My graduate application process is almost over, so it’s high time that I got back into this series. Today, for St. Patrick’s Day, I will look at the Celts, since Ireland is one of the few places where Celtic languages are still spoken today.

Illumination from the Book of Kells

Illumination of the Book of Kells, an example of Celtic art. Credit: Public domain, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by User:PKM

The Celts can most easily be defined as people who spoke the Celtic languages. Thus, to talk about the “Celts” is like talking about the “Germanic tribes” or “Romance language speakers” – it includes many people from very different cultures and who spoke very different languages. The term “Celt” (pronounced with a hard “k”, as in cat) comes from the Greek word Keltoi (Κελτοί), which was a name for a particular Celtic ethnic group living near Massilia (present-day Marseille). Over the centuries, Celtic people have lived in almost every part of Europe, and even part of Asia.

The Celts are Indo-European people, which means that their language family is distantly related to languages such as Latin, English, Farsi, and Hindi. They emerged in Central Europe, or at least, that is where the oldest archaeological finds of Celtic artifacts have been found.  These earliest finds are known as the Haltstatt culture. Over millennia, speakers of Celtic languages migrated across the European continent: Into France, Spain, and even Turkey (the Galatia addressed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians was a Celtic colony). The Haltstatt culture eventually was supplanted by the La Tène culture, which was conquered by the Romans. The art of the La Tène culture is what usually is referred to as Celtic art, and the medieval and modern art styles known as Celtic art are descendant traditions from La Tène. After the Roman conquests, the Celts became heavily influenced by Roman culture and the Latin language.

Today, the only parts of the world that retain aspects of distinct Celtic culture are Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, the Isle of Man, and Cornwall. Only small parts of Ireland and Scotland, and most of Wales and Brittany, have significant populations that speak a Celtic language. Apart from Brittany, these Celtic cultures are remnants of what are known as the Insular Celts, as they inhabit the British Isles. By the time of the Roman invasion, most of the British Isles were inhabited by Celtic peoples, who were usually, though perhaps inaccurately, divided into three groups: Goidels (or Gaels) in what is now Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the Britons and the Picts in what is now England, Scotland, and Wales. The name Britain comes from the name Briton.

Much of what is now England was subjugated by the Romans, and in the Middle Ages the Roman-Briton culture in England was supplanted by the Anglo-Saxons. Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, though, remained largely Celtic. During the decline of the western half of the Roman Empire, many Britons emigrated to the European continent to a peninsular region known to the Romans as Armorica. It subsequently became known as Brittany. In the Middle Ages, the British Isles became a center of Christianity. Ireland, in 430s, became Christianized through the efforts of Bishop Palladius  and Saint Patrick. From there, over the next two centuries, missionary efforts spread Christianity to Scotland, Wales, England, and continental France. In the late 700s through 900s, much of Scotland and Ireland became culturally entangled with the Vikings, particularly the Norse, resulting in a culture known as Norse-Gaelic. Over the course of centuries, England, under the Normans, would conquer and colonize most of the British Isles, fragmenting the Celtic cultures.

Just how Celtic peoples came to be on the British Isles is debated. The traditional theory is that Celtic peoples immigrated from continental Europe and supplanted the indigenous cultures on the islands. However, new evidence, including genetic research, suggests that the ancestors of the Celtic people who lived, and still live, on the islands, were present even before the spread of Celtic culture. This suggests that the British Isles were not extensively settled by Celtic people from mainland Europe, but that the indigenous people of the British Isles, who probably settled there during the Paleolithic Era, adopted Celtic language, material culture, and social practices (in much the same way how Germanic peoples like the Franks adopted Roman customs and the Latin language).

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