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Travel through the Ireland Story

The Celtic Iron Age
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The Arrival of the Celts:
As the Bronze Age in Ireland drew to a close, there appeared in Ireland a new cultural influence. Developing in the Alps of central Europe, the Celts spread their culture across modern-day Germany and France and into the Balkans as far as Turkey. They arrived in Britain and Ireland around 500BC and within a few hundred years, Ireland's Bronze Age culture had all but disappeared, and Celtic culture was in place across the entire island.

Celtic Europe around 400BCThe map on the left [3] shows how Europe looked around 400BC. Celtic influences (for it was a culture, not an empire) had spread across much of central Europe and spread into Iberia and the British Isles. The Celts called Britain and Ireland the "Pretanic Islands" which evolved into the modern word "Britain". The word "Celt" comes from the Greeks, who called the tribes to their north the "Keltoi", but there is no evidence that the Celts ever referred to themselves by that name. To the south a small upstart republic, with its capital at Rome, was minding its own business. However it was these Romans who, a few centuries later, would supercede Celtic culture across most of Europe when they built their huge Roman Empire, which stretched from Palestine to England.

The Celts had one major advantage - they had discovered Iron. Iron had been introduced to the Celtic peoples in Europe around 1000 to 700BC, thus giving them the technological edge to spread as they did. Iron was a far superior metal to bronze, being stronger and more durable. On the other hand, it required much hotter fires to extract it from its ore and so it took a fair degree of skill to use iron. None of this is to be taken to mean that bronze fell out of use. Rather, iron simply became an alternative metal and many bronze objects have been found that were made in the Iron Age.

The Ireland Story

The invasion/assimilation question is discussed in detail in:
"Pagan Celtic Ireland"

Whether or not the arrival of the Celts in Ireland was an actual invasion, or a more gradual assimilation, is an open question [1]. On the one hand, the Celts - who were by no means pacifists - must have arrived in sufficiently large numbers to obliterate the existing culture in Ireland within a few hundred years. On the other hand, other better documented invasions of Ireland - such as the Viking invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries AD - failed to have the effect of changing the culture on an islandwide scale. Current academic opinion favours the theory that the Celts arrived in Ireland over the course of several centuries, beginning in the late Bronze Age with Celts of the early iron-using Hallstatt group of people, to be followed after 300BC by Celts of the La Tène cultural group which formed within the Hallstatt group.

Some have postulated that, as the Romans invaded and took control of the continental Celtic territories of Gaul [France] and Iberia [Spain and Portugal], some of the displaced Celts travelled to unconquered Celtic lands such as Britain and Ireland. The medieval "Book of Invasions" talks about Milesians and Fír Bolg arriving in Ireland. These have been identified with displaced Celts from Spain and Belgium, respectively, although this is conjecture [1].

Early Accounts:

The earliest pseudo-historical information that we have about Iron Age Celtic Ireland is from Carthaginian, Roman and Greek writers, who probably got their information from sailors who had been to the British Isles. There are writings from the 4th century AD by the Roman Avienus which are thought to be based on accounts from an early Greek voyage in the 6th century BC. These describe Celts in France and in the North Sea, where the British Isles are. He calls Ireland Insula Sacra (Holy Island) and its inhabitants gens hiernorum, thought to be a Latinisation of the Greek word for Ireland, Ierne. This, in all likelihood, is a modification of the word Ériu, which may be an original Celtic word for Ireland and a root of the later Irish word Eire and eventually the English word Ireland. The Greek Pytheas refers to the British Isles as the Pretanic Islands, which is derived from Priteni - definitely a Celtic word. In 52BC, the Romans were referring to Ireland as Hibernia, possibly extracted again from the Greek word Ierne.

Click to view Ptolemy's map of Ireland [56kB]By far the most interesting historical account of these early times is that of the Greek Ptolemy. His map of Ireland, published in Geographia, was compiled in the second century AD, but based on an account from around 100AD. No surviving originals exist, but we do have a copy dating from 1490AD. To see the map [1], click on the thumbnail on the left [56kB].

Historians have been able to use this fascinating map to identify some of the Celtic tribes living in Ireland at the time. Many of the names cannot be identified with known tribes (particularly those in the west), and the names have been badly corrupted by being passed word-of-mouth. However, others are readily identifiable. Also on the map are the names of rivers and islands which can be identified with existing features. All this information has allowed historians to create a picture of the probable Celtic tribes living in Ireland at the time (100AD). Our map is given below. Note that Ireland was by no means isolated. Some of the tribes straddled both sides of the Irish Sea, while others had relations in Gaul (France).

Ireland in 100AD [10kB]

Roman Influences and Irish Colonies:

In the last centuries BC, the rest of Celtic Europe fell to the expanding Roman Empire. The Celts of southern Britain were conquered in 43AD. Stopping short of the Picts of modern-day Scotland, the Roman emperor Hadrian built his famous wall between the Celts of the north and Roman Britain. Did the Roman armies invade Ireland? The answer is no, but we know they did consider it. During a foray into southern Scotland, the Roman General Agricola looked across the North Channel towards the Irish coast. The writer Tacitus reports that Agricola "saw that Ireland... conveniently situated for the ports of Gaul might prove a valuable acquisition" and that "I have often heard Agricola declare that a single legion, with a moderate band of auxilaries, would be enough to finish the conquest of Ireland" [2]. However an invasion never took place - not because the Irish would be too hard to defeat, but simply because the Romans decided it wouldn't be worth the effort.

However, Ireland did come under heavy Roman influence, even if not under its rule. In the first and second centuries AD, there is evidence that there was sporadic trading between the Irish and the Romans of Britain. Tacitus, writing in the first century AD, says of Ireland "the interior parts are little known, but through commerical intercourse and the merchants there is better knowledge of the harbours and approaches" [5]. Evidence of a Roman trading post has been found near Dublin. However, it was not until the fourth and fifth centuries AD that there is evidence of prolonged Roman influences in Ireland. Roman coins and other implements have been found in Ireland. There is evidence that the language spoken by the Eóganacht of Munster, who arrived at the end of the Iron Age, had been heavily influenced by Latin. Finally, it is certain that Ogham, the first written scripts in the Irish language, was based on the Latin alphabet (see language, below).

Towards the end of the pre-Christian period, as the Roman Empire and its colony in Britain declined, the Irish took advantage and began raiding western Britain. Irish Colonies in Britain, 5th century [9kB]Picts from Scotland and Saxons from Germany raided other parts of the colony. As their raids got ever more successful, the Irish began to colonise western Britain. The Érainn of Munster settled in Cornwall, the Laigin of Leinster settled in south Wales while the Déisi of south-east Ireland settled in north Wales. Cormac of Cashel (writing much later, in 908AD) records that "The power of the Irish over the Britons was great, and they had divided Britain between them into estates... and the Irish lived as much east of the sea as they did in Ireland" [2]. These colonies were all defeated by the Britons within the next century or so, although Irish kings seemed to be still ruling in south Wales as late as the tenth century. The map on the left shows these colonies.

But by far the most successful colony was that of the Dál Riata in western Scotland. Their colony thrived and, in fact, it seems that most or all Dál Riatans ultimately left northern Ireland for the new colony. Probably founding the colony around 400-500AD, Dál Riata was well established by 563AD and in the ninth century it took control of Pictland, to the east, and founding the united kingdom of Scotland.

Celtic Constructions: Royal Sites [1]
During the Iron Age, there was a general consolidation of territories and kingdoms. Most of these territories had a defended hilltop fort as their centre of power. However, a number of very large-scale works were undertaken. Referred to as the 'royal sites', these consisted of earthworks of various kinds, burial mounds and enclosures. Most of these were constructed around the 2nd century BC.

EEmain Macha [18kB]main Macha - Now called Navan Fort, in county Armagh, today consists of a circular enclosure with a mound in the centre. In the late Iron Age it was the royal seat of the Ulaid during their rise to power in Ulster, making it certainly the most important such site in Ulster. The most famous king of the Ulaid was Connor and the legendary warrior Cú Chulainn. However, the events that took place at the construction of Navan Fort are remarkable. Around 100BC, a huge circular building was constructed: 43 metres (143 feet) in diameter. It was made from a series of circles of progressively taller wooden poles, and the entire cone-shaped building was thatched. This was a huge building in Iron Age standards. However, even more remarkable was the fact that the building seems to have been partially burned and partially demolished shortly after its completion, and covered over with a mound of limestone and earth. This all suggests that the building was part of some large-scale ritual and was not used for any domestic purpose. To compound the mystery, the remains of a Barbary Ape was also found on the site - an animal native to north Africa which was probably an exotic gift. Navan today boasts an extensive visitors' centre. (The reconstruction above is by D Wilkinson of the Environment Service, DOENI.)

The Ireland Story

For detailed information
on Celtic constructions:
"Pre-Christian Ireland"

Dún Ailinne - Dún Ailinne, in county Kildare, appears to have been the royal site of south Lenister. It underwent several transformations, but at its height it seems to have included a circular enclosure 29 metres (96 feet) in diameter with several tiers of benches around it. Around the time of Christ, a circle of timbers was built, then burned and buried in a mound. Like Emain Macha, Dún Ailinne seems to have served a ritual purpose.

Tara - The Hill of Tara in county Meath is home to a large number of monuments. There is a Neolithic passage tomb called the Mound of the Hostages as well as some post-Iron Age ringforts. Around the main part of the site is a large earthen enclosure. Tara was an important site throughout the Celtic period where it was a royal centre and, ultimately, the seat of the High King of Ireland.

Turoe Stone [5kB]Celtic Constructions: Decorated Stones [1]
A large number of carved stones were created in the last centuries BC. Probably serving a ritual purpose, they were stones up to 2 metres (7 feet) in height and feature complex swirling patterns of a style common with central European Celtic cultures. We can only speculate on what kind of ritualistic purpose it may have served. Some have argued that these are the most durable of a variety of materials used for these objects, such as wood. The most famouse example is the Turoe Stone, in county Galway, which is pictured on the left (Commissioners of Public Works in Ireland).

Celtic Constructions: Hilltop and Promontory Forts [1]
Most kingdoms, or Tuath, in Ireland had a hilltop fort which was used either as a permanent residence for the king or as a temporary refuge in times of conflict. They are typically built on the top of a hill and surrounded by a stone wall. Often these sites coincide with previous Bronze Age burials, and frequently they showed a lack of respect for these previous monuments, sometimes re-using their stones. Unlike the royal sites, which were made from earthen banks, they had very well constructed stone walls made from close-fitting cut stones. Some of the most well defended hillforts were built with one edge at the top of a cliff. So-called promontory forts were built both on inland mountains and coastal cliffs.

Everyday Life in Celtic Ireland:

Although very like the Celtic cultures of the rest of Europe, that of Ireland had been influenced in part be the preceding Bronze Age culture. So Ireland's culture was not totally like that of mainland Europe. However, in many regards it was very similar. Much of what we know about specifically Irish culture has come down through the years in the form of Heroic Tales, such as the Ulster Cycle which tells of the exploits of Cú Chullain, the Hound of Ulster. Once thought to be historicaly unreliable, these Heroic Tales describe a way of life that fits well with what we now know about the Celts of mainland Europe. Thus it seems that, while the events described may have been embelished over the years, the underlying themes and props in the stories may be accurate descriptions of life in Iron Age Ireland.

The Ireland Story

For detailed information
on Celtic culture:
"Celtic Britain and Ireland:

Art and Society"

It was, in many ways, a culture based around war. Ireland was divided into dozens - possibly hundreds - of petty kingdoms. Within the kingdoms, it was the blacksmiths, druids and poets who were held in high esteem: the blacksmiths for making the weapons of war, the druids for making prophesies and soothsaying, and the poets for putting the exploits of warriors to verse, to be sung around the cooking fires. The aristocracy in this culture was made up of the warriors, who sought fame and recognition by doing battle with their enemies. The young warrior would be initiated by mounting his chariot (a two wheeled wooden cart pulled by two horses), before proceeding to battle and cutting off the heads of his enemies to bring them home as trophies [1]. At the celebratory banquet afterwards, the warriors would compete for the "hero's portion" of the food being served. The weapons brandished by these warriors consisted of round wooden, bronze or iron shields, with iron spears or swords. The spear seems to have been more common than the sword.

Political Structure
By the later Celtic period, Ireland was ruled by a series of perhaps 100 to 200 kings, each ruling a small kingdom or tuath. The kings came in three recognised grades, depending on how powerful they were. A rí túaithe was the ruler of a single kingdom. A 'great king', or ruiri, was a king who had gained the allegiance of, or become overlord of, a number of local kings. A 'king of overkings', or rí ruirech, was a king of a province. Ireland had between 4 and 10 provinces at any one time, because they were always in a state of flux as their kings' power waxed and waned. Today's 4 provinces (Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connaught) represent only the final state of these borders. Each province had a royal site, a place where important events took place. In 100AD there were royal sites at Emain Macha, near Armagh; Tara, county Meath and Dún Ailinne, county Kildare as well as other locations (see Celtic constructions above).

For most of the civilian population, however, life was spent in small farming units consisting of a wooden or wattle-and-daub house within a circular enclosure. Most would have had access to common land on higher ground on which to graze animals. Dairying was common, but almost everyone grew grain crops such as corn, oats, barley, wheat and rye. The land was ploughed using wooden ploughs pulled by oxen. Almost all farming was subsistence-based, and there was very little trade in food.

The only interruption to the daily ritual of grazing animals and growing crops would have been cattle-raids from neighbouring warriors, who may have pillaged and burned on their way to battle, although in general warfare seems to have been a highly formalised affair in which the peasants were usually not involved. By 400AD there were probably between half a million and 1 million people living in Ireland. This number would have fluctuated due to the recurrent plague and famine which affected all prehistoric cultures in Europe.

Brehon Law [7]
The law that the Celts of Ireland used has been called Brehon law. Forms of Brehon Law were used in Ireland for hundreds of years. A full treatment of Brehon Law is beyond the scope of this article, but the idea was that a person's identity was defined by the kingdom in which they lived. A peasant had no legal status outside the tuath, with the exception of men of art and learning. Those who were tied to their tuath were unfree and worked for the king. All land was owned by families, not by individuals. Wealth was measured in cattle, and each individual had a status measured in terms of wealth. Almost any crime committed against an individual could be recompensed by paying a fine equal to the status of the individual. For example, a 50 cows for an important person, 3 cows for a peasant. There was no death penalty; but, an individual could be ostracised from the tuath in certain circumstances.

Coolmagort Ogham Stone [13kB]Language
The language spoken by the Celts in Ireland was Celtic, a variant of the Celtic languages which were used across Europe. In the British Isles, there were at least two dialects in use: Brittonic (P-Celtic) which was spoken in southern Britain and France, and Goidelic (Q-Celtic) which was spoken in Ireland and northern Britain. Brittonic is the root of modern Welsh, Cornish and Breton. Goidelic is the root of modern Irish and Scots-Gaelic. Brittonic and Goidelic must have been heavily influenced by the Bronze Age languages of Ireland.

The first written Irish appeared in the fifth century, around the same time as the initial Christianisation of Ireland. Called Ogham script, it consists of a series of grooves on the corner of a stone. Each combination of grooves represents a different letter of the Latin alphabet, and a number of Ogham stones have been found in Ireland and in Wales. Those in Ireland are mostly along the south coast. Usually they give the name of a person or ancestor and were probably commemorative. The picture on the left shows the Ogham stone at Coolmagort, county Kerry [4].


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References / Sources:
[1] P Harbinson: "Pre-Christian Ireland, from the First Settlers to the Early Celts", Thames and Hudson, 1994
[2] RF Foster: "The Oxford History of Ireland", Oxford University Press, 1989
[3] "The Times Atlas of World History", Times Books, 1994
[4] Sean Duffy, "Atlas of Irish History", Gill and Macmillan, 2000
[5] G. Stout and M. Stout, writing in the "Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape", Cork University Press, 1997, pp31-63
[6] Various authors, "The Oxford Companion to Irish History", Oxford University Press, 1998
[7] Máire and Conor Cruise O'Brien, "A Concise History of Ireland", Thames and Hudson, 1972