A Brief History of the Celts (Ireland)

Generously contributed by Druid Mhichil Hill

In today’s society, we see Irish art, dance, and food, but how much of what we have experienced is truly Celtic? If you ask a person from Ireland if he or she is Celtic or Irish most of the time their response will be Irish. So how does one know what is truly Celtic and what is not? Unless one could time warp back in time, there is no way to know. However, this essay will attempt to correlate and reveal some traditions of the Celts and Irish that may have affected culture through modern times.

Ireland’s rich cultural heritage has ancient roots and human habitation in Ireland dates back almost 10,000 years; when Mesolithic-era hunter-fishers occupied the island. Following came Neolithic peoples, people from the Mediterranean region, known in legend as the Firbolgs, and later came the Picts. The arrival of Celts, about 350 BCE, introduced a new culture to Ireland, one that would have a lasting historical influence.

The Celts are the people who spoke and still speak languages of Indo-European origin, though it is argued that the Celtic race itself no longer exists. They flourished as an identifiable culture beginning around 700 BCE. Celtic influences reached England around sixth century BCE, characterized by techniques of iron working with the resulting improved weapons and agricultural implements which gave greater efficiency to warfare and land use, making the settlers far superior to the indigenous peoples, of whom little is known. Between the third and first century BCE, they came to Ireland, where they settled and flourished. From 43-85 CE the Romans invaded Britain, which remained occupied for 360 years, however, as the Celtic nature of the Britons was displaced; it flourished in Ireland, where the Romans never conquered.

Out of the Celtic tradition developed a singularly important aspect of Irish life, the bardic school, which was to have a direct impact on daily life in Ireland for about 1,500 years. The studies of the students in the bardic schools were chiefly: history, law, language, genealogy, and literature. The history was that of Ireland, the law was that of Ireland, namely the Brehon Law system; the literature was that of Ireland and through the medium of the native language, all subjects taught. After Christianization, some vestiges of the Druid cult survived in them as the pagan sensibility did until modern times. When the schools did at last become Christian, they did not become monastic; and they are not to be confused with the famous monkish schools.

The Bardic Schools were lay, officered by laymen; and existed side by side with the great schools of the clerics. The bardic schools, as a separate institution to ecclesiastical schools, lasted until the smashing of the Irish intelligentsia in the seventeenth century. From these schools, the poets, the historians, the Brehons, doctors, and other professional people graduated. The education in these 'lay' schools ran parallel to education in the monastic or ecclesiastical schools. Ireland, unlike most of her neighbors, such as England, therefore had an educational tradition outside the church. Irish Brehon Law was an independent indigenous system of advanced jurisprudence that had fully matured by the eighth century. The law of the Irish Celts derived from a complex set of customs and practices, handed down orally from generation to generation. The Brehon Laws, as we find them today, may be attributed to the Irish Golden Age. "The fierce and restless quality which had made the pagan Irish the terror of Europe, seems to have emptied itself into the love of learning and the love of God: and it is the peculiar distinction of Irish medieval scholarship and the salvation of literature in Europe that the one in no way conflicted with the other.”

Nowadays when one thinks of Celtic art they tend to direct attention to tattoos, but Celtic art is more than body decoration. Celtic art flourished and developed in Ireland long after it had disappeared on the European mainland. In contrast with the realism and natural beauty preferred by Greek and Roman artists, the imaginative art of the Celts delighted in symbols and intricate patterns. A new flowering of this art occurred as Irish monasteries became more prosperous, particularly in the seventh and eighth centuries. The monasteries produced illuminated manuscripts, the more beautiful and detailed being the Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells. Many of the finest Irish products of this period have been found on the European mainland, carried there by wandering scholars. Historians have coined this era the 'Golden Age' of Celtic art, an age rudely terminated by the Vikings.

When discussing Ireland, one is obligated to mention Irish Celtic mythology. These sagas are necessary read for anyone attempting to practice a Celtic spiritual path. Not only are the stories a gate to the historical beliefs, but also they provide lessons for life that are woven with morality and honor. These sagas come in four major groups of stories, or cycles. The Mythological Cycle deals with characters that were once gods, and with the origins of the Irish. The Fenian Cycle concerns the hero Finn mac Cumaill and his band of warriors, the fian. The Historical Cycle, otherwise known as the Cycles of the Kings, includes stories of legendary, and semi-historical Irish kings from pagan and early Christian times, and the oldest and greatest cycle is the Ulster Cycle. These mythological stories deal with the adventures of hero’s such as Cú Chulainn and Finn mac Cumaill. The God/Goddesses of the Tuatha de Danann like The Dagda and Morrigan, and the telling of Lugh and Balor. These sagas are still told and reenacted to this day much as the Celts would have done centuries before.

Celtic influence is still alive and kicking in Ireland today, although one would have to look very hard for true traditional Celtic practice, it is there. It is blended into the daily practices of the people, practices that are ancient in concept and were even inclusive to other cultures through assimilation. In modern history, we see the spiritual practices of the Celts even though Ireland is now mainly Christian. We see laws in Ireland and throughout the world that were influenced by the Brehons. We see Ireland and other countries that have benefited from the colleges that developed due to Druidic and Bardic philosophies. The world may have changed and the ancient Celts and Druids may have passed on to the Otherworld, but to this day we are able to experience their greatness and find their influences imbedded in today’s society.

References:
Book(s): The Celts by John Davies
Websites: http://www.Uaitudhaltripod.com/lllaw and http://www.bbc.co.uk