Celtic culture developed in the Alps of Central Europe and spread across modern-day Germany, France and into the Balkans as far as Turkey. Around 500BC they are said to have arrived in what was then known as the Pretanic Islands, or Great Britain and Ireland as we know them today. Within a few hundred years, Ireland’s bronze age culture had ended and Celtic culture was in place across the island. Whether or not their arrival in Ireland was by invasions like the vikings or a more gradual assimilation is still up for debate. Here we’ll try to find out a little bit more the people we know today as the Celts.
Ancient Celtic religion is commonly known as Celtic paganism. Very little is known with any certainty about the subject, but the Celts were believed to be polytheistic, meaning they worshiped and believed in many deities. Apart from documented names that are thought to be of the deities, there’s very few detailed accounts which can be said to have come from reliable, unbiased writers. However, Celtic burial practices do suggest that they believed in a life after death. Similar to that of the pharaohs in ancient Egypt , the dead were buried with anything from weapons to food, presumably for them to carry on to the next world. For example the Lady of Vix found in France was buried with large amounts of jewellery including a 480 gram 24-carat gold torc, a type of neck ring.The Hill of Tara in County Meath is a limestone ridge boasting views across the central plain of Ireland to distant mountain ranges. It functioned as a burial site in the Stone Age and was used as a headquarters by Celtic Kings. Unexcavated, with the remains of ring forts and a standing stone marking Ireland’s one time spiritual capital, the Hill of Tara still hosts religious and spiritual gatherings today.
It is understood that Celtic tribes lived in scattered villages. Round houses with thatched roofs were the main dwellings of the time. “Wattle and daub” houses were very common, especially in the south where wood was abundant. Wattle was the name given to the wooden walls used for houses. Daub was the method of roofing the abode which involved thatched straw or heather topped off with mud to keep the heat in. Houses had no windows and a hole in the center of the roof was used to allow smoke from the fire to escape. Animals were often kept inside at night therefore some houses had an extra wattle wall for keeping them separate from the clan. Castell Henllys in Pembrokeshire, Wales is an important archaeological site. Experiments in prehistoric farming are being practiced here and four roundhouses and a granary have been reconstructed on their original Iron Age Foundations, dating as far back as 500BC. This gives visitors an immersive look at what life was like in Celtic times.
The art produced by the Celts is generally associated with ornamental artistry comprised of repeating patterns, spirals and triskeles, knots, foliage, and animal forms. Celtic artists took inspiration from non Celtic sources, but preferred geometrical decoration over figurative subjects, which are often extremely stylised when they do appear. Most of the surviving art is in precious metals which no doubt gives a very unrepresentative picture. The Celtic art of Ireland however is particularly noteworthy because it was relatively untouched during the roman empire. Some famous examples of Celtic Irish artistry are the Tara Brooch and the Ardagh Chalice. The chalice can be found in the National Museum of Ireland along with several other artifacts and exhibitions relating to Celtic times.
The story of the ancient Celts is a dense and interesting one and offers endless avenues of investigation for those wishing to explore. We offer several trips covering many of the ancient Celtic sites throughout Ireland. Our St. Patrick’s Trail Self Drive tour offers extensive coverage of important sites across Ireland including Hill of Tara, Newgrange and the Book Of Kells. Follow the link to find out more.