Celtic Irish Myths
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.
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 were highly prized, and the early Irish were quite taken by horses and horsemanship.
EARLY KINGDOMS OF IRELAND
Kingdom Name Location* Capital Some Legendary Kings
.. King Eochaid Airem*
. Emain Macha
. King Ailell*
*NOTES:--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
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, 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 # , 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; a rough sketch of a Celtic cross is attempted below:
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 any interruption
of Celtic culture there for the first millennium 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
The Vikings terrorized the Irish for two hundred years beginning in 795
AD, 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.
The Celts Today
The Celts, and Celtic peoples, are alive and well today. Celtic culture
is well documented and preserved, and there are millions of people on
different continents who make it a point to identify with that culture.
Irish Gaelic, a Celtic language, is one of the official
languages of Ireland, along with English. Gaelic is taught in schools, and
there are "Gaeltacht" areas, as in parts of Co. Donegal, where the use of
Gaelic by native speakers is officially encouraged by the government.
According to the World Book Encyclopedia, one in five people in Ireland can
speak Gaelic (about 700,000 people), and one in 20 speak Gaelic every day
(about 100,000 people).
Still, the English language is not going to disappear in Ireland, and
most don't want it to--English is a very versatile language. Even so, the
Irish have a distinctive way of expressing English. Scholars say that there
is a form of Hiberno-English (or Irish English) that is different than
Standard English. Irish speakers of English have their own usages and
grammatical construction, and it's widespread.
And the Irish accent, the brogue that so delights people, sets
Ireland's English apart--there are Celtic sounds found therein. The literary
expressions found in the work of Ireland's James Joyce (Ulysses and Finnegan's
wake), and in plays like "Playboy of the Western World" by J.M. Synge are full
of Irish Celtic flavorings. Recently the Nobel Prize in Literature went to
Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who bears Ireland's form of English well.
The World Almanac, in its section on the Republic of Ireland, says
that the majority ethnic group of Ireland is "Celtic," and that there is an
English minority. Celtic expert Frank Delaney, who presented the BBC series
on The Celts, echoes Thomas Cahill in reporting that Ireland is the world's
only Celtic nation state.
The World Book Encyclopedia suggests that a "Celt" of today is someone
who is the native speaker of a Celtic language. I think that is too narrow of
a definition. To my mind, a Celtic person has three necessary
characteristics: 1) Celtic ancestry; 2) identifies with Celtic culture; and 3)
wishes to think of oneself as being Celtic, or even as a Celt.
There is a revival of Irish culture happening right now--some say an
Irish renaissance. Celtic ethnic elements are bigger than ever. In the United
States, St. Patrick's Day has become a general celebration, and Irish pubs are
quite the rage. Still, Irish immigrants have always valued their Gaelic
roots. In Massachusetts, where there was a large concentration of such
immigrants, there is even a professional basketball team named after the Celts.
Other Celtic Areas. In Wales there is a resurgence of Celtic nationalism.
The Welsh flag, a dragon over a green and white background, is shown
prominently. Annual Celtic festivals called Eisteddfods preserve and display
Perhaps the area where Celtic Wales is making the most headway is in
the area of the Welsh language. It is taught in the schools, and a popular
television station broadcasts all its programs in Celtic Welsh. For TV, a Welsh
cartoon series and animated programs connect children and young people with
the Celtic language of Wales. The people of Wales have forced the government
to use bilingual road signs, and they have changed place names back to Celtic
Welsh--as in Dyfed, Clwyd, Gynedd, and Powys.
In Scotland, over 80,000 people still speak Scottish Gaelic, mostly in
the highland and nearby islands. Other Celtic elements include references to
the clans, bagpipe music, interest in tartan plaids and kilts, Scottish field
games, and Scottish step dancing. In the beginning of July 1999, the Scottish
parliament met again for the first time in nearly 300 years; some observers
feel that at some point there will be a move for more political independence
for the Celtic people there.
In Brittany, the pan-Celtic festival is held annually in Lorient.
Several times a year there are religious-social celebrations called Pardons,
which preserve Celtic Breton culture. Breton scholars report that young
people are taking a deeper interest in learning the Breton language, and Celtic
music is gaining a resurgence of attention there.
Even in England, where the Celtic Britons once ruled, there is the
prominent statue of Boadicea, the Celtic chieftain. Then there are the
references to the Celtic may poles and May Day, and the garland festivals and
dances. And in old Celtic Cornwall, there is a tourist industry surrounding
the Celtic heroes of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
And around the world, people who are interested in the Celts can find
many websites dealing with the Celtic civilization on the Internet. Just try
entering the word Celt into your favorite search engine and find out for
Presumably, present-day people of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark don't
think of themselves as Vikings. Culturally-minded people of Germany don't
hearken back and call themselves Ostrogoths. Why then should people from
Ireland and similar cultural areas think of themselves as being Celtic, or as
For one thing, more people would want to think of themselves as Celtic
than as Vikings. The Celts have had a better press in history than a lot of
barbarian peoples. Arguably, they became the first civilized barbarians, as in
the Romanized Celts of Gaul, or even of Britain. At a time when the German
barbarians and then the Vikings were smashing civilization in Europe, the Irish
monks and the Celtic church were trying to uphold civil culture.
The lovers of things Celtic appreciate and cherish the many elements of
Celtic culture that are alive today, as in the sound of Gaelic languages or
Celtic accents, the music of harps or bagpipes, the stories of King Arthur and
mythic literature, interlacing patterned art, Celtic folk-dancing, ethnic
clothing, soda bread and Celtic foods, colorful talking, and even a certain
freewheeling feature of the Celtic mind.
There are enough beautiful celticisms in the modern world, that throngs
of people of Celtic ancestry wish to be associated with this beauty. Thus the
word Celtic (or even Celt) hasn't become an historical souvenir, but rather,
represents cultures that still exist, even within the mixture of other
Those of us who think of ourselves as modern-day Celts realize that we
are no longer the barbarian Celts who once dominated most of Europe. We live
in civilized society and appreciate civil values. Yet in us the Celt carries
on. For me, there is a call from the misty past, almost the voice of a
distant bard, and it says that my Gaelic roots are deep and that I need always
to cherish that which is Celtic.