It was in Ireland that Celtic culture and institutions lasted the longest—although Christianity was introduced at an early date, Ireland did not suffer any major invasions or cultural changes until the invasions of the Norwegians and the Danish in the eighth century. The Irish also represent the last great migration of Celtic peoples. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Irish crossed over into Scotland and systematically invaded that territory until they politically dominated the Picts who lived there. The settling of Scotland in the fifth century was the very last wave of Celtic migration. For Celtic culture, Ireland is much like Iceland was to the Norse. It was sufficiently removed from mainstream Europe to protect it from invasions and to isolate it from many of the cultural changes which wracked the face of early Europe. It allowed a singular perpetuation of pagan Celtic culture to fuse with Christian and the emerging European culture. This unique synthesis would provide the single most productive line of cultural transmission between Celtic culture and the European culture which grew out of classical and German sources.
In the 700’s, Ireland became subject to Scandinavian raids and emigrations, just as most of the rest of Europe. The first to arrive were the Norwegians who attacked various islands and some of the headlands; in the 800’s, however, the Norwegians began to attack the western coast of Ireland. In the mid-800’s and all through the 900’s, the Norse actively began to build fortified towns along the eastern coast of Ireland. In 841, they built the fortified town of Dublin (which the Irish called Ath Cliath, or, “the hurdle ford”), and would later establish fortifications at Cork, Waterford, and Wicklow, some of the central towns of later Irish history. Of these towns, however, Dublin was the center of all the Norse activity and served as their central base for raids all around Ireland and the Irish Sea.
The Irish at this time did not concentrate their population along the coast but lived inland—the Irish also did not live in large and fortified towns. The introduction of both fortifications and something resembling urban life was originally introduced by the Norse.
Eventually, however, the Norse would come in conflict with the Danish and the area around Dublin became part of the Danish kingdom that had been established in northern England. The Irish, however, lived in individual tribal groups that were not united—it wasn’t until 1014 that Munster Irish under the leadership of Brian Bóruma defeated the Danish at Clontarf and finally expelled the Norse for good.
The Norwegians and the Danish, however, had largely stripped Irish culture of its greatest cultural artifacts. The only histories that were written of the Norse in Ireland were written by the Irish—these historians were far from sympathetic to the invaders! Ireland, however, gained a fundamental shift in its cultural and economic practices. The Irish inherited from the Danes and Norwegians fortified coastal towns and a new economy based on trade and commerce with other Europeans. They also gave to the Irish more sophisticated skills in ship-building and travel.
It was spread very thin and practiced by a small minority in Gaul and Britain. It was also assuming a new, distinct character among the Celts, who combined Christianity not only with native Celtic institutions and religions, but with a plethora of eastern mystery religions. (Much of what we call modern “paganism” which points to Celtic sources actually originates in eastern, mystery religions that had been imported into Celtic culture.) It was this Celticized version of Christianity that Patrick brought with him to Ireland.
The Saxon invasions, however, wiped out Christianity in England, but not in Wales or Ireland or Scotland, where the religion had been introduced by Columba, an Irish saint. It wasn’t until the late sixth century that Christianity was reintroduced into Britain; this brand of Christianity, more aligned with the practices of the Roman church, came into conflict with Celtic Christianity and its unique practices. By the tenth century, the unique Celtic Christianity of Britain had largely been subordinated to Saxon Christianity.
It was in Ireland that Celtic Christianity thrived during the Germanic invasions and then the later subordination of Celtic Christian practices to Saxon practices. The Christianity that Patrick brought to Ireland was episcopal or diocesan Christianity—the standard form of Christianity in Roman occupied territories. Episcopal Christianity is oriented around the organization of Christians as lay people under the spiritual and partial secular control of a bishop (“episcopus” in Latin). Episcopal Christianity, however, was wholly unsuited to Ireland, for it relies on a certain level of urbanization. For the largely rural, disorganized, and tribal nature of early Irish society, the episcopal structure had nothing to work with. So Irish Christianity soon developed into monastic Christianity, which is oriented around the centralization of a small Christian community under the leadership of an abbot. This would become the uniquely Irish form of Christianity that in spirit and in practice was much different from the predominantly episcopal character of Roman Christianity.
The monastic centers became the areas where Irish Christian culture thrived—they also introduced some political stability and agriculture into Irish society. While they were nominally under the authority of Rome, because they were so removed they operated with relative independence. This would eventually bring them in severe conflict with the Roman church. Before that, however, Irish missionaries would spread Celtic culture and Christianity all over the face of Europe. Even though the Irish Christians eventually submitted to Roman pressures, Irish Christianity had diffused across the face of Europe.
This is because the most innovative and distinct feature of Irish Christianity was wandering, called perigrinatio in Latin. While many Christians became monks in monasteries, some became anchorites, that is, solitary monks. The Irish anchorites, however, saw their mission not as living in isolation, but as wandering around by themselves. These were not specifically missionary wanderings, but they had that effect. In the sixth century, one of Ireland’s greatest saints, Columicille (or “Columba” in Latin), successfully introduced Christianity to Scotland.
As the middle ages progressed, however, the uniquely Celtic character of the Irish church, with its profoundly brilliant fusion of Celtic art with Christian art, its fusion of Celtic social organization and laws with monastic life, and its unique perigrinative character disappeared into the homogenizing trend of the higher middle ages. – Richard Hooker
A warrior also had a large—about 1.2 meter high and 0.5 meters wide—leather-covered, wooden shield with a metal shield-boss. This was likely to have been decorated with painting and sometimes metal ornamentation. With this basic equipment, the average warrior usually wore his everyday clothing consisting of trousers, a shirt, and a mantle.
A must for the Celtic noble, besides his torc (neck ring), was a long-sword with a blade-length of about 0.8 to 1 meter. Those from the early period had definite sword points, enabling them to be used for slashing and piercing. In the later period, these swords often had rounded points that allowed only slashing attacks. In rare cases, especially in finds from the eastern Celtic world, such swords had anthropomorphic handles, the pommel most often cast from bronze in the form of a human head. Additionally, the typical noble warrior probably wore armor and helmet, all made from leather. Depending on how rich they were, nobles might have equipment such as helmets, made from bronze or iron, often elaborately decorated with ornamentation and inlays of coral or even gold. Occasionally, the helmet might have additional embellishments such as the one from the famous find at Ciumesti, Romania, which has a figure of a raven with mobile wings fixed to its crest. That helmet must have been an impressive sight when the owner moved down the battlefield. Chainmail suits, covering the body down to the knees and, most often, leaving the arms free, were very rare, and, obviously affordable by only the wealthiest nobles.
The Celtic Battle-Chariot was one of the most important symbols of power among the ancient Irish. Even though it was not used always and everywhere in the Celtic world, the battle-chariot is considered a very typical part of Celtic warfare. It was called a “carpentom” or similar term, and was a light, two-wheeled vehicle drawn by a pair of yoked horses, little more than four meters in length and less than two meters wide. The chariot consisted almost exclusively of organic material; the main metal parts were the iron tires and the iron fittings to strengthen the hubs. In some cases, metal rings and connectors were used to strengthen joints and flexible connections. What made the Celtic chariot so special, however, was that the chariot-platform was not fixed to the axle but hung free in a rope suspension. This made it a lot more comfortable to drive and a lot easier to fight from.
Usually two persons rode in the chariot. The charioteer sat in the open front of the chariot and actually drove. The warrior stood behind the charioteer and threw his spears from the chariot before alighting and fighting on foot. The charioteer stayed close enough to retrieve his warrior and carry him away from the battle if he were wounded or killed. This system is well documented in the Irish Ulster Cycle, as well as in the works of Roman and Greek historians.
Celtic Warrior Bands are Also quite typical among the Celts were warrior-bands like the Irish fianna or the Gaesates who fought in the Italian Wars against the Romans. Such warbands consisted mainly of young men led by charismatic leaders like the Irish Fionn Mac Cumhaill or the two kings of the Gaesates. The latter seem to have been used as high response troops in battle, according to the Roman sources. Most probably these groups had a religious dimension, requiring various initiation rituals for membership. They most probably enjoyed a special status in Celtic society. Members of these warrior bands probably were known for performing heroic feats. For example, historians recorded that the Gaesates fought naked in the battles in the Po valley in Italy where the Cisalpine Celts opposed the Romans. Most notably these warbands seem to have consisted mostly or even exclusively of infantry.
However, in contrast to the rigid Roman military organization, Celtic warriors seem to have been much less used to fighting in formations and organized units. The records we have from ancient historians paint the picture of mostly unorganized groups. The ancient Celtic warriors engaged their enemy as if they would defeat them simply by overrunning them, trusting their brute force more than elaborate tactics and clever strategies. This may well be due to a trait of Celtic mentality, which valued individual prowess with arms and heroic feats more than fighting in tight groups and trusting in the combined power of many men in close military formations.
Military organization seems to have been based, in case of the infantry, more on where one came from than the type of weapons one carried, although chariots and/or cavalry were set aside to fight together. The war bands, who were most likely the high response troops of the Celts, often formed the first line of the infantry, hurling themselves upon the enemy in the first assault.
In battles, the Celts also made use of what has been dubbed “psychological warfare.” Before actually engaging the enemy, they are said to having made a horrible noise by clashing their weapons against their shields, crying and singing, with horns (carnyx) being blown and maybe drums being beaten. In the early period, these practices, together with the wild onslaught by the first lines of warriors, seems to have shocked Roman troops so that much that they simply gave way and fled from the field in fear for their lives. Also, before the actual fight, the Celtic war leaders paraded in front of their troops, performing heroic feats, proclaiming their own deeds, belittling their enemies, and challenging enemy leaders to duels. The results of these individual combats were apparently regarded as omens of the outcome of the battle.
However fierce that first onslaught, the ancient Celts had, according to the ancient historians, little endurance. If their first assault didn’t succeed, the Celtic forces were easy to defeat, or so the historians say. On the other hand, the historians might have been perpetuating the image of the Celts as barbarians by ascribing superior physical strength but less endurance to them, especially since endurance was regarded as one of the primary Roman virtues. Evidently, to actually defeat the Celts was not as easy as the ancient historians wanted their readers to believe, since quite a number of reports tell us that the Celts continued to fight valiantly to the end, even when the battle already was lost. Often the Celts were depicted as killing themselves and their close relatives rather than surrendering and being sold into slavery.
However, the most of the battles seem to have been rather small, involving only a few warriors on both sides. Most probably they occurred as a result of raids on neighboring tribes, such as the raids mentioned by Caesar in the quote at the beginning of this essay, or in the Irish story of the cattle raid of Cooley. Raiding was a practice well-attested for the Irish as late as the 15th century CE. Of course, if such a raiding party were intercepted, a battle would result. We also should assume that raids were not limited to cattle but could well have targeted other valuables or slaves. Such raids, of course, brought retribution which could, of course, lead to larger military operations. Most such raids and military operations probably were taken up in late spring, when weather and agricultural necessities allowed for small and large military operations to take place.
According to Julius Caesar, who gives the longest account of druids, the center of Celtic belief was the passing of souls from one body to another. From an archaeological perspective, it is clear that the Celts believed in an after-life, for material goods are buried with the dead.
Irish myths were probably recorded in the eighth century or earlier, possibly written by the Druids in Ogham. There are few surviving examples of Ogham because this writing was primarily done on bark, or or wands of hazel and aspen. However the legends of the early Celtic people were also passed down through the tradition of storytelling, and it was from this source that the Monks gathered their colorful tales.
The early medieval monks rewrote the oral stories in a style that was designed to be read aloud to noble or royal households. When they set themselves the task of constructing a pseudo-history of Ireland, they also recast the ancient myths and legends into a Christian mold. In doing so, they demoted the old gods to mortals, and rewrote the sagas into an almost indecipherable maze of conflicting events.
Fortunately, there are a number of manuscripts which have survived fairly intact, and there are many others not yet translated into English. The Lebor Gabála or “Book of Invasions” is one of a number of manuscripts from which our knowledge of Celtic pre-history is derived.
Ó hÓgáin gives an account of the Mythological Cycle, a collective term applied to the stories in Irish literature which describe the doings of otherworld characters. The central theme was concerned with the successive invasions of Ireland by supernatural clans. These series of invasions are described in the Lebor Gabála or Book of Invasions.
The early supernatural inhabitants of Ireland included the Partholonians, the Nemedians, the demonic Fomhóire and the Fir Bholg, the divine Tuatha Dé Danann, followed by the Milesians.
The Milesians, lead by the Sons of Mill, were the fictional but first human ancestors of the Irish people. They defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann at the battle of Tailtiu, after which Ireland was in their possession. They divided it into two parts, with Éireamhóin ruling in the north and Éibhear in the south.
The Fenian Cycle
The main occupation of the Fenian Cycle is hunting. The Fenians, or Fianna, were a legendary band of heroes who defended Ireland and Scotland and kept law and order. Their leader was the mythical Fionn mac Cumhaill.
Fionn mac Cumhaill was the truest, wisest and kindest of the Fianna. He had two sons, Fergus of the Sweet Speech and Ossian, who is credited with a series of poems known as the ‘Ossianic Ballads’. Ossian went to the Land of Youth with Niamh. His mother was Sadb, who was changed into the shape of a deer by a druid.
The warrior Caoilte was Fionn’s right hand man, and he is reputed (in the monks’ retelling of the ancient tale,) to have extolled the virtues of the Fianna when conversing with St. Patrick in the ‘Dialogue of the Elders’. Other notable Fenians include Oscar, the greatest warrior, Conan, Goll mac Morna, and Diarmait O’Duibhne, who eloped with Fionn’s betrothed, Grania.
The Ultonian Cycle
A large body of heroic tales in Irish literature describe the activities of the Ulaidh, an ancient people from the whom the province of Ulster got its name. The central story in the cycle is called Táin Bó Cuailnge: The Cattle Raid of Cooley.
The Cattle-Raid of Cooley is the central epic of the Ulster cycle. The saga begins as Queen Medb of Connaught amasses a large army in order to gain possession of a magnificent bull belonging to Daire, a chieftain of Ulster. As the men of Ulster are afflicted by a debilitating curse, the seventeen-year-old Cuchulain must defend Ulster single-handedly. The battle between Cuchulain and his friend Ferdiad is one of the most famous passages in early Irish literature.
Cúchulainn was Ulster’s greatest hero. His father was said to be the sun god Lugh, and he trained in arms under the formidable female warrior Scathach. His greatest deeds are told in the Tain.
The Kings Cycle
The Kings Cycle, also known as the Historical Cycle, is a book of tales chronicling historical or semi-historical kings of Ireland, generally from early AD to the middle ages. Around the 12th century, the tales and sagas of of Ireland were organized and classified according to the first words in their titles. The tales were then categorized as either prem-sceil (“chief tales”) or fo-sceil (“minor tales”). Several lists exist, and differ in their content, so the following is only a general compilation.
Aine of Knockaine – (AN-yuh of knock-AN-yuh) moon goddess and patroness of crops and cattle; associated with the Summer Solstice. Also Aine Cliach, and Cnoc Aine.
Angus Mac Og – god of youth, love, and beauty. One of the Tuatha De Danann, name means “young son”. He had a harp that made irresistible music, and his kisses turned into birds that carried messages of love. His brugh, underground fairy palace, was on the banks of the Boyne River. Variants: Angus or Oengus of the Brugh, Angus Mac Oc.
Anu – goddess of plenty and Mother Earth. Greatest of all Irish goddesses, deity of cattle, health, fertility, prosperity, and comfort.
Aoibhell – (Evill) another woman of the Sidhe, she made her dwelling in Craig Liath. Legend has it that she gave a golden harp to Meardha, Murchadh’s son, when he was getting his schooling at the Sidhe in Connacht and learned of his father’s death. Whoever heard the playing of the harp would not live long afterward. It was this harp that Cuchulain heard the time his enemies were gathering against him at Muirthemne, and he knew by the sound that his life was near its end.
Badb – (Bibe) goddess of enlightenment, inspiration, life, wisdom. Sister of Macha, the Morrigan, and Anu, the name of this goddess means “boiling,” “battle raven,” and “scald-crow”. Known as Cath Bodva in Gaul. A Mother Goddess and Triple Goddess, Badb’s cauldron boiled with the ever-producing mixture that produced all life. Variants: Badhbh, Badb Catha.
Banba – one of a triad of goddesses that included Fotia and Eriu.
Boann – goddess of the River Byone and mother of Angus Mac Og by the Dagda. She held the powers of healing. Variants: Boannan, Boyne.
Brigit – goddess of agriculture, fire, healing, inspiration, learning divination, occult knowledge, poetry, prophecy, smithcraft. Her Gaelic name of Breo-saighead means “fiery arrow” or “fiery power”. Celts often referred to her as being three in one – the Triple Brigits or the Three Mothers. An ever-burning fire was kept in her honor by her nineteen priestesses who lived in a sacred temple at Kildare. She was also a daughter of the Dagda. Variants: Brid, Brig, Brigid, Brighid.
Caer Ibormeith – goddess of sleep and dreams; and perhaps a less violent version of Mare; daughter of Ethal Anubail, a faery king of Connacht. She often took the form of a swan who lived on a lake called Dragon’s Mouth, and wore a copious golden chain with 130 golden balls on a silver chain about her slender neck. She was loved by Aengus MacOg, god of young love. When he awakened from a dream of her he sought her out. After he found her, he too became a swan, and the two of them flew and sang the sweetest, most restful music ever heard upon this earth. Together they flew away to Bruigh na Boinne, his megalithic site north of Tara, where they sang so wonderfully that the whole of Ireland fell into a peaceful sleep for three days and three nights.
Caillech – goddess of disease and plague. A Destroyer, or Crone, goddess, she was also called “Veiled One”. As the Crone, she ruled with the Maiden and the Mother. Dogs guarded the gates of her afterworld realm where she received the dead. Celtic myth has her gatekeeper dog named Dormarth “Death’s Door”. Irish bards who could curse with satire were often called cainte “dog”.
Cernunnos – god of animals, commerce, crossroads, fertility, reincarnation, virility, warriors, woodlands. Druids knew him as Hu Gadarn, the Honored God. Ancient Celtic images show him seated in a lotus position, naked, with antlers or horns on his head. Animals that were sacred to him: bull, ran, stag, and horned serpents. Variants: Cerowain, Cernenus, Herne the Hunter.
The Dagda – god of the arts, knowledge, magic, music, prophecy, prosperity, regeneration. Known as the “Good God” and “Lord of the Heavens,” he was one of the high kings of the Tuatha De Danann and had four great palaces under hollow hills. Of his children, the most important are Brigit, Angus, Midir, Ogma and Bodb the Red. His magical cauldron had an inexhaustible supply of food and his oak harp made the seasons change.
Diancecht – god of healing, magic, medicine, regeneration. Physician-magician of the Tuatha De Danann; his sons were Miach, Cian, Cethe, and Cu, his daughter Airmed was also a great physician. Variant: Dian Cecht.
Danu – Mother of the Gods, she was goddess of rivers and wells, magic, plenty, wisdom. Possible aspect of Anu; ancestress of the Tuatha De Danann. Variant: Dana.
Don – goddess who ruled over the Land of the Dead.
Druantia – goddess known as Queen of the Druids and Mother of the tree calendar.
Eadon – nurse of poets
Eiru – daughter of the Dagda, her alternate name, Erin, was given to Ireland.
Flidais – goddess of forests, wild creatures. A shapeshifting goddess who rode in a deer-drawn chariot.
Goibniu – god of blacksmiths, weapon-makers, brewing. One of a triad of Tuatha De Danann craftsmen, he was called the Great Smith. Weapons that he forged always hit their mark and made fatal wounds. The other two craftsmen were Luchtain the wright, and Creidne the brazier.
Llyr – god of sea and water, may have also ruled the underworld. The father of Manawydan, Bran the Blessed, and Branwen.
Lugh – (Loo) a sun god of all crafts and arts, healing, journeys, prophecy. Son of Cian, a Tuatha De Danann. Of legend, his skills were without end; in Ireland he was associated with ravens; and a white stag as his symbol in Wales. He had a magic spear and otherworldly hounds. His festival was Lughnassadh, or Lunasa – August 1. Variants: Llew, Lug, Lugus, Lugh Lamhfada (of the long arm), Lug Samildananch (much skilled).
Macha – goddess of cunning, death, sheer physical force, war; protector in both battle and peace. Known as Crow, Queen of Phantoms, and the Mother of Life and Death, she was honored at Lunasa. Variants: Mania, Mana, Mene, Minne.
Manannan Mac Lir – (May-nah-naun) a shapeshifting god of the sea, magic, navigators, commerce, storms, rebirth, weather. The chief Irish sea god whose special retreat was the Isle of Man. In Wales his name was Manawydan ap Llyr. He had several magical weapons and a suit of armor that made him invisible; and his swine kept the Tuatha De Danann from aging.
Morrigan – a shapeshifting war goddess of lust, magic, prophecy, revenge, war. Known as Great Queen, Supreme War Goddess, Queen of Phantoms, and Specter Queen, she kept company with Fea (hateful), Badb (fury), and Macha (battle). Variants: Morrigu, Morrighan, Morgan.
Neit – god of battle.
Niamh – (Nee-av) possible form of Badb, this goddess was called Beauty and Brightness and helped heroes at death.
Nuada – (Noo-ada) god of harpers, healing, historians, magic, poets, warfare, writing. King of the Tuatha De Danann at one time, he had to step down when he lost his hand in battle; it was replaced by a silver one. Variants: Lud, Lludd, Llaw, Ereint, Nudd, Nodens.
Ogma – God of eloquence, inspiration, language, magic, music, physical strength, poets, writers. Invented the Ogam script alphabet and carried a huge club similar to Hercules’. Variants: Oghma, Ogmios, Grianainech (sun face), Cermait (honey-mouthed).
Scathach – (Scau-ahch) goddess of healing, magic, martial arts, prophecy. Called the Shadowy One, She Who Strikes Fear, and the Dark Goddess, she was a warrior woman and prophetess who lived in Albion, possibly on the Isle of Skye, and taught martial arts. Variants: Scota, Scatha, Scath.
White Lady – goddess of death and destruction. Called the Dryad of Death and Queen of the Dead, this goddess was a Crone aspect of the Goddess.