Pssssttt… we’re not really Celts…

As Fintan O’Toole says, it’s not really a secret (subs needed). Lot’s of people know it, but no one seems to want to talk about it. The Celtic Fringe is a Oxford myth cooked up by the polymath keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, and popularised in a book called The Antiquities of Nations. The integrity of our ancient Celtic identity is, it seems, bogus. “There never was a Celtic invasion of Ireland or Britain. The identity our Celtic of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany dates back, not to the mists of time, but to 1707” (Just after the first Act of Union in fact). O’Toole goes on:

Edward Lhuyd, brilliantly, argued that Gaelic, Cornish, Breton and Welsh were related to the language spoken by the ancient Gauls. He called these languages “Celtic” (largely because the term Gallic then denoted the hated French) and suggested that they had spread to Britain and Ireland through migration.

In an intellectual culture saturated with classical learning, the link with the “Keltoi” who had invaded ancient Greece, and with the Gauls whom Caesar slaughtered and described, was flattering, not least in Ireland. Instead of being marginal people, we were the remnants of an ancient and once all-powerful European civilisation. With the rise of 19th-century cultural nationalism, this ready-made genealogy, with its neat racial distinction between Celts and Saxons, was far too useful to be refused. In an era obsessed with so-called scientific racism, it provided a seemingly natural case for Irish independence. The Celtic Twilight (or as that rare sceptic James Joyce called it, the Cultic Twalette) added a rich layer of modern cultural prestige.

Indeed, he argues that the only thing genuinely Celtic about ancient Ireland was our ancestor’s predilection for ‘Celtic bling’:

There is an Iron Age material culture that is evident in findings from northern Europe between Paris and Prague. It is named after a site in Switzerland called La Tène and is associated with what we call the Celts (there is no evidence that these people ever used the term or even identified themselves as a single ethnic group).

And none of the things you would find if these people invaded or migrated to Ireland – their pots, their houses, their burial-sites, their coins, their horse-fittings – exist here. There are high-end La Tène-style objects, but virtually all of them are of recognisably local manufacture. As Barry Raftery, one of the leading authorities on Iron Age Ireland, puts it of the presumed Celtic invasion, “It seems strange that a warrior aristocracy supposedly responsible for imposing so many aspects of its culture on the indigenous population . . . should have had almost no impact on the archaeological record.”

In fact, what both archaeology and genetic studies show is continuity – broadly the same people who built Newgrange continuing to inhabit the island, speaking a version of the language of the Atlantic seaboard from which they had originated. What did happen in the Iron Age is that an emergent aristocracy began to adopt the international style they knew from trade and other contacts. Local craft-workers produced their own versions of Celtic chic – a bit like us copying Gucci or Prada. It was a way for the knobs to distinguish themselves from the yobs. As the archaeologist Simon Jones puts it, “‘Celtic art’ . . . is not a marker of ethnic identity but of status, wealth, and power”. If we are Celts today because our elites developed a taste for continental bling, then half the denizens of Foxrock and Montenotte are Italians.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty