The English conquest of Ireland in the seventeenth century marks the end of the independent Celtic kingdoms; let us now travel backwards in time to the beginning, or as near to the beginning as the historical record will allow.
When Hecataeus (c.500-476 BC) of Miletus and Herodotus (c.490-425 BC) of Halicarnassus first mention the "Keltoi" they were already spread in an arc from the Iberian peninsula, through France and Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, northern Italy, and were moving eastwards along the Danube valley towards the Balkans. Herodotus indicates the Celtic homeland as being the upper Danube, around the headwaters of the Danube, the Rhine and the Rhone. Here, Celtic names proliferate. The names of rivers, mountains and towns are still Celtic today but become less so as one radiates away from the centre: the Rhine, Renos, means sea; the Danube, from Danuvius, means swift-flowing (cognate with the Irish "dana") and the Ruhr, from Raura, seems to be named after the Celtic tribe, the Raurici. This was the region, therefore, which was the "cradle" of Celtic civilization and from which the Celts were eventually driven by the arrival of the Germanic people during the first century BC.
We have to piece together the early history of the Celts - their motivations, their attitudes, their social organization and customs and laws - from the hostile viewpoint of the Greeks and the Romans. In trying to understand their way of life we are handicapped by the early prohibition of the Celts against committing their vast stores of knowledge to written record. Julius Caesar, who was to campaign against the Celts in Gaul during the first century BC, commented: "The druids think it unlawful to commit this knowledge of theirs to writing. This is a practice which they have, I think, adopted for two reasons. They do not wish that their system should become commonly known or that their pupils, trusting in written documents, should less carefully cultivate their memory". However, when the insular Celts of Britain and Ireland began to put their knowledge into written form in the Christian era it was not too late to form a perspective, bearing in mind the cultural changes from early times. And we can be wary about taking what the Greeks and Romans say about the Celts as a literal truth.
Rather predictably, the Greeks and Romans represented the Celts as a barbaric people; as basically a fierce warrior society, proud, ignorant, illiterate, taking life cheaply, given to childish amusements and often drunk. In short, they saw themselves as the measure of civilization while the Celts were depicted as exotic barbarians or noble savages. The Celts doubtless had their own opinions of the Greeks and Romans but in keeping with their custom refrained from written comment.
The basis of their society was tribal. By the time the Celtic law systems were codified, with the Irish Brehon Law system being written down in the early Christian era, this tribal system was a highly sophisticated one. The good of the community was the basis of the law - in other words, a primitive but sophisticated form of communism was practiced. Chieftains were elected as were all officers of the tribe. Women emerge in Celtic society with equality of rights. They could inherit, own property and be elected to office, even to the position of leader in times of war, such as Cartimandua of the Brigantes and her more famous compatriot Boudicca of the Iceni. Tacitus observed, "There is no rule of distinction to exclude the female line from the throne or the command of the armies". Of special note was that the Celtic tribes cared for their sick, poor and aged and that, according to Irish records, hospitals, run by the tribes, existed in Ireland around 300 BC, many hundreds of years before St Fabiola founded the first Christian hospital in Rome.
The Celtic tribes varied in size. Some were small, others constituted entire nations. They acted in the main independently of one another and were wont to reject any calls for unity or submission to a centralized political authority that would impinge on their local autonomy. Tribes would often enter into temporary alliances with other tribes but nearly always for a specific purpose and allies could just as readily turn upon one another if their own advantage would seem to warrant it. Warfare and raiding seems to have been endemic although it was largely conducted by a warrior elite as a form of manly sport, hemmed in by certain rules and regulations. Plunder and the taking of hostages for ransom were the main objectives of warfare and we can assume that the number of casualties would have been relatively limited. In fact, the outcome of many tribal clashes was decided by single combat to the death between the leaders or champions of the opposing forces rather than by a pitched battle. Diodorus Siculus (c.60-30 BC) commented: "And when someone accepts their challenge to battle, they proudly recite the deeds of valour of their ancestors and proclaim their own valorous quality, at the same time abusing and making little of their opponent and generally attempting to rob him beforehand of his fighting spirit". In their early conflict with the Celts, some Roman commanders would accept the Celtic form of resolving the battle, but the custom was frowned upon by the Roman senate. Titus Manlius Imperiosus Torquatus (who had received the title Torquatus for taking the hero's torque from the body of a Celt he had slain in single combat) decreed in 340 BC that henceforth no Roman should enter into single combat with a Celt to settle military disputes. One might think that the Celtic method of two men, leaders of the armies, settling the outcome of a military conflict by this means was a little more civilized than the Roman method of total warfare with its burning of crops and villages and the wholesale slaughter of civilians. Presumably Roman commanders had not been enjoying a successful record in such encounters.
Constant raids and attacks upon one another seem to have blinded the various tribes of the Celts to the seriousness of any concerted threat from outside to the Celtic "nation" as a whole. This can be seen by their willingness to join forces with foreign invaders against their rivals as was to occur frequently during the Roman campaigns in Gaul during the first century BC and again at the time of the Norman invasion of Ireland more than a thousand years later. Only when it was too late did the Celts seem to realize that successful military incursions by outsiders into areas under the control of their rivals would eventually come to threaten the survival of their own people as well. Although fiercely independent of one another in a political sense they must certainly have been aware of their common identity in terms of their language, religion and tribal customs; in fact, we know this to be so as the next section of this paper will demonstrate in relation to the druids: nevertheless, this awareness seems to have had little effect in preventing tribes of Celts from joining foreign invaders in preying upon their Celtic neighbours.
It is clear that in the several Celtic areas for which we have evidence the cultivation of literature and learning, and in earlier times of religion, rested upon a highly organized system of professional classes. One learns from Greek and Roman writers (whose information derives mainly from the Greek geographer Poseidonius) that there were three such classes: the druids, the bards, and between them an order that is variously named in the several texts but which seems to have been best known by the Gaulish term "vatis". To the Greeks and Romans, the druids were described as a priesthood, but they fulfilled political functions as well - indeed many tribal chieftains were druids, such as the Gallic chieftains Divitiacos and Dumnorix. It took twenty years to learn all the druidical canon, for the druid functioned not only as minister of religion with its doctrine of immortality and its complete moral system, but also as philosopher, teacher, and natural scientist and keeper of the law and its interpretation. Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) reports the druids to have been great natural scientists, with a knowledge of physics and astronomy which they applied in the construction of calendars. The earliest-known surviving Celtic calendar, dated from the first century BC, is the Coligny calendar, now in the Palais des Arts in Lyons, France. It is far more accurate than the rudimentary Julian calendar and has a highly sophisticated five-year synchronization of lunation with the solar year. Turning to warfare, Diodorus Siculus observed that the druids had the power to prevent battles between the Celtic tribes: "And it is not only in the needs of peace but also in war that they (the Celts) carefully obey these men and their song-loving poets, and this is true not only of their friends but of their enemies. For oft-times as armies approached each other in line of battle with their swords drawn and their spears raised for the charge, these men come forth between them and stop the conflict as though they had spellbound some kind of wild animals. Thus, even among the most savage barbarians, anger yields to wisdom and Ares does homage to the Muses."
The "vates" are generally represented as experts in divination, but it is not possible to make any rigid distinction between their functions and those of the druids, and some would argue that they do not constitute a separate class but rather a subordinate division of the druidic order. The bards were a class of poets and minstrels, and in view of the heroic character of Celtic society it is hardly surprising that classical sources should describe them principally as singers of praise-poetry, as did Diodorus Siculus who observed: "They have also lyric poets whom they call bards. They sing to the accompaniment of instruments resembling lyres, sometimes a eulogy and sometimes a satire". The bards were highly trained, a professional group who were the repositories of Celtic history, legends, folklore and poetry and were under the patronage of the chieftains. The tradition, as we have noted, was strictly an oral one, the bards having to commit to memory a vast store of knowledge and be word-perfect in their recitations.
This scheme of things, attested by classical authors, is substantially confirmed by Irish tradition. Again we find a threefold division, here comprising druids (druidh), "filidh", and bards (baird). As in the case of Gaul, here again it is difficult to distinguish rigorously between the intermediate class and the druids; indeed, already by the seventh century AD, the filidh had become virtually the sole inheritors of such druidic functions and privileges as survived the stresses of the first few centuries of Christianity. Whereas the druids, as the foremost representatives of pagan religion, had borne the brunt of the Church's opposition until they finally disappeared as a distinct order, the filidh succeeded in establishing a remarkable modus vivendi with the ecclesiastical authorities which allowed the two bodies separate but complementary spheres of authority and permitted the filidh to continue many of their ancient functions and prerogatives, including some which had formerly belonged to the druids. Thus the filidh, whose title is often translated as "poets", were in fact very much more: they were seers, teachers, advisers of rulers, witnesses of contracts, and down to the seventeenth century when the native order finally collapsed under the imposition of English government, their power of satire remained an effective social sanction. As poets, they also extended their range of interest at the expense of the bards. The Irish bards were once closely associated with the composition of praise-poetry, like their counterparts in Gaul, but gradually the filidh expanded their own role until finally they could claim a virtual monopoly of this important social function. The status of the bards suffered and throughout most of Irish literary history they are presented as an inferior class of rhymers, storytellers and entertainers. In Wales, on the other hand, the term "bardd" survives with enhanced dignity into the historical period, being used as a general title for the learned poets who correspond to the Irish filidh.
The parallels between the Irish and Gaulish systems of learning is not merely one of titles and hierarchical status: it extends also to details of internal organization and practice. According to Caesar the Gaulish druids were both teachers and disciples of learning: distrusting the written word, they memorized vast quantities of poetry, and some continued their studies for as long as twenty years. In Ireland the curriculum of the student filidh extended over a period of at least seven years; and for the rest, Caesar's observations are as relevant for Ireland as for Gaul. He says that the Gaulish druids had at their head one who held chief authority among them and that, at a certain fixed time of the year, they met in assembly at a holy place in the lands of the Carnutes which was regarded as the centre of Gaul. Similarly, the Irish druids, and their successors, the filidh, had a leader elected from their own number, and they were closely associated in tradition with Uisnech, the "navel" of Ireland, the location of the primal fire and reputedly the site of a great assembly ("mórdháil Uisnigh").
In its essentials the system was evidently pan-Celtic. The geographer Strabo (63 BC-AD 24) implies as much, and other evidence confirms it. Druidism probably existed in Galatia (Asia Minor) as well as in Ireland, Britain and Gaul, and one of the key-words of religious ritual, "nemeton", a sacred place, often used more particularly of a sacred grove, is attested in place-names throughout the Celtic world. Again from Strabo we learn that the council of the Galatians met in assembly at a place known as "drunemeton", the oak-sanctuary, which is clearly analogous to the "locus consecratus", consecrated place, where the Gaulish druids foregathered. On a more general level one finds analogous institutions among several other peoples of the Indo-European linguistic group. The privileged priesthood of the druids had its counterpart in the Brahmins of India and the pontiffs of Rome, and it has been shown that these several priestly orders preserved elements of a common Indo-European religious terminology. What is still more important, they maintained, especially in the peripheral areas of India and Ireland, many cultural institutions and traditions bearing the unambiguous marks of a common origin. As late as the seventeenth century the Irish filidh continue usages which find their closest detailed parallel in the sacred texts of the Indian Brahmins: there could be no more eloquent testimony to the conservatism of Irish learned tradition.