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Home : Articles : Irish Interest / Travel : The Celtic Influence

The Celtic Influence

Many people are aware of the Celtic influence on the history, culture and language of Ireland, but how common is the knowledge about the role the ancient Celts played in shaping other countries in Europe?

Who are the Celts?
There is a lot of controversy about this question but the answer is really very simple. A Celt is anyone who speaks or spoke a Celtic language. However, we should be very careful not to think of the Celts as a distinct race. The Celtic language came to Ireland from Central Europe but there is no evidence that it was brought by large numbers of people. Our Celtic language and culture came from Central Europe but our ancestors did not.

Today the so-called Six Celtic Nations include Alba, Éire, Cymru, Mannin, Breizh and Kernow, or Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Brittany and Cornwall respectively.  The Celtic languages of these nations are: an Gháidhlig (Scots Gaelic), Gaeilge (Irish), Cymraeg (Wales), Gaelg (Manx), Brezhoneg (Breton) agus Kernewek (Cornish).

There is some doubt about where the term Celtic came from. It was first used in writing by ancient Greek geographers. Caesar in his Gallic Wars says that the people of southern Gaul called themselves Celts in their own language. The Celtic languages probably developed in southern Germany and Switzerland in the Bronze Age. They were probably in existence from 2000 BC at least.

In addition to being warriors and traders, the Celts were skilled in metal working. The Celts are particularly associated with a culture which archaeologists call La Tene (though they probably expanded to many areas of Europe – southern Spain and Ireland included - before the La Tene culture developed). During this period the people of central Europe forged tools and weapons from iron and other metals. These items were often decorated with ornaments of lines knotted together. Museums throughout Europe are full of these beautiful relics.

The Celts and the Romans
The Romans regarded the Celts as a formidable adversary, a fearsome race who sacked Rome in 387BC under the leadership of Brennus.  But when the Romans eventually conquered most of Celtic Europe under Caesar, the Continental Celtic culture and languages were largely lost under Roman rule.  Gradually Latin became the spoken language of the natives.  Roman culture was assimiliated with the indigenous culture, and the culture of the conquerors emerged strongest. The Celts learned many things from the Romans but the Romans also learned a great deal from the Celts. For example, the Romans took much of their knowledge of wheeled transport (and much of the terminology of chariot-making) from the Celts, and the Celts adopted features of classical art and incorporated it into their own art.

The Romans were also responsible for the near obliteration of Celtic culture in Britain.  Between 43 and 84 AD the Romans invaded England, and this, combined with the coming of the Germanic ancestor of English in the fifth century AD, eradicated most traces of the Celts everywhere except those places too remote and isolated which lacked appropriate resources, arable land or easy access – the likes of the Pennines, Cornwall, the Highlands of Scotland and especially the islands.

The Cumbric language is thought to have survived in the Pennines until the twelfth century AD, due to the inaccessibility of the mountains.  In Ireland the legacy of the Celts has survived strongly until now, due to the Irish Sea which effectively isolated Ireland from the continent and from Roman conquest. Here, shielded and removed, Ireland developed in isolation. The feats and exploits of its warrior class inspired folklore which was passed on in the oral tradition until it was finally written down in the early eighth century AD by monastic scribes.

Insular Celtic
At some time before the third century BC a branch of the Celtic language spread out from continental Europe to Ireland and Britain.  This is commonly believed to have heralded the principal split in Ancient Celtic, the root-language of all the Celts.  When the Celts migrated from the mainland they caused the beginnings of the split, bringing Continental Celtic and Insular Celtic (that spoken on the islands at the fringe of Europe) into being.  Gaulish was spoken in what is now modern France. The Celts of the Iberian Peninsula spoke Celtiberian and Galatian. Lepontic was spoken in Northern Italy. None of the languages of Continental Celtic survive today, due to the Roman conquest of Europe and the imposition of Roman culture and language (Latin) on Celtic society.  The Celtic culture survived longer in more remote areas of mainland Europe, such as Asturias, Galicia and Northern Portugal.  These areas no longer have a spoken Celtic language, but their inhabitants are immensely proud of their Celtic roots.

Insular Celtic was split into two groups; P-Celtic (Brythonic) and Q-Celtic (Goidelic).  This difference came about due to phonetic changes and disparities between the branches – Goidelic (Q) kept the *kw (q) sound of Ancient Celtic, representing it with a ‘c’, whereas Brythonic changed this sound to ‘p’.  This change was evident in basic words such as the Brythonic ‘peth’, which means the same as the Goidelic ‘cuit’, meaning ‘portion’.  There are many examples of this change - take for example the modern Irish ‘ceann’, and its modern Welsh equivalent ‘pen’, meaning ‘head’; the words are similar, yet different.

It is not certain what group Pictish belonged to, although it is believed to have been related to Brythonic and P-Celtic.  The P- and Q-Celtic categories existed in Continental Celtic as well; for example, Celtiberian belonged to Q-Celtic while the other languages were P-Celtic.  This fact is particularly interesting because the Book of Leinster, written in the 12th century, states that the first group of Celtic settlers to Ireland came from Iberia.

Brythonic spawned the Welsh language along with other minor languages which no longer exist, such as Cumbric, and from Goidelic came Ancient Irish, which in turn became the root of other languages such as Manx and Scots Gaelic.  There was a gradual ongoing Celtic migration from Cornwall and Devon to Brittany between the fifth and seventh century AD.  The migrating Celts brought their language with them, which became Breton.  Thus Breton, although geographically belonging to mainland Europe, was actually a reintroduction of Insular Celtic to the continent and does not belong to Continental Celtic as was long believed. 
The Gaels, as the Goidelic Celts were commonly called, migrated over the centuries to Scotland and the Isle of Man, and from this migration the Manx and Scots Gaelic languages developed.

Legacy of the Celts
The Celts’ influence is felt strongly today in the six ‘Celtic Nations’, in the ruins of Celtic monasteries and other artefacts, in artwork and jewellery, including the Book of Kells, in the myths and legends that prevail especially in Ireland – the stories of the great feats and achievements of the Celts were passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next, forming the foundation of our great Irish oral tradition. They were eventually written down by monks in the eighth century, preserving Celtic mythology for centuries to come. 

Find out how Celtic Cornwall really is in this clip of a visit to the beautiful English coastal county.

Asturias is one of Spain’s ancient Celtic regions, which is evident from the ruins of Celtic tombs in the area.  Find out more about Asturias in this clip.

Take a virtual tour of the remarkable Isle of Man to taste the history and culture proudly preserved there by the tenacious population of Man.

Find out in this clip how similar Breton is to Irish on a tour of the beautiful city of Quimper in Celtic Brittany.

Céara Ní Choinn investigates the Kerry and its Celtic heritage in her travels around the Dingle Peninsula.

Experience the beauty and variety of North Wales in this clip featuring Snowdonia National Park and the many charming villages nestled around the foot of Snowdon mountain.

NIS - logo With support from the Irish Language Broadcasting Fund

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