The Celts stand out as one of the most daring of all the ancient European people in the history of pre-Roman Europe. They arrived on the European stage in prehistoric times as a "fierce naked warrior class that collected enemy heads as war trophies," and evolved into a singular culture that flourished during the European Iron Age. They laid the foundation of western European civilization; before the Romans came, their influence was felt across Europe from Asia Minor to the Atlantic seaboards, perhaps no where more strongly than in Ireland, where their language and legends live on.

A Short History of the Celts

By Patrick Lavin

Stastliche Museum zu Berlin
A bronze figure of a typical Celtic warrior from around the late 3rd century A.D.

The Celts are a branch of the Indo-European family from which most of the present-day European, Middle Eastern, and Indian races are descended. Their forebears are thought to have lived in the region of the Volga steppes in what is now western Russia. Originally hunters, they evolved into semi-nomadic herders and are given credit for domesticating the horse. By 3000 B.C., they began drifting away from the steppes into the lush valleys of central Europe where some settled in the Alpine region of Austria. There, among indigenous tribes who occupied much of what is now Hungary and western Romania along the middle Danube, they established a tripartite caste system of aristocratic warrior-lord, farmer and serf that matured into a Bronze Age people known as the Urnfielders, so named by archaeologists because they buried the cremated remains of their dead in urns in flat cemeteries. By the 12th B.C., urned cremation had spread throughout the heart of Europe to present-day Italy, eastern France, Switzerland, Germany and southern Poland.[1]

Celtic Culture in Ireland

Historians have had difficulty in reconstructing the early history of Celtic Ireland. This is because the only written evidence comes from mythological tales, poems, and the Book of Invasions, a scholarly collection of various oral traditions which was compiled in the ninth and twelfth centuries by scholarly monks. Celtic culture in Ireland, however, is generally believed to have found its roots in the last millennium B.C., during the Iron Age.

Museo Capitolino, Rome
"The Dying Celt," a Roman statue of a Celtic warrior dying following a battle with a Roman army.

The first Celtic-speaking tribes are believed to have arrived on the island about 600 B.C. in what is referred to as the Hallstatt era. They were followed by other colonists, the main thrust of whom arrived in the later La Tene era, sometime between the 3rd and 1st centuries B.C.

They arrived from neighboring Britain, Gaul, and Iberia: tribes from two main stems of the Continental Celts - the Belgae[2] originating in northern Gaul and the Gael from southern Gaul and the northern seaboard of the Iberian Peninsula. They were fleeing from the Roman legions who were advancing across Europe.

By the time Julius Caesar had completed his conquest of Celtic Europe in the 1st B.C., the beginning of the end of Celtic society on the European mainland had arrived. The imperial armies of Rome next invaded Britain, and again the Celts capitulated. Only in Ireland, untouched by the Romans, would Celtic culture survive and flourish, similar in many ways to what it had been in the centuries before the first Roman legions marched across the Alps to transform the face of Europe.

Medieval Versions of Celtic Incursions
Werner Forman Archive
From a section of the "Gunderstrup Cauldren," a Celtic work, probably brought to Denmark as plunder by the Vikings.

Native historical renditions from medieval accounts describe four separate Celtic incursions into Ireland in pre-historic times: the Priteni, who were the first to colonize the island, were followed by the Belgae, who invaded Ireland from northern Gaul and Britain. Later, Laighin tribes from Armorica (present-day Brittany) are believed to have invaded Ireland and Britain more or less simultaneously. Lastly, the Milesians (Gaels) reached Ireland from either northern Iberia or southern Gaul.

The earlier invaders are believed to have spoken a Brythonic dialect of Celtic recognized linguistically as P-Celtic. It was the language of Gaul and Britain. It survives today as Welsh, Cornish and Breton. The Gael invaders spoke the Gaelic dialect, recognized linguistically as Q-Celtic, which they brought with them from Spain. Gaelic replaced Brythonic over time as the dominant idiom of the Irish Celts, and it survives today in the Irish, Scottish, and Manx languages.

The First Wave: Priteni Colonists

The Priteni tribes (Ireland and Britain were known to the early Greeks as the Pritenic Islands) are believed to have arrived some time after 700 B.C. Their origin as Celts is questionable, and according to some sources they were more likely to have been the indigenous descendants of the earlier Neolithic inhabitants of the island. Probably, they were a mixture of both. Their descendants in Ireland became the Cruitin tribes, later living alongside the powerful Dal-Riada (Belgae tribes) that dominated northeastern Ulster up to the ninth century A.D. The Romans, who never fully succeeded in conquering them in northern Britain, referred to them as the Picti, meaning painted people.

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The Second Wave: Euerni Colonists

The second wave, the Euerni, or Erainn, belonging to the Belgae people of northern Gaul, began arriving about the 6th B.C. They called their new home Eueriio, which would later evolve through the Old Irish Eriu to Eire, and from Eire to Ireland. The Erainn, more commonly referred to in contemporary references as the Firbolgs, claimed to be descendant from the god Daire through his son Lugaid, and they preserved traditions which told how their ancestor Lugaid had led an army from Britain and conquered Ireland. The significance of the legend concerning Lugaid is that it points out that the Erainn, according to their own traditions, came to Ireland from Britain.[3] From Ptolemy's[4] account of Ireland (c.325 B.C.) there is good reason to believe that the Erainn tribes were then the most widespread and predominant on the island.

Landesmuseum, Bonn
Torque, rings, and bracelets found in a Celtic grave on the continent illustrate the artistic quality of Celtic ornamentation.

After the beginning of the La Tene era, the Erainn were followed by other Belgae colonists. They contributed greatly to their adopted country with their art forms: swords, torcs and vessels very similar to those produced on the Continent. However, there is little evidence that their technological capabilities had any affect on the archaic life-style of the natives. They seem to have set up very few oppidum-like hill settlements, common in Britain and the Continent at the time. Instead, they made do with the natives' style of dwellings: rudimentary, circular beehive-shaped stone houses built without mortar.

Several offshoots of the Belgae colonists can be identified: the Menappi in Wicklow, the Dal-Riada in western Antrim and the Dal-Fiatach in eastern Ulster. Norman Mongan maintains that many of the present nameplaces in Ireland containing syllables such as mong, muin, maine, managh, monach, manach, mannog, etc., attest to the presence of the Belgae in the area at some stage.[5]

Third Wave: Laginian Colonists

The third wave of colonization is believed to have taken place about 300 B.C. They were the Laginians or, according to their own tradition, Gauls who came to Ireland from Armorica. Their name association with Laighi, the ancient name for Leinster, suggests that this was where they first settled. Another branch of the same people was the Galioin (or Gailenga), who settled in an area north of Dublin and Meath. Eventually the Galioin extended their power to northwestern Connacht and in the process forced many Belgae (Firbolg) tribes into the remoter parts of the province. One can still see, in the remoter areas of western Ireland, the remains of many great stone forts built by the Firbolgs in their defense against the Galioin.

In the Tain Bo Cualnge,[6] there is mention of 300 Gailioin serving under Ailill and Meave in their expedition into Ulster against King Conchobar. Within a few generations, they had established themselves in northern Connacht, where in County Sligo their descendants included the O'Hara and O'Gara families. The strength of the Laginians was uppermost in south Leinster where they remained the dominant power well into historic times. They made little impact in Munster or in Ulster, suggesting that their occupation was limited to parts of present-day Leinster and Connacht. Like the Belgae, the Laginian tribes were linguistically P-Celts, and had kinsmen in Britain.

The Last Wave: Milesians (Gaels)
Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht
The Grianan of Aileach, the great Dun (Fort) of the Ui Neill clan, on Inishowen peninsula, Co. Donegal.

The last major Celtic settlement in Ireland is believed to have taken place between 150 and 50 B.C. These people have been identified as the Milesians (Sons of Mil, or Gaels) who, according to tradition, fled Roman incursions into northern Iberia and southern Gaul. These were Iron Age Celts and their dominance over the island was to last well over a thousand years. The ancient manuscript, Leabar-Gabala, has them landing at two locations, Kerry in the south and the Boyne estuary in the east. Those who landed through the Boyne estuary pushed the earlier Laighin settlers from their land in north Leinster and established their kingship at Tara. The southern Gaels had no fixed location in the beginning; instead they pushed inland moving from one district to another until eventually they made Cashel their headquarters.

Gael subjugation of the Belgae and Laighin occupiers of the island was, according to O'Rahilly, still incomplete as late as the beginning of the fifth century A.D.[7] The Ulaid tribe still ruled Emain and were challenging the midland Gaels for supremacy, and it was only in A.D. 516 that the conquest of the midlands was finally achieved when "the Plain of Mide" was wrested from the Laighin.


Without the classical sources of information on Ireland (such as that which is available from Roman and Greek sources about the Continental Celts), historians are limited to what archaeology can tell them, and what is revealed from the vernacular literature.[8] The archaeological evidence, as always, raises questions of interpretation, and, as was pointed out previously, the vernacular evidence is limited and distorted because it was written down largely by Christian scribes many centuries after the events which it describes actually took place.


[1] Gerhard The Celts (1977) 
[2] Also referred to as the Eurerni, Belgic, Menapia and Firbolg.
[3] Thomas F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology (1946)
[4] Ptolemy's Geography.
[5] The Menapia Quest (1995)
[6] "The Cattle-Raid of Cooley" is one of the great Irish heroic sagas depicting warfare between the men of Connacht and the men of Ulster in which Cuchullian and his "ardent and adored foster brother" Ferdia face each other in heroic single combat.
[7] Thomas F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology (1946)
[8] The Romans never invaded Ireland

About the author

Patrick Lavin was born in County Roscommon, Ireland. He now makes his home in Tucson, Arizona. Mr. Lavin has authored these books:

Celtic Ireland West of the River Shannon (Writers' Club Press, Lincoln, NE, 2003) 
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The Celtic World: An Illustrated History 700 BC to the Present (Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York, 1999) 
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Arizona: An Illustrated History (Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York, 2001) 
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Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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