The Gaels (Irish: Na Gaeil; Scottish Gaelic: Na Gàidheil; Manx: Ny Gaeil), also known as Goidels, are a Celtic people, a subgroup of the Indo-Europeans, the core of whom claim patrilineal descent from the Milesians. The homeland of the Gaels is Ireland in northern Europe, where much of their culture and language developed. During the Early Middle Ages, the Gaelic people spread out into other areas, such as Great Britain (particularly the area known today as the Scottish Highlands) and the Isle of Man. The Gaels took with them their language, which developed into three branches: Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx.
The word Gael is applied in two main ways today. As a synonym for people of indigenous Irish origin with Gaelic-derived surnames, many having undergone linguistic Anglicisation since the early modern period. The more exclusive usage is to describe the small communities which continue to use the Gaelic languages in everyday life such as the Gaeltacht and Gàidhealtachd. To further complicate the matter, during the High Middle Ages, a minority of clans with Germanic ancestry, such as some of the Normans in Ireland (the Old English) and the Vikings in the Scottish Highlands (Foreign Gaels such as Clan Donald) became Gaelicised.
The word Gaelic is first recorded in print in the English language in the 1770s, replacing the earlier word Gathelik which is attested as far back as 1596. Gael, defined as a "member of the Gaelic race," is first attested in print in 1810. These words entered the English language through interactions between Lowlanders and Highlanders in Scotland. 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. According to the scholar John Koch in his magnum opus Celtic Culture, the word was borrowed from an early Welsh term, roughly guoidel, meaning "forest people", "wild men" or later "warriors". This shared a root with the Irish fíad and was partially cognate with the ethnonym Féni, from the Proto-Indo-European *weidh-n-jo-.
The Greek and Roman classical authors also had several terms for the Gaelic people. The first of these was Iverni, from which derives Hibernian, best known from Ptolemy's Geography. This was used in Ireland itself as the Proto-Irish tribal name *Iwerni. By the 4th century, this had given way for the Latin name for the Gaels; Scoti or Scotti. It is not believed that Gaels used the term to describe themselves and there is some conjecture that the Latin meaning is "pirate", as during this time the Gaels were raiding for slaves on the West-Coast of Britain. Scots was used to describe the Gaels of Dál Riata who founded the Kingdom of Scotland in the 9th century. Eventually by the 16th century, due to Anglian Lowlanders and their culture overtaking Gaelic Highlanders as the court language, the Anglo-Saxon language of the former, ironically, became "Scots", while Gaelic was refered to as Erse ("Irish").
Origins and the Milesians
The ethnogenesis of the Gaels is difficult to document with absolute certainty, as Ireland where they originated, laid outside of the world of classical antiquity and the Roman Empire. Their own traditional histories were not collected and written down until the Middle Ages by Irish monks after the introduction of Christianity. Archaeology and genetics has also helped to reveal some information. The most prominent self-description of their origins is in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, also known as The Book of the Taking of Ireland, where the Gaels are described as patrilineal descendants of the Milesians, sons of Míl Espáine from the Iberian Peninsula.
The "Milesian" Gaels understood themselves to be the predominating element of the Irish nation, in continuity with the institutions of earlier people such as the followers of Partholón, Nemedians, Fir Bolg and Tuatha Dé Danann. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Gaels describe themselves as arriving from Galicia, Iberia and overcoming the Tuatha Dé Danann, a godlike people who are said to possess superhuman powers of magic. Following this victory, the Gaels are claimed to have become High Kings of Ireland under Éber Finn and Érimón (continuing the institution founded by the Fir Bolg), crowned at the Hill of Tara, while the Tuatha Dé Danann are driven underground becoming the daoine sídhe. The traditional stories of the Milesian origin of the Gaels trace them back further to an eponymous ancestor called Goídel Glas (also said to be the father of the language), a prince of the Scythians who is said to have to have married Scota, a daughter of an Egyptian pharoah.
These stories have held a powerful sway in the history of the Gaels and are citied not only in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, but also in the Declaration of Arbroath and the remonstrance of Donal O'Neill to Pope John XXII against the behaviour of Norman barons nominally loyal to the post-1066 Kings of England. While some modern geneticists have indeed demonstrated similarities between Irish and northern Iberian populations, the mythology is not without problems for contemporary scholars. Principal amongst these, is the vast archaelogical evidence of early Gaelic ogham in areas of Ireland not claimed to be controlled by tribes traditionally said to be Milesian descended and a lack of evidence of any mass invasion, suggesting a more ancient origin for the advent of Gaelic and a continuity of the people over thousands of years, the early historical Irish "groups" being for the most part the same Gaelic people under different names.
Christian kings, saints and scholars
Around the time of the decline of the Roman Empire, the activities of the Gaels began to take a more clearly historical form.[note 1] The island is divided into roughly two power blocks, Leath Cuinn and Leath Moga. The north is dominated by the Connachta and the Uí Néill (the latter descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages), while the south is dominated by the Eóganachta. There are other, less powerful Gaelic-speaking groups, such as the Laigin in Leinster and the Ulaid in Ulster. The Irish annals claims some of the latter group moved across into the land of the Picts in the 5th century, carving out for themselves Dál Riata in the Scottish Highlands, though some modern archaelogists question this. There was extensive Irish raiding down the West-Coast of Britain and Gaelic colonies were set up by the Déisi Muman with Dyfed and the Fidgeinti with Uí Liatháin; perhaps in alliance with Magnus Maximus, Roman Emperor.
It was during this time that the Gaels began to adopt the Christian religion. Pope Celestine I is recorded as having sent St. Palladius as their first bishop in 431. A Briton abducted by the Irish, St. Patrick, is the best known missionary associated with its establishment; the church he founded formed the base of the see of Armagh, later recognised with the Primacy of Ireland. Monasticism was popular, notably at Iona, as well as the later Culdee tradition. The Gaelic artistic culture was represented in elaborate illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells. The Gaels produced numerous saints, including St. Columba, St. Columbanus, St. Aidan, St. Brendan, St. Ciarán and many others. As well as the faith in Ireland, the Hiberno-Scottish mission brought the Gaels influence at courts right across Western Europe, including Northumbria, Pictland and the Carolingian Empire.
Politically, throughout this period, warfare between different Gaelic tribes was common in Ireland. The expansionism of the Uí Néill continued apace, as they reduced Ulster by carving out the kingdoms of Airgíalla and Aileach, as well as their Clann Cholmáin branch driving south and taking Mide from the Laigin during the 5th century. The High Kingship was dominated by the Uí Néill[note 2] during this time and Tara continued to be a place of prestige. Dermot O'Melaghlin was the last High King to be inaugurated under the pagan rituals of the ban-feis. The early history of the Isle of Man is obscure, but it is generally held that the Gaels from Ireland began to take it from the Britons sometime in the 5th century. Meanwhile, the influence of the Gaels in the Dál Riata kingdom had expanded to the point that they had taken over the Pictish kingship and by the end of the 9th century under Constantine II MacAlpin founded the Kingdom of Alba (also known as Scotland)
Interactions with the Norsemen
An interaction began in the late 8th century, but gathering pace during 9th century which would have a profound impact on the Gaelic world; a constant stream of raids by Norsemen, Vikings from Scandanavia. This would effect both the Gaels in Ireland and those in Dál Riata. Colonising the islands of Shetland and Orkney, the Norsemen would launch pirate raids against the Christian monasteries of the Gaels, seizing their riches. They began to found longports, such as Dublin and conquered the Hebrides from the Gaels, founding the Kingdom of the Isles. Some settlers became Gaelicised in culture, with references to them as Gallgáedil (Foreign Gaels) from the 9th century, the most prominent of the early rulers were the Uí Ímair. Though the Foreign Gaels would leave a permanent mark on the Highlands, with some of them eventually becoming MacDonald, MacLeod, MacDougall and various other clans.
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Modern period and diaspora
Since that time Gaelic language rose and, in the past three centuries, greatly diminished, in most of Ireland and Scotland. The most culturally and linguistically Gaelic regions are in the north west of Scotland, the west of Ireland and Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia where the descendants of the Highland Clearances were transplanted.
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. A large part of the island's cultural heritage is Gaelic.
Culture and society
From the Middle Ages, the Gaels were known for their association with the harp (known as the clàrsach), although other instruments were also played. Three specimens from the 15th century have survived to the modern day in the form of the Trinity College Harp, the Queen Mary Harp and the Lamont Harp. In Gaelic society, harpers held a prestigious position, often associated with the rituals of the kings; in mythology The Dagda played a magical harp known as the Uaithne. Following the Tudor conquest of Ireland this tradition was disprivileged somewhat, although it survived through to the modern era at the Belfast Harp Festival of the 18th century. Some of the participants included Turlough O'Carolan, Donnchadh Ó Hámsaigh and Arthur O'Neill.
The bagpipes, in particular the Great Highland Bagpipe and the Irish uilleann pipes, are strongly associated with Gaels. These were introduced during the 15th century and while they have a utility for war, have also been played as a general instrument through pibroch performances. There exists also a popular folk music tradition, sometimes minimalist in nature. One form of which is the sean-nós song ("old style") and their associated activities, which continues to exist in Ireland today. Some songs have been written down since the 16th century. Highland women in Scotland would sing waulking song in Gaelic while working with cloth. Since the late 19th century, modern Irish and Scottish folk music has developed, some of which draws on Gaelic culture and are sung in Gaelic languages (for example The Chieftains, Planxty, Flora MacNeil and Catherine-Ann MacPhee).
Emergence of Gaelic language
Estimates of the arrival 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. Old Irish does appear in a specialized 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 as well as in other areas where Gaelic invaders settled across post-Roman Britain. This form of written Old 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.
Gaelic-speaking communities today
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) and Scotland (58,552 "Gaelic speakers" and 92,400 with "some Gaelic language ability" in the 2001 census). Learning the language is compulsory in Republic of Ireland schools but not in Scotland.
Communities where the language is 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, as well as 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. According to the 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.
- The Gaels, referred to as the Scotti, were notably involved in the Great Conspiracy in Roman Britain during the 4th century, fighting alongside Picts, Attacotti, Saxons, Franks and others. This was essentially a despoiling exercise and was crushed by Count Theodosius when reinforcements arrived.
- During this period of Irish history, before the Viking Age, only a few men made any serious challenges to the domination of the High Kingship by various branches of the Uí Néill. This included Báetán mac Cairill, Fiachnae mac Báetáin and Congal Cáech, all belonging to the Dál nAraidi and later Cathal mac Finguine of the Eóganachta.
- "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 April 14, 2010..
- Koch 2006, p. 775.
- "Gaelic". Online Etymology Dictionary. 6 November 2012.
- "Gael". Online Etymology Dictionary. 6 November 2012.
- "Féni". Oxford Reference. 13 November 2012.
- Koch 2006, p. 1571.
- "Scot". Online Etymology Dictionary. 14 November 2012.
- Kidd 1999, p. 152.
- Kidd 1999, p. 153.
- "Remonstrance of the Irish Chiefs to Pope John XXII by Domhnall Ó Néill". University College, Cork. 6 November 2012.
- "DNA Research Links Scots, Irish And Welsh To North-western Spain". History News Network. 10 September 2004.
- Adolph 2010, p. 170.
- "Were the Scots Irish? by Dr. Ewan Campbell". Electric Scotland. 6 November 2012.
- "Christianity in Ireland before St. Patrick's Arrival". Library Ireland. 8 November 2012.
- "Coming of Christianity to Ireland". Wesley Johnston. 8 November 2012.
- Clark 2003, p. 52.
- Czulinski 2004, p. 24.
- Czulinski 2004, p. 86.
- Central Statistics Office Ireland - Irish ability, persons aged 3 years and over.
- General Register Office, Scotland's Census 2001, Gaelic Report
- Oifis Iomairtean na Gaidhlig/Office of Gaelic Affairs
- Clark, Nora Joan (2003), The Story of the Irish Harp: Its History and Influence, North Creek Press, ISBN 0972420207
- Kidd, Colin (1999), British Identities before Nationalism: Ethnicity and Nationhood in the Atlantic World, 1600-1800, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521624037
- Koch, John (2006), Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, ISBN 1851094407
- Adolph, Anthony (2010), Collins Tracing Your Irish Family History, HarperCollins UK, ISBN 0007255322
- Czulinski, Winnie (2004), Drone On! The High History of Celtic Music, Sound and Vision, ISBN 0920151396
- Aberdeen University Celtic Department Information and courses on all aspects of Celts, Gaels and related peoples, languages and cultures
- Iomairt Cholm Cille (The Columban Institute) An institute with the aim of promoting links between Irish and Scottish Gaelic speakers.