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The origin and spreading out of the Celtic peoples is a topic shrouded in mystery, at least to my mind. While the Germanic migrations occurred during the late Imperial Roman period and Early Middle Ages, the Celtic migrations generally occurred much earlier, as there is historical evidence of the Gaels existing in Ireland since at least 500 B.C.

The Brythonic Celts, as opposed to the Gaelic (or Goedelic) Celts, have a somewhat better-known history, at least in the sense that we know well that they inhabited the lands of Ancient Britannia (specifically England, Wales, and southern Scotland) and later Brittany in modern France (following the Anglo-Saxon invasions of England). Geographically, this is a fairly localised region, and well documented thanks to Roman sources.

A few facts we do know about the ancient Gaelic peoples:

  • They are a branch of the Celts, who ultimately are thought to originate with the Hallstatt culture in central Europe (Austria/Czech Republic/southern Poland/southern Germany), cerca 1500-1000 B.C.

  • Ancient Celtic peoples are documented to have settled in Gallaetia in Anatolia (by the Greeks), Bohemia (named after the Boii tribe), northern Italy (mentioned in the histories of the Roman Republic), most of modern France, Belgium, and parts of ancient Hispania.

  • The branching of the Celtic peoples into the Brythonic category and Gaelic category is based on well-studied linguistic principles, suggesting a major split in populations at one time.

  • Of these ancient regions, Gaul, Ireland, and Gallicia (as well as other regions of nothern Spain) were well-known Gaelic regions. The lesser-known Gallicia on the Polish/Ukraine border was also named after the Celtic tribes that once resided there.

  • The Gaelic folk of modern Scotland are known to descend from the Galiec immigrants from Ireland, who in the 5th (?) century A.D. founded the kingdom of Dal Raetia in western Scotland and the Hebrides. They displaced many of the original Brythonic/Pictish peoples, eventually assimilating along with the later arrivals of the Angles and Norsemen.

So my related questions are:

  1. What was the documented first mention of Celtic (Gaelic) inhabitants in Ireland?

  2. Where did the Gaelic inhabitants of Ireland, Gaul, and northern Spain come from? Was it a mutually common source or did one act as the progenitor of others?

  3. Are there any well documented sources about the proto-Gaelic people (opposed to the more generic proto-Celtic people); their language/culture/location?

Additionally, if anyone has information on any Celtic subgroups that fall outside of the common Gaelic/Brythonic divisions (for example the Anatolian Celts?), I would be most interested to hear of such.

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Any folks here care to give it a shot? I'd never down-vote an attempt, so long as its on-topic. :-) Please feel free. –  Noldorin Oct 16 '11 at 22:54
Tempted to set a bounty for this about now...! –  Noldorin Oct 17 '11 at 22:16
Surely the DNA evidence for the origins of European people in general, and including the Irish, is where the truth will eventually emerge? –  user3241 Dec 1 '13 at 5:27

5 Answers 5

This is kind of a wide-ranging question. I'll do my best with it.

The Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages consists of Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. It appears to have differentiated in Ireland, the other branches existing due to conquest/immigration. In particular, Scottish Gaelic pretty much completely replaced the Pictish element in Scotland, starting sometime between the 3rd and 6th centuries. There was also, according to the Romans, a movement into Cornwall and Wales, but that doesn't seem to have had a lasting impact. The word Gaelic itself seems to have been an Old Welsh word for "pirate" or "raider". :-)

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Here's a pitcure Wikipedia had showing the divisions of Celtic in the British Isles in the 5th Century. Green is Goidelic, Red is Brythonic, and Blue is Pictish, which eventually got replaced by Goidelic (and then Anglo-Saxon).

The earliest historical attestation I could find for Goideic:

The oldest written Goidelic language is Primitive Irish, which is attested in Ogham inscriptions up to about the 4th century. The forms of this speech are very close, and often identical, to the forms of Gaulish recorded before and during the Roman Empire. The next stage, Old Irish, is found in the margins of Latin religious manuscripts from the 6th to the 10th century

Going further back, you get your first clue here. Goidelic languages in the 4th century were not all that far removed from the Gaulish being spoken in today's France. Gaulish in turn is an Indo-European language of the Western branch. Indo-European is generally presumed to have been native to somewhere in the eastern european or west asian steppe. So presumably when the Indo-Europeans moved into Western Europe, their language became Celtic (or "Gaulish"), and when the Gauls moved into the British Isles, their languages became Goidelic in Ireland and Brythonic in England (and perhaps Pictish in Scotland).

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One correction I should make here though. Galician in Spain is a language cousin to Portugese. It is a Romance language, and doesn't have any closer relation to Celtic languages than any other Romance language does. (How close is a matter of debate. It used to be popular to combine them into a sub-family. Today that idea is out of fashion).

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There are a few problems with this answer. Gaelic/Goidelic/Gaulish/Gallic/Galatian/etc. (probably even 'Celtic') are all cognate, and the base word originates as an endonym for the Celtic peoples, that goes back very far indeed. The Ancient Greeks recorded "Galatians" in Anatolia. This was long before civilised Europe had any contact with Wales or the Welsh language. Certainly, the root etymology of "Gaelic" is far old than the nations of Wales, Ireland, France, etc., and possibly older than the Goidelic-Brythonic split. –  Noldorin May 21 '12 at 17:02
Galician is indeed a Romance language, but the culture and ethnicity of the region was historically strongly Celtic, and remains rather Celtic even to this day. They lost their native Celtic tongue along with other Celtic peoples in (northern) Iberia when the Romans conquered the peninsula. Before this, there is evidence of them speaking the "Gallaecian" language, a continental Celtic language. –  Noldorin May 21 '12 at 17:05
The best current theory for the origin of the Gaelic peoples is that originated somewhere in northern Spain and/or southern France during the westward migrations of the Celts in the 2nd and 1st millennia B.C. From these areas, they later spread to Ireland and finally Scotland. –  Noldorin May 21 '12 at 17:09
@Noldorin - Reading over you comments carefully, I think this is a situation where your "originated" is trying to say the same thing as my "...presumably when the Indo-Europeans moved into Western Europe, their language became Celtic...". I'll take agreement where I can get it. :-) –  T.E.D. May 21 '12 at 19:23
@Noldorin - Also note the maps I posted jibe with what you are saying as well (which I mostly don't disagree with). The green area in the "500 BC" map shows the extent of the Celts at the time, running from Spain to NW Anatolia. The next map shows all that southern band taken over by Latin or Greek. –  T.E.D. May 21 '12 at 19:27

The use of the word 'Celts', or the non Roman spelling, 'Kelts' (Romans had no K in their alphabet and so used C) is very confusing. The Britons were not Kelts, the Romans record that the Britons or Pretani called themselves the Britanni in the south and Brittoni in the north.

On Pliny's map Britain is named, and much of Europe including Gaul, is named 'Celtica'.

I understood that the term Keltic was an umbrella term for lots of different people, or described a group of languages. Today there seems to be a muddle where everything is termed 'Celtic'. I am trying to establish some clarity, so further information would be helpful.

I am very interested in your information on the Gaels - it would explain the Roman record of Druids in Ireland, as the Druids were from Gaul, not Britain. Archaeologists now think that the Druids and Kelts were driven from Celtica/Gaul by the Romans, and this would explain their flight to Anglesey as from here they could cross to Ireland.

Briffault (1926) is very interesting on Druids. He studied existing ancient manuscripts to find evidence of women's culture, and notes that Hannibal negotiated with Priestesses when he crossed the Alps. He found mention only of two groups of Druids, one in Ireland which presumably came with the Gaels, and one in SW Britain - perhaps from raiding Gaels.

Before the Christians destroyed the Temple of Diana at Ephesus there were recorded 6,000 Priestesses there. The Salic Law enacted in the 8th century forbade Priestesses to carry their cauldrons before them, and women still took precedence in the Christian church in the 10th century, and Abbesses ran double monasteries, great tracts of land, and minted their own coinage until 1300.

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Welcome to the site! This is an interesting and thoughtful comment. Is there any way you could expand your citation of Briffault (1926) any further? –  NotVonKaiser Mar 17 '14 at 19:04
This isn't true. Britons had a Celtic culture, albeit perhaps not a wholly Celtic origin in people. –  Noldorin Mar 17 '14 at 21:44

There are some theories that the Gael's originated from the Basque shelter and are not even of Indo-European decent, however their language originated from later invading tribes from central Europe who were more advanced and dominated (possibly of Asia Minor origin). To confuse the theory, the same race of people also lived in Britain.

Certainly the so called Celtic Cross is not of La Ten or Hallstatt origin, it is far older. The ancient language of the Gael's is not to be confused with the majority of the tribes who lived there.

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Late to this discussion, but relevant, is that the Gaels of Ireland claim to have migrated from Galicia in Spain. In the most popular legend, the son of the King of Galicia climbed a tall tower and spied a green land beyond: Ireland. (Ridiculous, because no mountain is high enough.) He sailed over, liked it, and more settlers followed.

In the real world, there is a lighthouse on the Galician coast, which curiously faces Ireland. It was there before the Romans, and has been maintained ever since. It's known by its Roman name: the Tower of Hercules.

My male line of ancestry, the Driscolls, are Irish, but not Gaelic. Instead, they are the senior line of the Corcu Loigde, the high chiefs of the Dáirine tribe, who are Eireann and thus pre-Gaelic. In Claudius Ptolemy's "Geographia" he locates the Darini (as he spells it) in the north-east of Ireland, which is right, because the Dáirine are kin to the Uí Néill who provided many of the High Kings of Ireland; in addition, one High King was Dáirine. The tribal name means "scions of Dáire", which is Irish for Darius.

One Irish tale about Fionn mac Cumhaill describes how Dáire Donn, ruler of the world, tried to add Ireland to his empire, only to be defeated by Fionn and his intrepid band. I think this story was carried to Ireland by the Celtic version of Chinese whispers, based on Darius the Persian's defeat by the plucky Athenians at Marathon in 490 BC.

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Interesting. Thank you for this answer. I've also heard of the tale of the Gaels originating from Galicia. While it may be easy to dismiss as fantasy, it history and archaeology certainly suggest the Gaels made their way to Ireland directly from continental Europe, and not by way of Britain (which a separate group of Celtic peoples settled, from northern France). –  Noldorin Mar 9 at 0:46

There is some evidence for contact between ancient Ireland and Egypt. This doesn't fall into the category of weird sci-fi speculation; it's just that some people believe that Christainity in Ireland was influenced by the Coptic church to some extent. I am not up to speed on this but one interesting thing is that the concept of the religious person going off into the wilderness is very obvious in early Irish Christianity. There are still some places in Ireland called "dysert", and I have read claims that this is related to Irish monks going off into the wilderness, which was their equivalent of the "desert". Monks going to live in remote places such as Skelligs, etc., are well know. All of this may or may not hold water. I haven't read enough around it to make a judgement. Coptic Christian art and the book of kells seem to resonate also in terms of style.

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Sure... the Roman Empire encompassed Egypt at the time of early Coptic Christianity, and also Britain, both of which it effectively Christianised. This persisted even after the collapse for a short time time, thanks to Byzantine trade and power. Christianity during the Roman Imperial period was disparate and sectarian, but that doesn't mean there weren't a lot of cross-influences going on. –  Noldorin Mar 7 '12 at 0:31
(contd.) The Empire provided for quick trade routes and efficient communication, hence ideas could have easily spread between the two, especially regarding something as important and pervasive as a nascent religion. Early Irish Christianity was influenced both by the Brythonic form (pre-Anglo Saxon) and continental Christianity to varying degrees. –  Noldorin Mar 7 '12 at 0:32
Read this question about Egyptian contact with Ireland. –  American Luke Nov 3 '12 at 0:52

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