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Story of the Celts: Who are the Celts?

Author: John Patrick Parle

Copyright © 1999

The ancient Celts were a group of culturally similar peoples who once occupied most of central and western Europe, north of the Greco-Roman world. Perhaps the most common cultural characteristic of the ancient Celts were the Celtic languages, a branch of the Indo-European family of languages.

Today, the Celtic languages [2] are Irish Gaelic; Scottish Gaelic; Welsh (spoken in Wales); Breton (spoken in Brittany, on the north-western coast of France); Manx [3] (nearly extinct on the Isle of Man); and Cornish [4] (nearly extinct in Cornwall, on the southwestern tip of England). Celtic Gaelic is also spoken in North America on Cape Breton Island, just north of Nova Scotia on the eastern coast of Canada. [5]

Present-day people who identify with the Gaelic cultures of Ireland and Scotland, or their ethnic cousins in Wales and Brittany often think of themselves as being Celtic. And there are some people in Cornwall, the Isle of Man (located in the Irish Sea between Ireland and Britain), and even in Galicia, Spain, who identify themselves as having Celtic backgrounds.

What are some of the other cultural characteristics of the Celts? There is a distinctive Celtic art style that goes back to ancient times. Its most striking feature involves design patterns employing intricate intertwining curved forms. Celts were not much fond of straight lines and rectangles. They loved circles and open-ended curves, which some experts believe exemplify the Celts' love of freedom over regimentation. Many are familiar with the carved design of the Celtic Cross, found wherever the Irish monks of the Dark Ages had any influence.

Celtic peoples of today also have a similarity in music, which often has a folk music flavor. The Celtic music can be expressed in woeful ballads or in soulful lively dance tunes. Use of the bagpipe [6] is common in Celtic areas. In Ireland the harp is a traditional instrument, and a national symbol. The fiddle, tin whistle, mandolin, accordion, and hand-drum are common in Celtic music.

Another similarity of Celtic peoples is their enthusiasm for a folk-dance form, often called step-dancing. Anyone who has seen productions of "Riverdance" or "Lord of the Dance" has been introduced to Irish step-dancing. Most people can remember images of Scottish men in kilts dancing over crossed swords. Gaelic dances are often called jigs.

Celtic peoples also love "colorful talking," the more flamboyant and given to hyperbole the better. They love glorious imagery in the spoken word, and when speaking English, they often have a brogue or a sing-song bit of lilt. There can also be a pinch of excitability and emotionality in the speech of a Celtic person. It clearly doesn't fit into the Oxford or Wall Street brands of English.

One expert from Ireland even claims that there is something of a "Celtic personality," that alternates between warm-heartedness and belligerency. [7] (This sometimes is connected with a certain degree of intemperance, and the stereotype of Celts loving their wine and brew was mentioned by ancient historians.)

Part II: The Ancient Celts

2. There are two branches of Celtic languages--the Goidelic and the Brythonic. The Goidelic Celtic languages are Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and Manx (the Isle of Man). The Brythonic Celtic languages are Welsh, Cornish, and Breton (in Brittany). I haven't been able to figure out from the sources which type was spoken by the mainland Celts, e.g., the Gauls. I don't have enough background in linguistics and philology to understand the differences between the Goidelic and the Brythonic Celtic forms, but it appears that pronunciation was a major factor.

I have trouble following all this, but experts make a distinction between the P-Celts and the Q-Celts, again based on pronunciation. The Irish are Q-Celts, whereas the ancient Gauls were thought to be P-Celts. The close connection between Irish and Scottish Gaelic is thought to be a legacy of the early settlement of the Irish "Scotti" in Scotland, as well as Celtic church settlements in Scotland by Irish St. Columba and his successors. Many of the early Picts of Scotland spoke an indigenous language that was not Indo-European; many adopted Gaelic later.

Charles Squire claims that the first Celtic invasions of Britain were Gaels, speaking Goidelic Celtic, and that later Celtic invaders spoke a Brythonic form--hence, he believes that the language of the Celtic Britons was of the Brythonic branch.

--from the Encyclopedia Britannica article on "Celtic Languages," (1966 edition--all further references to the Encyclopedia Britannica are from the 1966 edition unless otherwise noted). Also from Charles Squire, Celtic Myths and Legends, (New York: Gramercy Books, new edition 1994, first edition early 20th century).

3. Sources from 1966 report that there are no native speakers of Manx anymore. In a real sense it is not an extinct language because scholars and religious people took the effort to write Manx down in earlier centuries. There are translations into Manx of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, a catechism, and an abridgment of Milton's Paradise Lost. The Manx Museum library has more than 450 manuscripts in Manx. There are also quite a few original poems and carols written in the language.

Manx was an Irish Gaelic dialect which had a strong Scandinavian influence, presumably from the period of the Viking invaders. I don't know to what extent the people on the Island of Man are now trying to revive their spoken Manx language.

--from Encyclopedia Britannica articles on "Celtic Languages" and "Manx Literature"

4. Cornish has no native speakers (reports sources in 1966) although there has been a revival in its use as a spoken and written medium. As might be expected, English words are more common in Celtic Cornish than in Welsh. There are a number of Cornish words still in common usage in Cornwall, and Cornish place names are found within the boundaries of Cornwall--from the Tamar River to Land's End.

There is quite a bit of literature written in Cornish, more than in Manx mentioned above. Perhaps the most important texts written in Cornish are a set of miracle and morality plays dating at least to the 15th century.

--from Encyclopedia Britannica articles on "Celtic Languages" and "Cornish Literature"

5. The Celtic language spoken in Cape Breton, Canada is Scottish Gaelic. This colony of Scots came to Cape Breton after being expelled from their land by the British who wished to use the territory for sheep grazing purposes.

(from six hour television series on The Celts produced by the BBC, presented by Frank Delaney)

6. Notes on the music: The Scots use a bagpipe in which the musician blows air into the bag. The uilleann bagpipe of Ireland works by the musician pumping air into the bag under his arm. The tin whistle (also called the penny whistle) is a slender metallic pipe blown from the mouth and held like a recorder; it sounds a bit like a high-pitched flute. Often the accordions used are a simple squeeze-box concertina. An example of a Celtic hand-drum is the Irish bodran. It's worthy of note that the national seal of Ireland is a large harp.

Another point is how Irish and Scottish music influenced American folk music and the hill-country music called blue-grass. Immigrants brought over their Celtic-based music to this country (as in Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky) and it has been with us since. The next time you appreciate a country fiddle, realize that it is from a Celtic influence. (And the American square dance is from Gaelic dances brought over by immigrants.)

--observation about the blue-grass music is from Gordon Ireland, the webmaster of a popular Celtic website on the Internet (interviewed June 25, 1999). Point on the square dance is from the Encyclopedia Britannica article on "Folk Dancing".

7. Reference to the "Celtic personality" from videotape--"Ireland and your Irish Ancestry"