The Celts

Friday 7 January 2011, 10:23

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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With the prospect of the forthcoming Six Nations Championship already beginning to loom large in people's minds, many red-blooded Welsh men and women (and Irish and Scots, too, come to that) have once again become suddenly conscious of their Celtic heritage.

Celtic cross (image from www.istockphoto.com)

Celtic Cross on Anglesey

We are all of us proud of our heritage. That applies whatever nationality we are - English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh. And rightly so. But how many of us are aware of the origins of the Celtic people of Wales? It is a fascinating story.

The Celtic people first arrived on our shores and began living in Britain - across all of Britain, not just the extremities like Wales, Ireland and Scotland - in approximately 1,000BC.

Originating in the Danube area, they gradually moved northwards, a process of migration that took many hundreds of years. They were an adventurous and curious people and it was inevitable that they should be attracted by the mysterious land they could see on the horizon.

The Celts came to Britain, first, as explorers, sailing their flimsy coracle craft across the waters of what later became known as the English Channel and landing on the southern coasts of the island. Over the next two hundred or so years they came to settle and stay. They were skilled workers in metals like bronze but they were also farmers who soon began to clear the forests and cultivate crops.

Remains of Roman forts, gold mines and roads can still be found in Wales.

By the time the Romans arrived, between 43 and 85AD, the Celts were the dominant influence in Britain. These Celts were a fierce and warlike people, Julius Caesar himself commenting on the blue painted warriors who attacked without fear, time after time, not knowing when they were beaten.

However, faced by superior fire power in the shape of the Roman Legions, the Celts were gradually pushed back, out of the rich farmlands of central and southern England, to find refuge in the wild and rugged mountains of the west and north.

Ireland, Scotland and Wales were never fully integrated into the Roman Empire and Wales, in particular, was seen as something of a frontier zone. At one time over 30,000 legionary and auxiliary troops were stationed around the edges of the country, in bases like Caerleon and Chester.

There were many bloody campaigns and battles, events like the killing and destruction of the Druids by Suetonius Paulinus on Anglesey in 61AD, but in general, the Roman occupation of Britain had little lasting effect on Celtic art, language and culture.

When the Romans left in the years after AD410 Celtic culture was strong enough to resist that of the in-coming Saxons. By now the Celts spoke a language now known as Common Celtic, a language that was divided into two strands - Goedelic which was spoken in northern Scotland and Ireland, and Brythonic which was the language of Wales and Cornwall. Brythonic was also spoken by the people in the areas around modern day Carlisle, Edinburgh and in Strathclyde.

While there were, to begin with, strong links between the Celts in Wales and those in the north of Britain, Saxon advances into the west were soon causing problems. Saxon victories at Dyrham in Gloucestershire and at Chester (AD577 and 615 respectively) isolated the Welsh from other Celtic peoples. And when King Offa of Mercia built his dyke in the middle years of the 8th century - an attempt to define the frontier of Mercia, not Wales, as many believe - it gave Wales, for the first time, an eastern frontier.

Secure behind this 150 mile ditch and palisade, the Celtic people of Wales were free to continue their lives, untroubled by what was going on over the border.

Iron Age Celts lived in round houses that were grouped together inside a series of circular ramparts. There was also a protective ditch, far more effective at keeping out wild animals than any attacking enemy force.

They also had hillforts - over 500 of them having been discovered in Wales - but these were places of refuge, used only when a community was in danger or under direct attack.

It has been claimed that the Celts had over 4,000 different gods and deities. Usually these gods represented crucially important elements such as the sun, sea, stars and wind. The only people who could talk to the gods were the Druids, the Celtic priests, who had immense power in Celtic society.

As there was no written language at this time, their knowledge and ritual was remembered in verse form and as a consequence the Druids were part of the privileged circle of poets, storytellers and musicians who surrounded the tribal chiefs. After AD61 their power declined until the modern incarnation - the Gorsedd - was created in the nineteenth century.

However, the Celts of the west and north have retained their love of poetry and music, celebrating victory and lamenting defeat down the years. They have remained fiercely proud, independent peoples who are conscious of their heritage and their past history.

Small wonder, then, that battles - on the sports field these days, not in war - bring back feelings of belonging. Small wonder that they stir the pride of nationhood.

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