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History of the Celts:
from Celebration of Celts

Ancient Founders of European Culture
by John Charles Macpherson

For over 2000 years – 2000 B.C. through 200 A.D. - the Celts dominated Europe that is three times as long as the viable life of the Roman Empire. Their fierce warriors were made invincible by their own most talented smiths who were the first in Europe to introduce iron and their intrepid explorers who brought the horse to central Europe. They were masters of the arts – particularly sculpture and fine jewelry making but also including the household items such as cooking and serving vessels. Their aggressive tradesmen developing trade routes were a great and single influence through Europe from the shores of the Viking peoples on the north side of the of the Baltic Sea, the British Isles (called so originally from the Britons/Celts who lived there) also in the north. This vast collection of Celtic tribes with their common culture dominated far into southern Europe over the Pyrenees into central Spain, to the Mediterranean Sea, half way down the boot of Italy, across the Adriatic Sea and over the entire Balkan Peninsula. This area of Celtic influence reached over the Vistula River in the Poland of today and further south to the shores of the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea.

The furthest eastern reach went to central Turkey known then and even yet by some of their descendants as Galatia. Adventurous Celtic people were quite likely on the shores of North America – the enormous standing stones of New Hampshire and Vermont were certainly not raised by an American Indian culture to imitate the styles of the British Isles, France, Spain and Portugal. Some of these erections carbon date to 1500 BC.

The men and women of this great people held each other as equals. A man was a warrior and his woman was just as likely to be one too fighting side by side to death or victory. A woman could be of the priestly class, she could be Queen in her own right, she could be a judge, attend schools of her own choosing, keep her own name in marriage, and before the Romanization of the Celtic Christian Church, she could obtain a divorce and count on a fair property settlement. One can easily see that Celtic women were better off until about 600 A.D. than even women in our Western culture of today.

Today the culture survives in the seven nations – Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Isle of Mann, Cornwall, and Galicia in the northwest of Spain. The people of these nations have had great influence in the creation of our country and all of the Western Hemisphere. They have been soldiers, statesmen, writers, composers, artists, doctors, philosophers, economists, inventors and businessmen.

The Celts of Columbia by Dale Nicholson, PhD


The Celts originated in eastern Europe, and then moved west to occupy the central and western parts of the continent from southern France through Germany to what is now the Czech Republic. This happened sometime in the last millennium before the birth of Christ. The Greeks, apparently the first to notice their existence, gave them their name--Keltoi or Kelts. By the fourth century they were on their way to becoming a great power. In fact before the days of Roman greatness few other cultures could compare with the Celts in terms of power and influence. Ankara, Turkey; Belgrade, Yugoslavia; Milan, Italy; and Cologne, Germany all fell under Celtic control at one time or another. During the 200’s BC the Celts were on the move all over western and southern Europe and even into the Middle East, invading Italy and putting great pressure on the ancient Etruscans living just north of Rome. In 279 Celtic marauders rampaged through Macedonia, defeated the Greek phalanxes at Thermopylae, even reaching Delphi, the home of the famous oracle. Another group of Celts returned to Greece, took control of the northern part of the country and ruled it until 210. Yet another tribe marched through Asia Minor, now Turkey, to establish the kingdom of Galatia.

Perhaps the strongest of all Celtic peoples were located farther to the west—Gallia in Latin, Gaul in English. The Galli inhabited what is now (roughly) modern France. Beginning about 400 the Celtae, as they called themselves, began moving south towards the Alps, eventually establishing a strong presence in Spain and in Cisalpine Gaul in the Italian Po Valley. The Romans took immediate notice and sounded the alarm. It was bad enough in their eyes to have a strong foreign presence on their doorstep, but the reputation of the Galli as half, maybe fully, crazed warriors set Roman teeth on edge. They fought, witnesses’ claimed, totally naked with “red hot waves of ecstasy.” They were said to challenge their enemies, announcing before battle the fate awaiting them--excruciating pain, instant death, and decapitation--and sometimes offering to settle matters by having each side choose a single champion and fight to the death--sort of an early form of psychological warfare. They generally charged on horse and foot, beating drums, screaming at the top of their lungs, heaving javelins and spears with such fury that it sometimes brought victory before the battle had really begun. Indeed, a Latin nickname the Romans devised for the Gauls was furor celticus. Later, the heads of the slain would be posted on the top of Gallic doorways as a warning for other enemies to be! By using something like these methods, the Celts succeeded in sacking much of the city of Rome in 387 and threatened to do so again in 226.

But these were the high points of their influence in Europe. Now Roman power increased while the Galli sharply declined. But it had been a near thing--the Celts possibly could have won all of Italy, and if that had been the case, the history of Western Europe would have been very different from what it turned out to be. But the Romans had superior organization, and for the time an advanced military technology. These factors, combined with the Roman advantage in leadership and tactics, make it clear that the Celts over the long run probably never had a chance.

Hundreds of years later the Romans were again on the move. As the Romans plowed into what is now France they once again ran up against their old enemies. A collision course now awaited, with Julius Caesar, the great Roman commander and his vast legions on one side of a divide, the Gallic warriors on the other. Caesar was on the march, determined to make a name for himself and for Rome and no one would stand in his way. He defeated the Galli in a tough campaign lasting from 58 to 51 BC. He wrote of them in his famous Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, admiring their great military prowess and the headlong bravery they showed in the face of certain defeat. The Romans won and the Celtic tribes receded until they formed only a small rump spread about in isolated parts of the continent. Their days of greatness on the continent were at an end.

As the events described above were going on many Celts decided to move from Europe over the channel to the British Isles— specifically, to now Ireland, England, the Isle of Man, Wales, and Scotland. Over time each people would build their own local culture and their own variety of Celtic language--Gaelic, Welsh, British, Cornish, and Manx among them. But once again they were to be challenged by the persistent, ever present Romans, and by their old nemesis, Julius Caesar. The Romans never got to Ireland, but between 43 BC and 400 AD they conquered most of the Island of Great Britain up to southern Scotland. And as soon as the Romans departed in the early fifth century the Angles and Saxons from northern Germany and Denmark subjected the beleaguered Celts to yet another foreign invasion. What did the Celtic Britons do in the face of this new threat? For years, even centuries, they resisted the Germanic forces by fighting a long series of rear guard actions led by many military chieftains, perhaps even the semi-legendary King Arthur, possibly a Welsh or British nobleman or prince.( Incidentally, the story of Camelot, Arthur’s court--including Guinevere, Merlin, the Knights of the Grail, Sir Lancelot du Lac, and others--all took place in Celtic Britain.) Finally, some others took the opportunity to depart from Britain altogether, embarking for Armorica, a small peninsula in northwest France, which they named, aptly, Brittany.

The Irish, left alone by Roman or Saxon, continued on their merry way, creating a rich culture of song, legend, and literature, including beautifully crafted illuminated manuscripts and epic poetry of great power, especially the Ulster saga called the Tain Bo Cuailgne, or the Cattle Raid at Cooley. This was a rural society where the family, tribe (tuath), aristocracy, druid priests, and later Christian monks came to be mainstays of the social order. Eventually great houses of Irish kings (Ri) would supplant the aristocrats. For years the civilization of early Ireland, pagan and Christian, excited the imagination of all Europe. Christianized by St.Patrick, himself a Romanized Briton, they sent out saints, missionaries, and scholars like Colum cille or St. Columba, the priest-warrior and his followers, to convert the pagans of northern Britain to the new faith. They and the Celtic Britons took a hand also in civilizing parts of Europe. Alcuin, the great Charlemagne’s top assistant, and Einhard, his biographer, were originally from Britain. But sadly Ireland ceased to be an independent entity starting first during the time of Queen Elizabeth I in the 1500’s, when the English began to clap an ever tightening hammer lock on the Irish, not to be fully relinquished in the south until 1937, and continuing in the north even to this day. English gradually supplanted Gaelic until today the Irish tongue is spoken on a daily basis only in the western counties of the old province of Connacht, and even there by a minority.

Scotland developed in a different way from the rest of Britain or Ireland, yet there were for many years close links between all peoples who inhabited the Celtic world of the British Isles. Its early inhabitants, the Cruithin, were called Picti or Picts by the Romans, because the latter thought they tattooed their bodies with designs and pictures. They controlled the north and central regions of the country. Other Celtic tribes, the Britons, settled in Strathclyde in the southwest, just below Scotland’s now largest city, Glasgow. Non-Celtic Angles and Saxons would come from England to found Edinburgh in the southeast (Edwin’s town or city). But a new influx of Celts riding in from northern Ireland called the Dalriada Scots actually gave their name to the nation—Scotland. In 843 one Kenneth MacAlpin became the king of a united monarchy of Picts and Highland Scots named Alba. Eventually this line of kings conquered almost all of Celtic Scotland. Then for about five hundred years a Norse-Gaelic empire, the Lordship of the Isles, under Clan Donald, consisting of the mainland of northwestern Scotland and the inner and outer Hebrides, a small series of islands off the west coast, held sway. Maintaining close relations, each country developed its own Celtic tongue-- Erse or Irish and Highland Gaelic(usually pronounced Gallic by the Scots). People moved back and forth between the two areas—Ireland and Scotland – and shared a great deal. Indeed, its not overstating matters to say that until late in the sixteenth century the two countries shared basically the same civilization, with only slightly differing tendencies.

The early Irish and Scots wrote their own music, with the harp(Clarsach) and various forms of the bagpipe taking center stage. Today we call it folk music, the traditional music of a people. They were great dancers and musicians putting many hours into the creation of a huge variety of reels, jigs, planxties, strathspeys, and step, country, and highland dancing. Poetry and story telling based on Irish and Scottish myths, stories, and legends combined to create a rich and vibrant oral tradition, in which incidentally, second sight (an da shealladh,), the ability to look into the future was a prominent, if controversial, feature. These mythic tales and stories were later transformed into an equally rich printed literature in which both Scots and Irish excelled. In modernity the Irish in particular have become, or so it seems, a nation of writers, a few of the quality of James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, and Seumas Heaney. Material artistry was highly prized as well with fine filigree work intricately displayed in a mass of interlaced circles set into silver, bronze, and gold. Beautifully crafted brooches and other jewelry were the order of the day. They dressed distinctively too, in something resembling the kilt of today, with the Scots later developing fine plaid tartans to identify each clan. In physical appearance many men were strong and tall, with reddish or dark hair, pale skins, and blue eyes, the women charmingly outgoing with peaches and cream complexions. Traditionally, Scots and Irish together formed a strong warrior culture in which the martial arts were highly prized, supplying mercenaries to many countries outside the Gaidhealtachd (land of the Gaels). Irish soldiers were known as “wild geese,” and fought for Russia, Prussia, and other states. Scots highlanders and islanders did the same.

But sadly, after the 1400’s there occurred a sharp break in the unity of the Gaels. Ireland and Scotland now pursued very different historical development, especially in religion and national identity. The Irish retained their fervent Roman Catholicism; the Scots during the Reformation became Protestant. The latter folk even became divided against themselves, the lowlands taking up English, the highlands trying desperately to retain their Celtic ways. The Irish after many years of bloodshed and struggle became totally independent from Great Britain, but Scotland yet remains, although increasingly restive, a constituent part of the United Kingdom. We have even witnessed the horrific spectacle of Gael fighting Gael, when Scottish highland regiments as part of the British army, like the Black Watch or the Argylls and Sutherlands, were sent to fight their cousins in Northern Ireland, who were demanding independence from Great Britain.

Today, even after many years of modernization, there is something magical and strange about the Irish and Scottish countryside. They yet haunt the imagination. As you walk through the heather on moorland and crag on a late summer eve one can almost hear through the wind the incantation of druid and filidh(bardic) rites, the recitation by sacred memory of the history of the great clans and families—the O’Neils and O’Connors, the Campbells and MacDonalds—, the slow, stately recounting of their bloody defeats and glorious victories. These were and are melancholy, ghost ridden lands, where deep in the countryside its possible to find elderly people who can still speak of sithichean or fairy folk, of water sprites or uruis, and of the keen, the unearthly wail of the living for the dead. The old chants and lamentations speak to a time, long gone now, when the culture of the Gaidheil ruled the day, when a form of Gaelic was on the lips of nearly every Albannaich(Gaelic for Scots) and child of Eire. But hark, according to the prophecies of the Brahan Seer, Mairi Mor, Thomas the Rhymer and others known to be blessed or cursed with the Sight, those days will come again. The Gaels will return to the glens and all will be as it once was.


What has all this to do with Columbia County, a small locale in New York’s Hudson Valley? Plenty. Celts were here early--a few intermixed with the Dutch in Kinderhook of the 1650’s. They were Scots and Irish and almost certainly Protestant. Later, in the early 1700’s Scottish folk showed up in the Livingston patents in now Ancram,( named after Ancrum of old Scotland), Livingston, and Clermont to work the iron forges and lead foundries brought here by that great baronial family. One of these communities was so filled with Caledonians it was labeled Scotchtown. The Livingstons, themselves originally Scots, were powerful enough at one time to contend for the crown, narrowly missing their chance to form Scotland’s royal house. To this day they continue as a significant clan here in the states and the old country.

In the next century Protestant and now many Catholic Irish gained employment building the Erie Canal built between Albany west to Lake Erie (ca1814-1824). Some of these undoubtedly settled in Columbia County. Of the pre-famine Irish moving here (before 1840), we estimate that perhaps twenty-five to thirty cent were actually Protestants from the north of Ireland—what are usually called Ulster Scots or Scots-Irish, who moved there from Scotland over the years. Lowland Scots and some with traditional highland surnames emigrated to work in the various textile mills sprinkled throughout the county, but particularly in Hudson and Stottville. They labored in all departments of the mills: hence they were weavers, spinners, spoolers, dyers, fullers, carders, and laborers. The woolen factory surpassing all others in size and importance in the county was the Atlantic or Julliard Mill of Stottville,(more correctly mills rather than mill, since the firm was actually composed of a number of buildings.) These factories began in the early 1800’s, started by the Stott family, and remained in business until the 1950’s. At one time they employed as many as eight hundred workers, not a few of them Scots and Irish.

The floodgates to Celtic immigration came down completely in the middle and late 1840’s when thousands of Catholic Irish, doing their best to keep body and soul together in face of one of the worst famines in world history, poured into Hudson and surrounding communities. In the middle 1840’s the potato crop resting in the bins of millions of Irish cellars began to rot from the inside out. This wouldn’t have been so catastrophic had the tuber not formed the main staple for the people. It’s said that the spud made up over ninety per cent of the Irish diet. Soon famine haunted the land. Before it died out one seventh of the people had died; one seventh were forced to emigrate. Fleeing westward over the Atlantic in the dread “coffin ships,” they landed in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. A certain percentage made their way up the Hudson River valley finding work where they could get it. Many helped the railroad lay tracks for the main trunk line going up between New York City and Albany, and later were firemen, engineers, conductors, and station agents in Hudson and Chatham. Irish girls and young women, generally unmarried, increasingly became maids, nannies, and servants to the well to do. This employment pattern lasted well through the century. Martin Van Buren, eighth U.S. president, was just one of their employers, taking on four or five of them at Lindenwald, his retirement estate in Kinderhook.

By the mid-fifties they lived mainly in the city of Hudson containing over eight hundred native Irish Catholics, and the towns of Chatham, Kinderhook, Ghent, and New Lebanon, each holding well over two hundred. Some got out to the more rural townships in the east where they worked the “hot ground” or lead mines in Ancram and the iron ore beds in Copake. Small numbers became farmers, their main occupation in the homeland. By 1855 in Hudson they had come to form well over sixteen per cent of the total population in the city, and about twenty-five per cent in the first and second wards. Desperately poor, often illiterate because they were denied education in the homeland, ready to take any job offered them, they were not always welcomed by their Protestant neighbors. As an example, occasional advertisements would appear in local papers with the listing: “Wanted, Protestant Maid.“ Some had come not directly from Ireland but rather from New York City, perhaps from the Five Points section in lower Manhatten, considered one of the poorest and most violent slums in the country. This was the place where the terrible draft riots of 1863 were to begin, eventually killing hundreds of people during the Civil War. The culture clash between the Catholic Irish and their new almost universally Protestant neighbors was palpable. Records indicate that between 1830 and 1850 the largest number of incoming Roman Catholic Irish were from the western counties of Donegal and Roscommon, both largely Irish speaking at the time. Later, they were more likely to hail from eastern areas outside the sphere of Gaelic—Cork or Tipperary, for instance. It is probable then that many Irish new to the area could speak little English, and even when they could it was often difficult for others to understand them. Some may have worn what old line Americans must have seen as passing strange, a kind of dress, a kilt like affair, said to have the added advantage of warding off evil fairies.

The Protestant Scottish-Americans and Scots–Irish, vastly outnumbered after 1830 by the Catholic Irish, were probably as mixed in their attitude towards the immigrants as any other group of county residents. Most Scots had been here in the county for a fairly long time and even though the new immigrants may have been fellow Celts the social differences were too great for the development of easy relations between the two groups. So much time had passed that they seemed to inhabit different universes.

By the time the second generation came along in the 1870’s, the Irish, after performing admirably in the war, still formed the largest number of foreign born in the county, but had become far more acculturated to America, working their way into better jobs, such as service positions as police and firemen. They were now better off, but along with African-Americans still the poorest of all ethnic groups in Columbia. But they were now at least upwardly mobile, many rising from manual labor jobs to the middle class. They went into politics especially in Hudson, where they formed the core of the Democratic Party, electing their first Irish-American aldermen in the 1870’s and the mayor in the 1890’s. Some became businessmen, teachers, clerks, and managers.

After 1875, the numbers of native Irish and Scots living in the county decreased sharply in comparison with a great influx of east and southern Europeans, but these two Celtic groups continued to make their mark in other ways. Many an Irish-American family sent pennies and nickels home to bring their kinfolk over to America. Appeals were put on in Catholic parishes to help the poor of the motherland and to rid the country of the British. In this last instance, some took stronger action than merely passing the hat. Some Hudson Irish lads got involved with the Fenian uprisings of the 1870’s and 1880’s, brave if ill fated attempts to achieve home rule for Ireland. The Fenians attacked Canada because that country was still controlled loosely by the hated British monarchy of Queen Victoria. The Hudson contingent met in a building not far from the parish church, and heard Fenian speakers from the old sod imploring them to join the cause of Irish freedom. They took the rails to Buffalo to join the fighting. In reality the risings were put down quickly, but not before they excited much consternation and comment on either side of the border. Though they failed, they helped to set a template upon which others, like Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera were to use to eventually achieve full independence for the nation.

Scottish-Americans continued their upper mobility. Originally from mainly rural areas like Antrim in northern Ireland and in Scotland, more urban places, such as Lanarkshire, near Glasgow, they were usually literate and often well educated. They frequently became skilled workers and craftsmen, landowners, civic leaders, and entrepreneurs.


In early times church and temple created the basis for American ethnic and social life. Wherever Celts moved they brought their faith and their distinctive cultures. The mostly Protestant Scots and Scots-Irish were instrumental in the establishment and functioning of nine Presbyterian churches in Columbia by 1845 in Hudson, Kinderhook, Hillsdale, Chatham and other places. Hardworking and sober minded, they often went into business, or became foreman in shops and textile mills. Through the years Scottish-Americans would put together informal networks for the advance of socialization, with neighbors coming together of a Sunday afternoon to take tea and talk of life in this new world they now lived in and to share nostalgic reminders of the old. The Scots living in Stottville were particularly well known for this.

Familiar foods were often imported from home or made fresh in many a Scottish-American kitchen—special jams and marmalades, oatcakes, bridies, porridge oats(oatmeal), shortbread, cock o’ leekie( chicken with leeks or onions), the ever present tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnips), meat pies, blood sausage, steak and kidney puddings, finnan haddie(baked haddock with a cream sauce), and even haggis(a concoction of oatmeal and various organ meats formed into a loaf), usually reserved for the three major days of national remembrance—the birthdays of the great Scottish writers—Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns, and the feast of St. Andrew, the patron saint of the Scots. Papers from home, especially from the big cities, but also the small rural weeklies, were brought in. We have no record of St. Andrew Societies in the county, but some people traveled to Albany or Schnectady to join this organization of displaced sons of Caledonia. Scottish Games were of great appeal. They served as a kind of country fair of Gaelic culture—massed pipers, tossing the caber, piobaireachd or solo pipe competition, throwing the sheaf, the hammer throw, classical highland dancing, and so forth. New Years , or as the as Scots still call it—Hogmanay, in Gaelic, Oidhche Chaillain—was a special time of celebration and friendly visits back and forth.

The Irish saw the church as a bastion in an America not much given to toleration of Catholics. In fact through much of U.S. history the church was the subject of much hostility and even violence. Catholicism in the last fifty years of the nineteenth century was largely Irish and it protected its flock with gusto and occasionally real courage. In return the Irish showed great and persevering loyalty to the Church of Rome. St. Mary’s of Hudson was the first Catholic parish in the county, established in 1848. Irish cultural life was centered here and in the home. Women joined sodalities, men confraternities. St. Patrick’s Day brought parades, special masses, and much convivial drinking. But it was more a religious holiday than is the case today. Everybody socialized after masses and vespers, a special service held Wednesday and Sunday evenings.

Home was generally in Irishtown, the lower wards in Hudson, nearest the river, the ones where the poor people live. After the long hours of work, or on a Sunday afternoon, their only day off, they might gather on the porch and chew over the day’s events. Those who were Irish speakers, and there were many, sometimes used the old tongue. Their kids did not. Street English was good enough for them. After talk the pennywhistle, Irish flute or the Uillean or elbow pipes might be dragged out. They joined in all the good old songs from home. Afterwards, the men might drift off to the local pub for more gab and stout, or to disappear into to a nearby alley for the bloody sport of chicken fighting.

This then in brief was the world of the Columbia Celts. Slowly they became Americanized, forgetting many of their closely held ancestral memories, the way things used to be. But today there is fresh interest even among the young into looking into one’s family and ethnic history. There has to be more than just our own lives, we reason. There must be some connection to a past that hides itself, some kind of ethnic identification that might give ourselves a link to a world long gone. We understand now that cutting ourselves off from history makes us orphans in time. As we reflect upon our lives we want to know who we are, where we come from, what cultural baggage was carried by our ancestors, even remote ones. What were they like, these people from the darkness, these people of our blood? The past someone once said is a different country, foreign to us now, alien, and strange. Yet in a different sense it is always with us. It has not even passed, as William Faulkner once wrote. It is present in our blood, in our genes, in what we are and how we think. And it is there for the taking, but it must be taken.

For people of Celtic background, that means largely the Irish, Scots, and Welsh, the matter is urgent. The Celtic languages are falling into disuse, and even though there are splendid efforts going on now in the old countries to revive them, only minor successes are happening here in the States. These tongues are beautifully expressive and it would be a great tragedy to have them go extinct. It is not enough that we join the Ancient Order of Hiberbians or St. Andrew Societies and immerse ourselves in Celtic lore by attending Irish festivals or Highland games. Language is the very life blood of any culture and today these languages—Scots and Irish Gaelic and Welsh—are under grave attack. Only we can save them.

From Celebration of Celts
Anne & John Macpherson




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