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Traditional Irish Gaelic song
Gaels - the Celts of Ireland
As we know, the Celts first were evident as a European cultural group and were first evident in continental Europe around the 7th and 8th centuries BC. The Celts were loosely tied together as tribes and spoke a common language.
The Greeks called them Keltoi and the Romans called them Galli and both terms meant 'barbarians.' They were fierce warriors who fought among themselves and fought the Romans when they were occupiers in Britain. They ruthlessly fought against any invader of the British Isles and their culture flourished the longest in Ireland and Scotland.
The Greek, Pytheas, referred to the British Isles as the Pretanic Islands which is derived from Priteni which is definitely a Celtic word.
By the 3rd to 5th century BC, they occupied much of Europe north of the Alps. By the 2nd and 3rd century, the Celts had arrived in Ireland. They became known as the Gaels, because of their language and culture and inhabited the island of Eire as Ireland was originally known and named.
The Gaels, Gauls, Britons, Irish and Gallacians were all Celtic people. Celtic culture survived longer in northern Europe and the British Isles longer than in continental Europe and still survives today in parts of Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Wales and Breton (France).
After the Romans withdrew from Britain in the 5th century, the Celtic culture survived more strongly in Ireland and elsewhere in the isles it is believed because of hill forts they built to fight off the invaders; and there were many.
From the 7th to 9th centuries the Vikings invaded Ireland again and again. The founded several Irish cities such as Belfast and Dublin, but they were never able to take over the island.
Ireland was not occupied by another nation until 1160 when the Normans invaded from England. Then, the British occupation of Ireland lasted until 1922 when the Republic of Ireland was born. Through all this the Celtic culture still survived.
Celtic culture has been continuous in Ireland for approximately 2400 years or more. But, who were the first Celts to arrive?
We know from the extensive research and DNA analysis of the English by Brian Sykes, head of the genetic department at Oxford University, that he found that the Celts were most prominent in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but also in today's England.
What surprised him and most of the people of the British Isles was the DNA analysis which clearly showed a genetic fingerprint to the inhabitants of coastal regions of Spain. Specifically the northern Basque region of Spain and the northwest Galician region of Spain.
He discovered from approximately 4,000 to 5,000 BC that the Iberians migrated north to the British Isles and lived in all of the countries of the British Isles today. Therefore, the ancestors of the Irish Celts or Gaels were the Spanish and/or Portugal.
These Iberians first inhabited Ireland and throughout the ensuing centuries evolved into what we know today as the Gaels of Ireland.
The Irish Gaels
The Gaels of Ireland (Celts) emerged in the prehistoric era and their lives and culture lasted until the early 17th century. During this period Ireland was known as an island made up of a hierarchy of territories, made up of families of clans, and ruled by a hierarchy of kings or chieftains.
Gaelic culture and society was organized and centered around the clan (spelled clann in Gaelic) The landscape and history of Ireland was wrought with inter-clan relationships, marriages, friendships, wars, vendettas and trading etc.
Each person fit into a kin-group or clan. This was a large group of related people supposedly descended from one progenitor through male forebears. They were headed by a male chieftain or king although the clans were primarily based on blood kinship, they also included those fostered into the group and those accepted into it for other reasons.
Succession to the chieftainship was through tanistry. A relative was elected by the clan to be his deputy and when the chieftain died the tanist would succeed him, but had to share the same great-grandfather as his predecessor. The tanist elected from clan freemen who shared the same great-grandfather.There could be more than one tanist in a clan and if so they would succeed each other in order of seniority.
Warfare between the territories was common during these times as the Irish Celts or Gaels as they called themselves, were fierce and courageous warriors who fought strongly for their independence. Their culture was based around war. The Gaels also cut off the heads of their enemies to bring home as trophies as did the Britons.
The ancient Gaelic culture was patriarchal and every woman had to have a male guardian. During the 8th century the preferred form of marriage was one between social equals. The woman was legally dependent on the husband and had half of his honor price. She could exercise considerable authority in regard to the transfer of property. Such women were called "women of joint dominion."
Free women in Gaelic Ireland held a good position in society as social and property rights were quite on the level of men. Land was owned by men and inherited by sons, but if a family had no son to inherit, then the property passed on to the daughter.
Under Gaelic law, married women could hold property independent of husbands and couples could divorce or separate. These Irish Gaelic laws differed from continental Europe at the time and definitely differed from Catholic Church law.
Women could seek a divorce or separation as easily as men and all they had to do was to petition to do so. The woman could keep all the property she brought to her husband and into her marriage.
Therefore, some Gaelic wives wielded great political power and the wife of a chieftain was entitled to some share of the chief's authority over his territory.
Their economy and lifestyle was mostly pastoral and money generally not used as the barter system reigned. They built huts or stone buildings in the round as houses. Land was plowed using wooden plows pulled by oxen. Almost all farming was subsistence based and there was very little trade in food.
They used the hill-fort as their defense system against invaders. It is these defensive hill-forts that are given credit for the Celts or Gaels remaining in power and culture in Ireland until the 17th century.
Their religion was initially polytheistic or pagan and they believed in many gods and goddesses. They revered and worshiped the oak tree and places of water were especially important to them. They practiced their religious rituals in oak groves.
Their religious leaders after the gods and goddesses were the Druids who were first and foremost priests who practiced the religious rituals. They also foretold prophecies, judged civil and criminal cases, and taught the religious practices to the Gaels. Religious lessons, like all Gaelic lessons were passed down verbally by word of mouth from generation to generation.
Animals were very important in archaeological diggings and later in their stories. We know today that bulls were worshiped and sacrificed by the Gaels.
The sky and sun were also important to their religious practices and they believed in an afterlife. This is attested to by the archaeological digs of cemeteries that have discovered burials and graves with such things as food, weapons, and other implements that might be needed in the next life.
The early Gaels believed in magic and a belief in a parallel life of divine and magic entities such as faeries and leprechauns which were told in Irish stories.
Women had spiritual and political power as Gaels with some being even warriors and Druids. They had four main pagan religious festivals each year that centered around and marked the four traditional divisions of the year:
Ireland's rich mythology was originally passed down verbally and later written down by monks in Christian times. They modified these myths to fit the Christian role and tradition. The large body of work is split into three overlapping cycles:
- Mythological cycle - explained pseudo-history and how Ireland and people came to be
- Ulster cycle - explained the lives and deaths of Ulaidh heroes
- Fenian cycle - explained the exploits of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna (his warriors and supporters)
Christianity came of Ireland in 432 AD with the arrival of St. Patrick who explained the Trinity or the three person God (God the father, God the son, and God the holy spirit) with the three leaf clover found among the grass, and the three leaf clover has been the symbol of Ireland since then.
The Gaels established a rich verbal culture and appreciation of deeper and intellectual pursuits. When Christianity came to Ireland many of their spiritual and intellectual tasks were passed on to Christian monks who worked them into the Catholic religion and faith.
Poetry, music, storytelling, literature and other art forms were highly prized and cultivated in both pagan and Christian Gaelic Ireland. Hospitality, fulfillment of social and ritual responsibilities were held sacred.
Insular Celtic culture (that on the British Isles) diversified into that of the:
- Gaels (Irish, Scottish and Manx)
- Brythonic (Welsh, Cornish, Bretons and Britons)
during the medieval and modern periods and this division also applied to their languages.
- Book of Kells - Ireland's national treasure
One of the most extraordinary of illuminated manuscripts in Europe is the Book of Kells from Ireland.
The Gaelic Language
Gaelige or Irish is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European languages family that originated in Ireland and was and is today still spoken by some of the Irish people. Both English and Irish are the official languages of the Republic of Ireland today and English is the official language in Northern Ireland. Today's modern Irish language is an official language of the European Union.
Irish evolved from a form of Celtic Gaelic introduced into Ireland during the great Celtic migrations between the end of the second millennium and the 4th century BC.
Celtic refers to a family of languages and means "of the Celts" or "in the style of the Celts." The link between language and artifacts dug up is confirmed by the inscriptions found on those artifacts. Celtic culture is diverse, but what pulls it together is the use of a Celtic language and is what they have in common.
The Celtic languages spoken on the British Isles are Insular Celtic languages and have been divided into two major family groups by linguists:
- Goidelic (Gaelic)
They are called Insular because they were spoken only on the British Isles and survived much longer that the Celtic languages of continental Europe.
The Goidelic language historically formed a dialect continuum stretching from Ireland through the Isle of Man and to Scotland.
The three modern Goidelic languages are:
- Irish (Gaeilge)
- Scottish Gaelic (Gaidhlig)
- and Manx (Gaelg)
These three languages are classified as Insular Celtic or Q-Celtic. The names used in all three of these languages are derived from Old Irish Goidelc, which actually derives from Old Welsh, Guoidel, which means "pirate or raider."
These Celtic languages all have a similar grammatical structure, but have little vocabulary in common.
Goidelic was once restricted to Ireland and possibly the west coast of Scotland. Medieval Gaelic literature tells us that the Gaelic kingdom of Dai Riata emerged in western Scotland during the 6th century.
The traditional view is that the Gaelic language was brought to Scotland by settlers from Ireland who founded Dai Riata.
Recent archaeologists and linguists though have argued that there are no archaeological or place names evidenced for a migration or takeover by a small group migrating to Scotland.
The kingdom of Dia Riata grew in size, influence and Gaelic language and culture and was eventually adopted by the neighboring Celtic Picts who lived throughout Scotland.
Manx is the Gaelic language spoken on the Isle of Man and is close to the Gaelic spoken in the Hebrides and the Irish spoken in the northeastern and eastern Ireland and the now extinct Galwegian Gaelic of Galloway (in southwestern Ireland) with some influence from Old Norse from the Viking invasions.
Written Irish or Gaelic was first attested in the Ogham stone inscriptions in the 4th century. It was a primitive Irish written with the Ogham alphabet. Primitive Irish is the oldest written Goidelic language. The Ogham script on the stones was a series of grooves on the corner of the stone. Each combination of grooves represented a different letter of the Ogham alphabet.
Examples of these writings were found throughout Ireland and on the west coast of Great Britain. Usually the Ogham script gave the name of a person or ancestor and were probably commemorative. This primitive Irish evolved into Old Irish through the 5th century AD.
Old Irish, dating from the 6th century used the Latin alphabet. During this time, Old Irish absorbed and borrowed many Latin words, including ecclesiastical terms. Old Irish is the earliest variant of the Celtic Gaelic language.
By the 10th century Old Irish was evolving into Middle Irish which was spoken throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. It is the language of a large bit of literature including the Ulster cycle of literature.
By the 12th century, Middle Irish was evolving into Modern Irish in Ireland, into Scottish Gaelic in Scotland and into Manx on the Isle of Man.
Early Modern Irish, also known as Classical Gaelic, from the 13th century on, was the basis of the literary language of both Ireland and Gaelic speaking Scotland. During this time Ireland was considered the Gaelic homeland to the Scottish literati.
Modern Irish was spoken and written from the 17th century on and about the time of the writings of Geoffrey Keating and was the medium of popular literature.
By the mid 18th century, English not only became the language of the government but of the Catholic middle classes, the Catholic Church and public intellectuals. As the value of English became apparent parents sanctioned the removal of the Irish language in schools.
The Great Famine (1845-49) was the final catastrophic event that brought about the decline of Irish in Ireland and English replaced the Gaelic Irish language.
However, in the 19th century, there was a Gaelic Revival begun by the recently formed Gaelic League in an attempt to encourage the learning and use of Irish though few adult learners mastered the language. The revival also focused on the Irish folk and myth traditions.
From the 17th to early 20th centuries, the Irish language was gradually replaced by English in most parts of Ireland.
However, today, there are three main dialects of modern Irish spoken in Ireland:
- Munster (An Mhumhain) - spoken mainly in Kerry and Muskerry in the western part of County Cork.
- Connacht (Connachta) - spoken mainlu in Connemara, the Aran Islands and Tourmakeady in County Mayo.
- Ulster (Ulraidh) - spoken in the Rosses
The Official Standard Irish was developed during the 1950's and 60's and combines the elements from all three major dialects and its pronunciation from the Connacht dialect. This is the form of the Irish language taught in most Irish schools.
In 1922, the Republic of Ireland was born and the official language became Irish adopted along with English. Irish government and civil servants are bilingual.
Henry VIII of England, in 1542, declared the Lordship a Kingdom and himself King of Ireland and the English began to re-conquer the Irish island. By 1607, Ireland was fully under English control bringing the old Gaelic political and social order to the end.
Even thought the British occupation of Ireland lasted until 1922, the Celtic Gaelic culture has still survived in Ireland. The Celtic Gaelic culture has been continuous in Ireland for approximately 2400 years or more.
The Gaelic culture still survives strongly in Ireland today. Most Irish consider themselves Celtic. Up to approximately 100,000 of the Irish speak Gaelic as a first language and approximately 500,000 of them speak it as a second language.
The Gaelic language is on street signs along with English, and also on storefronts, in phone books and in western Ireland some of the street sighs are posted only in Gaelic.
There are Gaelic language radio and TV stations available in Ireland. Celtic has become a big marketing angle in Ireland today.
In Ireland, the Celtic culture has never really died out. It took hold in times before Christ and has held on ever since then. Today, the Celtic culture is alive and well in Ireland!