Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery


Pagan Celtic Ireland is a book that was written with the intent of presenting the new discoveries made about the Irish Iron Age. These discoveries involved new dates established with better techniques in radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology. The main goal of this book is to give a picture of life in the Irish Iron age and what it entailed, and the author achieved that goal with ease. The main source used in researching this book is archeology and the written sources were used as a way to give a more colorful picture of the time.

Chapter one is a very brief introduction that is supposed to get the reader from the origin of the Celts to the Celts in Ireland and then from there to the Celts in Iron Age Ireland. It talks about one of the most famous of all Irish Sagas The Cattle Raid of Cooley and what we can get from it in historical value. This introduction is not intended for anyone not familiar with the history of the Celts. It was intended as a refresher for people who are very family with the history of the Celts and are looking for a specific time period of this history, namely the Irish Iron Age.

The author in chapter two starts the chapter with a short survey of the Late Bronze age in Ireland. He goes through how and where the Irish lived, what distinguished this time from the previous one (mainly metal works) and then goes on to talk about how they were buried (cremation mostly) and the evidence of ritualistic offerings. The Iron Age in Ireland is not that easy to define. In the Early iron Age of ireland you can find some evidence for artifacts of the Hallstatt C style, but with an Irish twist on it. While in England we can find evidence of Hallstatt C, D and the Early La Tène phase. The artifacts from the Early Iron Age of Ireland seem to be of swords, and some pins. In fact the Iron Age of Ireland seems to start, stop due to some climatic change and then start again picking up from the La Tène later phase.

As with everything in Ireland Hill forts positions and chronology are not easy. Three classes of hillforts are distinguishable. Class one is of one line defense, Class two is multi lined with 2-3 concentric lines, and Class three is inland promontory forts. There is a fourth kind of fort called the coastal promontory forts. And they vary in defenses and number of ramparts. The forts may have served a multitude of functions. They where in some obvious cases defended villages, or places people can go to in times of danger. They could also have served as places of social gatherings, festivals of religious nature or places where people bartered food and commodities. The distribution of the hillforts seem to be concentrated in the south of Ireland, even though there are hillforts in the north too. The southern hillforts show almost no La Tene style of artifacts unlike the north and yet the southern part of Ireland in the historical era after Christianity was definitely of Celtic nature. The hillforts may have had multiple occupation at different times and that would have an effect on dating them.

The use of tree-ring analysis in figuring out dates of sites has helped the archaeologists to date many of the Royal sites, and corroborate the radiocarbon dating associated with them. These techniques in dating also give us a picture of the Irish Iron Age never seen before. Tara is one of the most famous royal sites, and it is obvious from the artifacts and monuments found in it that it has long been a place of ceremony and ritual. Cruachain, made famous by the Tain is thought to have been a palace, a place for inauguration and ritual, and an entrance to the Otherworld. Dún Ailinne is an enclosure with a bank and a ditch and in ancient times it was the Capitol of the Kingdom of Leinster. The site seems to be mainly used for ceremonies or rituals. Emain macha like Dún Ailinne was an enclosure with a ditch and a bank but it was a little more complex as it seems to have gone through phases where it was built and rebuilt. In the end it was turned into a ceremonial and ritualistic place. It also seemed to be important in pre-Christian times judging from the skull of an African ape. At or around these sites and indeed in other places you also had the assembly sites and the inauguration sites, these were also important places for gatherings and rituals. The linear earthworks are also curious formations that were built in the Irish Iron age. We do not really know their purpose.

Building a road or causeway over a bog was a daunting task and yet the Iron Age Irish managed to do that in Corlea. How much work and man power was put into this is anyone’s guess and yet I can almost see the work being done. Bogs protect artifacts well, things like wooden tools and planks can survive unharmed in them and even bodies (as attested too in the Danish bogs). An interesting theory as to why this road was built was that it was a pilgrim crossing to go from Cruachain to Uisneach and back. Horses were widespread if the evidence of the bits found across Ireland is to be believed. They may not have been shod, and could have been ridden or used as draught animals.

It can be seen that during the Iron Age, transportation was important. Wagons may have been used and horses were most probably used as means of transportation. Corlea could have been a part of a communications system. Travel by river and sea of course is also available as evidenced by some canoes and ships found.

Not much is known archaeologically about the ordinary Iron Age Irish people. We do know however, a bit about the elite section of these people who are really a small percentage of the population. We know about the techniques used to make the artifacts and the level of artistry behind them, but what does that tell us about the people who made them? It is thought that their houses were small, round and made out of timber, and that they used wood, metal and leather as containers for their food. Bones may have also been used as spatulas for tanning and sword and knife handles. Agriculture seems to have declined in the Iron Age and the people may have supplemented their diets with hazels and other nuts, as well as meat from cattle and pigs. Honey may have also been in use. On the personal front the Irish Iron age people didn’t have a lot of ornaments, though they wore belt buckles, safety pins, torcs and some earrings were also found. They may have used mirrors, and some bone combs were found also. They may have lime-washed their hair, and worn woven clothes with deer skin cloaks. The weapons found for the Iron age are swords, spears, shields and ceremonial helmets.
Once again it seems that the Celts were instrumental in spreading iron technology to Europe. Though in Ireland not a lot of examples of Iron works was found. What can be seen from the artifacts found (mainly weapons) is that they did not lose their skill which they acquired in the Late Bronze age, even though the quality of the Iron is not very good. Bronzesmiths may have been the first blacksmiths to work with Iron. A lot of the material found in Iron Age Ireland was made from Bronze by two methods, casting in round and metal sheet workings. The expertise in both methods can easily be seen from the artifacts found. There is evidence of limited gold work during the Iron Age and also beautiful pieces of stone works.

The La Tène art style in Ireland has its basis from abroad but is most definitely Irish in nature. The early styles of the La Tène culture are however absent from Ireland. The first high quality metal sheet workings centers were probably in County Antrim since it had the largest deposit of ores. The style of the La Tène culture developed in Ireland to include more geometry and bird heads but no human heads unlike the continental style.

The Celtic religion is a source of a lot of debate in our years and this chapter tries to shed a small light on it. The chapter starts with a discussion on how the Celts viewed the Gods, who the Druids were and how archeology may help us put an outline of the religion together. Filling in the outline is more difficult. Ritual sites include places like Emain Macha, Tara and burial mounds which are used over and over again. This shows respect for these places, and reverence for them. Standing stones serve as a focus for outside ceremonies, and lakes, springs, wells, rivers and bogs are also sacred places where offerings are made to the gods. The Celts believed that the soul resided in the head and so they worshiped or revered the head. They made carvings in stone and they buried heads in burial mounds, also they may have made offerings of them. Bog bodies could also point to human sacrifice among the Celts. Some interesting examples were found in Denmark, Britain and Ireland. Burials were usually by cremation for the most part and inhumation. Its an interesting chapter that gives an outline of the religious practices of the Iron Age Irish.

A host of Roman artifacts have found their way into Ireland, including burials of people along the Roman beliefs. This chapter speculates on how these things could have happened. The theories that have been put forward by the author are all very valid and make a lot of sense. We know that the irish are sea farers and that means they could have travel into the Roman Empire and came back with artifacts and indeed religious beliefs that are Roman. Then there are the botched attempts of the Romans to invade ireland, surely there must have been some evidence of that? Also it is not far fetched that people from the Roman Empire might have immigrated to Ireland and stayed there. Or perhaps refugees from Britain or Gaul who are trying to escape the Roman wrath and themselves are Romanized.

Chapter ten is a discussion of the problems that archeologists face when they look at the Irish Iron age and the arrival of the La Tène culture. It is an interesting discussion of the interpretation of the available archeological records and the theories that they can explain or not explain. The south of Ireland is particularly problematic in this respect and yet it is no less Celtic then the North. The arrival of the Celtic culture and how that could be explained. The concept of culture itself and what can be defined as culture and what can’t. All interesting discussions, and Ireland presents a challenge.

By the end of this book I was left with a lot of questions. These questions are not the mark of a bad book, in fact they are the mark of a good one. The questions I was left with are the same ones posed by the author in the last chapter of the book. I have been asking myself these questions since I started reading the book and the fact that the author asked these question too means, to me at least, that what he was trying to convey has indeed reached me.

The questions I kept asking myself were as follows. What is the meaning of culture and how does it apply to the Celts? What does “Celtic culture” really mean? How can we apply it to Ireland and make it make sense? If we consider that the Hallstatt and La Tène styles constitute Celticness, then how do we explain the Celts in Ireland, since they have little of the Hallstatt style and only a native version of the La Tène style, with the major arts that define the La Tène culture missing. How can we explain the Celticness of the south of Ireland where the La Tène style is missing completely?

An interesting and thoroughly enjoyable book that gives interesting information, and asks questions that a lot of authors gloss across, and some even fail to ask. Most importantly a book that makes you think.

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2 thoughts on “Pagan Celtic Ireland by Barry Raftery

  1. bwitch says:

    May I ask who authored the book, as I don’t see a name mentioned anywhere?

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