The Celts were a group of people who originated from Europe and shared similar beliefs, culture and language (History.com Editors 2017). The Celtic culture influenced place names, art and languages that are still spoken today (Dougherty 2015, 244). This essay will discuss the evidence that shows that both Ireland and Britain were Celtic in the early Middle Ages.
Buchanan suggested that the Irish and Scottish originated from the Celts, as he recognised the similarity of a group of languages, which he termed Gallic (Collis 1997). Furthermore, Buchannan suggested that there were Celts in Britain and Ireland and was the first to do so (Collis 1997). In regard to Ireland, the development of cultural nationalism during the 19th and early 20th centuries meant that questions about their ancient origins were of extreme importance (Nash 2006).
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Who were the Celts?
According to the most widely accepted definition of Celt, people are classified as Celt if they speak Celtic and this links ancient peoples with their descendants (Haywood 2004, 5). Ancient Britons and Irish were included as Celtic speaking people in ancient times (Haywood 2004, 5). Additionally, ancient Celtic speakers are thought of being in a network of societies that spoke related languages and were sharing elements of the same culture (Dietler 1994). Simply put, the Celts are viewed as a group of people that lived in Europe between the 8th century and the Roman Conquest, who shared a common language, material culture and societal structures (Mattingly 2007, 51; Bondiolo 2013). Ancient Britons never saw themselves as Celtic but as separate people and in a similar way the Ancient Irish did not have an identity for themselves until the Early Middle Ages (Haywood 2004, 6). It is important to note that the Celts already had an established culture, characterised by ironworking and distinctive art, by the time the Greeks first learned about their existence (Haywood 2004, 7). Additionally, it is in the work of Greek geographer Hecataeus of Miletus that the term Celt first appears during the late 6th century BC and they became the first unfamiliar people on the border of the Mediterranean world (Dietler 1994).
Celts in Britain and Ireland
Most of what is known about Celtic life in Britain is known from Roman sources or accounts passed down through later writings (Dougherty 2015, 198). It is important to note that the Celts had controlled Britain and Ireland for a long period of time before the Romans came, with the Celts’ control lasting nearly 700 years until what is now England became the province of Britannia (Moffat 2015). Furthermore, by the time the Romans arrived, the majority of Britain was Celtic and had well-established tribes controlling large areas (Dougherty 2015, 203). There was no Celtic invasion of Britain, rather there was a flood of migrating people that caused ‘Celtisation’ by inter-marriage and ideas spreading (Dougherty 2015, 203). The influences that British Celts made can be seen by their metalwork, settlements and changes in technology, the most important being the discovery of smelting iron into tools and weapons (Webster 1995, 623). Further evidence of the Celts’ presence in Britain can be seen by looking at imports. The distribution of amphorae shows that the most important imports to Gallic Celts were olive oil and wine (Webster 1995, 624).
Ireland was completely Celtic both in its language and establishments by the middle of the first millennium AD (Raftery 1995, 637). Furthermore, change in art and technology, which seemed to be influenced by the Le Tene culture, was indicative of outsiders arriving in Ireland (Raftery 1995, 637). It is around the 3rd century that the La Tene culture is recognisable in Ireland (Raftery 1995, 640). Christianity became fully established in Ireland by the 6th century, and there are a number of sites that have been identified as tribal centres (Redknap 1995, 738; Raftery 1995, 646). Navan is one of those sites, which has been suggested to be a temple, as there were no signs of domestic activity there (Raftery 1995, 646). Another example is Dun Ailinne, which was the centre of Celtic Leinster, further supporting the idea that Ireland was Celtic, and has presented archaeological indications of ritual activities (Raftery 1995, 647, 648). The Irish Celts were thought to be warlike people who fought with one another frequently and also interacted with other Celts that lived in the rest of the British Isles (Dougherty 2015, 234, 235). Additionally, Drumanagh was a stronghold in Ireland that had trading links with the Roman world, although the Irish elites did not want to adopt the Roman lifestyle as the British Celtic elites had done (Haywood 2004, 128).
Studying ancient languages can also provide evidence for the presence of Celts in Britain and Ireland. The native languages of Britain were linked with a group now known as Celtic and can be divided into two groups (Mattingly 2007, 52). The two groups are P-Celtic and Q-Celtic; P-Celtic is the larger of the two and is known as Brittonic Celtic and was attested in much of Britain (Mattingly 2007, 52). Q-Celtic underlies modern Irish but was rare on the Continent, which may suggest that there was an earlier phase of language dispersal (Mattingly 2007, 52).
Due to the fact that Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire meant that it did not directly inherit its Christian learning (O’Neill 2006). It was most likely that British missionaries brought Christianity to Ireland in the 5th century, and this British influence is evident in Old Irish words borrowed from the British language (O’Neill 2006). In the case of England, Celtic-Christians aided the spread of the new faith throughout the country and most of Britain was Christian by the end of the 7th century (Dougherty 2015, 234). This in itself forms part of the Celtic legacy that helped form modern British culture (Dougherty 2015, 234).
As the essay has shown, it is evident that the Celts were in Britain and Ireland in the early Middle Ages and that Celtic influences were strong. It could be said that Celtic culture directed the development of society and religion and has influenced how modern-day Ireland and Britain are today (Dougherty 2015, 244).
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History.com Editors. (2017). Who Were Celts [online]. History. [Viewed 4 March 2020]. Available from: https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-history/celts
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Webster, G. (1995). The Celtic Britons Under Rome. In: M.J. Green, ed. The Celtic World. London: Routledge. 623-635.
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