Our ancestors weren't Celts, they were copycats


Culture Shock Fintan O'TooleThe first of a weekly column looks at a great Irish cultural secret: we aren't really Celtic and there never was a Celtic invasion

There is a great secret in Irish culture. Like most Irish secrets, it is known to a lot of people. Most of them are archaeologists, and few of them like to utter it outside of their own circles. The reluctance is understandable - the secret undermines a thriving industrial conglomerate with branches in the arts, intellectual life, religion, sport, tourism, politics, popular entertainment and consumer marketing. The conglomerate's brand name is Celtic. From the Celtic Twilight to the Celtic Tiger, from Celtic spirituality to Celtic jewellery, from Glasgow Celtic to the Boston Celtics, from Celtic Woman to the Celtic Tenors, from Celtic Sheepskin (ugg boots a speciality) to Celtic castles (all built by the Normans), from Celtic Crest spring water to Celtic crosses, it covers a vast variety of images and products. It is so powerful that when Enda Kenny recently referred to Ireland as a "Celtic and Christian" society, the second part of the phrase raised far more hackles than the first.

The secret of Celtic Ireland is that it is all bogus. There never was a Celtic invasion of Ireland or Britain. The Celtic identity of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany dates back, not to the mists of time, but to 1707. The Welsh scholar Edward Lhuyd, keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, published a book called The Antiquities of Nations, More particularly of the Celtae or Gauls, Taken to be Originally the same People as Our Ancient Britains (sic). 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. The bandwagon was rolling and new forces - New Age mysticism, the American search for roots, pan-European sentiment - keep giving it a push.

Even the archaeologists who know the truth have a certain interest in not stating it too bluntly: putting the word Celtic in your title gets you a lot more sales beyond academe, even when what you're actually saying is that the Celts never got here.

But they all know about the great absence. 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.

The survival, and indeed thriving, of bogus Celticism owes something to the relative timidity of the archaeological establishment and a lot more to the sheer utility of the term. Baggy, mystical, touched with the glamour of oppression, a useful way of alluding to white ethnicity without sounding overtly racist, it sprinkles a dust of profundity on much that is mediocre and meaningless. It is greatly to the credit of Irish artists that, after the first flush of the Cultic Twalette, most of them kept well away from it. This has given "Celtic" one useful artistic connotation - as a synonym for "bad".