The term “Celtic” is often seen as synonymous with Irish, but the Celts were not really Irish. Not originally, at least. The original Irish people were a Stone Age culture that thrived (okay, no one knows if they did that well, but at least they existed) on the island nearly as far back as 9000 B.C. This Mesolithic culture was replaced by a “New Stone Age” culture around 3000 B.C. I’m wondering if these guys were like a cross between the Flintstones and the Lucky Charms leprechaun, the modern stone age family with funny accents. Anyway, the people of this Neolithic culture created elaborate stone burial mounds such as Newgrange, built about 500 years before the pyramids. This and similar burial mounds are aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice.
Beginning in about 2000 BC, these Flintstone people discovered how to mix copper and tin to make bronze, so they left their stone tools behind and made bronze ones.
And they made instruments. More than half the Bronze Age bells and horns found anywhere in the world were located in Ireland. As of the turn of this century, 104 Bronze Age horns had been discovered in Ireland. And for centuries, no one could figure out how to play them. (This would be recent centuries—odds are that the people who created them knew how to play them. Or maybe that’s why Ireland has so many left. If they never worked in the first place, no one would use them so they wouldn’t get broken)
In the 1980s, musicians experimented with replica instruments and figured out how to play a surprising range of notes.
In any case, these musical people weren’t the Celts.
The Celtic culture originated somewhere near the Alps, spread across Europe, and then invaded the British Isles around 500 B.C. So the Celts were foreign invaders. But they invaded so thoroughly that they pretty much wiped out all traces of the previous culture. This happens a lot with invaders, of course. And in most of Europe, the Celts were soon wiped out by the Romans and we might never have heard of them if Ireland hadn’t been so far from the center of their empire.
The Romans conquered a great deal of Britain, but not all of it. “Native” (meaning Celtic) cultures remained in the corners that the Romans just didn’t have the time and resources to dominate: Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall. Celtic language and culture continued in these areas for many years longer – long enough to be recorded in writing and then resurrected when these corners of Britain felt the need to rebel against British stiff-upper-lip-ism.
From the 17th Century onward, scholars took a particular interest in finding and translating Celtic stories, music, monuments and anything else related to the culture. Feelings of Irish nationalism gave rise to a so-called “Celtic Revival” beginning in about the 1880s.
I wonder how those bronze age Flintstone Leprechauns would have felt about that. Were they reviving the wrong culture?
What do you think?
The information for much of the article comes from Irish History by Seamas MacAnnaidh (Parragon 1999). Photo courtesy of Ard-Mhúsaem na hÉireann (The National Museum of Ireland)