Historians and Mythologists often disagree in relation to when the Celts first arrived in Ireland. Very little was documented prior to the C.600 BCE and this, according to historians, is taken as an indication that this may very well have marked the arrival of the Celts. It was somewhere about 600-500 BCE that the race perhaps most associated with the early Irish history first appeared on the scene.
The Celts, as they were known had been living in central and Western Europe, prospering as both farmers and fighters. From these locations they had begun to fan out across the continent and beyond, eventually ending up in Ireland. These Iron users were soon to become the dominant people on the island. They spoke a form of Gaelic and, although they had no written language, they developed a system of writing that we know as Ogham. This was made up of the series of straight and angled lines of varying lengths, which were carved onto large standing stones. Initially the Celts were pagan and celebrated the great festivals of Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. By about 400CE, however, they had begun to accept Christianity. That said, many of the deeper pagan practices were slow to die out.
The history of human life in the island of Ireland begins in C.7500 BCE with the arrival of hunters, gathers and fishermen. It is thought by Historians that the first farmers did not come to Ireland until around C.4000BCE and Bronze appeared on or about C.2000BCE. The Celts may have arrived in Ireland at around C.600BCE and they brought with them Iron tools and weapons. Mythologists seem vague in relation to whether the Celts were here or not prior to C.600BCE. The races that occupied the land when the so called Milesians, named after Milerius of Spain whose sons invaded and conquered the country in 1000BCE, were chiefly the Firebolg and the Tuatha De Danaan both of which were not exterminated by the conquerors. Prior to the Iron Age, according to legend, three tribes of the Celtic family who had separated from the main stem and blended into Gaels came across Europe to end up on Irish soil. The Firbolg came first from Greece where they had been enslaved and they were followed by the Fomorians who landed on Tory Island but the Firbolg were defeated by the capable and somewhat cultured Tuatha De Danaan (people of the Goddess Dana).
However, what is relevant for now is that documented history began in C.300BCE and so when we discuss pre Christian religions of Ireland we are usually talking about an era known as the Iron Age which was the years from C.300 BCE to C.500 CE. In point of fact, the Iron Age actually may have started around C.600BCE but Historians have little or no idea of what was going on in Ireland at that time but they do suspect that Celtic speaking people were not present in the country priorto 300 BCE. It was indeed a very long period of time and very little remained static. Very little was documented in any way, shape or form prior to the arrival of the Celts.
In general, during the Mesolithic Period (8000BC – 4500 BCE) it is most likely that the native Irish were not agricultural but Hunter/Gatherer tribes. They probably did not have hugely complex societal structures but Historians can tell a little bit about their religious beliefs from shrines, monuments and graveyards. Archaeologists have found mass graves in which burned remains of humans were found clutching stone tools and this demonstrates that funeral pyres not only destroyed human remains but also any flammable attachments to the stones. It shows that objects were placed in the hands of the dead prior to cremation. It seems then that the dead were treated in an extraordinary way in that bodies were not abandoned but cremated and buried. Unlike modern cremation techniques, it was not a dust that remained but bones and these final remains were interred in shallow graves.
The objects buried with the dead were expensive objects in that they took some time to make and were deemed to serve some purpose in the other world. This indicates some kind of sophisticated belief about the dead and the post-death journey and the afterlife. This is the earliest evidence that exists about religious beliefs in Ireland. This period happened around 4500 BCE to 2500 BCE and from this period there still exists different types of tombs in different parts of Ireland. For example a Court Tomb had a U-shaped area on the front of the tomb and is known as the horseshoe shaped tomb and was more than likely used, not only for burial of the deceased but also as a sacred space for the adoration of the Dead. It clearly shows that the Neolithic people were going to great effort to take care of their ancestors. There was also ‘portal tombs’ or ‘Dolmens’ and they varied in size and one of the best examples of this still stands in Ballyvaughan in Co. Clare.
Again, this demonstrates that sophisticated tombs indicate a reverence for the dead and the journey in which they are embarking. The most prominent of the passage tombs in Ireland is Newgrange and uses over two hundred thousand tons of stone and soil and is a massive construction. It had taken over thirty years to build. If the average age of a person was fifty or so then this clearly indicates a very significant commitment.
These tombs are best known these days for how the sun beams its light down the otherwise pitch dark passages at certain times of the year and again this indicates religious symbolism of some kind. Adoration of a Sun or Sky God influencing celestial events and linking such events up with the realm of the dead involved a very sophisticated set of religious beliefs.
It can be argued that these ancient societies were every bit as complex as today‘s society. They came up with as interesting, complex ideas and designs as modern human beings can produce in modern-day life. If such societies were capable of such sophistication then it is also possible that they were capable of intricate and abstract ideas such as the existence of superior other world powers of some kind. Furthermore, such massive commitment from the workers of these civilisations was clearly encouraged by superior members, such as priests, Druids or Kings, or High Priests perhaps proffering eternal reward in the afterlife in exchange for dedication in the construction of these massive tombs. We also get powerful art like engravings on the tombs and these were possibly in some way related to their mythology. Some beautiful objects were found inside of these tombs. This, again, may indicate an acknowledgement of some sort of purpose for such beauty in the afterlife and indeed the existence of the afterlife being somehow beautiful.
With the Bronze Age came stone circles, a tradition which continued into the Iron Age and nobody really knows the true purpose of Stone Circles, as in Grange, Co. Limerick, where the biggest stone circle has been located, and any conclusion is no more than guesswork. Archaeologists suggest they are probably some form of religious expression but there is no real evidence to prove or disprove this theory. It is possible that these stone circles were some kind of burial ground and there are examples of human remains buried in pots or urns within these circles. These pots suggest, from remains, that gifts of food and tools or weapons were interred with the dead, just as in Ancient Egypt, so perhaps there is a basis to believe that religion had a role to play in this society.
In short then, relics and tombs from both the Mesolithic and subsequent Neolithic ages clearly show an acknowledgement of the existence of some kind of mystic belief in relation to the afterlife. Death did not seem to indicate the end of life but a step into the next life or realm. Just as politics and religion interweave in the Modern world, evidence suggests that this was also the case in those times. The existence of a societal stratum of some kind whereby workers made enormous lifelong efforts at the behest of their overseers for eternal reward may demonstrate religious belief.
In order to better understand the Celts we should try to understand their religious beliefs and the main religious festivals‘ were:
1. Spring – 1st Feb – St. Bridget‘s Day – Imbolc.
2. Summer – May 1st – Bonfire Day – Bealtaine.
3. Autumn – August 1st – Lughnasadh.
4. Winter – November 1st – Halloween – Samhain.
The calendar the Celts followed was mainly an agricultural calendar‘ with festival days to mark the start of each season. In Winter, the grass stops growing and the harvest is in, Lughnasa is when the crops are ready to toil, Imbolc was when the ploughing and planting began and Bealtaine was mostly about Animals and care for them. It can be therefor concluded that as a well as religious, spiritual and mythological elements to the calendar there was also some very practical components to it. It clearly indicates how the Celts considered farming a very significant part of their lives.