Exploring Early Ireland: St. Patrick And The Celts

“It is not those who can inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will conquer.” – Terrence MacSwiney (IRA Hunger Striker)

Thousands of years before the Irish War of Independence and the Government of Ireland Act, Ireland existed as a land that knew nothing of Protestantism or Catholics. There was no such thing as the Union Jack and squadrons of shell shocked Black and Tans troops weren’t racing around in lories reeking havoc on civilians. The IRA and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were of zero significance.

The great cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast with their vibrant pubs, pints of black gold, signature music and literature belonging to some of the finest poets and musicians in the world, were no where to be found. Like the rest of Europe in the Neolithic era, Ireland was a quiet place. And it was populated by a mysterious populace.

The first people to arrive in Ireland, set foot upon its shores some time around 7000 BC and such in comparison to the rest of Europe, Ireland has been inhabited for a much shorter period of time. France to be sure, has been inhabited by pre Indo-European peoples since 30,000 years and prior.

It is intriguing to consider, that it is not known whether the first people of Ireland arrived by boat or were able to walk across a frozen tundra from Great Britain in the midst of an ice age. They were hunter-gatherers who likely came up from southern Europe in search of new hunting grounds and migrated to Northwest Europe thanks to the recession of the Ice age. This Neolithic tribe was thought to be short in stature, with blue or green eyes and an olive skin tone.

For thousands of years, besides the small scale arrival of other similar stone age hunter-gatherers, the first Irish were left undisturbed. Since they lived a nomadic lifestyle, they left very little trace of culture and how they lived, but did however, construct elaborate tombs and mysterious stone structures that are left scattered around the island today, adding to the allure of the mysterious geography and history of Ireland.

Though a more concrete understanding of Irish history, begins with the arrival of the Gaels, or Celtic peoples from mainland Europe beginning around 600 BC. This peculiar group of Europeans would become the flagship population of Irish civilization.

It was also around this time when Ireland would finally appear on the maps of the Classical world. First named by Greek Navigator and Cartographer Pythias of Massilia (modern day Marseilles), as ‘Ierne’ after the Irish Goddess Erui, Julius Caesar would later declare the land west of Britain as Hibernia, meaning, ‘land of winter.’

The Celts are often described as the first Europeans or the first European civilization to develop and thrive north of the Alps. Celtic civilization arose near the borderlands of modern day France and Germany but quickly began to spread out across Europe. The ancient Greeks were the first among the Classical world to encounter the Celts, calling them the Keltoi and Galatai. They noted the Celts for their advance use of metal work, iron weapons and fierce looking warriors. The Celts spoke an Indo-European language that is in a branch of its own among its fellow European languages. Intriguingly, old Gaelic actually shares similar words with ancient Sanskrit that was spoken in ancient India.


Sanskrit                                                    Old Irish

Arya (freeman)                                       Aire (Noble)

Naib (good)                                             noeib (holy)

Badhira (deaf)                                        Bodhar (deaf)

Minda (physical defect)                        Menda (a stammerer)

Names (respect)                                    nemed (respect/privilege)

Raja (king)                                               ri (king)

Vid (knowledge)                                     uid (knowledge)

The Celts were tall, very fair skinned and often had red or strawberry blonde hair.

Though the Roman Legions were by far, the best trained and most superior fighting force of the ancient world, the redbearded celtic warrior often standing over a head taller than the average Roman foot soldier, cast fear into the hearts of many who collided with them in battle.

They were renowned for their chariot warfare, craftsmanship and skill in farming. The Celts remained at the pinnacle of civilization in Central Europe before Rome would rise to eclipse them and take their lands in conquest beginning in the second century B.C.

So great and final was the conquest of Rome that only in Ireland and in the fringes of Great Britain would Celtic civilization hold out. Though unlike their kin in Mainland Europe, the Celts of Ireland were left relatively undisturbed from the time of their arrival on the island during the pinnacle of Ancient Greece, to almost a thousand years later with the arrival of Christian Missionaries at the collapse of Rome.

Celtic society was made up of ‘Tuathas or petty kingdoms which at one point, over 150 different Tuathas existed in Ireland. Men called Brehans, were charged with upholding the social order in Tuathas, while kings held the highest authority.

The Druids are probably the most mysterious and yet notorious members of Celtic society and Pre Christian Ireland. The Romans despised the Druids whom they encountered among Celtic tribes in Germany and France, and often wrote them to be savages and warlocks of the worst intent. Julius Caesar especially studied and took note of the Druids among the Celts in Gaul (modern day France) during his conquest and defeat of the famous Celtic rebel Vercingetorix.

Neil Hegarty Website

Caesar and The Romans described the Druids to perform the most insidious human and child sacrifice rituals, in an effort to appease their Gods, though not all archeaologists today believe this to be accurate. 

Much of what Caesar and the Romans recorded about the Druids of Gaul has been applied to the Celts of Pre-christian Ireland as well, which largely matches the archaeological record on the island with a few exceptions.

The Celts as a society, have a legacy of being illiterate but this wasn’t entirely true either, the Druids served as not only Shamanic figures but as keepers of wisdom and knowledge as well. They insisted that their knowledge was so sacred, that it be kept to memory rather than to writing. Hence while Celtic merchants and lay people throughout Europe would dabble in using the Greek and Phoenician alphabet, the Druids believed firmly in their oral tradition.

It can be said that the Druids of Ireland, along with the sears of Scandinavia, may have been the last Shamans of the Western world, in light of the rest of Europe becoming increasingly Christianized. The Christian ascension was assured after the reign of Constantine the Great and the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D, which took the former persecuted and obscure religion into the mainstream.

In contrast to Christianity, Celtic rituals revolved heavily around nature and the forests, were very similar in practice and essence, to the rituals of Shamans in Asia and the Americas.

It is theorized that to the Celts themselves, they were ‘the hidden people.” This is due to the meaning behind the Indo-European root, ‘Kel,’ which means hidden. Combined with the refusal by the Druids to commit their knowledge to script, it is tempting to believe that this was how the Celts saw themselves, as ‘hidden and nature dwellers.’

Though for the Celts of Ireland, their society and culture wouldn’t forever resist the massive spiritual change that was occurring in the rest of Europe. In the fourth century AD, missionaries arrived on their shores, including the future patron Saint of Ireland; St. Patrick.

Much of what is known about St. Patrick is based off legend and his own personal writings, thus while he is unanimously accepted as a real and important figure in Ireland’s conversion to Christianity, many scholars still speculate on where to draw the line between history and myth.

From his own account, before he became Saint Patrick, he was Maewyn Succat. His father was an officer in the Roman legions who were in the process of leaving Britain as their empire collapsed around them.

The future spiritual leader said he had a happy childhood. At least the first part.

In his youth, was first taken as a slave by Irish raiders who attacked his hometown in Britain. Thus it is tempting to say that Patrick’s background as a Romanized Briton, meant he was potentially of Welsh heritage, another Celtic lineage.

These kinds of raids were common in the fifth century, as the Romans had withdrawn from Britain, leaving the island and particularly its coasts, very vulnerable to attacks.

Living among pagans in the northwest part of the island, he spent six years herding animals and during this captivity, his relationship with God soared and destiny, sealed.

He writes in his Confession,

“After I came to Ireland I watched over sheep. Day by day I began to pray more frequently- and more and more my love of God and my faith in him and reverence for him began to increase. My spirit was growing, so that each day I would say a hundred prayers and almost as many each night, even during those times when I had to stay overnight in the woods or mountains, I would get up each morning before sunrise to pray through snow and frost and rain. No harm came to me because of it, and I was certainly not lazy. I see now looking back that my spirit was bursting inside of me.”

Patrick eventually escaped his captivity by stowaying upon on a ship full of pagans bound for Britain. However, Hibernia stayed central in his thoughts long after his return home. Eventually and against the Church’s wishes, he returned to Ireland, determined to cleanse the land of it’s heathen gods.

How he was able to successfully turn the Irish away from the Druids is not fully understood but was to be sure, an enormous feat given how implanted paganism had been among the Irish.

St Patrick and other missionaries, most certainly were traveling salesman and even politicians in their own right, and they made Christianity fit into the Irish consciousness in a way that made it seem not so foreign after all.

County Mayo, 2019

For example, the three leaf clover and the holy trinity fit well with the Celtic worship of Gods in groups of three. The Celts took pride in their abilities as warriors and thus the saints and missionaries of the early church were cast as warriors of Christ. The concept of heaven and hell fit right into the Irish belief in a communion with an invisible other world.

St Patrick’s message also resonated with women and the poor, who had very few rights and little to gain in the current status quo. It is no doubt that many women joined Patrick’s following and became Nuns in the process.

After Patrick’s death and the Collapse of Rome, the ensuing Dark Ages would see the economic and intellectual declination across most of Europe but for Ireland, this would become a golden age.

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