Celtic Ireland

People studying Ireland actually have an advantage over those scrutinizing Celts from other lands, because a number of ancient Irish stories and other writings survive. The Celts didn't write these things down themselves; they transmitted their culture orally.

But centuries later, medieval monks, in their zeal to preserve stories of the oral tradition in written form, wrote down a bunch of ancient Celtic legends and books of laws, and these offer the modern reader a unique glimpse into ancient Irish life. (See more on Celtic mythology.) This life seems to have included heroes, feasts, cattle raids, and love affairs.

The land was divided into five areas:

  1. Leinster — the southeast

  2. Meath — the middle

  3. Connacht — the west

  4. Ulster — the north

  5. Munster — the southwest

Each of these provinces was divided into 100 or so smaller sections called tuatha, or tribes, each governed by its own chieftain, called a . People were divided into clans, and several clans made up a tribe. Ordinary people swore allegiance to their local king. Sometimes one man would rise above all the others and become high king of all Ireland.

Wild and Crazy Heroes

The Irish were obsessed with war, weapons, and heroics. If their poetry is any indication, they spent most of their time at war with one another, stealing cattle, and feasting on pork.

The Celts scared the Romans and other “civilized” contemporary observers. When they went into battle, they would strip naked and dash at their enemies dressed in nothing but sandals and their fancy necklaces. They howled as if possessed by demons, their shrieks augmented by loud bagpipes.

Some warriors would be so overcome by battle-frenzy that their very appearance changed. They called this transformation the warp-spasm. The Táin Bó Cuailnge has an excellent description of the hero Cuchulain (or Cú Chulainn) undergoing this phenomenon, which involved most of his body turning itself inside out and fire and blood shooting out of his head, after which he killed hundreds of enemy warriors and walked away unscathed.

One of the most spectacular archaeological sites in Ireland is the Iron Age fort Dún Aengus in the Aran Islands. It's on a cliff, surrounded by a ring of sharp stone spikes, and further protected by fierce waves pounding the stones below. Some hapless tourists have been blown off the site by the strong winds and fallen to their deaths on the rocks.

Cattle Raids

Cattle and metal treasure were the main forms of wealth in ancient Ireland — metal because it was rare, and cattle because they were useful. Cattle provided milk to drink and to make into cheese, and hide and meat after they were dead. If a king demanded tribute from his subjects, it would probably be in the form of cattle — in fact, a wealthy farmer was called a bóiare, or “lord of cows.” In the famous poem Táin Bó Cuailnge, a major war starts because Queen Mebd discovers that her husband has one more bull than she does.

Celtic chieftains spent quite a bit of their energy stealing cattle from one another. They even had a special word for this activity, táin. (Cattle raiding wasn't just an amusement for the ancient Irish; modern Irish people were stealing one another's cattle well into the twentieth century.) Anyone whose cattle got stolen had to try to retrieve them, which occasioned many heroic expeditions and battles.

The Seat of Ancient Kings

Tara is a hill in County Meath that was the seat of ancient Irish kings. It was considered the center of Ireland. People buried their ancestors in mounds surrounding it and periodically gathered there for festivals and rituals. Kings and their armies would gather there before marching to war.

Tara was special because it was the home of the Lia Fáil, or “Stone of Destiny.” It was used to identify rightful kings — it shrieked if the feet of the rightful king rested on it.

The O'Hara plantation in the novel Gone with the Wind is named Tara. The plantation was named by Scarlett O'Hara's father, Gerald, an Irishman who had long suffered the hunger for land that came from living as a tenant on what had been his people's own lands. Fittingly, when he finally acquired a big piece of property in Georgia, he named it after the seat of the high king of Ireland.

Fortifications

Ireland has tons of forts scattered all over the countryside, many of them built during the Bronze or Iron Ages and used for many centuries thereafter. The number and ingenuity of these forts suggest that the ancient Irish considered defense a high priority, though some experts think they were more likely built to impress. The most common form is the ring fort. These forts were built on top of circular mounds of earth with a wooden fence running around the circumference of the mound at the top and a moat surrounding the bottom.

Some forts were built entirely of stone or on the edges of cliffs, which provide a natural barrier to attack. Others, called crannogs, were built on artificial islands in the middle of lakes or bogs. They were used as late as the seventeenth century.

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