The shrine of knowledge.
History & Anthropology >> Celtic & Irish
greek and roman mythology, new stone age, nationality groups, celtic peoples

Story of the Celts: The Celts of Ireland

Author: John Patrick Parle

Copyright © 1999

The Celts of Ireland [33]

The Celts arrived in Ireland by 350 B.C (some say earlier) and they thrive there to this day. A claim might be made that the Celtic Irish are among the world's oldest nationality groups. Despite periods when foreigners tried in vain to wrestle control of the culture, the Celtic Irish have been a homogeneous people occupying one area for over 2,300 years.

Still, archeological evidence tells us that there were indigenous people in Ireland before the Celts, perhaps going back to 6000 B.C. First there were Mesolithic (middle stone age) peoples who survived by hunting and gathering. Then Neolithic (new stone age) peoples planted crops. The stone dolmens and the tumulus mounds are thought to be from pre-Celtic people. The Greeks called the pre-Celtic people of Ireland the Pretani, and called the island of Ireland--"Iverne." (The Romans called Ireland "Hibernia.")

Celtic Irish Myths [34]

When the first Celtic Gaels came to Ireland and saw the monuments of the indigenous people, the Gaels went to great effort to build an elaborate mythology about them. The successive pre-Celtic peoples were called The Race of Partholon, and later came the Fir Bolgs. Their gods and demons were called the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomors.

By the Christian era, the Celts' collective memory had dimmed, and they referred to their own distant ancestors, the Irish Gaels, as the Milesians, and developed legends about them. In one such story, the Gaelic name for Ireland, "Eire," was said to be the name of an indigenous goddess who implored the Milesians to name the island after her. (Her name can be Eire or Erin depending on its grammatical position, and is sometimes referred to as Eriu. Today the official name of Ireland, found on postal stamps and the like, is still Eire.)

The stories of the gods and heroes in Irish mythology are fantastical and complex, perhaps equal to Greek and Roman mythology in imagination and the number of characters. There are the legends of the mighty god-man Lugh, and the sad but beautiful stories of Lir and his children who became swans. The "little people" (or fairies and leprechauns) remembered today, are said to be descendants of the divine race of the Tuatha De Danann; these people and the Milesians were said to have divided Ireland between themselves--the Tuatha De Danann getting Ireland below the ground and the Milesian Gaels getting the area above.

We can thank the Christian monks in the Ireland of the Dark Ages for preserving all the myths of Celtic Ireland in writing. They transcribed what amounts to three cycles of related stories in Celtic Irish mythology:

1) the foundation myths, stories as those mentioned above that describe the origins of Ireland and its gods--mostly recorded in a text called the "Lebor Gabala" (or "Book of Conquests"); 2) the Ulster Cycle, for instance the "Tain Bo Cuailnge" (or in English, the "Cattle Raid of Cooley") with its warrior-hero Cuchulainn, as well as Fergus, King Conchobar of Ulster, and Queen Maeve of Connaught (also known as Queen Medb, who became a fairy queen); and 3) the Fenian Cycle, with its hero Finn MacCool and his band of warriors, the Fianna (or Fenians)--legend has it that Finn's son Ossian was converted by St. Patrick, thus bringing the Celtic myths of Ireland into the Christian era.

Celtic Kingdoms in Ireland

The Celtic peoples divided Ireland into five kingdoms (in Gaelic "tuathas"), as listed in the table on the following page. These Fifths, as the kingdoms were called, are even today considered provinces of Ireland, with the exception of Meath, which is now a county in Leinster. To handle matters of mutual concern, a "high king" was selected, largely by tests of ordeal, and he took his seat at the Hill of Tara. One of these high kings of Ireland was Brian Boru, who in 1014 defeated once and for all the Viking invaders at the Battle of Clontarf (now part of Dublin).

At the end of the 300s A.D., the historical high king of Ireland was named Niall of the Nine Hostages (d. 405). He began a powerful family lineage called the Ui Naill (or O'Neill) dynasty. No fewer than 42 of the descendants of Naill of the Nine Hostages became kings of Ireland. [35]

The Gaelic name for king was "ri." He ruled as a monarch, and could decree laws. Around him was a council of noble warriors, and much later a more popularized council called the "dail" was formed; the present-day legislative body of Ireland is called the Dail.

Most of the Celtic elements of culture and society found earlier on the European continent were present in early Ireland: the druids, bards, La Tene artwork, freeman farmers, the importance of the warrior class, chieftains (now kings), Celtic dress and customs. The people spoke their Celtic language. Although the five Irish kingdoms claimed sovereignty in their areas, they regularly fought among each other, participated in duel combat of their warrior champions, and engaged in cattle raids of each others' property. Even then, Irish hounds [36] were highly prized, and the early Irish were quite taken by horses and horsemanship.


Kingdom Name Location* Capital Some Legendary Kings

Center Tara King Eochaid Airem*

North Emain Macha King Conchobar

West Crauchan King Ailell*

East Ailend King Mesgegra

South Cashel King Curoi


--At this time, Eochaid Airem was the high king.

--Connaught is usually spelled "Connacht" today.

--King Ailell (or Ailil) had as his queen, Maeve (or Medb), of the Ulster Cycle stories.

--"Location" in table refers to geographic area of Ireland.

In this era, the Irish were known for their raiding expeditions into Britain, especially as the Roman influence there lessened. Some Irishmen were called the "Scotti," and settled in present-day Scotland, giving the land its name. Celtic Irish settlements in Wales lasted for centuries. Naill of the Nine Hostages was particularly fond of raidings, and it was during his reign that a Celtic Christian named Patrick was captured in Britain and brought over as a slave to Ireland.

St. Patrick and Celtic Christianity [37]

St. Patrick's first introduction to Ireland was quite unpleasant, years as a young slave in pagan Ulster. He was the son of Romanized Briton who served as an administrative official for the empire in northwestern Britain. When the heathen Irish ushered Patrick away in a raid, they had no clue to the irony that he would someday foster their conversion to Christianity.

But Patrick escaped slavery, made his way back to mainland Europe, took theological training, and eventually was ordained a Catholic bishop. Rome allowed Patrick to return to Ireland as a missionary, and thus began the reality which exists today, where 93 percent of the people of the Irish Republic are Roman Catholic.

It wasn't easy in the beginning. Patrick (circas 389-461) established his cathedral church at Armagh in the north, and from there travelled the length and breadth of Ireland, some say engaged in intense spiritual battle. His opposition were the pagan druids, and their god Crom Cruach, who was fond of human sacrifice, not to mention the promiscuous fertility goddess Sheela-na-gig. The stories of St. Patrick are full of miraculous trials by ordeal with the druids, where the God of the Christians proved victorious. Something happened, because by the time of Patrick's death about half of Ireland was converted to Christianity, and his followers soon converted the rest.

Churches and monasteries were swiftly founded all over Ireland, filled with newly converted Celtic peoples and Irish monks. In How the Irish Saved Civilization, author Thomas Cahill tells how Irish monks preserved a great deal of Latin literature in their scriptoriums, and how monasteries founded by Irish monks were built throughout Britain and a swath of mainland Europe-- helping bring civilized thought back to a continent ravaged by Germanic barbarians.

Many of Cahill's claims are also found in the article entitled the "Celtic Church" in the 1966 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. What might be called Celtic Christianity had its own particulars, [38] but foremost was its allegiance to the Irish monastic abbots, as opposed to the diocesan bishops; the Irish monasteries preceded St. Benedict and used their own rule, until St. Benedict's Rule became nearly universal in the West in later centuries.

The growth of Celtic Christianity was a product of the missionary zeal of the early Irish monks. Irish St. Columba (c. 521-97, also called Columcille) founded the monastery at Iona, in western Scotland, and as the pagan Anglo-Saxons were destroying the Christianity brought to Britain by the Romans, the Irish monks were bringing Christianity back to the British isle by way of the founding of monasteries. (St. Columba's monastery on Iona preceded St. Augustine of Canterbury's first missionary work with the Anglo-Saxons by thirty years.)

The Celtic church was further expanded on the European mainland by Irish St. Columbanus (c. 540-615, also called Columban) who built a monastery in Gaul, where Christianity had at one time been swamped by the pagan Franks. His followers built Celtic-based monasteries all over Europe--in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and even as far as Vienna, Austria.

The golden age of the Celtic Irish church was from the fifth to the ninth centuries. From this period there are over fifty Irish saints of the Roman Catholic Church, including people like St. Brigid (d. 525), St. Aidan (d. 651), St. Kevin (d. 618), St. Brendan (d. 577), St. Eugene (d. 618), St. Kiernan the Elder (d. 530), St. Declan (6th century), and numerous others. (A longer list of these Irish saints is in footnote [39] , and it may be interesting from this list to see some of the old Celtic Irish names of the period.)

Art and Learning in Irish Monasteries

With St. Patrick came Latin. Because of the Latin alphabet, Irish Celts could now write. This became one of the major duties of the Irish monks. The monks copied Church writings, and as mentioned earlier, preserved Latin literature and Celtic myths. They even produced new writings, like the "Voyages of St. Brendan," thought to be about an early visit of Irish monks to the Americas.

The Celtic church produced great scholars of the day. Irish masters taught Alcuin (b. 735), the greatest mind at Charlemagne's court. Johannes Scotus Eriugena (b. 810) was the most learned Greek scholar of the West in the Dark Ages. Sedulius Scotus (c. 848) was noted for his scholarship and his poetry.

The Irish monks made beautiful books--illuminated manuscripts. Here they employed the earlier La Tene Celtic art-style to the painted page of Christian codexes. The most famous is the Book of Kells, an 8th century work from the Irish monastery of that name. The pages are filled with interlacing patterns and stylized images of men, spirits, and animals. The Lindisfarne Gospels is book made in the monastery of that name in northeastern England--the monastery founded by the Irish monk St. Aidan. The Book of Durrow is also noteworthy.

In the visual arts, Celtic Christianity produced wonderful metalwork, such as the case for St. Patrick's bell, and the 7th century Ardagh Chalice. The stonework included the famous Celtic crosses.

The Staying Power of the Celts in Ireland

Celtic influences have remained strong in Ireland, partly due to its historical circumstances, partly due to the determination of the Irish people. For one thing, neither the Romans nor the Anglo Saxons attempted to conquer Ireland, so there was no interruption of Celtic culture there for the first millenium of the Christian era. Even when the Christians came to Ireland, and overcame Celtic paganism there, the Irish developed a particular form of Celtic Christianity that turned out to be quite influential.

The Vikings terrorized the Irish for two hundred years beginning in 795 A.D., but these Norsemen never gained overall sovereignty there and were eventually driven out. In some ways, the Vikings added to the Irish culture, because they founded the first cities in Ireland: Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Wexford, and Waterford. Some remnants of the Viking populations in these towns remained and assimilated into the Celtic populations.

The Norman-English made their first excursions into Ireland under King Henry II in 1170. This invasion by Richard de Clare, the Earl of Pembroke (called Strongbow by the Irish), marked the opening glint of an unhappy period for the Celtic peoples. Soon Henry II arrived, and gradually most of Ireland was under English control. Yet these English slowly intermarried and assimilated into the Irish culture. By 1400 the only area really loyal to the English king was a small area around Dublin, called the Pale. The Irish had retained their Celtic traditions despite a strong threat.

But, the most forceful violations were to come. In 1541, King Henry VIII renewed England's interest in Ireland and forced the Irish parliament to declare him king. Despite revolts by Shane O'Neill and then his nephew Hugh O'Neill, the Irish had lost their political independence, for a time at least.

Two important elements of Celtic Irish culture became threatened over the next four centuries. First the Irish Gaelic language. In 1550, and even 200 years later, the majority of the Irish people spoke their Celtic Gaelic. By 1900, though, English became the majority language in Ireland--with Gaelic spoken mostly on the western coast.

The other cultural element threatened was Catholicism, the Irish legacy of Celtic Christianity. Despite extreme efforts by the English to impose Protestantism, the Irish clung to the religion brought to them by St. Patrick. And many experts say this is what made Ireland different from Scotland and Wales--to the Irish, Catholicism was the cement that held them together, and fostered their independence of mind and wish for political independence.

The Easter Uprising of 1916 was focused on the takeover of the post office in Dublin. From this arose the Irish War of Independence which lasted until 1921, when the British recognized the Irish Free State. In 1949, Ireland became a republic.

So became what author Thomas Cahill calls the only Celtic nation state in the world--Ireland. And the Irish go to great trouble to maintain its Celtic traditions, as described in the next section.

Part IV: The Celts in Britain

Part VI: The Celts Today

33. Data on Ireland from Conor Cruise O'Brien et al, A Concise History of Ireland (New York: Beekman House, 1972); articles entitled "Ireland" from the Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book Encyclopedia; Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, (op. cit.); and other sources cited below.

34. According to Squire's Celtic Myths and Legends, there was a whole pantheon of gods in Irish mythology--they were members of a group of beings called the Tuatha De Danann. There was Nuada (the king of the gods); Lugh (the sun-god); Lir (god of the sea); Cairpre (the bard of the gods); and many more.

The Celts built a myth about a succession of conquests of Ireland, up to their own arrival there. In all there were said to be five races of people and beings who came to Ireland, as listed below in order:

  1. The Race of Partholon--who all died in a plague
  2. The Race of Nemed--they also died in a plague or left Ireland
  3. The Fir Bolgs--who some think were a representation of the original non-Celtic peoples of Ireland
  4. The Tuatha De Danann--the gods who became the fairy folk
  5. The Milesians--the first Celts, the Gaels

During this mythic age, there were also the Fomors, who were fearsome demons who lived in the sea, and whose earthy stronghold was on Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal, in the northwestern part of Ireland. The Fomors often came to mainland Ireland and caused havoc.

Sources on Irish myths include same sources cited for myths of Britain, plus Tom Kelly, Legendary Ireland (Dublin: Town House, 1995).

From Encyclopedia Britannica article on "Ireland--History"

My speculation on this reference to hounds is that they may have been precursors of the Irish wolfhound (the tallest of all dogs), the Irish setters, the Irish water spaniel, or the Irish terrier.

Along with sources listed in the text, information on St. Patrick and the Irish saints is from John J. Delaney, Dictionary of Saints (Pocket Edition) (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books of Doubleday, 1983); and Leonard Foley OFM, Saint of the Day (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1974)

The points made in this section are the main theses of Thomas Cahill's How the Irish Saved Civilization. Also I would like to make a minor speculation that in a material sense, recorded history in Ireland began in about 450 A.D. with the coming of St. Patrick and his church (and the Latin system in writing). In the same way, detailed recorded history of Britain began in about 40 A.D. with the coming of the Roman legions (and the Latin alphabet as well). The main difference, in my hunch, is that the Irish monks were interested in recording earlier Celtic myths, while the Roman officials couldn't have cared less about it. This may be faulty thinking, but I did want to try and float the theory.

The Celtic church was not really in conflict with Rome on major matters; they simply appreciated the independence that fostered their missionary vigor. The Celtic church celebrated Easter on a different day. They also wore their hair differently (tonsure); Irish monks cut off the hair on the front part of their head, and often grew their hair long in the back. Some of the differences with Rome were resolved at the Synod of Whitby, in northern England, in 664.

Among the Irish saints of this era were (dates in parentheses are approximate year of death): St. Adamnan (704); St. Attracta (6th century); St. Aedh (589); St. Bega (7th century); St. Benen (467); St. Budoc (7th century); St. Carthach (637); St. Canice (599); St. Cumian (665); St. Conan (7th century); St. Colman of Cloyn (606); St. Colman of Lam Edo (611); St. Colman of Lindisfarne (676); St. Dichu (5th century); St. Dympna (7th century); St. Enda (530); St. Fachanan (6th century); St. Fergus (8th century; St. Finan (661); St. Finbar (633); St. Finnian of Ulster (579); St. Finnian of Clonard (549); St. Finnian of Lobhar (560); St. Fintan of Taghmon (635); St. Foillan (655); St. Fursey (648); St. Gall (635); St. Ibar (5th century); St. Ita (570); St. Kessog (560); St. Kiernan of Clommacnois (556); St. Kilian (689); St. Loman (450); St. Macanisius (514); St. Mel (488); St. Mochta (535); St. Munchin the Wise (7th century); St. Otteran (563); St. Ruadan (584); St. Secundinus (447); St. Tassach (495), St. Ultan (686), and others.

In later centuries came Irishmen St. Malachy (1095-1148), St. Lawrence O'Toole (1128-80), and Oliver Plunkett (1629-81). Currently, Irishman Matt Talbott is being considered.

List developed from Delaney's Dictionary of Saints (op. cit.). Another Celt, St. David (6th century) is the patron saint of Wales.

Suggested News Resources

How art treasures reveal the story of the Celts
Today we speak of Celtic identities and Celtic languages in places such as Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Brittany.
The Celtic Corner, Portland's last Irish shop, is closing after 23 years
The Celtic Corner was like a little Irish village, Keator said. And as the 100th anniversary of the Ireland's Easter Rising and subsequent independence from Britain approaches, Keator knows Hislop's knowledge of Irish history will also be missed.
Loreena McKennitt Plays Celtic Harp Music for the Modern Age at Segerstrom
Festival preview: St. Patrick's Day Parade kicks o...
Michael Flatley's retirement is steps away
“Dangerous Games” continues the “Lord of the Dance” legacy by showcasing world champion Irish step dancers, who tell a good-versus-evil story in a lavish production enhanced by fantastical imagery.

Suggested Web Resources

Celtic Ireland in the Iron Age: the Celts - Wesley Johnston
The history of Celtic Ireland and the Celtic people before the coming of Christianity, 500BC to 400AD.
Celts - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The history of pre-Celtic Europe remains very uncertain. ... Insular Celtic culture diversified into that of the Gaels (Irish, Scottish and Manx) and the Brythonic ...
Who were Celts - Shoreline Community College
The Celts arrived in Britain by the 4th or 5th century B.C. and Ireland by the 2nd ...
The Celts & Ireland - Proud Irish
Information on Celtic Ireland. ... Stories depict an Ireland divided into five major kingdoms with Connacht and Ulster at war, and the heroic Cú Chulainn ...
The Celts of Ancient Ireland -
The Celts first arrived in Ireland about 500 BC. ... Celtic Ogham writing, engraved constellation maps and anthropomorphic carvings tell a story that overwhelms ...