Who were the people called Celts (pronounced Kelts, not soft "C" as in The Boston Celtics), the ancestors of the Irish?
It is a mystery where or when the first Celts appeared. Perhaps this is why they are called, "The People Who Came Out of the Darkness." We do know that sometime before 1200 B.C. Celtic tribes had migrated westward from the Danube basin and by 1000 B.C. they dominated all of Europe west of the Rhine River. In the following centuries they expanded their empire to include Ireland in the west to Turkey in the east, and Spain and Italy in the south. They left evidence of their presence in the names of the major European rivers and the names of several major cities, London, Paris, Dublin, and Milan, to name a few.
Celts came to the attention of Greek and Roman historians centuries before the time of Christ. The Romans referred to them as "Gauls," the Greeks as "Galatai" or "Keltoi." Below are some comments these ancient historians made about these "Northern Barbarians." Their descriptions might give some insight into what the ancestors of the modern- day Irish are like.
Almost all the Gauls are of tall stature, fair and ruddy, terrible for the fierceness of their eyes, fond of quarreling and of overbearing insolence.
Physically the Gauls are terrifying in appearance. The Gallic women are not only equal to their husbands in stature but rival them in strength as well.
The way they dress is astonishing. They wear cloaks fastened at the shoulder with a broach. These cloaks are brightly colored, striped and checkered in design. (Tartans)
As to the personality of the Celts,
They frequently exaggerate with the aim of extolling themselves and diminishing the status of others. They are boasters and threateners and given to bombastic self dramatization, and yet they are quick of mind and with good natural ability for learning.
The Gauls pursued two ideals with great fervor: valor in combat and talking common sense.
At dinner they are wont to be moved by chance remarks to wordy disputes and to fight in single combat, regarding their lives as naught.
In conversations they use very few words and speak in riddles, for the most part hinting at things and leaving a great deal to be understood.
To believe that we can penetrate the Celtic mind, and share the Celt's psychological condition and feelings, is a pure waste of time.
It's no secret that the Irish are renowned for their drinking. As descendants of the Celts they come by this reputation naturally:
The Celts are exceedingly fond of wine and drink it greedily. When they become drunk they fall into a stupor or into a maniacal disposition.
The history books make little mention of the Celts even though their military prowess was formidable particularly in the third and fourth centuries before Christ. Here is a partial list of their accomplishments during that time period:
They defeated the Roman army and sacked Rome.
They defeated the Greek army at Thermopylae and sacked Delphi.
They served as mercenaries in Egyptian armies and helped the Pharaohs win battles against their countless enemies.
They marched with Hannibal's army when he crossed the alps to invade Italy. Although they constituted 50% of the army they accounted for 75% of battle casualties. This was because in every battle, Hannibal put his Celtic troops "front and center."
They established a Celtic state they named Galatia (modern day Turkey). St. Paul's epistle to the Galatians was to this group.
By the 1st Century B.C. their military power had declined and they were often on the losing side of battles. Many were made slaves by their Roman conquerors. In fact, Spartacus (played by Kirk Douglas in the movie), the leader of the famous slave revolt against the Romans is thought to have been a Celt. One of the most moving of ancient statues, "The Dying Gaul" of course depicted a Celt.
Caesar brought an end to the Celtic nation in Europe when he waged his famous Gallic War against them. A century later the Celts in Britain also fell to Rome's armies. The only unconquered Celts left were those that lived in Ireland.
In the 5th century, the Romans had withdrawn from Britain and for a short time the Celts were again in charge of their destiny. However, war soon broke out between them and descendants of German mercenaries (Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) brought over centuries before. The last Celtic King to win a major victory over the Anglo-Saxons was the famous King Arthur. It was at Mount Bladon in 496 A.D. (three years after the death of St. Patrick in Ireland) that he and the Knights of the Round Table decisively defeated their enemy, now called English. (An Irish satirist once commented, "the English are Germans who have forgotten who their parents are." The battle of Mount Bladon turned out to be a last gasp for the Celts because by the end of the 6th century, all of England except for Wales was under the control of the English.
One interesting footnote. The English referred to their Celtic enemies as the "Britanni." Usually the names of the vanquished disappear from history while the names of the victorious side live on. Not so with the Britanni. Their name lives on even today as the "British" nation and the "British Isles."