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Travel topics > Cultural attractions > Historical travel > European history > Celts


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The Celts are a category of European peoples with a common ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage. Many Celtic subgroups used to be adversaries of the Roman Empire, while others later embraced elements of Roman culture. Today, the peoples of Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales make up the six Celtic nations with surviving Celtic languages. Additionally, the people of Galicia in Spain claim Celtic heritage, although no Celtic language survives in the region. As well the Celts were part of the mass migration of Europeans to North America and Oceania, so that there is a notable Celtic cultural presence in much of the settler societies of the post-colonial world.

Diachronic distribution of Celtic peoples:
  Core Hallstatt territory, by the sixth century BC
  Maximal Celtic expansion by 275 BC
  Lusitanian area of Iberia where Celtic presence is uncertain
  Areas where Celtic languages remain widely spoken today


The concept of a Celtic culture is tenuous, and has only been used in modern times. The Celtic languages are a branch of the Indo-European languages with some traits in common, and a recorded history back to the 6th century BC.

Roman Empire[edit]

The Dying Gaul, a Roman marble statue inspired by the Gallic Wars

Most written sources about the Celts in ancient times are from the Roman Empire. The Celts were the dominant ethnic group in Gaul (which made up France and neighbouring countries) and Britannia, and were also present in Hispania and other.

In the fourth century BCE a Celtic chieftain known to history under the name "Brennus" led an army that managed to defeat and sack Rome, only withdrawing after the Romans paid a considerable ransom in gold.

The Roman Army conquered Gaul in the Gallic Wars. The Gallic peoples were Romanised, making Latin language and Roman religion dominant.

Retreat of Rome and emergence of Celtic Christianity[edit]

The Roman Empire was already Christianised before it abandoned Britannia in the 5th century. Some non-Christian, non-Celtic peoples invaded Britannia, eventually becoming the English nation. The Britons (Romanised Celts) were able to hold on to Wales, Cornwall, and for a while Cumbria. They were also able to expand into Brittany, returning some Celtic presence to the European mainland. One of these Romanised Celts from present-day Wales was abducted and sold into slavery in Ireland. After learning the language he escaped, but then returned to Ireland as a Christian preacher, and is known to history as Saint Patrick. Through the influence of Patrick and other missionaries, Ireland and Scotland became home to dozens of thriving monasteries. These monasteries were important places of refuge for the Christian religion in coming centuries, and helped to re-Christianise the European mainland. They also had a distinct style of worship that was eventually suppressed in favour of the Roman "rite" (tradition).

Integration into non-Celtic countries[edit]

See also: Vikings and the Old Norse

Every Celtic-speaking country was eventually overrun by non-Celtic neighbours. Notable dates in this process include the Kingdom of Brittany being demoted to a duchy and swearing allegiance to the Frankish king (942), and the first Norman invasions of Wales (1067) and Ireland (1169). Although Scotland continued to exist as a separate kingdom, it was ruled by an elite that was increasingly culturally not Celtic, being of Anglo-Norman ancestry and speaking French and Scots (not Gaelic).

In 1542 Ireland was elevated from a "lordship" to a kingdom, but with the King of England doubling as the absentee King of Ireland. The "Laws in Wales Acts" of 1535 and 1542 fully integrated Wales into English law.

Assimilation, resistance and diaspora[edit]

Throughout the early modern period, land rights of Celtic people were constantly under attack. The old Celtic noble classes were exiled or assimilated to English and French cultures, and the peasants were then fully exposed to both economic and cultural exploitation. The last Irish nobles not loyal to England fled in the "Flight of the Wild Geese" in 1691, and the Scottish ruling class was bribed into accepting a Union with England in 1707. Land was now firmly in the hands of people, often absentee, of an alien culture and language to the majority of the peasants, resulting in the Highland Clearances in Scotland and the Great Famine in Ireland.

One of the legacies of these tragedies were the beginnings of Gaelic diasporas in Australia, Canada, England, New Zealand, and the United States.

With the rise of standardised schooling, Celtic languages came under threat, both at home and in the diaspora. Manx and Cornish died out completely at one point but have been revived. Now only minorities in each Celtic country can speak a Celtic language varying from relatively strong Welsh, where 11% of the population are fluent and 23% can speak some, to endangered Scottish Gaelic, where only 1.1% of the Scottish population can speak it.


The Celtic languages alive today are Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish and Breton. Still, virtually everyone in Britain and Ireland is fluent in English, and Breton speakers in Brittany are also fluent in French. The modern Galician language is not Celtic, rather it is a Romance language closely related to Portuguese.



Museums of Celtic culture and history[edit]

1 Highland Village (Baile nan Gàidheal), Iona, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada.. An outdoor, living-history about Gaels in Cape Breton. The Highland Village Museum (Q5759251) on Wikidata Highland Village Museum/An Clachan Gàidhealach on Wikipedia

Celtic Christianity sites[edit]

2 Glendalough, County Wicklow, Ireland, +353 404 45352, +353 404 45325. Daily 09:30-17:00 (18:00 mid-Mar till mid-Oct). A monastic settlement founded by Saint Kevin in the sixth century. Guided tours of the Monastic City are available in multiple languages all year round by advance booking. The Visitor Centre also holds Free Summer Lectures related to Irish heritage and history.. Glendalough (Q691153) on Wikidata Glendalough on Wikipedia

Celtic festivals[edit]

  • Celtic Colours Festival. Cape Breton, Canada. Spanning hundreds of events across dozens of towns in early-to-mid-October, the music options at Celtic Colours are not solely Celtic but include folk and some Acadian Zydeco (Acadeco) and jazz, and an increasing amount of world music.
  • Canada's Irish Festival Miramichi, New Brunswick

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