History of Ireland: Life in Celtic Ireland
Celtic Ireland, the time between the Bronze Age and before the coming of Christianity in the 4th century AD, is often looked on as something of a golden age in Irish history. At this time, the island was home to a rich and flourishing culture with legendary sagas, beautiful metalwork, and a rich oral literature of poetry and history.
The language spoken across the island at this time was ancient Gaelic. Because the language shares its roots with Welsh, Breton and Cornish (among others), the culture of the island at this time as ‘celtic’. The Celtic culture of Ireland was not exactly the same as that of the Central European Celts (Keltoi), but it did share many similarities such as a tribal social organization, use of intricate knotwork designs in jewelry, and a preference for oral heritage instead of written books.
Life in Celtic Ireland
People in Celtic Ireland were not organized into a single nation. Rather, the island was inhabited by a patchwork of tribes who were ruled by chieftains. The clan, or extended family, was the basic unit of social organization. The people of Celtic Ireland had a common system of laws known as Brehon Law. These laws were memorized by the seanachie, the poets and historians of Ireland; they would then recite relevant passages of law to the chieftains when they needed to pass judgment on a dispute.
Women held a high status in Celtic Ireland. Ancient tales from this era tell of women going to war alongside their men. Women also had a lot of control over who they married, if they wanted to get married at all. The ancient custom of hand-fasting meant that couples who intended to marry would live together for a year first; at the end of the year either party could dissolve the relationship.
The Celtic peoples of Ireland lived in fortified wooden dwellings known as ‘raths’. A rath was usually surrounded by a circular fence. If attacked, the family could protect themselves, as well as their livestock and other goods inside the fence. There are still many place names in Ireland today which begin with ‘rath’ or ‘ra’, and if you see a very regular circle of trees in Ireland, there is a good chance they are growing where a rath used to be.
Cattle were extremely important to the livelihood and economy of Celtic Ireland. Wealth was counted exchanged and stolen in the form of cows. One of the most famous tales of ancient Ireland, the Tain Bo Cualaigne, centers on a series of battles for ownership of the greatest bull in Ireland.
Tribes of Celtic Ireland
There were many tribes in Celtic Ireland. While they shared a common culture of language, laws and customs, they were politically disunited. Tribes often competed to extend their territories and feuds could be long and bitter. When the Normans first came to Ireland, one of the reasons they found it easy to defeat the native Irish was that the tribes of Ireland were divided against each other and had no sense of collective identity.
The map on the right shows a list of the which tribes held territory in different parts of Ireland, according to the Classical geographer Ptolemy. As the Irish did not keep written records of their affairs, to a large extent we rely on the writings of other peoples, such as the Romans, to tell us about the political organization of Celtic Ireland. What has survived directly from Celtic times are the great myths and legends.
We know quite a lot about the culture of Celtic Ireland from legends which were written down by medieval monks, and also from traditional celebrations which have survived even up to the present day.
The Celts believed strongly in an afterlife, where the soul passed over the western ocean to the undying lands. They did not have a hierarchical church-based religion, but they did have a priestly caste known as druids. Druids conducted rituals which were closely connected to the natural world, and especially to the changing of the seasons. Halloween is a modern version of the ancient Irish festival of Samhain which has become popular in many countries, Other less well known festivals still survive in Ireland, such as Lammas fairs which are named after the Celtic summer festival of Lughnasa.
Celtic Ireland also gave us many tales relating to gods and goddesses known as the 'Tuath na Danaan'. Many of the legends relate to interactions of mortal warriors and princesses with these supernatural figures.
You can read more about the folk tales and folklore of Ireland by clicking on these links:
Celtic artwork: knotwork designs
Celtic Ireland saw a flourishing of native artwork, especially in the designing of weapons and jewelry. The Celtic Irish are famous for their intricate knotwork designs; designs which are so carefully inter-linked that they have no start or end point. These designs captured the essence of existence as the Celtic Irish understood it - interconnected, and eternally renewing itself.
Celtic designs were adopted my monks in early Medieval Ireland, who used the designs to create beautifully decorative copies of the bible such as The Book of Kells. The Book of Kells can be seen at Trinity College Dublin.