A Unique Insight into Our Celtic Past
Our Irish ancestors were given specific guidelines on what they could - and could not - do for the 40 days leading up to Easter. In this letter, we feature a pastoral letter outlining these rules and guidances. It makes fascinating reading given the consumer culture we live in today!
What do you think of when you hear the word “Celt” or “Celtic”? Maybe you picture druids with flowing robes in a misty setting near a stone circle, or maybe you think of the collective peoples of Ireland, Scotland and Wales?
Surprisingly little is known for sure about the roots and origins of the Celts. They were a pre-historic people who did not believe in writing things down for posterity. So, let’s chat today about the link between your Irish ancestors and these ancient Celtic peoples.
A Place Where the Celts Originated?
I watched a PBS documentary the other night that discussed the origins of the Celts and their links to modern cultures such as the Irish nation. It got me thinking of something that may surprise you – the unique place old Irish literature holds as a window into that ancient Celtic world.
The documentary suggested, through archaeological evidence, that the Celts first appeared in Europe as salt miners and traders around the Austrian village of Hallstat about 800BC. Many coins, tools, brooches and burial rituals were uncovered there that were associated with the Celts. They were contemporaries of the ancient Greeks – who viewed them as barbarians. This may have been partly because the Celts chose not to record any of their stories or sagas in writing but instead relied on priests and bards to remember and recall them at will.
Over time, these Celtic peoples (their name was given to them by the Greeks- “Keltoi”) expanded in Austria and across the European continent onto the islands of Britain and Ireland. While some of the words they used survive in the form of various European place names, there is almost no written record of their stories, sagas and more.
I did say “almost”…..
Irish Monks Make Their Notes in Irish.
The modern Irish language evolved out of the language that these Celts of the European continent would have used on a daily basis. When you say an Irish surname such as “O’Connor” or “McCarthy” – or a place name such as “Ballygowan” or “Tipperary” – you are in fact pronouncing this old Irish language, you just happen to be using an English phonetic translation.
The first written records of the Irish language were not made in the Roman alphabet we use today, but in the “ogham” carvings that we find on rocks and memorials across the island of Ireland. These ogham carvings using the Irish language date back to at least the fourth century.
By the mid fifth century, Latin (and the roman alphabet) had come into use in Ireland. The scholars of the time – who were mostly monks – used the language to record and annotate religious works. However, although their main writing language would have been latin, they often added further explanatory notes in old Irish (with the odd story thrown in) in the margins.
As a result, the earliest records of a written Irish language turn up in the monasteries of continental Europe where many Irish monks lived and studied during what we call “the dark ages”.
However, in our letter today we are more interested the later non-religious texts and the unique perspective they provide for us into an ancient Celtic world.
A Unique Insight into the Ancient Celtic World.
Besides many religious volumes, other early books and annals in the Irish language recall the sagas of the old Irish heroes and champions. They tell the stories of raids, courtships, battles, deaths, sieges, elopements, expeditions and much more.
These stories and events were captured in books such as the 12th century “Book of Leinster” and were based on the oral Irish and Celtic stories that were passed down from bardic master to apprentice through the centuries. As a result, Ireland has a literary history that is continuous from pre-historic times all the way to the present. This is quite unique among most of the countries and peoples of Europe.
It also means that our existing literature in the Irish language provides the only insight – through the words captured within the stories and sagas – into the ancient civilisation of the Celtic people who roamed across the continent of Europe from at least 800 BC. While the stories may lack specific facts and dates, they help to convey the beliefs and values, hierarchies, manners and customs and societal roles of the greater Celtic people – a group that were written off as barbarians and feared by the Romans and Greeks of the day.
When I think of the Irish language today, I prefer to overlook the difficulties presented to family history researchers making sense of Irish place names or surnames on civil and church records. Instead, I admire the written Irish, a rich language that has served us continuously for thousands of years and offers a unique insight into the life and times of our shared Celtic ancestors.
So, it seems appropriate that we finish this letter with an old Irish proverb:
“Ar scath a cheile a mhairimíd” (pronounced “arr scaw a kayla a varimeed”) meaning:
“We Live in the Shelter of Each other”.
Never a truer word said! What do you think?
That’s it for this week. As always, do feel free to share the names and stories in your own Irish family tree.
Slán for now,
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