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This article is about the Gaelic people. For other uses, see Gael (disambiguation).

The Gaels or Goidels are speakers of the Gaelic (or Goidelic) languages; a branch of the Celtic languages comprising Irish (Munster Irish, Connacht Irish, Ulster Irish), Manx and Scottish Gaelic.[1] Historically, the Gaels were a distinct ethnic group. Gaelic language and culture originated in Ireland, extending to Dál Riata in southwest Scotland. In the Middle Ages it became dominant throughout Scotland and the Isle of Man also. However, in most areas, the Gaels were gradually anglicized and the Gaelic languages supplanted by English.



Main article: Milesians (Irish)

The Lebor Gabála Érenn, a medieval Christian pseudo-history of Ireland, says that the Gaels sailed to Ireland via Scythia and Iberia, after spending hundreds of years wandering the Earth. The Gaels fight a battle of sorcery with the Tuath Dé, the gods, who inhabited Ireland at the time. Ériu, a goddess of the land, promises the Gaels that Ireland shall be theirs so long as they give tribute to her. They agree, and their bard Amergin recites an incantation known as the Song of Amergin. The two groups agree to divide Ireland between them: the Gaels take the world above, while the Tuath Dé take the world below (i.e. the Otherworld). Other medieval texts mention a belief that the Gaels all descend from Éber Donn, who appears to have been a god of the underworld.[2]


Britain and Ireland in the first few centuries of the 1st millennium, before the founding of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.
  Mainly Goidelic areas.
  Mainly Pictish areas.
  Mainly Brythonic areas.

In the 5th century, the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata emerged on the west coast of Scotland. It also included a small part of northeastern Ireland, across the North Channel. The traditional view was that Dál Riata was founded by Gaelic Irish migrants, but this is no longer universally accepted. Archeologists, such as Ewan Campbell, say there is no archeological evidence for a migration or invasion, and suggest strong sea links helped maintain a Gaelic culture on both sides of the North Channel.[3]

Gaelic language and culture soon spread to most of the rest of Scotland and eventually became the dominant one. This led to the Latin name for Gaelic speaking peoples, "Scoti," being applied to the state founded by the Gaels: "Scotland".


Classical Gaelic civilisation moved into a different stage of development, as the Vikings from the North began raiding and pillaging the monasteries from 795. These Vikings generally operated in coastal areas, such as Dublin (where they set up a large slave market), Limerick, Waterford and in the Isle of Man and the Hebrides where they came to take over much of the power from the old Dál Riata clans. Many of them eventually underwent a process of Gaelicisation, becoming the Norse-Gaels. Their rulers the Ivarids eventually became the MacLeods and other clans. Famously, in Ireland, the Gaels halted Viking power at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 under Brian Bóruma.


Gaelic Irish men and noblewomen, c.1575

During the 15th century, with the advent of the early modern age, the Gaels were effected by the policies of the Tudors and the Stewarts who sought to Anglicise the population and bring both Ireland and the Highlands under a stronger monarchial control, as part of what would become the British Empire. The Kingdom of Ireland, which had its power in the Pale of Dublin was implemented and the high aristocracy was encouraged to apply for a surrender and regrant. This brought to end the independence of the last few Gaelic Irish kingdoms. The policies of the Lowland Scots Parliament were similar with the Statutes of Iona taking place in 1609 before the Union of the Crowns.

Since that time Gaelic language rose and, in the past three centuries, greatly diminished, in most of Ireland and Scotland. The 19th century was the turning point as The Great Hunger in Ireland and across the Irish Sea, the Highland Clearances, had the effect of causing mass emigration (leading to Anglicisation, but also a large Irish diaspora in particular). The language was rolled back to the Gaelic strongholds of the north west of Scotland, the west of Ireland and Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.


The Gaelic revival also occurred in the 19th century, with organisations such as Conradh na Gaeilge and An Comunn Gàidhealach attempting to restore the prestige of Gaelic culture and to restore the hegemony of their language. Many of the participants in the Irish Revolution of 1912-1923 were inspired by these ideals and so when a sovereign state was formed (the Irish Free State), the ideal of Gaelic culture was now more popular. Despite policies such as mandatory Irish language education, the living first-language communities have continued to become smaller however.

The Isle of Man (Manx: Ellan Vannin, 'Mannin's Isle', from the pre-Christian deity known as Manannán mac Lír) also came under massive Gaelic influence in its history. The last native speaker of Manx died in the 1970s, though use of the Manx language never fully ceased. There is now a resurgent language movement and Manx is once again taught in all schools as a second language and in some as a first language.



Throughout the centuries, Gaels and Gaelic-speakers have been known by a number of names. The most consistent of these have been Gael, Irish and Scot, which continue to be used today. Although the latter two have developed more ambiguous meanings. Other terms such as Milesian are not as frequently used. Informally, archetypal forenames such as Tadhg or Domhnall are sometimes used for Gaels.[4]


The word Gaelic is first recorded in print in the English language in the 1770s,[5] replacing the earlier word Gathelik which is attested as far back as 1596.[5] Gael, defined as a "member of the Gaelic race," is first attested in print in 1810.[6] The name ultimately derives from the Old Irish word Goídel, spelled officially today as Gael (Irish and Manx) and Gàidheal (Scottish Gaelic). In early modern Irish, the word was spelled Gaoidhealg and Gaoidheal.[7] The antiquarian term Goidels came to the fore in scholarly circles, due to Edward Lhuyd's work on the relationship between Celtic languages.

According to the scholar John Koch in his Celtic Culture: An Encyclopedia, the word in the form of Guoidel was borrowed from a Primitive Welsh form which became Old Welsh term, roughly meaning "forest people", "wild men" or later "warriors".[7] It is recorded as a personal name in the Book of Llandaff. This term shared a root with the Irish fíad and was partially cognate with Féni, from the Proto-Indo-European *weidh-n-jo-.[7][8] This latter word is the origin of Fianna and Fenian.


The Iverni are one of the population groups mentioned in Ptolemy's Geographia.

Early Greek and Roman authors called the Irish Ιουερνοι and Iverni, respectively, both derived from the Proto-Irish ethnic name *Iwerni "people of *Iweriū". Later Greek and Latin variants of this name included Ίερνοι, Hierni, and Hiberni.[9]


Scoti or Scotti was another Latin name for the Gaels that came into use by the 4th century.[10][11] It is not believed that any Gaelic groups called themselves Scot(t)i in ancient times, except when referring to themselves in Latin.[10] This word was also adopted as Scottas (pl.) in Old English.[12] It is also conjectured that the Latin term may mean "raider, pirate" as it is widely accepted that Gaelic raiders were attacking Britain's west coast during and following the Roman occupation.

Since the disappearance of Gaelic as a community language in the south and east of Scotland in the late medieval period, and the popularity of the terms 'highland Scot' and 'lowland Scot', the term Gàidheal has been used in Gaelic language conversation not merely to denote Gaelic identity but also as an equivalent for the English word 'Highlander'.

Up until the late 15th century, the Gaelic language in Scotland was generally named Scottish, both in its Latin form and in Early Scots. For example, the usage in The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie at the start of the 16th century is Erse (“Irish”) and Inglis (“English”). After this time, the Gaelic language generally became called Erse (“Irish”) and the lowland tongue Scots (“Scottish”).

Documentary evidence shows other subsequent alterations in general terminology, such as the appearance of the Latin term "Scotos Hibernicos" in 1521 and its English equivalent, "Scottish-Irish", by the English diplomat Ralph Sadler in 1558 to refer to Scottish Gaels.[13]

In the earliest surviving writings in the Lowland Scots language (which had hitherto been called Inglis), a form of the term Gaidheal appears to discriminate between Gaels from the Scottish Highlands and Gaels from Ireland. In 1596, it appears in James Dalrymple's translation from Latin into Lowland Scots of the Historie and Chronicles of Scotland, 1436–1565 as the main element within the word Gaelic, referring to the language in Scotland, rather than in Ireland.

Kinship groups[edit]

Main articles: Irish clans and Scottish clans

In traditional Gaelic society, a patrilineal kinship group is referred to as a clann; this signifies a tribal grouping descended from a common ancestor, much larger than a personal family, which may also consist of various kindreds and septs. Using the Munster-based Eóganachta as an example, members of this clann claim patrilineal descent from Éogan Mór. It is further divided into major kindreds such as the Eóganacht Chaisil, Glendamnach, Áine, Locha Léin and Raithlind.[14][15] These kindreds themselves contain septs which have passed down as Irish Gaelic surnames, for example the Eóganacht Chaisil includes O'Callaghan, MacCarthy, O'Sullivan and others.[16][17]

Clan tartan of the MacGregors. Distinct patterns were adopted during the Victorian-era.

The Irish Gaels can be grouped into the following major historical clans; Clan Colla, Connachta, Cruthin, Dál gCais, Eóganachta, Laigin, Síl Conairi, Uí Néill and Ulaid. In the Highlands, the various Gaelic-originated clans tended to claim descent from one of the Irish groups, particularly those from Ulster. The Dál Riata (ie - MacGregor, MacDuff, MacLaren, etc) claimed descent from Síl Conairi, for instance.[18] Some arrivals in the High Middle Ages (ie - MacNeill, Buchanan, Munro, etc) claimed to be of the Uí Néill. As part of their self-justification; taking over power from the Norse-Gael MacLeod; the Clan Donald claimed to be from Clan Colla.[19][20]

For the Irish Gaels, the old clan system did not survive the incorporation of the Gaelic realms into the Kingdom of Ireland and the subsequent Flight of the Earls. As a result of the Gaelic revival, there has been renewed interest in Irish genealogy; the Irish Government recognised Gaelic Chiefs of the Name since the 1940s.[21] The Finte na hÉireann (Clans of Ireland) was founded in 1989 to gather together clan associations;[22] individual clan associations operate throughout the world and produce journals for their septs.[23] The Highland clans held out until the 18th century Jacobite risings. During the Victorian-era, symbolic tartans, crests and badges were retroactively applied to clans. Clan associations built up over time and Na Fineachan Gàidhealach (The Highland Clans) was founded in 2013.[24]

Human genetics[edit]

At the turn of the 21st century, the principles of human genetics were applied to the study of populations of Gaelic origin.[25][26] It was found that the overwhelming majority of this population belonged to haplogroup R1b in their Y-chromosome DNA (as with much of Western Europe),[27] with the marker R-P312-4 (R-L21) being specifically associated with the Gaelic Irish. The development of in-depth studies of DNA sequences known as STRs and SNPs, has allowed geneticists to associate subclades with specific Gaelic kindred groupings (and their surnames), vindicating significant elements of Gaelic genealogy, as found in work such as the Leabhar na nGenealach. Examples can be taken from the Uí Néill (ie - O'Neill, O'Donnell, Gallagher, etc), who are associated with R-M222[28] and the Dál gCais (ie - O'Brien, McMahon, Kennedy, etc) who are associated with R-L226.[29]




Main articles: Primitive Irish and Old Irish
The vowels of the Ogham alphabet

Estimates of the emergence of proto-Gaelic in Ireland vary widely from the introduction of agriculture circa 7000–6000 BC to around the first few centuries BC. Little can be said with certainty, as the language now known as Old Irish—ancestral to modern Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx—first began to be properly recorded with the Christianisation of Ireland in the 4th century, after the introduction of the Roman script. Primitive Irish does appear in a specialised written form, using a unique script known as Ogham. The oldest examples of Ogham have survived in the form of memorial inscriptions or short epitaphs on pillar-like stone monuments (see Mac Cairthinn mac Coelboth.) Ogham stones are found throughout Ireland and neighbouring parts of Britain. This form of written Primitive Irish is thought to have been in use as early as 1000 BC. The script frequently encodes a name or description of the owner and surrounding region, and it is possible that the inscribed stones may have represented territorial claims.


See also: Gaeltacht and Gàidhealtachd
The Gaeltacht in Ireland and the Gàidhealtachd in Scotland where the language is spoken at a community level in the 21st century.

The two comparatively "major" Gaelic nations in the modern era are Ireland (which in the 2002 census had 185,838 people who spoke Irish "daily" and 1,570,894 who were "able" to speak it)[30] and Scotland (58,552 "Gaelic speakers" and 92,400 with "some Gaelic language ability" in the 2001 census[31]).

Learning Irish is compulsory in Irish schools; learning Scottish Gaelic is not compulsory in Scotland. Communities where the languages are still spoken natively are restricted largely to the west coast of each country and especially the Hebrides in Scotland. However, a large proportion of the Gaelic speaking population now lives in the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland, and Donegal, Galway, Cork and Dublin in Ireland. There are about 2,000 Scottish Gaelic speakers in Canada (Canadian Gaelic dialect), although many are elderly and concentrated in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island.[32] According to the 2000 US Census PDF (123 KiB), there are over 25,000 Irish-speakers in the United States with the majority found in urban areas with large Irish-American communities such as Boston, New York City and Chicago.


  1. ^ "Gael" is often used specifically for Scottish Gaelic speakers. "Goidels" was advanced by John Rhys in Early Britain (1882) as a blanket term for all speakers of a Goidelic tongue, and has been used commonly in Celtic studies. See "Goidel". Oxford English Dictionary. December 1989. Retrieved 14 April 2010. .
  2. ^ Koch, John T.. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, 2006. p.1133
  3. ^ Campbell, Ewan. "Were the Scots Irish?" in Antiquity No. 75 (2001). pp. 285–292.
  4. ^ O'Leary 2004, p. 376.
  5. ^ a b "Gaelic". Online Etymology Dictionary. 6 November 2012. 
  6. ^ "Gael". Online Etymology Dictionary. 6 November 2012. 
  7. ^ a b c Koch 2004, p. 775.
  8. ^ "Féni". Oxford Reference. 13 November 2012. 
  9. ^ Koch, John (ed). Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2006, pp. 709–710; p. 846; p. 848
  10. ^ a b Online Etymology Dictionary: "Scot"
  11. ^ Koch, John (ed). Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2006, p. 846
  12. ^ Cassidy, Frederic G.; Ringler, Richard N. (1971). Old English Grammar and Reader. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. p. 152. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Byrne 1973, p. 291.
  15. ^ O'Duffy 2005, p. 263.
  16. ^ "Surnames in the Eoganacht sept project". Eoganacht Septs. 26 January 2015. 
  17. ^ "Eo´ganacht septs". Family Tree DNA. 26 January 2015. 
  18. ^ Thornton 2003, p. 201.
  19. ^ "Origins Part 2: Clan Colla and the Origins of Clan Donald)". Clan Donald Heritage. 26 January 2015. 
  20. ^ "DNA of the Three Collas". Peter Biggins. 26 January 2015. 
  21. ^ Ellis 2002, p. 351.
  22. ^ Ellis 2002, p. 95.
  23. ^ "About the Clans of Ireland". Finte na hÉireann. 29 January 2015. 
  24. ^ "The Highland origin of Clans". Association of Highland Clans & Societies. 29 January 2015. 
  25. ^ "A Y-Chromosome Signature of Hegemony in Gaelic Ireland". American Journal of Human Genetics. 26 January 2015. 
  26. ^ "Genetic investigation of the patrilineal kinship structure of early Medieval Ireland". American Journal of Physical Anthropology. 26 January 2015. 
  27. ^ "Haplogroup R1b (Y-DNA)". Eupedia. 26 January 2015. 
  28. ^ "Insights Into the O’Neills of Ireland from DNA Testing". Edwin. B. O'Neill. 26 January 2015. 
  29. ^ "A Set of Distinctive Marker Values Defines a Y-STR Signature for Gaelic Dalcassian Families". Denis M. Wright. 26 January 2015. 
  30. ^ Central Statistics Office Ireland – Irish ability, persons aged 3 years and over.
  31. ^ General Register Office, Scotland's Census 2001, Gaelic Report
  32. ^ Oifis Iomairtean na Gaidhlig/Office of Gaelic Affairs


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