The Celts were a major power in Europe before the dawn of Christianity. At the height of their power, the Celts established themselves across Europe, naming major cities such as Paris, Milan, and Vienna in the process. They were people who to be feared all over the world and conquered many places and fought many battles. “Celtic” refers to people descended from one of the current Celtic regions on the western extremities of Europe, and each of these regions has retained much of its indigenous culture and distinctive language throughout the centuries. Life in Celtic Ireland was immensely different than any other culture as well.
In The Beginning
Nature of the Celts
Language and Communication
Where Did the Celts Come From?
Extraordinary Facts about Life in Celtic Ireland
Celtic Food and Drinks
Celtic Festivals & Religious Holidays
The Fall of the Celtic Empire
In The Beginning
In the early stages of the Iron Age period, a new culture started to evolve around Europe. This new culture was known as the Celtic culture, and its influence made its way to Ireland through trade and travel. With the coming of the Anglo-Saxons, most of the Celts who lived in Britain fled to Ireland.
In time, Ireland became the major centre of Celtic culture. Ireland had new cities and the people were divided into clans that lived in small villages. Most of them formed and raised cattle.
Nature of the Celts
The Celts were essentially warriors and great farmers who came to Ireland from Eastern Europe. The historian Sicilus said: “The Celts are terrifying in appearance. They are tall, with moist white flesh; their hair is blonde. They wear vivid clothes, tunics dyed in every colour. They are boasters and threateners…”.
The Celts lived in ringforts, hillforts, promontory forts, and crannogs. Ringforts consisted of a circular bank of earth surrounded by a trench. Inside the trench were houses built of wood with thatched roof. Many ringforts contained an underground passage called a Souterrain. Hillforts were ringforts built on top of hills, which offered a greater protection to inhabitants, for example, The Hill of Tara.
Check out more Irish castles here.
Similarly, promontory forts, like Dun Aengus, were built on clifftops for additional security. Crannogs were built on an island in the middle of a lake for also, you guessed it, protection. This made the Celts feel more at ease from potential invaders and wild animals.
The Celts divided Ireland into 150 kingdoms called tuath. Each tuath had a Ri (king).
Language and Communication
The Celts had a basic type of alphabet called Ogham where they cut a series of notches into the edge of a standing stone. There is a collection of Ogham stones at UCC (University College Cork).
Generally, the Celts had a rigid appearance. The Celts actually took great care of their appearance. They bleached their hair blonde using lime wash. Men often spiked it up to make themselves frightening. They also shaved their beards but kept their moustaches and they kept it long. Amidst all of that, jewellery was popular among the Celts. They wore necklaces called torcs. The Broighter Hoard is a collection of gold Celtic objects found near Limavady, Co. Derry.
Men and women alike wore a long woollen cloak called a brat. This cloak was tied at the neck with a brooch or a pin. Poorer Celtic men wore trousers under their brat called Bracac. Under the same brat, women wore a tunic to their ankles.
Celtic warriors limed their hair and made it stand up and pulled it back to the nape of their neck. This was probably a battle tactic to make themselves look frightening to the enemy. They painted themselves with a blue paint called woad. Both men and women were heavily tattooed. They also beat their swords and spears against their leather shields, creating an awful sound meant to scare the enemy.
The Celtic people reach out to us through the mists of time. Out of the depths of the Dark Ages, throughout Europe and in the lands of the British Isles. Tales are told of people who had closeness with nature. They are painted as being gentle and kind, living in harmony with others around them. Having no real written language of their own, others were left to tell their tale. Some of these tell of a different nature to these people. A king or chief was in charge. Farmers were part of the lower class in Celtic society. Despite their reputation as being barbaric, they were quite skilled in metalworking and made fine jewellery from gold, silver, copper and bronze. True, the Celts loved to fight. Warriors would even fight for the best piece of meat, called the hero’s portion. On a completely another hand, the Celts loved poetry. The poet was a very respected member of the society. Their marriage traditions were simple but full of allusions to mysticism much like the current Irish wedding traditions.
Since most men in the Celtic society grew up on the doctrine of war and fighting for the sake of the nation, other occupations didn’t matter that much at that time. Yes, being a merchant or a sailor was essential in the Celtic society, but no prestigious and high regard as the one looked at if one is a soldier. Several commentators at the time, particularly Caesar, have mentioned that the Gauls were essentially mad warriors. War was like a cult to them that was centred on individual warriors. They tried to prove their individual worth by killing as many people as possible. A Greek historian, Diodorus, wrote of the Celtic tribes who were threatening the Mediterranean civilizations at his time. Their aspect is terrifying; they are very tall in stature with rippling muscles underneath their clear white skin.
The Celtic way of fighting was alarming, most of the warriors arm themselves with the weapons nature has given them. They used to go half-naked into battle, painting crimson blood on their bodies and faces. Clearly, they were fearsome warriors, but the Celts only fought when necessary, and they sometimes held strong to their humane beliefs.
Among the Celtic peoples, women had a very important and distinctive role from those in other contemporary societies. For example, they could hold property, which they couldn’t do in other societies. They could initiate a divorce and they were accepted as warriors and they were really, really tough in warfare. It is, indeed, a special role for Celtic women. Goddesses were equal and that was not the case in other religions. There is not a lot of evidence pointing to women warriors among the Celts, alas, Queen Boudica led an army against the Romans around AD60. Celtic women were not to be messed with.
The Celts were seafaring people, too—they made boats called coracles by stretching cowhides over a wooden frame. Some coracles were large enough to hold as many as 30 people. The boats handled well at sea and were used for travel, trade, and fishing.
The Celts were able to remain free of Germanic attacks because their island was located further out in the Atlantic Ocean than Britain. Scholars, artists, merchants, and monks from different parts of Europe came to Ireland because of its peace and safety.
The Celts were pagan and they believed in many gods. The Celtic priests were called Druids. They wore white linen tunics and offered animal sacrifices to the gods.
Irish scholars and artists were influenced by Christianity. The Irish Church was founded by St. Patrick. Born in Britain in 400 AD, St. Patrick was kidnapped when he was young and taken to Ireland by Irish pirates. Later, he escaped to Europe where he studied to be a priest. After becoming a bishop, he returned to Ireland and converted people to Christianity. He spread his message all through the island and set up many new churches.
Ireland was in contact with Rome during the Germanic invasion of the Roman Empire, this meant that the Pope could no longer lead the Irish Church. So the Church turned into its Abbots; many were related to the heads of different clans, and each clan supported its own monastery.
The monasteries became centres of Irish life, although many were in places that are not accessible, like rocky coasts or steep hills. Most monasteries were made up of a group of huts with a wooden stockade around them. Some monasteries were built of stone because of poor transportation and communication. Church organization was weak, so each monastery took charge of its own affairs.
More on Celtic Religion
Irish monks soon began to follow different practices than those of the Roman Church. They wore their hair in a different way and celebrated Easter on a different day. The rituals were not the same as those of the Romans. Moreover, Irish monasteries set down few rules: a monk was free to move from one monastery to another; many monks have the choice to be hermits as long as they still follow the manners and convictions of the Church; becoming a missionary is not obligatory as it was when someone reaches a certain age. Additionally, many schools were set up around the country.
One of the best-known monks was Saint Columba. He set up a monastery on Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland. From his base on Iona, St. Columba did missionary work among the many non-Christian Celts along the coast. Monks from Iona went to Northern England to preach to the Anglo-Saxons. Other Irish monks went to Northern Europe where they built monasteries and churches.
Many Irish scholars became part of Charlemagne’s Palace School. They helped spread Christianity and learning throughout the empire.
Where Did the Celts Come From?
While much has been written on the arrival of the Danes, Angles, Saxons, and Normans to the British Isles, few have explored the origins of the people who occupied the land before them. Just where did the Celts come from?
After the decline of the Roman Empire, around 410 AD, the Angles and Saxons began moving from mainland Europe and settling all across England and lower parts of Scotland. By the 9th century, the Danes started building settlements around the British Isles and in the early part of the 11th century, in 1066, the Normans invaded.
Long before all of this, the Celts were living in the British Isles; they had arrived centuries before even the Romans were established in Europe. If you visit the British Isles today, you may well come across a Celtic revival as the National Curriculum in Wales requires all students to learn the Welsh language. This ancient language is a branch of the wider Celtic languages spoken along the western isles of Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, and Brittany.
More on Where the Celts Came From
Historians have traditionally seen the Celts as just another Germanic tribe that migrated west from central Europe, but a relatively new scientific study has found genealogical evidence to the contrary: Dr. Mark Jobling from the Department of Genetics at the University of Leicester published a journal on the Y-chromosomal lineage of the Celts. In this journal, the lineage of European male Y chromosomes was tested and analyzed with DNA evidence strongly supporting the theory that Celtic men “spread from a single source from the Near East” or the Middle East as it is more commonly called.
What is fascinating about the findings in this journal is that the route in which the migration occurred is entirely mappable. Moving through Turkey, across Europe and in particular, around the Mediterranean coastline and the Iberian peninsula, through the Gibraltar straights and up along the coast of Western Europe into the British Isles, is a clearly defined path.
The “increase in frequency and reduction in diversity from east to west” of the Y-chromosome supports a “rapid expansion” as a fading trail of the chromosome shows the path of migration of the Middle East to the region where the Celtic people reside today. The study estimates that the timeframe of the expansion was approximately over a period of 4,500 years and this likely happened from 7,000 BC until as recently until as recently as 2,500 BC. But regardless of the accuracy of their dating methods, the migration did occur and there is a corroborating historical document that we would like to cross-examine with the scientific research which may suggest a more recent data for the migration.
There was a race of people who first occupied Ireland before the Celts. Know more about them here.
Extraordinary Facts about Life in Celtic Ireland
Celtic history is steeped in mystery. We don’t know much about the Celts because they haven’t left behind many written records, but they were sure quick to fight and conquer. Still, from some historians, we were able to gain information about the history of the Celts and some of their everyday traditions and customs, so let’s delve into that.
The Romans Had Nothing on their Roads
While Romans often get credited for being the road builders of Europe, there’s substantial evidence to suggest that the Celts beat them to a punch. Not that the history books would ever tell you that, because as we all know, history is written by the winners. And for the bulk of early recorded history, the winners resided in the Roman Empire. When you’re the biggest, toughest guy on the block, you can take what you want, including credit for things others have done, and according to some, that includes the building of roads.
Evidently, Archaeological proofs now suggest that it was the Celts, and not the Romans, who were the first to build roads. Remnants of these roads would seem to indicate that they were constructed before the Roman conquest reached the British Isles. These roads were constructed largely out of wood, which was carbon dated to the Iron Age ─ an indication that they predated the Roman Empire expanding far north. And speaking of the Iron Age
The Celts Were among the First to Utilize Iron Weaponry
One aspect of Celtic culture almost everyone is undoubtedly aware of is their reputation as fierce warriors. They were also technologically ahead of their time, which gave them a pretty giant leg up. After all, this is the group that invented the exact chainmail that was later adopted by the famous Roman Legions.
That obviously flies in the face of old rumours that the Celts fought naked since we can’t imagine chainmail would feel particularly great clanging against your bottom part. But it wasn’t just superior armour that gave the Celts an advantage in battle; it was superior arms as well. The Celts are believed to be among the very first to forge iron into swords, replacing the flimisier bronze swords most had been using up until sometime around 800 BC. They also began to utilize smaller, lighter swords and daggers, also made of iron, around 600 BC. These were far less cumbersome than broadswords, enabling the Celts to be more agile and quicker to strike on the battlefield.
The Celts Were Insanely Wealthy
While history often paints the Celts in broad strokes as being somewhat barbaric, savage warriors, that’s not exactly the case. Sure, they did participate in some acts of barbarism, and many practised ritual human sacrifice. And yes, we’re going to get to that in just a bit. But that aside, they were also massively wealthy thanks in large part to being highly active in trade of the time.
Being among the first to utilize iron certainly helped fill their coffers as well. Gold was so abundant among the Celtic religions that they used it in their armour, weaponry, and art. Silver and bronze were also widely used, and they became renowned for their finely crafted ornate jewellery. Their artistry was among the best in the world at that time, and their scientific and technological prowess was a big part of that.
Through their art, their wine, their vast quantities of gold, and their advancements in technology, the Celts were able to line their pockets very nicely indeed.
The Celts Had Progressive Views on Gender and Sexuality
While we can’t exactly call the Celts progressive in terms of their views on slavery (they were pretty much into the whole thing like any another colonial entity at that time), we absolutely can when it comes to women and sexuality. Now, don’t get us wrong: even in a somewhat progressive tribal society, it was still patriarchal. But that doesn’t mean women didn’t have a say, or couldn’t rise to power, or even become warriors or dignitaries. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
Particularly, before the Roman conquest, Celtic women could lead tribes, as was the case with Boudica. Obviously, Boudica represents far from the norm but was one of a few Celtic women to rise to power and lead her people before her death circa 60 AD. She was the queen of her tribe and led her warriors into battle against the Roman empire.
And speaking of gender and sexuality, one element of Celtic culture that’s become widely believed is that not only could women hold positions of power, but that Celtic men often preferred the, ahem, “company” of other men. It was commonplace for men to seek out sexual companionship with their fellow male warriors, and likewise, women practised free love in Celtic culture, according to historical records.
They Weren’t Savages but They Did Hunt Heads
As we’ve mentioned a few times at this point, the Celts were far from the barbarian history has often painted them to be. They were an advanced society, took great care and pride in their appearance, and were wise enough to know it was an affront to wine connoisseurs everywhere to water the stuff down like those simpletons in the Greek and Roman empires. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t participate in at least a few practices that might qualify as barbaric and violent.
Chief among these practices ─ other than ritualistic humans sacrifices, which we’ll get back to shortly ─ was headhunting. As with ritualistic sacrifices, Celtic headhunting was driven by religion, for the most part. You see, the Celts believed that the head contained a warrior’s soul, so by taking his head you are, in fact, capturing that soul. At least, that’s one popular theory as to why they hunted heads, though the exact reason is not known, and likely varied from tribe to tribe, and warrior to warrior, particularly since the practice continued even after most Celtic tribes had converted to Christianity.
The Number 3 Had a Huge Significance
An instrumental of the Celtics’ belief system was the concept of “triplicity”. While that may sound like a knockoff family counselling website, in reality, it has to do with the number three. Specifically, things coming in the form of ‘triplets’, so to speak. That means three realms (Sky, Land, and Sea), and three types of gods (personal, tribal, and spirits).
Now, the Celts didn’t just have three gods, mind you. They had many (!). When we talk about the Celts worshipping three types of gods, we’re talking about the kinds that guide you when you’re alone, the kinds that are with you when you’re in groups, and those that protect your home. To put it simply, triplicity refers to three things that come together to form a whole. It’s an important part of cosmology and astrology, which were integral parts in Druid paganism.
For Most of their Existence, the Celts Were Polytheistic
Eventually, some Celtic tribes adopted Christianity as their preferred spiritual path. But for the bulk of Celtic existence, they practised polytheism; the worship of many gods. It’s not unusual that they’d have worshipped numerous gods, considering the same was true of their contemporaries, the Romans and the Greeks. And the chief purveyors of Celtic polytheism, or Celtic paganism, were the Druids. Believe it or not, much of what we know of the Druids and Druidism comes from, of all people, Julius Caesar.
Obviously, that’s part of what renders our knowledge of the Druids information that should probably be taken with at least a small grain of salt, considering Caesar and his empire were frequently at war with the Celts. Still, Caesar relayed that the Druids were teachers and priests, and also rendered judgement and penalties resulting from crimes and squabbles within their tribes. As alluded to in the previous entry, the stars played a significant role in the Celtic religion and Druidism. They also practised ritual sacrifice to appease their gods (with the burning of Wicker Men ─ sacrificial victim or victims inside ─ which will send a shiver down Nic Cage’s spin should he read this) and believed in reincarnation.
The Celts, Well, They Weren’t Really Celts
Confused? Don’t be. It’s a lot simpler than the header probably makes it sound. You see, the group you think of as the “Celts” isn’t really the Celts, at least not in the sense that Romans were the Romans, or the Greeks were the Greeks. That’s because the Celts weren’t just one group; they consisted of many, including the aforementioned Gaels, the Britons, the Gauls, and the Galatians, among others. See, “Celtic” really referred to language, and the somewhat similar dialects these various tribes used.
That said, grouping all those tribes together under one umbrella ─ which, again, was done by contemporaries like the Greeks and Romans, since the Celts themselves didn’t keep written records ─ is probably misleading. Some historians suggest that the languages were different enough, and the groups so spread out (as far east as Turkey, all the way west to the Atlantic Ocean) that it’s highly unlikely most of the tribes were remotely united. In fact, it’s believed part of the reason why they were ultimately defeated by the Romans; their lack of unification. In essence, calling a Gaul “Celtic” would be akin to calling a German “European.” Technically right, but highly generalized.
Celtic Folklore is full of creatures and beasts from different mythologies. Whether it’s an actual legend or a passing myth, Irish people were and will always be huge believers in the mystic. And Celtic lore has some creatures that should be considered intriguing by any standards.
Legends tell of a creature beneath the northern sea, a demon with one red eye that burns like a flame in the depth, and breath so foul that it can wilt crops, poison livestock, and leave children cold and dead in their cribs. During the summer months, the myth of the sea keeps it trapped beneath the waves, but come winter, you must lock your doors and mind the sea, lest you meet The Nuckelavee.
The Nuckelavee is one of the most fearsome creatures in all Celtic folklore. The story comes from the Orkney Isles where it’s basically their equivalent of Satan. No one really knows what form it takes underwater but on land, it’s said to look like the torso of a man fused to a horse’s back. It has no skin to hide its yellow bloated muscles and black throbbing veins and its proportions are all wrong with a fleshy 3-foot wide head that lulls uselessly atop its shoulders and arms so long its knuckles drag on the ground.
The horse, half of the beast, breathes out a fetid black smoke which causes a disease called Mortasheen that can pretty much kill anything, namely crops, livestock, and small children. If the Nuckelavee catches a sight of you, it will pursue you relentlessly; nothing but the vastness of the sea can contain it. In the past, people have been afraid of this creature, that they wouldn’t even whisper its name. But there is one way to get away from it: as a demon of the sea, the Nuckelavee can’t tolerate fresh water. To escape the beast, you have only to cross a stream of running water then it should leave you alone. At least, for a little while.
Once, long ago, before man ever set foot on it, Ireland was a place for Gods. Some of the first settlers were the tribe of the gods. They were beautiful, powerful, and well-loved, but they weren’t without their enemies. Some of their bitter rivals were the Fomorians; a giant grotesque race of seafaring monsters. Accounts of what they look like vary: some say they’re humanoid with goat heads, others say they only have half a body, one arm, one eye, one leg, but most stories seem to indicate that they’re all ugly and disfigured in their own unique ways with a few exceptions. Like the Greek titans, the Fomorians embody all the harsh malevolent forces of our world ─ they’re pretty much made to be the bad guys.
Fortunately, they’re not around anymore. Over time, they were forgotten, and the word Fomorian cme to be used for “pirate” or “sea raider”.
Not all Celtic folklore is about evil giants or demons of the sea. Some are actually quite nice. For instance, it was a pretty commonly held belief, especially around the Anglo-Scottish border, that there existed tiny, hairy, wise old men who would settle down around people’s homes or barnyards and provide them with aid in the night. These creatures were known by many as hobs. “hob” being short for “hobgoblin” which may have meant goblin of the hearth.
Generally, Hobs were looked at as kindly helpful spirits. If you treated them with respect, put a dish of cream or milk every night, and your little friend may stick around, but if you get stingy and forget to leave your treat, your hob may abandon you, or worse, he might turn into a poltergeist and cause all kinds of mischief around your home. Interestingly, Hobs have also been called naked goblins, mostly due to their strange aversion to human clothes ─ when given an article of clothing like, say, a sock, they usually get offended and leave.
Fairytale creatures have always had an interesting relationship with mankind. One of the strangest and perhaps most disturbing relationships is that of humans and Changelings.
When a fake creature fell ill or was dying of old age, some stories say they’d be disguised with a special charm that made them look like a human infant. Then, in the night, the fairies would steal a human baby from its crib and replace it with the look-alike. The fairies would go on to raise the baby as their own, while the human parents were left to grieve their slowly sickening child or at least what they thought were their child. As the fairy charm wore off, the hideous form of the changeling was revealed.
Believe it or not, this was a comforting story to a lot of people. Before the advent of industrial medicine or pathology, the infant mortality rate around the world was quite a bit higher. The concept of changelings helped ease that pain; it allowed people to believe in a better alternative, that their child wasn’t dead, just… stolen. Swapped at birth. Perhaps living out an enchanted life in the fairy realm. Although to be perfectly honest, most variations of this story are pretty dark.
It’s easy nowadays to look at creatures like these and think that they’re just weird, quirky tales that people made up to entertain themselves, and in some cases, that’s probably true. But you have to remember that a huge number of people actually believed in these things. These were the stories they used to make the harsh, unfair world they lived in feel a little more just.
The Celt are famous for their all-around style of roundhouses. Roundhouses are very unique for Europe, and yet the Celts in the British Isles and the Iberian Peninsulas built round houses extensively from the Bronze Age all the way up until the end of the Iron Age. In Scotland, they were still using round houses until the end of the Picts. It was a major fortification style that still existed in the Celtic society even after it went out of fashion.
You may ask, why didn’t the Romans or other culture use the same style? Why did they stick to the square-ish or oblong structures? Well, it’s mostly due to the existing influence of the early farmers and the cultures that already existed in Europe before the spread of the Indo-Europeans. So, consequently, the Celts were the less influenced by the architecture of that group of people.
There is literary and archaeological evidence that sheds a light on the fact that the practice of playing with board games was an immensely popular and culturally significant phenomenon among the Celtic-speaking peoples of Britain and Ireland in the first millennium AD. Yet little attention has been given to the origin of such games in these islands. Writers of British history appear to have taken it for granted, or at least allowed that it was possible, that board games were a feature of ancient Celtic society from earliest times. The view presented here, however, is that board games arrived in Britain and Ireland through contact with the Roman world and that they are part of the wider picture of cross-frontier material cultural interaction.
More on Celtic Games
Medieval literary sources from both Ireland and Wales make frequent mention of board games, the playing of which was clearly an important aspect of daily life among the elite whose interests are reflected in the texts. Amongst several games recorded, special status is accorded to the game of fidchell (Irish) and of gwyddbwyll (British). The British evidence is, in general, later and more meagre than the Irish, and only general comments can be made regarding the nature of gwyddbwyll. The Irish evidence, however, is considerably more plentiful and detailed and it is possible to deduce a number of features of fidchell. Both games have been recognised by Celticists since the mid-nineteenth century, though their significance has not been adequately probed. The forms as they appear in British are Welsh gwyddbwyll = gwydd (wood) + pwyll (sense). In Irish (Gaelic) the form is fidchell = fid (wood) = chiall (intelligence). The parent form, though not directly attested, can be reconstructed as Common Celtic widu-kw eilla¯ = widu- wood + kweilla¯. The name, which is not based on any Roman game name, enshrines the principle that this was a game of skill played on a wooden board.
Celtic Food and Drinks
Common foods and general diet are relatively straightforward to assess using archaeobotanical analysis, stable isotope analysis, and traditional archaeological excavation techniques. In addition to food practices, archaeobotanical and ceramic assemblages (the array of stone tools or ceramic objects found at a site) from Celtic/Iron Age sites spoke to the technology related to the production of alcoholic beverages.
The high percentage of cooking pots sherds recovered suggest that soups and stews were common fares not only in Mediterranean France but throughout Celtic communities during the Iron Age. Among them, cooking dry meat from sheep and cows was the utmost provider of protein and energy for the Celtic communities.
The prominent role of alcoholic beverages in Celtic and Iron Age Europe, in place since at least the Bronze Age, has received much attention from scholars. Doctor Hans-Peter Stika’s results confirm that there was an emphasis on the importance of drink in Iron Age and Celtic cultures that beer at least was being produced during this time in southwest Germany. The results also shed some light on the production process and some of the technology used in the production of alcoholic beverages, of which little is known. In general, evidence of beer, mead, and wine consumption has previously been recovered from burial mounds, sherds, and classical bowls. However, mead and beer were considered the primary alcoholic beverages in Celtic society, though bragget, malt, and ale were also mentioned within historical texts regarding Celtic drinking practices.
The idea of ‘luxury food’ in Celtic/Iron Age Europe was likely different from that of Roman period Europe, as in Celtic cultures alcoholic drink and large quantities of common food would have constituted the luxury factor. Though not necessarily considered an exotic fare (excepting imported wines), alcoholic beverages were certainly staples at feasting events. As stated above, alcoholic drinks such as beer or mead would have been prepared locally. Wine, on the other hand, was imported from Italy or France, and would have been expensive and therefore generally accessible only by higher-class members of society.
The history of Celtic music is multifaceted. There is the instrumental music tradition that flourished immensely during their time—instruments like the flutes, the fiddle, the accordion, the concertina—and all these instruments arrived in Irish music at different times over the course of two or three hundred years. In Ireland, it seems that music was chosen as one of the very important cultural centres.
Celtic music is the music played by people who in a sense share the peoplehood of the Celts, and since the Celts founded most of the countries in Britain, their musical culture spread all over them, and thus began the Celtic music world. A lot of the songs were about their rich livelihood and continued the tradition to mention the Irish history all the way from its beginnings. Relatively, there is a saying in Ireland that goes “those in power write the history and those who suffer write the songs”.
While focusing on contemporary music at that time (which concentrated on folklore music and ballads), the Celts also managed to sing about their reclamations and conquers. It was (and still is) a tradition that was in a constant state of growth.
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Celtic Festivals & Religious Holidays
There are eight special sacred days, holidays, and festivals in Ireland from the times when the old Celtic world stopped to celebrate. Christianity adapted many of their feast days to match the old Celtic traditions and they range from joyous to downright scary. These were a huge part of life in Celtic Ireland.
An ancient Gaelic festival ushering in the joy of summer blossoms across Ireland and Scotland, parts of Europe and in Wiccan and Pagan communities worldwide, as Beltane. (In the Southern Hemisphere, Wiccans and Pagans mark Samhain). Beltane or Beltaine is the anglicised spelling of Bealtaine or Bealltainn, the Gaelic names for either the month of May or the festival that takes place on the first day of May.
Centuries ago, bonfires were lit to welcome the arrival of summer. In Ireland, depending on what day the holiday falls on, the feast is marked by a public holiday. In towns around the country, May Day fairs are held where farmers and traders all gather in towns to sell their wares.
Midsummer (Summer Solstice)
Midsummer may simply refer to the period of time centred upon the summer solstice, but more often refers to specific European celebrations that accompany the actual solstice, or that take place around the 24th of June and the preceding evening. The exact dates vary between cultures
The summer solstice is marked in parts of Ireland by bonfires as well like Bealtaine on the side of the road. In rural Ireland communities gather and for their local bonfire and celebrate the longest day of the year with song and dance.
Lughnasa was one of the four main festivals of the medieval Irish calendar: Imbolc at the beginning of February, Beltaine on the first of May, Lughnasa in August and Samhain in October. One early Continental Celtic calendar was based on the lunar, solar, and vegetative cycles, so the actual calendar date in ancient times may have varied. Lughnasa marked the beginning of the harvest season, the ripening of first fruits, and was traditionally a time of community gatherings, market festivals, horse races and reunions with distant family and friends.
In Gaelic folklore, it was a time for handfastings or trial marriages that would last a year and a day, which could then be renewed. Many celebrate the holiday today with reunions, bonfires and dancing.
Similar to the St. Patrick’s Day festival, the Autumn/Fall Equinox celebrates when night and day are of equal duration and usually falls in the middle of Fall, around September 21st, specifically when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the Sun being vertically above a point on the Equator.
The symbol of the sacred day is the cornucopia as all the harvest is collected and the stocks for winter is hoped to be plentiful.
Samhain; from Irish samhain, cf. Scots Gaelic samhainn, Old Irish samain (summer’s end), from sam (summer) and fuin (end) is a festival on the end of the harvest season in Gaelic and Brythonic cultures. Many scholars believe that it was the beginning of the Celtic year.
This day falls between two days: Oíche Shamhna (October 31) and Lá na Marbh (November 1st). Oíche Shamhna is Halloween and Lá na Marbh is the Day of the Dead, or All Souls Day when those who have passed away are remembered. It marks the beginning of the “darker half” of the year as the winter approaches.
The winter solstice celebrates the shortest day of the year and, depending on the calendar, occurs between December 21 to December 23. Though the winter solstice lasts an instant, the term is also colloquially used like “midwinter” to refer to the full 24-hour period of the day on which it occurs.
Annually, hundreds of people gather in Newgrange, Co. Meath, Ireland to watch the sunrise magically illuminate the ancient burial site. Globally, interpretation of the event has varied from culture to culture, but most cultures have held a recognition of rebirth, involving holidays, festivals, gatherings, rituals or other celebrations around that time.
Imbolc is one of the four principal festivals of the Irish calendar, celebrated among Gaelic peoples and some other Celtic cultures, either at the beginning of February or at the first local signs of Spring.
The Irish Imbolc translates from the Old Irish Imbolg, or “in the belly”—a tribute to the early spring pregnancies of ewes. As lactation begins, an array of dairy foods eaten on this day symbolizes new beginnings. Corn dollies, fashioned like Brighid, are made by young Pagans, while adults twist Brighid crosses. After dark, candles are lit to welcome the rebirth of the sun.
St. Patrick’s Day
Saint Patrick’s Day (Irish: Lá Fhéile Pádraig; Ulster-Scots: Saunt Petherick’s Day) is a religious holiday celebrated internationally on 17 March. It commemorates Saint Patrick (AD 387–461), the most commonly recognised of the patron saints of Ireland, and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. It is observed by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion (especially the Church of Ireland), the Eastern Orthodox Church and Lutheran Church. Saint Patrick’s Day was made an official feast day in the early 17th century and has gradually become a secular celebration of Irish culture in general.
The religious day is marked by a special mass for the feast and traditionally everyone wears green. This is considered the middle of the Spring season and is also referred to as the Spring Equinox.
The Fall of the Celtic Empire
By the year 300 BC, the Celts had lost their political cohesion and the Empire began breaking apart. Tribes began wandering in search of new lands. Some went to Greece, where they outraged their former allies at the sack of Delphi in 273 BC. Others renewed the war with Rome, in alliance with the Etruscans, and were defeated at Sentinum in 295 BC and Lake Vadimo in 283 BC. One of the great ironies of history is that the Romans, destroyers of the early Celts were the also the protectors of the later Celts. When the German tribes, including the Lombards, Goths, and Franks, attacked the Roman empire, sweeping through Gaul to create the massive feudal states of the Middle Ages, they subjugated the earlier peoples, including the Celts. These lower classes would eventually mix with the German nobility, coming up with the peoples we now know as the French, Italians, Belgians and Spanish.
One group went into Asia Minor and founded Galatia (Southeast Turkey) where a Celtic dialect was still spoken until 400 BC. These were eventually assimilated into Turkey (or more accurately, its centre). Others enlisted as mercenaries with Carthage. Wars between Celts and Germans or Celts who had settled earlier were fought all over Mid-Europe, Gaul and Britain. By the end of this, the only Celtic strongholds were Britain and Gaul. The beginning of the Christian era saw Britain under Roman rule.
More worthy reads:
Digging Deeper into the Shrouded Mystery of the Celts| The Unfolded History of Gaelic Ireland Throughout the Centuries| Digging into the Secrets of Irish Pookas| Get to Know Some Famous Irish Proverbs| Viking History: Insight into the Age of Phantom Travellers|