That we can write a joint history of the Celts (as opposed to the individual national histories of the Irish, Welsh, Scots, etc.), is a remarkably recent idea.

Around the year 1700, really no-one in Britain or Ireland thought of themselves, or their ancestors, as 'Celtic'. Until that time, ever since the period of the Roman Empire, 'Celtic' had referred only to the Ancient Gauls of France and related Continental peoples.

The concept that the Scots, Welsh, Irish and some other groups in the British Isles may be called 'Celtic' evolved during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. How far is it a rediscovery of a forgotten past reality? Or is it simply a modern invention, imposed on the past?


Above, a Highland soldier, c.1900, often seen as the direct inheritor of a Celtic warrior tradition
 

 

 

Writing history; assumptions and motives

Questions of peoples, ethnicity (cultural, racial and national identity) and migrations, are all much more complex and messy than neat potted histories suggest. It is also a general rule that people recounting histories always have an axe to grind, or at least, have a set of presuppositions which make them present information in a certain way; history is not 'the truth', it is the writer interpreting what he or she considers to be significant evidence. For more on this, see:

 

How can we write history?  
     
 

The Celts; discovery or invention?

At the historical roots of all this lie the peoples of the European Iron Age who are regarded as the first Celts. The question some archaeologists are now exploring is: do the modern usages of the term 'Celtic' actually serve to celebrate the antiquity of a people? Or do they obscure the identities of a family of brilliant but actually quite diverse peoples, who would be surprised to discover they are being called 'Celts'?

The central paradox is that, so far as we can tell, in antiquity the only peoples known (to either themselves or their neighbours) as 'Celts' lived entirely on the Continent; the peoples of the British Isles were perceived as being similar to the Celtic Gauls of what is now France, but were thought of as ethnically distinct, certainly by the Romans and probably by the Gauls.

Yet today the only modern peoples called 'Celtic' are the descendants of these island-dwelling 'peoples-distinguished-from-the-Celts' in the past. How has this switch been accomplished?

  • People in modern times have discovered the links between these ancient continental Celts, and the ancient Britons and Irish;
  • they already knew of the links between the ancient British and Irish on the one hand,and the modern Welsh, Irish, Scots, etc. on the other;
  • they then linked this all together into a whole, which they have called 'Celtic'

Above, how William Stukeley imagined a Druid in the early 18th century. As well as helping to start the craze for things druidical, Stukeley was the first persion to describe ancient monuments in the British countryside as 'Celtic'
     
 

Differing views of the Celts

The conventional view of 'Celticity' is that, largely due to migration from a Central European Iron Age homeland, much of Continental Europe and the British Isles shared a common package of Celtic language and culture, and that it is the similarities which matter most. All these people spoke related tongues; they were all non-literate, non-urban, and shared many common features of social organization and religious belief (a warrior class, Druidic priesthood), had similar art, etc.

An alternative view is that the similarities exist, but their extent is sometimes more apparent than real; that it is the local identities, and therefore the differences between these people which are important. The idea of a universal 'Celtic cultural package' is seen as dangerously misleading.

For example, not all people called Celts used 'Celtic' (La Tène style) art (e.g. the Celtiberians of Spain did not). Similarly, the sparse evidence about Druids is consistent with the idea that the cult may have been confined to the British Isles and much of Gaul, and may have been unknown among the majority of the Continental Celts in the Iron Age.

Likewise, the societies labelled 'Celtic' seem to have had a far greater variety of social and political organization across time and geography than is usually assumed. Wessex in the fifth century BC, for example, may have had no well-defined nobilty, or any warrior class; while the Aedui of Gaul in Caesar's time were literate, had cities and elaborate constitutional government.

     
 

Conflicting ideas, and the question of motives

Not surprisingly, when assumptions about ethnic identity and political motivation come under scrutiny, feelings run high.
  • The new examination of the status quo on Celtic history is suggesting to some that the whole edifice is little more than a house of cards of wishful thinking, romantic nationalism and New Age fantasy, resting on discredited scholarly foundations.
  • In response, others have seen the critique of the traditional view of Celtic history as motivated by sinister forces, particularly English nationalism and neo-colonialism (many of the key players are English, but by no means all). (See the Megaw's article in Further Reading)
Yet these are opposite, extreme views. My own feeling is that the situation is much more complex, interesting and positive than either of these interpretations would allow.

 

     
 

Where to from here?

While I do believe that much of the commonly accepted Celtic history is a modern myth, that is a perfectly normal part of the construction of any ethnic identity; the English are especially good at creating national myths and 'ancient' traditions! (see Hobsbawm and Trigger in Further Reading)

Nonetheless, this does not mean that the idea of modern Celtic identity is significantly more 'fraudulent' or unreal than any other - such as English, French, German, or indeed 'British' in the modern political sense. The latter is no older than modern 'Celtic' identity; both were creations of the 18th century.

So long as we are aware of these contemporary processes, they need not prevent us from interpreting the past in a critical manner. At the moment, the realisation that the image of the ancient Celts may have been as much a hindrance as a help in understanding the past, is leading to an excited exploration of the differences between Iron Age peoples, and the far greater chasm between their world, and ours today.

 

     
 

Were our ancestors much like us?

There is another important way in which highlighting the danger of assuming too easily that modern and ancient Celts are somehow identical may help us understand the peoples of the Iron Age more clearly.

As the archaeologist J.D.Hill has pointed out, if we assume that the peoples of the Iron Age are our close cultural ancestors, we automatically prejudge what they were like. If we are Celts, and they were Celts, then it is all too easy to think that they must have fitted with our ideas of what Celts are, or recently were. They must fit into the Celtic 'cultural package'; yet that package is largely a modern construct, cobbled together from fragments from different times and places.

Once we realise this, other possibilites open up: the Ancient Britons, Irish, and indeed Gauls, may have been very different from us and, if we could meet them, they would actually seem far more alien than we have imagined. The development of such new insights gives us a much wider range of tools for understanding the past, and possible interpretations to explore.

 

(The statue of the ancient hero Cu Chulainn which stands in Dublin Post Office, commemorating the Irish rising of Easter 1916. Here the continuity of ancient and modern Ireland is powerfully proclaimed)
     
 

A question of identities

It is likely that the earlier inhabitants of Continental Europe and the British Isles actually had a hierarchy of identities, as we do today. Now living in the East Midlands of England, I am an adopted Londoner, a Southerner, an Englishman, a Briton and a European; the identity I choose to emphasise depends on where I am and who I am talking to!

I suspect that before the Romans came, a person living in Britain or Ireland thought of their first loyalty as being to their family and local clan, then to their tribal confederation, or local kingdom. At least until Rome appeared, and changed the shape of their world forever,I wonder how far they thought of themselves even as British or Irish.

There is no evidence that they thought of themselves as sharing an identity with the Gauls, and I certainly do not believe they called themselves Celts. It may be useful to us today sometimes to think of them as 'Celtic' in the loose sense of similar languages and arts, but this level is perhaps not the most useful one for understanding the past. It is too loose, like 'Germanic', 'Latin', or even 'European'.

 

 

I think it is folly to see all these new perspectives as an 'English imperialist' attempt at 'divide and rule'. It certainly is not intended to be an attack on, for example, Irish, Scots or Welsh identity, or even the desire many people have to express a sense of identity which is 'living in the British Isles, but certainly not English!'

Rather, it is about being more careful about how we use, and often misuse, what we know, or believe we know, about earlier cultures, whose 'voices' in the fragmentary evidence of history can easily be drowned out if we pursue our own emotional or political ends too uncritically.

The roots of the new approach are to be found, I believe, in the post-colonial emphasis on multiculturalism, and the celebration of difference between cultures. This makes it possible to consider the Iron Age peoples of Britain, for instance, not as generic Celts, but as a mosaic of distinct societies, each with their own traditions and histories.