The Celts

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.

Tomás Ó Fiach


Long ago, beyond the misty space
Of twice a thousand years
In Erin old there dwelt a mighty race
Taller than Roman spears.

That was Thomas D'Arcy McGeeís introduction to his well-known poem on 'The Celts'. It paints an idealised picture of early Ireland and its people, no doubt, yet it is accurate enough in depicting the Celts as tall and warlike and in placing their arrival in Ireland more than two thousand years ago.

Who were these people and where did they come from? The term Celtic is primarily a linguistic one, denoting one group of Indo-European languages. But we can transfer the name to the people who spoke them. Already before 500 B.C. the Celts had emerged as a recognisable people in an area comprising Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary and Bohemia. Archaeologists have found valuable remains of this early Celtic civilisation at Hallstatt in Upper Austria and of somewhat later Celtic culture at La Tene in Switzerland. They spread over much of France and part of northern Italy in the sixth century before Christ, invaded northern Spain in the fifth century, sacked Rome at the end of the fourth century and got a footing in Greece and Asia Minor in the third century. The Greeks called them Keltoi and the Romans Galli.

Before they were finally overthrown by the Romans, they had left their name on Gaul, on Galatia in Asia Minor and Galicia in Spain; individual Celtic tribes had given names to Belgium, Bohemia and Aquitaine, to Bologna and Treves, Paris, Arras and Rennes. The greatest of the Celtic gods, Lugh, had been commemorated in the names of Lyon in France, Leon in Spain and Leyden in Holland, not to mention London and Louth. Many of the river names of Europe are Celtic ñ the Rhine itself and its tributaries from the east, the Main, the Lahn and the Ruhr, also the Isar and the Inn in Bavaria. So also are scores of place-names in Central Europe with the elements bri (a hill), mag (a plain), dun (a fort) and so on.

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