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Carlow County - Ireland Genealogical Projects (IGP TM)

The Celtic Irish, or are we?


The Celtic Irish, or are we?

By: Willie White

PERHAPS the fact that Carlow has been declared the Celtic Capital of Ireland has sent my mind going back in time to find out how it all came about. One of the things that had made me think about it was the language.

If the Celts brought the language we now speak when we converse in what we call Irish, what was the language we spoke before they came to the Irish shore? We may have been a mongrel race with a lot of different dialects but surely we spoke some general form that enabled the people of Leinster understand the people of Munster and so on. While we are proud that Carlow is deemed the Celtic Capital of Ireland we wonder what the language they spoke before the arrival of the Celts.

In saying this we must go back to long before the Book of Kells was written. The only writing known before that was Ogam or Ogham, which was an early Irish system of writing preserved on stone, or to state it more correctly, the edges of stone. It consisted of an alphabet consisting of roughly 25 letters. These letters were generally incised along the edges of a stone pillar. As we turn the pages of a book, so the inscribers put their marks of varying length on the corners of the usually square stone pillars on which they worked. Several instances of these stones are to be found in different parts of the country. These columns are also to be found in Wales, and what was often called the ‘hurling stones’ were also located in Cornwall.

The information on the stones generally referred to the ancestors or some noted person from the area. It looks as if these stones dated from the 4th century to the 7th which would roughly correspond with the period of time from paganism to Christianity in Ireland. It is true that the language employed on some of the stones could be Primitive Irish, a language which was retained through the old pagan priestly class or some dignified characters of an earlier time.

Now to get back to the amount of influence the coming of the Celts had on what we now call the Irish language. Another point to be remembered is that the Celts did not come in hordes as some people think, they came in small groups, and some of those groups settled where they landed while other bands took to their boats and put to sea again. Some of those who settled and made their homes probably leanred some of the words now used in the Irish language from the natives of the area where they had made their home while the native Irish in turn began to use some of the words of the stranger. We should also remember that there were two distinct dialects of the Celtic language, the ‘P’ Celts and the ‘Q’ Celts as they were termed used different names for the same place or thing, and this adds to the mystery of the language question.

Of one thing we are quite sure, that no matter what we think or say there won’t be any changes in what we call our native language now. To go back to the time the Celts first arrived in Ireland there can be no doubt that the Celts had reached Ireland in the end of the Bronze Age or the beginning of the Iron Age, and that they were responsible for what became the dominant language of the country eventually. (This was before the arrival of the Normans).

A number of stories are told of happenings that occurred at the time and place of their landing, and how the majority of the stories old came from old Irish roots just as the stories of happenings at the time of the Vikings and the Norman landings. The big difference between the landings of the exploring Celts and the plundering Vikings and the land hungry Normans were the reasons for their arrival. Another question we must ask ourselves is if Ogam was a written language was it ever a spoken one, and what is there to prove one way or the other.

Nothing is known of the pre-Celtic language of Ireland. By the first centuries of the Christian Era the inhabitants of Ireland were speaking an early form of Irish. The number of Irish chieftains raiding the western part of Britain and extending northwards into Scotland ensured that Irish and Scottish remained the chief language (whatever that was) until the 13th century. Prior to that period, Latin was the best known language ‘among the children of the school’s’, if there were any, of their time.

There may have been a form of Gaelic in the country when the Viking settlers of the 9th and 10th centuries reached our shores. A form of what we will call Nordic Gaelic survived for some time in Ireland and Scotland but later was lost to another form of language which was called Gaelic. This was probably the spoken language during Ireland’s golden period until the Norman invasion which had a profound effect on Irish native learning which was no longer carried on with the same intensity in the monastic centres. In spite of this Irish remained the language of the majority of the people of the country up to the early 1700’s following which it began to decline.

Actually it was from the ‘Hedge Schools’ that thousands of Irish people learned English which had been introduced and forced upon the people following the Tudor conquest. It has often been said that the shift from the native language (Irish) to the language of the conquerors (English) was a big source in weakening the attachment of a lot of the native Irish to their own country. Let this be true or not it still does not tell us why or how our country became known as Celtic Ireland.

Thoughts of our ancestors and their clans

NOTE: TARA: "For many centuries the most sacred place in Ireland, and the main residence of the high kings was Tara in County Meath, the ancient site dating back to 2000BC. It was regarded as the Celtic capital of Ireland, being an important religious and political centre, although the site of Tara is thought to have been a sacred one long before the Celts, possibly from Neolithic times. Tara features in various Irish Celtic legends. It was the capital of the Tuaha Dé Danaan and the location of the court of Conchobar Mac Nessa and thus the home of the Red Branch.

Source: The Carlow Nationalist c2008 & Terry Cullan.
Art source:

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