Holed Ogham stone in Kilmalkedar churchyard, Co. Kerry, Ireland. The Ogham inscription on the stone is c. 4th century AD.
In 43 AD the Roman army invaded our shores. With them they brought new ideas, new establishments and a seemingly more sophisticated way of living. The native Celts first resisted, then adopted many of the Roman traits. Schools were established and the use of Latin became widespread. Celtic aristocrats moved into villas or even towns where they could manage their estates; the lower classes joined the army Manufacturing increased; the Celtic cloak being highly prized for its warmth and quality. A relative peace was maintained for over 400 years. Imagine then the shock, the isolation that must have been felt when, in 410, the Emperor Honorius relinquished control of Britain and called upon the people to look toward their own defence. The Dark Ages had begun.
Not all of Britain had been so dominated by Roman society. The Scottish highlands and islands, the valleys of Wales, the peninsula of Cornwall and Ireland remained relatively free from Roman influence. As a result these isolated areas remained true to their Celtic roots. It was here that the Celtic traditions were to begin their renaissance.
With the withdrawal of the Roman administration Britain split into self contained kingdoms, similar to the iron age societies the Romans had displaced. This made Britain an easy target for raiding bands. Picts came from the North, Attacotti from the Western Isles, Scotti from Ireland and Saxons, Franks, Jutes and Angles from the continent. Despite the tales of King Arthur and his victory at Mount Badon the Britons were desperate for some respite. Legend has it that King Vortigern made an uneasy alliance with the Saxons, allowing them to settle the eastern coast in return for protection from the other raiding parties. If this was the case the Saxons grew tired of being a tame warband and expanded their territory, pushing the Britons farther and farther west. Meanwhile the Irish had begun to settle the western coast of Wales, leaving their Ogham inscriptions in places such as Pembrokeshire. The Scotti had also settled Northern Britain, giving it its name, Scotland. Britain was thus split: the Saxons in the East; the pure Celtic Irish in the West and the Romano-British forced in between. Eventually the situation eased as in 450 Welsh and Cornish communities migrated to Brittany or Amorica as it was known then. It is likely they were welcomed by the Armoricans as they increased resistance to the encroaching Saxons. These migrations continued until the 6th Century and gave Brittany its distinctive Celtic language and culture.
Across the sea, Ireland remained free from both Roman and Saxon invasion. At this time it was divided into four regions: Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster. This was to change with the founding of the dynasty of Niall Noigiallach who ruled the North from the strongholds at Tara and Ailech. With the coming of Christianity, at the start of the 5th Century, Ireland was divided into seven kingdoms. Eogan of Munster was High King in the South and Ui Neill of Niall was High King in the North. According to the Annals of Ulster St. Patrick was brought to Ireland as a slave in 432. His faith spread and the kings gave land for the foundation of churches. However, Patrick’s Episcopal system was replaced in Ireland with a tradition that had its roots in the Coptic church in Egypt and the far east. Trade routes through Spain brought knowledge of monasticism and the communal life shared by its followers. This suited the Celtic tribes better than Roman Christianity. For them a monastic community was a tribe, led by an abbot and dedicated to their faith. It was an echo of the spirit that had brought the Celtic people thus far.
Within the monasteries scribes copied and illuminated great manuscripts. Works of art were created and in doing so much of the oral tradition and legends were recorded: the Cattle Raid of Cooley; the Mabinogion; the Arthurian myths and artwork such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. Stone crosses came to symbolise the new faith and many are still standing, as evocative now as they were when first erected.
The final development of Celtic Christianity was the rise of, the Anchorites. Forsaking everything, including their familiar surroundings, they became the first missionaries. Founding Iona in 563 and Lindisfarne in 635 they spread the Word of God, eventually returning to the old Celtic homelands of Gaul, Switzerland, the Rhineland and Italy. They brought tales of the founders of their faith and so canonised their predecessors. The lives of the saints were published and tales of their humility and holiness inspired others.
However, as the Celtic church flourished in the West, so the Roman church flourished in the East, the two divided by the Pagan English. When Augustus landed in Kent in 597 the English King converted and within 40 years the country was all but Christian. Eventually the Roman church at York and the Celtic church at Lindasfarne clashed and a synod was held at Whitby in 663. Ostensibly to agree the method of calculating Easter, the onlookers knew that the future of the faith was at stake. The Roman church won the question of Easter but it took many years before the Celtic church was integrated into the Roman faith. Once again the proud Celtic independence had been subjugated by the forces of Rome.
In 1066 the Normans invaded England, followed by Wales in 1093 but it was 1169 before they reached Ireland. Meanwhile the Celtic lands had faced their own onslaught from the raids of the Vikings. Initially looking for riches and plunder from the monasteries they eventually settled many of the Scottish Islands and the Isle of Man in 1079. It was not until the Battle of Largs in 1266 that Scotland regained their lost territory and 1281 when Queen Margaret of Scotland married Eric of Norway that peace was found.
In 1306 Robert the Bruce was crowned and in 1320 Scottish independence was declared at Arbroath. Elsewhere the Celtic lands were losing their independence, Brittany united with France following Duchess Anne’s marriage to the King of France in 1491 and the Cornish revolt was defeated in Kent in 1497. In Wales Owen Glyndwr formed the first parliament at Machynlleth in 1404 but union with England occurred in 1542. Scotland followed in 1707 and Ireland in 1801.
The final exodus of the Celtic lands began in 1660 following the re-establishment of James II. Because of their faith the puritans and later the Quakers were forced to leave their homes and sailed for America. William Penn, the Welsh Quaker was immortalised as the founder of Pennsylvania and a huge Welsh community grew. The Irish followed in the 1840s and 50s following the failure of the potato crop. One million people died and another million sailed to America. Under the highland clearances in Scotland people were ousted from their homelands. Later, people from Orkney settled in Canada after finding work with the Hudson Bay Ship Company. Even as late as the early 19th Century, Welsh miners were sailing to America to find work.
This century has seen continuation of the troubles in Northern Ireland, increasing nationalism in Scotland, Wales and Brittany and the collapse of the manufacturing base essential to the economies of the Celtic lands. But it has also seen the renaissance of the skills and crafts that are central to the Celtic way of life. Music, art, film, sculpture and dance are flourishing. There is increasing pride in the languages and culture that is recognized throughout the world. The recent referendums show that the Celtic countries want to regain some degree of independence whilst remaining at the heart of a modern Europe. The peace process in Northern Ireland gives the people a new hope for the future. All those with the Celtic heritage in their blood or in their hearts have a right to be proud. Proud of the past and proud of the future. May the Celtic lands and their people find peace and may they last forever.
- © Mike Williams