Since publishing a detailed guide to Celtic symbols and their meanings a year or so ago, we’ve had 150+ questions about the ancient Celts.
Questions like ‘Where did the Celts come from?’ and ‘what did the Celts look like?’ hit our inboxes on a weekly basis, and have done for quite some time.
So, in an attempt to educate both myself and those of you that visit this site, I’ve spent many an hour researching everything from the origin of the Celts to what they ate.
You’ll find a factual, easy-to-follow and no-BS guide to the Celts in the guide below! Dive on in and let me know if you have a question in the comments section!
Who Were the Celts?
The ancient Celts weren’t Irish. They weren’t Scottish, either. In fact, they were a collection of people/clans from Europe that are identified by their language and cultural similarities.
They existed in a number of different areas in Europe north of the Mediterranean from the Late Bronze Age onwards, thanks to their frequent migration over the years.
They were given the name ‘Celts’ by ancient writers. It’s thought that a Greek geographer, named Hecataeus of Miletus, was the first to use the name in 517 BC when he was writing about a group living in France.
Below, you’ll discover a heap of information to help you understand who were the Celts, what they believed, what they ate and much more.
Quick Facts About the Celts
If you’re stuck for time, I’ve popped together some need-to-know facts about the Celts that should bring you up to speed quickly:
- The first record of the existence of the Celts dates back to 700 BC
- The Celts were not ‘one people’ – they were a collection of tribes
- Contrary to popular belief, they weren’t from Ireland or Scotland
- The Celts are thought to have arrived in Ireland around 500 BC
- Ogham was a Celtic script that was used in Ireland from the 4th century
- The Celts lived across much of Europe
- They were fierce warriors (they beat the Romans on a number of occasions)
- The use of storytelling was brought to Ireland by the Celts (this gave birth to Irish mythology and Irish folklore)
Where did the Celts come from originally?
The exact origin of the Celts is a topic that causes a lot of heated debate online. Although it’s widely believed that Celtic culture dates as far back as 1200 BC, their exact origin is unknown.
There are many strong links to suggest that they came from an area close to the Upper Danube River but, again, this is disputed.
What language did the Celts speak?
The Celts contributed greatly to European culture and language. Now, don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t that those already living in Europe couldn’t communicate effectively, but the Celts language was adopted relatively quickly by many ‘non-Celts’.
It’s thought that the Celtic language gained momentum as they travelled, traded and communicated with various different people.
The Celtic language belongs to what’s known as the ‘Indo-European’ family of languages. In the years that followed 1000 BC, the language spread to Turkey, Scotland, Switzerland and Iberia.
The language began to die out (literally…) after 100 BC, after Roman conquests in Portugal, Spain, France and England. In the years that followed, the language slowly began to whittle away. However, it survived in a number of places, like Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Where did the Celts live?
The Celts didn’t just live in one place – they were a group of tribes that were spread right the way across Europe. The Celts were known for migrating. Over the years, they were known to reside in Ireland, Britain, Frace, Scotland, Wales, Turkey and France and many more places.
When did the Celts arrive in Ireland?
Now, this is another (yes, I know…) topic that tends to cause heated debate. When the Celts arrived in Ireland is unclear, for a very definitive reason.
Before Christianity arrived in Ireland, there were no written accounts of history. With that being said, there is sign of Celtic influence in Ireland between the years 800BC and 400BC.
What did the Celts look like?
It’s believed that the Celts were well-groomed, a belief that would appear to be backed up by the discovery of a number of tools that were used for cutting hair and, presumably, beards.
The men wore a tunic that stretched down to their knees along with a pair of trousers that were called ‘Bracae’.
Women are known to have worn long, loose-fitting dresses made from linen that was woven from the flax that they grew.
What religion were they?
The Celts were what’s known as ‘Polytheists’, which means that they believed in a number of different gods and goddesses.
There wasn’t one central religion that the many different groups of Celts followed. In fact, different groups of Celts held different beliefs.
If you read our guide to Celtic symbols, you’ll see that many of the designs that they created were closely linked to spirituality.
What happened to the Celts?
Many of the Celts were brought under the control of the Roman Empire. The Celts that resided in the north of Italy were conquered at the start of the second century.
Those living in parts of Spain were dominated over the course of a number of wars that took place during the first and second centuries.
The Gauls (a group of ancient Celts living in France) were conquered towards the latter end of the second century and during the middle of the first century.
Over a number of centuries of Roman rule in Britain, the Celts lost their language and much of their culture, as they were forced to adopt the Roman way.
What did the Celts eat?
The Celts maintained a diet like many Europeans at the time and survived mainly on grains, meat, fruits and vegetables.
It’s widely accepted that the Celts in Ireland were skilled farmers and lived off of the produce of their work. They reared sheep and cattle, from which they would get milk, butter, cheese and, eventually, meat.
Were the Celts Irish?
Although many assume that the Celts came from Ireland, this isn’t the case. Although some groups of Celts did travel and live on the island of Ireland, they were not from Ireland.
An Easy-to-Follow History of the Celts
The ancient Celts were a collection of people that originated in central Europe and that shared similar culture, language and beliefs.
Over the years, the Celts migrated. They spread across Europe and set up shop everywhere from Turkey and Ireland to Britain and Spain.
The first record of the origin of the Celts was in documentation kept by the Greeks, and it cited their existence to around 700 BC. We can take it for granted that these ancient people existed long before this.
Enter the Romans
The Celts were fierce warriors and, by the 3rd century BC, they had a stronghold on a large chunk of Europe, north of the Alps.
Then the Roman Empire set off on a conquest to expand their control on Europe. Under the leadership of Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC, the Romans killed large numbers of Celts, wiping out their language and culture in many parts of Europe.
One of the countries that Ceasar tried to invade at the time was Britain, but his attempt fell flat. This is why Celtic traditions and language survived in many parts of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
Who were the Celts? Wrapping it up!
I realise that the above is a very speedy history of the Celts. It’s intended to help you gain a quick understanding of who they were and to offer some insight into their past.
The Celts didn’t live the way many of us perceive that they did – up until a few years ago I genuinely believed that the majority of Celts lived in the one location.
That couldn’t have been further than the truth. The Celts were a loose collection of tribes and communities that came together for trading, defence and worship.
Keith O’Hara has lived in Ireland for 34 years and has spent most of the last 10 years creating what is now The Irish Road Trip guide. Over the years, the website has published thousands of meticulously researched Ireland travel guides, welcoming 30 million+ visitors along the way. In 2022, the Irish Road Trip team published the world’s largest collection of Irish Road Trip itineraries. Keith lives in Dublin with his dog Toby and finds writing in the 3rd person minus craic altogether.