The Fringe of Europe: An Introduction to the Celtic People

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

The history of the Celtic people is fascinating, and it spans the globe and 3,000 years. How did a people on the fringe of Europe make such an impact? And what are some of the key themes in the Celtic story?

Gaul/celtic soldiers

An introduction to the sweep of Celtic history begins with two paired scenes of triumph and defeat. These scenes can tell us much about the key themes and impact of the Celtic people.

Triumph and Defeat through the Ages

Beginning with the scene of triumph, it’s 390 B.C. and the ferocious Gaulish tribesmen of northern Italy have defeated the Roman army just outside the city of Rome. As the Gauls enter the city, they come upon the elderly Roman patricians, sitting stoically, unmoving, on their ivory chairs outside their houses, bravely awaiting their fate. At first, the Gauls think these Romans are statues of gods. But once they realize that they are only men, the tribesmen savagely slaughter them all. The Gauls have humbled the most powerful city in Italy, the future seat of a world empire.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

And now, the scene of Celtic defeat: It’s 46 B.C., shortly after Julius Caesar has brought Gaul, which is now France, under Roman control. After uniting the tribes of Gaul against Caesar, the great Gaulish rebel leader Vercingetorix has made a last, unsuccessful stand against the power of Rome. After five years of captivity, at the moment of Caesar’s choosing, Vercingetorix is led off to Rome to be exhibited in a triumphal parade and then ritually strangled. The Gaulish threat to Rome is ended once and for all.

Painting of Vercingetorix's surrender
The great Gaulish rebel leader Vercingetorix threw down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar. Painting by Lionel Royer (1852–1926)  

Now, going forward many centuries and transporting to the heart of the continent of Europe to its very periphery: the island of Ireland. This time, starting with a scene of Celtic defeat, it is April 1603. Hugh O’Neill is the leader of the most dangerous rebellion against English rule in Ireland since the arrival of the first English colonists in the 12th century; but after losing a key battle in the south of Ireland, he has been hiding out on his northern estates. O’Neill knows that Queen Elizabeth I is close to death, but he would prefer to wait and make peace with her successor, the future James I, who he believes will give him a better deal.

Learn more about the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras

Finally, O’Neill cannot hold out any longer, and he submits. Only afterwards does he discover that he has been tricked by the English Lord Deputy Mountjoy, who has concealed news of the queen’s death until after O’Neill has made his submission. The English government slowly undermines his traditional rights as an Irish chieftain until, four years later, he feels driven to go into exile alongside several other Irish lords. This so-called “Flight of the Earls” marks the effective end of native rule in Ireland and the beginning of a long period of repression and marginalization for the native Irish, during which time the Irish language declines, along with many other aspects of traditional Irish culture.

And now, during a scene of triumph in May 2011, a different queen Elizabeth is on a state visit to the Republic of Ireland. She visits the graves of Irish patriots who had rebelled against British rule and leaves a floral tribute. She makes a speech in which she alludes with regret to the troubled past relationship between Britain and Ireland. And, to the astonishment and delight of her audience, Queen Elizabeth II begins her speech with a couple of words in the Irish language.

The History of the Celts

So, there were two encounters between Celtic peoples and their much more powerful adversaries. The first began in triumph and ended in defeat, while the second began in defeat and ended in reconciliation; though, of course, the story continues. The history of the Celtic world includes the ancient Celts, who roamed across Europe and terrified the Romans and the Greeks, but who also created one of the most captivating art styles the world has ever seen.

This history also includes the Celtic Fringe, a region on the extreme edge of western Europe where the people created and preserved traditions in art, music, and literature that influence modern culture around the world. These Celtic areas have been defined in various ways over time. To give them their most expansive definition, they include the whole of the island of Ireland; the western parts of Britain, especially Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, in the southwest; and the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea between Ireland and Britain. The Celtic realms also include Brittany in western France, and by some definitions, the northwestern parts of Spain, especially Galicia.

Learn more about the roots of Irish identity from Celts to monks

So, there are two stories to tell: the story that takes place in the heart of Europe and the story that takes place on the periphery of Europe. And it’s worth exploring the connection between these two phenomena: the fierce warriors of the continent who gave the Romans a run for their money and the residents of Ireland and the other Celtic realms who kept ancient traditions alive in the face of relentless pressure from centralizing monarchies, especially England and France. How are these two stories related? The answer used to be simple, but it has become more complicated.

Celtic Traditions

gold pot and four leaf clovers
Pots of gold and four-leaf clovers are popular icons that have Celtic origins.

Ancient traditions around the world were spread by emigrants from the Celtic realms. Some of these traditions are readily recognizable as Celtic in origin: the shamrock, the Celtic cross, the mischievous leprechaun and his pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the banshee who wails mysteriously to signal a death, the Highland bagpipe, and the tartan, among many others. Some of these supposedly Celtic traditions have been transformed in ways that their originators would not recognize. Still, most people can easily identify them as Irish or Scottish.

But some elements of Celtic tradition and vocabulary have been incorporated into modern Western culture so thoroughly that many people are not even aware of the Celtic origins of certain words and customs. For instance, many words have come into English from the Irish language, which is sometimes referred to outside of Ireland as Gaelic. Here are just a few that most people don’t even recognize as having an Irish origin. When you call someone a ‘phony,’ you are using an Irish word. When you smash something into ‘smithereens,’ you are also using an Irish word. When you carve a jack-o’-lantern on Halloween and put a candle in it, you are also following an ancient Irish custom, though the Irish originally used turnips, not pumpkins.

As the Celtic traditions are woven into our lives, they relate a fascinating story. In order to tell it, one must explore nearly 3,000 years of history, ranging from almost every part of Europe to Britain and Ireland to the New World and beyond, because the Celts have become a worldwide phenomenon. The art, music, and literature of the Celts have never been more popular.

Irish Culture and the Celts

For many people, Celtic culture really means Irish culture. Irish culture has of course been spread around the globe by the Irish diaspora—the many millions of people who trace their descent to the island of Ireland—but many of the people who find themselves fascinated by Irish culture cannot, in fact, claim any actual Irish heritage; they just like Irish music and dancing. Think of the enormous success of the Irish dancing show Riverdance, or the popularity of singers such as Enya, who draw on traditional Irish dance steps and musical traditions, respectively.

Irish writers have also made a huge impact on the world. No fewer than four Irish authors have won Nobel prizes for literature, a remarkable achievement considering that the entire population of Ireland is only about seven million, less than one percent of the population of Europe.

Learn more about the Celtic revival

Celtic art styles have also become popular around the world. The dense abstract patterns familiar from the medieval Irish manuscript the Book of Kells can now be found on everything from tea towels to T-shirts to tattoos.

The reach of Irish culture of course extends beyond the realm of the fine arts. There are Irish pubs in every corner of the globe, from Hong Kong to Buenos Aires, and St. Patrick’s Day parades can be found almost everywhere. Millions and millions of people take pleasure in wearing green and declaring themselves Irish for a day.

But there is a major paradox at the heart of the Celtic craze. The Celtic realms themselves are tiny. The island of Ireland itself, which contains two political entities, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—which is part of the United Kingdom—has a population of less than seven million. In total, the areas that identify themselves now as part of the Celtic world, what some people call the “Celtic Fringe,” have a combined population of only around 20 million people. And yet, the Celtic phenomenon has spread far and wide and millions of people are fascinated with the Celts.

From the lecture series The Celtic World, taught by Professor Jennifer Paxton

Images courtesy of:
Lionel Royer [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons