Q. How did the Celts go from dominating nearly the entire European continent to having limited presence in the British Isles? What could the Celts have done to remain relevant?
A. You are under the false assumption that these Islands and people are the last redoubt of the Celts.
The truth is the Celtic identity of Ireland and parts of the UK is largely a 19th. century invention of Welsh linguists
What many dont appreciate is that the idea that Ireland was once settled by Celts has been called into question by many scholars.
Archaeological digs offer scant evidence that there was ever any sudden change in culture in Irelands ancient past that we would expect to see if invaders suddenly arrived from the continent.
Whatever about whether the Celts ever did come to Ireland, what is undeniable is that medieval Irish and Welsh writers said absolutely nothing about a Celtic past. Nor did they suggest that the Irish and Welsh people had an affinity for one another based on this shared heritage.
In other words, before the year 1700, no one called the Irish and Welsh Celts. So where did the idea that we are Celts come from?
The story starts in the early eighteenth century. Two linguists, Paul Yves Pezron and Edward Lhuyd, discovered that the Gaelic languages and Brythonic languages (Welsh and Breton) were members of a single language family. Pezron suggested that the people of Brittany were the descendants of the ancient Gauls, who were Celts.
Because of the close similarity of Welsh and Breton, he assumed that Welsh had been brought to Britain from ancient Gaul. Building upon this, Lhuyd hinted that the language family they had discovered should be labelled as Celtic.
The problem with Pezrons idea is that modern archaeologists are now confident that the Breton language was brought to France from Britain (and not the other way around). On the basis of a possible misunderstanding, the ancient history of Britain and Ireland was reimagined.
Nevertheless, the Celtic connection with Ireland had been established, but it took time to gain widespread acceptance. the word Celtic rarely appeared in Irish newspapers in the early nineteenth century. Suddenly, the regularity of its use increased dramatically in the 1840s. It doubled again in the 1850s, and by the 1880s, had doubled once more.
Clearly, something happened between the 1840s and 1860s. But what?
The Great hunger is what happened.
The most important factor in the formation of our Celtic identity was the emergence of a scientific understanding of race. Scholars increasingly believed that cultural differences were evidence of biological differences. As many of the academics who worked studying racial biology were also linguists, it is not surprising that knowledge from one field crossed to the other. Each language family was assumed to mark a subspecies of the various human races. The Celtic identity suddenly had a scientific basis.
Other contemporary events built upon this. Archaeological excavations in Switzerland in the 1850s revealed evidence of an ancient Celtic civilization that had once dominated Europe. Meanwhile, Johann Kaspar Zeuss published Grammatica Celtica in 1853. This was the first scientific analysis of the Celtic language family, and made Celtic studies one of the hottest fields of academic research in the later nineteenth century.
At the same time, writers like Ernest Renan discussed the Celtic influence on modern English and French literature. To do this, they first had to explain what characteristics the Celts had. Renan described the modern Celts as romantic, whimsical, emotional and with great powers of imagination. They were very unlike the stoic, rational, hard-working Anglo-Saxons. Such stereotypes still hold considerable influence in how Irish people are perceived today.
Over a twenty-year period, the Celts were established as a biological fact by scientists, given a glorious past by archaeologists, a sense of scholarly gravitas by linguists, and identifiable personality traits by litterateurs. This made Celticness attractive to nationalists in Ireland and Wales, and by the turn of the twentieth century, most people in both countries believed they were Celts.
The Idea of a Celtic Ireland is largely a 19th century reinvention .
Ireland was/ is not a Celtic country. That term itself was assigned to Ireland in the 19th century by a Welsh linguist- and was seized by the fledgeling Irish nationalist movement as evidence of us and them heritage (us Celtic- them British/Roman).....
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I guess you can't argue with this kind of mythmaking since it helped nationalize Irish thinking. Corresp. resulting between me and friends:
"Astounding! But what role did the Great Hunger play?"
"Only slight connection with The Great Hunger in that it was during that period that Welsh linguists decided that Irish were Celts based on language."
"He's crediting the hunger as the mainspring?"
"Very interesting article, I do believe that the idea of being Celtic was very important to building a nation in Ireland and helped to lead to the 1916 uprising against the English."
"And as such was immensely beneficial. Let's face it, that's how life works especially with masses of people. This was embodied in an episode of Gomer Pyle back when sitcoms taught good lessons: