidence that ties the Greek Keltoi and the Roman Galatai as cognates. According to Julius Caesar, the people west and northwest of the Ligurians referred to themselves as Celtae. Caesar’s division of the transalpine people into Celts and Germans may be somewhat arbitrary, as various tribes are believed to have been of mixed heritage, for example, the Belgae and the Aedui of northern Gaul; indeed, Nora Chadwick suspects that Teutones (Germans or Danes) and the Gaelic Tuath (a tribe or group of people) are linguistic cognates. Unfortunately, most of our early linguistic data come from Greek and Roman authors, as the Celts were a preliterate people, although there is a Celtic inscription from Egypt using Greek characters, and a calendar from France. It was not until the Common Era that the Celts began to develop a form of writing of their own, Ogham, which consisted of a series of horizontal and vertical slashes on the edge of a stone or piece of wood.
What is the common thread between the ancient Gauls and the modern Gaels, the areas of Galicia in both western Spain and eastern Poland, and Galatia in central Turkey? It is the linguistic cognate in these names: Gaul, Galtee, Galatia, Galicia, Gaelic, Galati, Keltoi, Celtae, and Celt. There are two main divisions in the Celtic language family; linguists distinguish between the “p” and “q” Celts, that is, the Brythonic versus the Goidelic speakers. At some point, the early Celtic speakers developed a linguistic shift in part of their language family from the hard “q” or “c/k” sound to the softer “p” or “b” sound, splitting proto-Celtic into Brythonic and Goidelic. As an example, the Picts of Northern Britain were known to the ancient Goidelic speakers, or “q” Celts, as Cruithni. Eventually the hard “c” softened to “p,” Pruithne. Around 325 BCE, Pytheas called Ireland and Britain the Pretanic Islands and the people Pritani, from which we get the modern word, Britain. The main difference is in the hard versus the soft consonant. This difference distinguishes the Celtic languages to this day: Irish, Scots, and Manx are Goidelic; Welsh and Breton (as well as the now extinct Cornish, Brittonic, and Gaulish) are Brythonic. Galego, the language of Spanish Galicia, is a Romance language closely related to Portuguese, the indigenous Celtic language having been lost, although it is believed to have been Goidelic. The Breton language was brought to Armorica (Brittany) from Wales and Cornwall in the 5th century CE by refugees fleeing the Saxon invasions, giving Brittany its present name. Some sources say it may contain traces of the old Armorican Gaulish toward the east of the peninsula.
Economics and Politics
The pre-Romanized Celts elected their leaders from a pool of eligible aristocrats. Although some observers see this as an early form of democracy, it just as easily could be seen as analogous to the “big man” system in tribal Melanesia. The king, or chief, could choose a successor, who acted as a second in command but was not guaranteed succession should the electors prefer a different candidate. According to Poseidonius, the most renowned warrior at a feast could claim the “hero’s portion,” or best joint of pork, and any challenge could lead to a fight to the death, or tests of bravery, such as laying stretched out on the floor to see if anyone present had the courage to cut the hero’s throat with a sword. This tradition is preserved among the Insular Celts in that portion of the Ulster Cycle known as The Feast of Bricriu. These pork prestations would serve to enhance group solidarity and reinforce the position of the chief through his ability to redistribute his wealth. Rankin compares them to the North American potlatch. The Celts were renowned in the Classical world for their drinking bouts and feasting, at which the Romans disingenuously (in light of their orgies) claimed to be shocked. There were at least four levels of society, although some authors consider only three; the aristocrats and an upper and lower level of free men and women. The fourth level were the slaves, whose existence, along with gold, tin, and amber, helped to provide a flourishing trade with the Mediterranean in exchange for finished jewelry, wine, and the jugs (amphorae) and vessels to ship, store, and serve it. Beverages also were served in elaborately decorated gold drinking horns.
There seems to be little doubt that the early Celtic peoples of Europe were headhunters, as described in legends such as the Irish Tain Bo Culainge or Cattle Raid of Cooley (which Cunliffe believes originated as a much older Continental La Tene tale because of its extensive descriptions of chariot warfare, which is archeologically unknown from Ireland. By contrast, according to Caesar, chariot warfare lasted in Britain centuries after it had been eclipsed on the Continent) and demonstrated archaeologically from such sculptures as the Celto-Ligurian sanctuaries of the Rhone Valley, as well as from numerous sculpted disembodied heads found throughout Western Europe. Likewise, boar hunting (and eating) was an important aspect of Celtic life in ancient times, as demonstrated in sculptures and legends. The backbone of the Celtic economy, though, appears to have been cattle pastoralism. This form of pastoralism is correlated in the anthropological literature with warfare and conquest of neighboring farming peoples to supply food, as the cattle represent wealth and are less likely to be eaten than are cultivated products. Indeed, this is what we find with the ancient Celts whose mixed farming economy left the warrior aristocracy battling over cattle, while the lower end of the social hierarchy was left to scratch the land to produce barley, wheat, and so on. Even into the late Middle Ages, the Irish aristocracy would spend the warmer months of the year moving from hunting camp to hunting camp, traveling with their cattle. Towns as a focus of Celtic life did not appear until about 200 BCE, in the form of the fortified, transalpine, Gaulish oppida as centers of iron working. Although they appear to be homegrown products of an indigenous cultural milieu, possibly in response to increasing pressure from Germanic tribes, they may have been influenced by the Mediterranean region in the west. These oppidas fortifications, what Caesar calls murus galliccus, nearly allowed the Gaulish king, Vercingetorix, to succeed in his rebellion against Rome during Caesar’s first century BCE campaigns. Ireland did not develop towns until the Viking era more than 1,000 years later, when cities such as Dublin, Limerick, and Waterford were founded as Viking raiding camps.
Classical authors from Pausanias to Plutarch speak with admiration and surprise about the status and size of Celtic women and their heroism in warfare. Tacitus describes the story of Boudicca, the queen of the British Iceni, who led a war of rebellion against the Roman invaders in the first century CE. In the Tain Bo Culainge, the boy hero, Cuchulain, is taught the warrior arts by a woman, Scathach. Free women among the ancient Celts had equal property rights with men and could make contracts freely, if they chose. During the early Christian era, women held equal status with men in the Celtic Christian church. Because of the lack of episcopacy in the Celtic church, the monastic system had female abbots, such as Brigid in Ireland, ruling over monasteries of mixed sex.
History and legend both show that upper-class women among the ancient Celts were willing to sacrifice sexual favors for political or military ends. Greek and Roman authors described the Celts as maritally promiscuous, incestuous, and cannibalistic. However, it is likely that some of the more outlandish reports by the classic writers were a combination of ethnocentrism, hearsay, and war propaganda, as other reports show admiration of the Celts’ intense marital loyalty and codification of laws of conduct and morality. What was taken for incest very well may be a confusion of biology with kinship terminology, while reports of sexual license may be out-of-context religious rites associated with fertility and prosperity for the tribe, as in Geraldus Cambrensis’s 12th-century report of a ritual in which a northern Irish king mated with a white mare, then drank a soup made from the sacrificed animal. At least we can say with little hesitation that they were patrilineal and patrilocal; the patrilineal assertion is borne out by amazement of the ancient Irish at the Picts’ practice of matrilineal descent. The Celts may have practiced polygyny, and Caesar reports fraternal polyandry.
A woman’s dowry had to be matched in wealth by her husband’s, and this combined wealth was held in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship. Divorce was easy, and serial monogamy was known from the Celtic world even in the Christian era.
In early accounts of warfare with Celtic tribes, they are reported to have slaked back their hair with lime, giving them a frightful appearance. They also were reported to charge into battle naked (as shown by the statue, The Dying Gaul, a Roman copy of a Pergamene Greek original), screaming a terrifying war cry to the accompaniment of trumpet blasts. The frontline naked warriors, gaesatae, whose name derived from a type of javelin they carried, may have been a chronologically limited fad, however, as many other depictions show the Celtic military fully clothed in belted tunics and trousers, accompanied by armor. Both descriptions are attested by Polybius in the mid-2nd century BCE. In other instances, warfare was conducted from a safe distance with javelins, followed by single combat between champions, according to both the Tain Bo Cuailnge and reports of 4th-century BCE Roman encounters, in a parallel to the cattle pastoralist Zulu prior to Shaka’s military innovations.
The ancient Celts shaved and washed their bodies with soap at a time when the Romans’ hygiene had them scraping the sweat from their bodies, followed by oiling. Obesity not only was frowned upon, but there were penalties for being overweight. Men frequently are depicted wearing cloaks. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the 1st century BCE, describes their clothing as being dyed every color in stripes and small squares (plaid?). Some sculptures, such as those on the Gundestrup cauldron, show people wearing what appear to be two-piece knit or herringbone-weave outfits, consisting of long-sleeved shirts and knee-length trousers. Long, bushy moustaches were a common feature on men. Neck torques, solid metal necklaces open in the front, also were a common feature, as were winged or horned helmets, metal breastplates, and swords and daggers. Both men and women wore long linen shirts as undergarments. Women’s clothing consisted of fringed tunics (visible on the dead wife on the sculpture The Suicidal Gaul, the companion piece to The Dying Gaul), covered by brightly colored cloaks decorated with jewelry or bells and held in place by large, elaborate brooches. Women further enhanced their appearance with makeup and hairstyles, from braids to raised coiffures styled using decorated mirrors. In contrast to the Greek and Roman penchant for sandals, well-made shoes, as found in burials, were an important feature for both sexes.
Ancient Celtic religious leaders were known as druids, after the Greek word for oak, drus, after the oak groves in which they performed religious ceremonies involving harvesting the parasite, mistletoe, from sacred oaks with golden sickles, according to Pliny the Elder. The different grades of druids were not only priests but scholars, judges (brehon), and diviners. Because the ancient Celts were a preliterate society, the druids spent decades memorizing all their knowledge of law, religion, and history in verse form, to be able to repeat it back without error. This ability was still found among rural storytellers among the Insular Celts until recent times. The power and importance of speech was such that druids (and in later times Bards) reputedly could kill with their use of satire, literally making their victims die of shame. Just as the British believed the Nuer prophets to be too-powerful a force inciting insurrection in their cattle pastoralist society, the Romans believed the druids to be too-powerful a force in Gaulish cattle pastoralist society. Tacitus reports that the Romans sent an expeditionary force to the druid college on Anglesey in Britain in the 1st century CE to massacre them, thus bringing about the fall of the old religious order in the Roman-held lands and unwittingly paving the way for the new religion, Christianity, to fill the vacuum. This attack preceded Boudicca’s rebellion by one year and may have been related to it either by her allies’ outrage over the sacrilege or incitement by the druid survivors.
An important ceremony held by the druids was the blessing of cattle on Beltaine (after the god Belanos), the feast of May Day. Pairs of bonfires would be built, and the herds would be passed between them while they were blessed. In addition to Beltaine, other Celtic feast days (determined by the druids’ astronomical calculations) were Imbolc, February 1 (Christianized as St. Brigid’s Day after a syncretism of the goddess Brid with a powerful early Christian abbess of the same name); Lughnasa, August 1, after Lugh (in Ireland, Lludd in Wales, and Lugus among the Britons and Gauls), whom some consider to be the Celtic Apollo; and Samhain, November 1, when the veil between this world and the Otherworld became thin and spirits could pass back and forth between the two worlds, the inspiration for the modern Halloween and All Souls’ Day. The day after Samhain marked the Celtic New Year.
Lakes and other bodies of water held a special place in early Celtic culture, not just as defensible dwelling sites, but as holy places to reach the Otherworld and into which treasures, weapons, and sometimes people were thrown in sacrifice. Lindow Man, a young male member of the druidic class, was found sacrificed and preserved in a bog in Cheshire, and the bodies of apparently Celtic sacrificial victims were found in bogs in Denmark. To this day, holy wells are common places of prayer in rural Ireland. It is likely that the Celtic belief in an immortal soul aided the druids to convince their victims to become human sacrifices in much the same way that it aided the Aztec priests of Mexico a millennium-and-a-half later (too, many of the sacrificed were criminals or war captives). Tales about the Otherworld depicted it as a land of eternal feasting and dancing. Other stories, such as that of King Bran, whose head continued to talk after his decapitation, would have confirmed the belief in an afterlife. Some of the more sensational accounts of human sacrifice, such as Caesar’s report of giant wicker human figures filled with living men and women and set afire, may have been exaggerations to justify conquest. In any case, even if accurate, they are bereft of their cultural and religious context and rationales.
Carved stone heads with three faces are known from the pre-Christian Celtic world. The Celts had a strong belief in spiritual triplicity, from tripartite gods to supernatural groupings of three, as in the three war goddesses, the Morrighan. The concept of a holy trinity is an ancient Indo-European belief found from India to Western Europe. A description of pre-Christian Celtic culture from folkloristic sources such as the Tain Bo Culainge demonstrates remarkable similarities with the early Vedic literature from India, showing the common Indo-European origins of both. Most of our knowledge of Celtic myths and legends comes from Ireland, where the Romans never settled, leaving the Irish free to continue the Celtic traditions for centuries after they had been lost on the Continent and, to a lesser extent, in Britain. Welsh myths and legends are very similar to those from Ireland, although the names and places have a Welsh context, as in the epic Mabinogion. Many stories tell of heroes under geis, a supernatural compulsion that occurs sometimes in hero tales of the Insular Celts. It cannot be ignored lest the hero come to some karmic harm as a result. Possibly the gaesatae, the berserk, naked Celtic warriors of Galatia in Asia Minor, were operating under some form of geis that compelled them to sacrifice themselves, analogous to the Cheyenne contraries of the American Plains.
The Middle Ages Through the Enlightenment
Following the Christianization of Ireland by Patrick in 432 CE, and the fall of Rome 44 years later, the Insular Celtic monks, called Peregrini, established monasteries throughout Western Europe, beginning with Columcille’s monastery on Iona. They and their converts kept learning alive in Medieval Europe, following the fall of Rome, through these centers of scholarship on the Continent, where they carefully reproduced classic texts, as well as recorded their own ancient myths and legends under a thin Christian veneer. Their work and the associated art styles in volumes such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels give clues to the important spiritual aspects of the Celtic world.
Successive waves of invasions, conquest, and acculturation destroyed much of the Celtic heritage on the Continent and the English part of Britain. It was not rediscovered until the 16th century; in 1582, George Buchanan reintroduced the word Celt into history. Based upon classical works, he located them in northern Italy, France, and Spain. From Spain, some settled in Ireland and from there, in Scotland. England and Wales, according to Buchanan, had been settled by the Galli from Gaul.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the study of Celts took on national importance in France and Wales as a means of establishing cultural identity. Ironically, during this same period, we had the end of the Gaelic political order in Ireland (the Flight of the Earls) and the defeat of the last Celtic (Stewart) king at the battle of the Boyne by William of Orange, an event that led to sectarian strife in the United Kingdom to this day. Celtic culture took on popular overtones during the Enlightenment when William Stukeley wrote History of the Ancient Celts and John Pollard wrote his History of the Druids. In France, authors wrote that all the megalithic monuments had belonged to the Celts. This “Celtomania,” as Cunliffe calls it, led to the establishment of societies that put on invented, or at best reinterpreted, ceremonies, such as the Welsh Eisteddfodau and the various modern druidic societies.
Modern Celtic Europe
Prior to the Revolution, the French traced their origins to Germanic roots. In Napoleonic France, the Bonaparte government identified with the Celtic past to legitimize its new order rule. Napoleon III, a great admirer of the Celtic past, even had a statue erected in 1865 to honor Vercingetorix for his defiance of Rome in 52 BCE. The Germanic invasions of Gaul in the 5th century serve to reinforce the Bretons’ assertions that they are the only true Celts in France, despite the rest of the country’s reference to itself as “Gallic.” Even the name, France, comes from that of a Germanic tribe, the Franks. Nonetheless, the Breton language began to decline in the 19th century because of what Cunliffe calls “the French official desire for homogenization.” The desire for Breton autonomy received a black eye in the 1940s, when it was learned that Parti National Breton was going to negotiate with Germany for independence after its conquest of France. Newer groups, such as Emgann and the militant Armée Révolutionaire, have taken up the cause in recent years. Today, the relatively prosperous Brittany concerns itself with language preservation and plays host to several international folkloric and Celtic festivals.
The use of the Celtic languages was dying; the last native speaker of Cornish died in 1777 (“Revised Cornish” has been reconstructed from historical sources, aided by infusions of Breton and Welsh). Speaking Celtic languages was punished in schools in the areas of the British Isles, where it still was used. This was done to force the still defiant Celtic people to give up their quests for self-determination and assimilate into the new dominant culture of the United Kingdom. In Ireland, the Penal Laws were aimed at crushing Gaelic-Catholic culture and even excluded the native Irish from receiving education. The Irish language (Gaeilge) was almost destroyed by the Potato Famine of the 1840s, which struck hardest in the tuber-dependent Gaeltact, or Irish-speaking areas of western Ireland. The population of the island dropped by half in the 19th century, and with it went the Irish language.
Later in the 19th century, the establishment of the Abbey Theatre and the Gaelic League in Ireland brought about a linguistic, literary, and cultural revival, ironically among the Protestant Anglo-Irish elite. Ancient Hiberno-Celtic legends and themes became the subjects of books, plays, and poetry by Lady Augusta Gregory, William Butler Yeats, and John Millington Synge. In a parallel with Karl Marx’s outline of the stages of revolution, soon after the cause (or at least the primitivistic glorification) of the oppressed lower classes was taken up by these members of the ascendancy, the home rule advocates took to the bandwagon, eventually leading to the 1916 Easter Rising, the Irish revolution, and establishment of the Free State under Eamon DeValera and Michael Collins. The recent sectarian violence in Northern Ireland is in part an outgrowth of this process, which led to the division of the island into a predominantly Protestant and industrial Northern Ireland, tied to the United Kingdom, and a Catholic and rural Republic in the south. In contrast to Ireland, the other Celtic areas in the British Isles, Scotland and Wales, have been earning their home rule more recently under the less bloody modern process of “devolution.”
Today, learning the Irish language is required in schools, and students must take an examination on it in order to pass the “Leaving Cert.,” that is, to graduate. Until recently, Irish civil servants were required to pass an Irish language examination to be hired, and all official documents must be printed in both Irish and English. Raidio Teilifis Eireann, the Irish national broadcasting company, broadcasts in Irish on one of its radio channels, Raidio na Gaeltachta, and on one of its television channels, TG4. The coastal islands, such as the Aran Islands and Tory Island, are considered the most “Irish” parts of Ireland, yet ironically, in recent years, the Irish motion picture industry has been filming popular films about traditional Irish culture not in Ireland, but on Mann (Isle of Man).
The Jacobite Rebellion and the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries destroyed much of the Gaelic culture of Scotland, leading to mass emigration to America, like their Irish cousins in the later-19th century. What was left of traditional language and culture survived in the westernmost edge of the Highlands and on the islands. In the 19th century, Sir Walter Scott’s adventure novels laundered the classical author’s barbaric Celtic hordes into noble savages. It was during this time that the various Scottish clans were assigned the tartans with which we associate them today. This came about as a result of George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822; prior to this, individuals wore whatever tartan they chose. As representatives of the various clans came to the mills to order tartan fabric for the royal visit, they were assigned whatever was available or scheduled to be made, in the order in which they came in, and that association has lasted to this day. Today, Hebridean society is seen as retaining one of the “purest” forms of Scottish culture.
The Welsh Language Act of 1967 put the Welsh language on equal par with that of English in Wales, and Welsh is required to be taught in all schools. In a reversal of the 19th-century practice, one school requires students not to speak English on school property. A large part of the Welsh economy has been mining since prehistoric times; to this day, the Welsh people are identified with coal mining in Britain. BBC Wales maintains an all-Welsh television station, which can be watched on the Internet.
Galicia has a Celtic village at Santa Trega in which some of the houses have been reconstructed. To this day castroes, circular stone fortifications with concentric walls, may be seen. As in other Celtic areas, Galicia experienced a revival, the Rexurdimento, with political overtones in the 19th century. By the 20th century, the movement had solidified into political parties, the Autonomous Republican Organization and the Galeguist Party, which were persecuted by Francisco Franco’s government. Galicia finally became a recognized Autonomous Community in 1981 under a 1936 Spanish law. Galician bagpipes (gaita), similar to the Scottish Highland pipes, are gaining resurgence in popularity, as are traditional dances.
Today, the “Celtic Fringe” of Europe includes Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Mann, Cornwall, Brittany, and, arguably, Galicia. Besides having been possessors, if not currently speakers, of the Celtic languages, other common themes include bagpipes, the best known being the Highland pipes, then the Irish Uillean (elbow) pipes, played not with a mouthpiece, but with a bellows strapped to the arm, similar folklore and legends (“such as little people” and hero tales); low mountains and rocky soils; manufactured soils of seaweed, manure, and sand in the coastal areas; the importance of potatoes, swine, sheep, and dairying to the economies; deep religious feelings, a love of speech and music; poverty (the automobile manufacturing industry in Rennes is an exception to this) and a long history of emigration; seacoasts with excellent harbors; the wetness of the maritime climate; stem families with celibate adults; and, perhaps most strongly, a common sense of themselves as Celtic, distinct from the greater political communities of which they are parts. The Interceltic Congress, begun in 1867, still meets today, and international Celtic festivals play host to Scottish, Irish, Breton, Welsh, and now even Galician musicians, whose Celtic bagpipe CDs can be purchased internationally. An international Celtic magazine, Carn, is designed to unite and inform the remaining Celtic communities of Alba, Breizh, Cymru, Eire, Kernow, and Mannin (respectively, Scotland, Brittany, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall, and Mann).
In the 20th century, anthropology began to look at folk communities in addition to preliterate, preindus-trial societies. Some of the research turned to the Celtic countries; a sample of that work follows. One of the earliest community studies was Conrad Arensberg’s and Salon T. Kimball’s Family and Community in Ireland. Arensberg and Kimball studied three villages in County Clare, Ireland, in the 1930s, which they combined under the pseudonym, Luogh. It is a classic study of a now disappeared rural way of life. Isabel Emmett described her research in Llan in A North Wales Village: A Social Anthropological Study. In the early 1960s, John C. Messenger Jr. conducted research on one of the Aran Islands, considered one of the traditional parts of the country, at the mouth of Galway Bay. He described his research in Inis Beag: Isle of Ireland, with a focus on the rapprochements between religion, sex, and social life. Susan Parman described the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides in her book Scottish Crofters: A Historical Ethnography of a Celtic Village, which examined the crofting system, attitudes of the islanders to historic occurrences, such as the Highland Clearances, and to the intrusiveness of modern culture, as well as an examination of the history and current practice of the cottage industry of the island: weaving Harris Tweeds. Robin Fox examined marriage and kinship among the Tory islanders, off the coast of Donegal, in The Tory Islanders: A People of the Celtic Fringe. Nancy Scheper-Hughes wrote the controversial Saints, Scholars, and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland, describing her research into the connection between the traditional rural inheritance system and mental illness in County Kerry. Ellen Badone wrote The Appointed Hour: Death, Worldview, and Social Change in Brittany, about the cultural changes in Brittany since 1945.
Today, the homogenizing effect of television and other forms of mass communication is blurring the distinctions between communities on a global scale. The Celtic influence in the modern world, politics, and global economy always has been present, from the shipyards of Belfast to Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills in America, but the dominant cultures always were given the credit for the innovations (for example, the Titanic was built in Belfast and made its last port of call in County Cork, Ireland, yet it is referred to as a British ship). Despite the homogenization of modern mass media, it has allowed the formerly “backward” areas to innovate in ways that the more industrialized regions have resisted on the grounds of the difficulty and expense of retooling. In the 1990s, the central west coastal area of Ireland, especially around Galway and Limerick/Shannon, became a major information-processing center for the world. The new information technology innovations have allowed the “Celtic Tiger” to become an international economic force in what used to be “poor Ireland,” a country in which many households did not have telephones in the 1980s, but where now mobile telephones and personal computers are commonplace. For the first time since the 1840s, migration is in to Ireland rather than out of it.
- Childe,V. G. (1980). Prehistoric communities of the British Isles. New York: Arno Press.
- Cunliffe, B. (2002). The extraordinary voyage of Pytheas the Greek. New York: Walker & Company.
- Cunliffe, B. (2003). The Celts: A very short introduction. Oxford: University Press.
- Eluere, C. (1993). The Celts: Conquerors of ancient Europe. New York: Abrams.
- Raftery, B., & Clint, T. (Eds.). (2001). Atlas of the Celts. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books.
- Rankin, H. D. (1987). Celts and the classical world. London: Croom & Helm.
- Squire, C. (1975). Celtic myth and legend: Poetry and romance. Newcastle: Newcastle Publishing.