Celtic invasion is pure mythology


World View:  Barry Raftery, professor of Celtic archaeology at University College Dublin, admits an enormous problem in justifying his subject: there is no archaeological evidence for a Celtic invasion of Ireland. Squaring that awkward fact with loose talk of a Celtic Tiger, Celtic crosses, Celtic soul, Celtic rock and Celtic art is a difficult task for contemporary cultural understanding as well as for archaeological theorising, writes Paul Gillespie.

Over the period from about 450 BC to AD 450 when it is commonly agreed by scholars that there were Celtic societies and civilisations in western and central Europe, hardly any material evidence has been found here to substantiate the notion of Celtic Ireland.

There is no Celtic pottery - or pottery of any kind until well into the Christian period. Only 40-50 such swords or other military instruments are extant, six decorated brooches, eight scabbards - compared to the hundreds of thousands excavated in western France alone, for example.

There are no chariots in the 20-40 small burial sites unearthed, he told a conference on "European Culture: A Vision for the Future" organised by the British-Irish Encounter organisation in Cork last month. The patterns of burials, settlements and material culture show fundamental continuity with the earlier prehistoric periods which brought the original settlers here 9-11,000 years ago after the last Ice Age. The fascinating new science of historical genetics finds no evidence of a specifically Celtic migration.

And yet by AD 500 certainly and probably much earlier, the Gaelic language was spoken all over the island. It is undoubtedly a Celtic language, and probably a distinctively archaic one. Raftery asked if there is no evidence of invasion, how did the language spread here? Through a small upper crust? Or the kidnap of women over many years? He recalled the remark of one scholar, that "early Celtic art has no genesis", to illustrate the intellectual difficulties involved. Can there be a culture without a people?

According to Barry Cunliffe's excellent survey, The Celts, A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2003), despite the extreme paucity of evidence from the pre-Roman period "most philologists agree that early versions of Celtic were being spoken over much of western Europe by the sixth century BC from Iberia to Ireland to the Italian lakes".

But Cunliffe cautions against "two comfortable old myths". The first is that that there was a "coming of the Celts" - either to Britain or Ireland. The assumption that culture must arise from invasions comes from mindsets laid down during the 18th and 19th centuries, when imperial and colonial experience, together with the dominance of classical studies within the educational system, saw invasion and colonisation as the sole begetters of change. "Invasionism" has since given way to a diffusionism based on economic, migratory and cultural communication as the best way to explain these commonalities. The second myth is that there was a pan-Celtic Europe counterposed to the dominant Mediterranean Greek and Roman cultures at the time. That there might have been such a commonly recognised civilisation arises from the way in which the classicals' use of the word Celts to describe peripheral barbarians was taken up by philologists studying European languages, also in the 18th and 19th centuries. They classified them into a single family tree of Indo-European languages.

The Celtic languages were finally included in this schema in the 1830s and 1840s, coinciding with the development of nationalist ideologies here and elsewhere in Europe. The habit of inferring racial characteristics from language use comes from then and was freely drawn on by Irish nationalism and its antagonists over the next hundred years. While Matthew Arnold counterposed Celtic creativity and imagination to its lack of capacity for self-government in an uncompromising unionism, nationalists from Devoy to Pearse made Celt and Gael synonymous, creating a binary counterposed to the Anglo-Saxon Gall or foreigner in their demands for independence.

As Vincent Comerford writes in his illuminating study of how Ireland was invented (Arnold 2003), "the same tendentious and frequently self-contradictory 'essentialising' process was being applied or had been applied to other nationalities, so that by the early 20th century, Europe was awash with rhetoric implying that each nationality had its own distinctive 'nature', a condition generally conveyed by the term 'race'."

We have remained peculiarly prone to such easy categorisations in Ireland during the era of the Celtic Tiger. In an earlier generation there was a tendency for circular argument between philology and archaeology, driven by nationalist assumptions.

Archaeology's task was to find the material evidence to confirm national philological theory. Perhaps this is why Prof Raftery's UCD chair was so called - and why the absence of archaeological evidence for the notion of a Celtic invasion can pose an existential problem.

Comerford points out that "nowhere is nation-invention more in evidence than in the matter of origins". It can be a political minefield. Furious accusations of post-colonial anglocentricity greeted the publication in 1999 of Simon James's The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention (Firebird). It argued that they are a recent and bogus invention, since no one in Britain or Ireland called themselves Celtic before 1700 and the notion that they were so arose from the early 18th century scholar Edward Lhuyd's coining of the word from his comparative study of Irish, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

James says it is folly to see such new perspectives as an English imperialist attempt to divide and rule a devolving Britain. Rather is it a "post-colonial emphasis on multiculturalism and the celebration of difference between cultures".

Thus all archaeology is contemporary archaeology. There is no Celtic section in the National Museum, where the period is classified as Iron Age, followed by Early Christian. An archaeologist there told me this reflects the problematically vague nature of the Celtic. The word is not used to describe the marvellous exhibition of bog bodies there, nor is it apt for the psalmary manuscript find announced this week. And yet there is a flourishing bookstall devoted to the Celts in the museum's foyer and the radio advertising for the exhibition freely uses the C word.

That there was no invasion reveals there was a rich indigenous culture open to external influence and internal innovation.