Celtic nations

"Celtic nation" redirects here. For the amateur association football club based in Carlisle, Cumbria, see Celtic Nation F.C.
The six Celtic nations

The Celtic nations are territories in western Europe where Celtic languages or cultural traits have survived.[1] The term "nation" is used in its original sense to mean a people who share a common identity and culture and are identified with a traditional territory. It is not synonymous with "sovereign state".

The six territories widely considered Celtic nations are Brittany (Breizh), Cornwall (Kernow), Wales (Cymru), Scotland (Alba), Ireland (Éire), and the Isle of Man (Mannin),[1][2] commonly referred to as the "Celtic fringe". Each has a Celtic language that is either still spoken or was spoken into modern times.[3]

Before the expansions of Ancient Rome and the Germanic and Slavic tribes, a significant part of Europe was dominated by Celts, leaving behind a legacy of Celtic cultural traits.[4] Territories in north-western Iberia—particularly Galicia, northern Portugal and Asturias, historically referred to as Gallaecia, covering north-central Portugal and northern Spain—are sometimes considered Celtic nations due to their culture and history.[5] Unlike the others, however, no Celtic language has been spoken there in modern times.[5][6][7] However a study from a research team at Oxford University found that the majority of Britons are descended from a group of tribes which arrived from Iberia from around 5000 BC, prior to the spread of Celts into western Europe.[4]

Six Celtic nations

Each of the six nations has its own Celtic language. In Wales, Scotland, Brittany, and Ireland, these have been spoken continuously through time, while Cornwall and the Isle of Man have languages that were spoken into modern times but later died as spoken community languages.[8][9] In the latter two regions, however, language revitalization movements have led to the adoption of these languages by adults and produced a number of native speakers.[10]

Ireland, Wales, Brittany and Scotland contain areas where a Celtic language is used on a daily basis – in Ireland the area is called the Gaeltacht on the west coast; Y Fro Gymraeg in Wales, and in Brittany Breizh-Izel.[11] Generally these communities are in the west of their countries and in more isolated upland or island areas. The term Gàidhealtachd historically distinguished the Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland (the Highlands) from the Lowland Scots (i.e. Anglo-Saxon-speaking) areas. More recently, this term has also been adopted as the Gaelic name of the Highland council area, which includes non-Gaelic speaking areas. Hence, more specific terms such as sgìre Ghàidhlig ("Gaelic-speaking area") are now used.

In Wales, the Welsh language is a core curriculum (compulsory) subject, which all pupils study.[12] Additionally, 20% of school children in Wales go to Welsh medium schools, where they are taught entirely in the Welsh language.[13] In the Republic of Ireland, all school children study Irish as one of the three core subjects up until the end of secondary school, and 7.4% of primary school education is through Irish medium education, which is part of the Gaelscoil movement.[13]

Other territories

Parts of the northern Iberian Peninsula, namely Galicia, Cantabria, Asturias and Northern Portugal, also lay claim to this heritage.[5] Notably, the region's music features extensive use of bagpipes, an instrument common in Celtic music. Musicians from Galicia and Asturias have participated in Celtic music festivals, such as the Breton Festival Interceltique de Lorient, which in 2013 celebrated the Year of Asturias.[14] Northern Portugal, part of ancient Gallaecia (Galicia, Minho, Douro and Trás-os-Montes), also has traditions quite similar to Galicia.[5] However, no Celtic language has been spoken in northern Iberia since probably the Early Middle Ages.[15][16]

Irish was once widely spoken on the island of Newfoundland before largely disappearing there by the early 20th century. Vestiges remain in some words found in Newfoundland English, such as scrob for "scratch", and sleveen for "rascal"[17] There are no fluent speakers of Scottish Gaelic in Newfoundland or Labrador today. Knowledge seems to be largely restricted to memorized passages, such as traditional tales and songs.[17]

Canadian Gaelic dialects of Scottish Gaelic are still spoken by Gaels in other parts of Atlantic Canada, primarily on Cape Breton Island and adjacent areas of Nova Scotia. In 2011, there were 1,275 Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia,[18] and 300 residents of the province considered a Gaelic language to be their "mother tongue".[19]

Patagonian Welsh is spoken principally in Y Wladfa in the Chubut Province of Patagonia with sporadic speakers throughout Argentina by Welsh Argentines. Estimates of the number of Welsh speakers range from 1,500[20] to 5,000.[21]

Celtic languages

The chart below shows the population of each Celtic nation and the number of people in each nation who can speak Celtic languages. The total number of people residing in the Celtic nations is 19,596,000 people and, of these, the total number of people who can speak the Celtic languages is approximately 2,818,000, or 14.3%.

The Celtic nations and languages
Nation Celtic name Celtic language People Population Competent speakers Percentage of population
Republic of Ireland Ireland1 Éire Irish
(Éireannaigh, Gaeil)
6,399,115 (ROI 4,588,252, NI 1,810,863)[22] 1,944,353 total:
Ireland: 1,904,958 (ROI 1,774,437, NI 130,521)[23][24]
United States: 30,000
Canada: 7,500
Australia: 1,895
29.7% (ROI 38.6%, NI 7.2%)
 Scotland Alba Scottish Gaelic
5,313,600 92,400[25] 1.2%[26]
 Brittany Breizh Breton
4,300,000 206,000[27] 5%[27]
 Wales Cymru Welsh
3,000,000 750,000+ total:
Wales: 611,000[28]
England: 150,000 [29]
Argentina: 5,000[30]
— United States: 2,500 [31]
— Canada: 2,200 [32]
 Cornwall Kernow Cornish
500,000 2,000[34] 0.1%[35][36]
 Isle of Man Mannin
Ellan Vannin
84,497[37] 1,662[37] 2.0%[37]

Of the languages above, three belong to the Goidelic or Gaelic branch (Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic) and three to the Brythonic or Brittonic branch (Welsh, Cornish, Breton). Their names for each other in each language shows some of the similarities and differences:

Names of the Celtic nations (and related terms) in the living Celtic languages

Scottish Gaelic
Ireland Éire Èirinn Nerin Iwerddon Iwerdhon Iwerzhon
Scotland Albain Alba Nalbin yr Alban Alban Alban/Skos
Isle of Man
Oileán Mhanann
Eilean Mhanainn
Ellan Vannin
Ynys Manaw
Enys Vanow
Enez Vanav
Wales an Bhreatain Bheag a' Chuimrigh Bretin Cymru Kembra Kembre
Cornwall an Chorn a' Chòrn yn Chorn Cernyw Kernow Kernev-Veur
Brittany an Bhriotáin a' Bhreatainn Bheag yn Vritaan Llydaw Breten Vian Breizh
Great Britain an Bhreatain Mhór Breatainn Mhòr Bretin Vooar Prydain Fawr Breten Veur Breizh Veur

Celtic identity

Main article: Celts (modern)

Formal cooperation between the Celtic nations is active in many contexts, including politics, languages, culture, music and sports:

The Celtic League is an inter-Celtic political organisation, which campaigns for the political, language, cultural and social rights, affecting one or more of the Celtic nations.[39]

Established in 1917, the Celtic Congress is a non-political organisation that seeks to promote Celtic culture and languages and to maintain intellectual contact and close cooperation between Celtic peoples.[40]

Festivals celebrating the culture of the Celtic nations include the Festival Interceltique de Lorient (Brittany), the Pan Celtic Festival (Ireland), CeltFest Cuba (Havana, Cuba), the National Celtic Festival (Portarlington, Australia), the Celtic Media Festival (showcasing film and television from the Celtic nations), and the Eisteddfod (Wales).[7][41][42][43]

Inter-Celtic music festivals include Celtic Connections (Glasgow), and the Hebridean Celtic Festival (Stornoway).[44][45] Due to immigration, a dialect of Scottish Gaelic (Canadian Gaelic) is spoken by some on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, while a Welsh-speaking minority exists in the Chubut Province of Argentina. Hence, for certain purposes, such as the Festival Interceltique de LorientGallaecia, Asturias and Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia are considered three of the nine Celtic nations.[7]

Competitions are held between the Celtic nations in sports such as rugby union (Pro 12 – formerly known as the Celtic League), athletics (Celtic Cup) and association football (the Nations Cup – also known as the Celtic Cup).[46][47]

The Republic of Ireland enjoyed a period of rapid economic growth between 1995–2007, leading to the use of the phrase Celtic Tiger to describe the country.[48][49] Aspirations for Scotland to achieve a similar economic performance to that of Ireland's led the Scotland First Minister Alex Salmond to set out his vision of a Celtic Lion economy for Scotland, in 2007.[50]


Main article: Names of the Celts

The term "Celtic nations" derives from the linguistics studies of the 16th century scholar George Buchanan and the polymath Edward Lhuyd.[51] As Assistant Keeper and then Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (1691–1709), Lhuyd travelled extensively in Great Britain, Ireland and Brittany in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Noting the similarity between the languages of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales, which he called "P-Celtic" or Brythonic, the languages of Ireland, the Isle of Mann and Scotland, which he called "Q-Celtic" or Goidelic, and between the two groups, Lhuyd published Archaeologia Britannica: an Account of the Languages, Histories and Customs of Great Britain, from Travels through Wales, Cornwall, Bas-Bretagne, Ireland and Scotland in 1707. His Archaeologia Britannica concluded that all six languages derived from the same root. Lhuyd theorised that the root language descended from the languages spoken by the Iron Age tribes of Gaul, whom Greek and Roman writers called Celtic.[52] Having defined the languages of those areas as Celtic, the people living in them and speaking those languages became known as Celtic too. There is some dispute as to whether Lhuyd's theory is correct. Nevertheless, the term "Celtic" to describe the languages and peoples of Brittany, Cornwall and Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Mann and Scotland was accepted from the 18th century and is widely used today.[51]

These areas of Europe are sometimes referred to as the "Celt belt" or "Celtic fringe" because of their location generally on the western edges of the continent, and of the states they inhabit (e.g. Brittany is in the northwest of France, Cornwall is in the south west of Great Britain, Wales in western Great Britain and the Gaelic-speaking parts of Ireland and Scotland are in the west of those countries).[53][54] Additionally, this region is known as the "Celtic Crescent" because of the near crescent shaped position of the nations in Europe.[55]

Territories of the ancient Celts

Main articles: Celts and List of Celtic tribes
Diachronic distribution of Celtic peoples:
  core Hallstatt territory, by the 6th century BC
  maximal Celtic expansion, by 275 BC
  Lusitanian area of Iberia where Celtic presence is uncertain
  the six Celtic nations which retained significant numbers of Celtic speakers into the Early Modern period
  areas where Celtic languages remain widely spoken today

During the European Iron Age, the ancient Celts extended their territory to most of Western and Central Europe and part of Eastern Europe and central Anatolia.

The Continental Celtic languages were extinct by the Early Middle Ages, and the continental "Celtic cultural traits", such as an oral traditions and practices like the visiting of sacred wells and springs, largely disappeared or, in some cases, were translated. Since they no longer have a living Celtic language, they are not included as 'Celtic nations'. Nonetheless, some of these countries have movements claiming a "Celtic identity"

Iberian Peninsula

Iberian Peninsula at about 200 BC.[56]
Main articles: Celtiberians, Gallaeci, Celtici, and Astures

The Iberian Peninsula was an area heavily influenced by Celtic culture, particularly the ancient region of Gallaecia (about the modern region of Galicia and Braga, Viana do Castelo, Douro, Porto, and Bragança in Portugal) and the Asturian region (Asturias, León, Zamora in Spain). Only France and Britain have more ancient Celtic place names than Spain and Portugal combined (Cunliffe and Koch 2010 and 2012).

Some of the Celtic tribes recorded in these regions by the Romans were the Gallaeci, the Bracari, the Astures, the Cantabri, the Celtici, the Celtiberi, the Tumorgogi, Albion and Cerbarci. The Lusitanians are categorised by some as Celts, or at least Celticised, but there remain inscriptions in an apparently non-Celtic Lusitanian language. However, the language had clear affinities with the Gallaecian Celtic language. Modern-day Galicians, Asturians, Cantabrians and northern Portuguese claim a Celtic heritage or identity.[5] Although the Celtic cultural traces are as difficult to analyse as in the other former Celtic countries of Europe, because of the extinction of Iberian Celtic languages in Roman times, Celtic heritage is attested in toponymics and language substratum, ancient texts, folklore and music.[5][57] At the end, late Celtic influence is also attributed to the fifth century Romano-Briton colony of Britonia in Galicia.

Tenth century Middle Irish mythical history Lebor Gabála Érenn (Irish: Leabhar Gabhála Éireann) credited Gallaecia as the point from where the Gallaic Celts sailed to conquer Ireland.


Principal sites in Roman Britain, with indication of the Celtic tribes.

In Celtic languages, England is usually referred to as "Saxon-land" (Sasana, Pow Sows, Bro-Saoz etc.), and in Welsh as Lloegr (though the Welsh translation of English also refers to the Saxon route: Saesneg, with the English people being referred to as "Saeson", or "Saes" in the singular). The mildly derogatory Scottish Gaelic term Sassenach derives from this source. However, spoken Cumbric survived until approximately the 12th century, Cornish until the 18th century, and Welsh within the Welsh Marches, notably in Archenfield, now part of Herefordshire, until the 19th century. Both Cumbria and Cornwall were traditionally Brythonic in culture; Anglo-Saxon settlement in these areas was historically small. Cornwall existed as an independent state for some time after the foundation of England, and Cumbria originally retained a great deal of autonomy within the Kingdom of Northumbria. The unification of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria with the Cumbric kingdom of Cumbria came about due to a political marriage between the Northumbrian King Oswiu and Queen Riemmelth (Rhiainfellt in Old Welsh), a then Princess of Rheged, with only a minor Anglian presence as a consequence.

Movements of population between different parts of Great Britain over the last two centuries, with industrial development and changes in living patterns such as the growth of second home ownership, have greatly modified the demographics of these areas, including the Isles of Scilly off the coast of Cornwall, although Cornwall in particular retains unique cultural features, and a Cornish self-government movement is well established.[58]

Brythonic and Cumbric placenames are found throughout England but are more common in the West of England than the East, reaching their highest density in the traditionally Celtic areas of Cornwall, Cumbria and the areas of England bordering Wales. Name elements containing Brythonic topographic words occur in many areas of England, such as: caer 'fort', as in the Cumbrian city of Carlisle; pen 'hill' as in the Cumbrian town of Penrith and Pendle Hill in Lancashire; afon 'river' as in the River Avon in Warwickshire; and mynydd 'mountain', as in Long Mynd in Shropshire. The name 'Cumbria' is derived from the same root as Cymru, the Welsh name for Wales, meaning 'the land of comrades'.

Formerly Gaulish regions

Repartition of Gaul ca. 54 BC

Most French people identify with the ancient Gauls and are well aware that they were a people that spoke Celtic languages and lived Celtic ways of life.[59] Nowadays, the popular nickname Gaulois, "Gaulish people", is very often used to mean 'stock French people' to make the difference with the descendants of foreigners in France.

Walloons occasionally characterise themselves as "Celts", mainly in opposition to the "Teutonic" Flemish and "Latin" French identities.[60] Others think they are Belgian, that is to say Germano-Celtic people different from the Gaulish-Celtic French.[60]

The ethnonym "Walloon" derives from a Germanic word meaning "foreign", cognate with the words "Welsh" and "Vlach". The name of Belgium, home country of the Walloon people, is cognate with the Celtic tribal names Belgae and (possibly) the Irish legendary Fir Bolg.

Italian Peninsula

The Canegrate culture (13th century BC) may represent the first migratory wave of the proto-Celtic[61] population from the northwest part of the Alps that, through the Alpine passes, had already penetrated and settled in the western Po valley between Lake Maggiore and Lake Como (Scamozzina culture). It has also been proposed that a more ancient proto-Celtic presence can be traced back to the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age (XVI-XV century BC), when North Westwern Italy appears closely linked regarding the production of bronze artifacts, including ornaments, to the western groups of the Tumulus culture (Central Europe, 1600 BC - 1200 BC).[62] La Tène cultural material appeared over a large area of mainland Italy,[63] the southernmost example being the Celtic helmet from Canosa di Puglia.[64]

Italy is home to the Lepontic, the oldest attested Celtic language (from the 6th century BC).[65] Anciently spoken in Switzerland and in Northern-Central Italy, from the Alps to Umbria.[66][67][68][69] According to the Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises, more than 760 Gaulish inscriptions have been found throughout present-day France – with the notable exception of Aquitaine – and in Italy,[70][71] which testifies the importance of Celtic heritage in the peninsula.

The French- and Arpitan-speaking Aosta Valley region in Italy also presents a claim of Celtic heritage.[72] The Northern League autonomist party often exalts what it claims are the Celtic roots of all Northern Italy or Padania.[73] Reportedly, Friuli also has a claim to Celticity (recent studies have estimated that about 1/10 of Friulian words are of Celtic origin; also, a lot of typical Friulian traditions, dances, songs and mythology are remnants of the culture of Carnian tribes who lived in this area during the Roman age and the early Middle Ages. Some Friulians consider themselves and their region as one of the Celtic Nations[74])

Central and Eastern European regions

Celtic tribes inhabited land in what is now southern Germany and Austria.[75] Many scholars have associated the earliest Celtic peoples with the Hallstatt culture.[76] The Boii, the Scordisci,[77] and the Vindelici[78] are some of the tribes that inhabited Central Europe, including what is now Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Poland and the Czech Republic as well as Germany and Austria. The Boii gave their name to Bohemia.[79] The Boii founded a city on the site of modern Prague, and some of its ruins are now a tourist attraction.[80] There are claims among modern Czechs that the Czech people are as much descendants of the Boii as they are from the later Slavic invaders (as well as the historical Germanic peoples of Czech lands). This claim may not only be political: according to a 2000 study by Semino, 35.6% of Czech males have y-chromosome haplogroup R1b,[81] which is common among Celts but rare among Slavs. Celts also founded Singidunum near present-day Belgrade, though the Celtic presence in modern-day Serbian regions is limited to the far north (mainly including the historically at least partially Hungarian Vojvodina). The modern-day capital of Turkey, Ankara, was once the center of the Celtic culture in Central Anatolia, giving the name to the region—Galatia. The La Tène culture—named for a region in modern Switzerland—succeeded the Halstatt era in much of central Europe.[82]

Celtic diaspora

In other regions, people with a heritage from one of the Celtic nations also associate with the Celtic identity. In these areas, Celtic traditions and languages are significant components of local culture. These include the Permanent North American Gaeltacht in Tamworth, Ontario, Canada which is the only Irish Gaeltacht outside Ireland; the Chubut valley of Patagonia with Welsh-speaking Argentines (known as Y Wladfa); Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, with Gaelic-speaking Canadians; and southeast Newfoundland with Irish-speaking Canadians. Also at one point in the 1900s there were well over 12,000 Gaelic Scots from the Isle of Lewis living in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, Canada, with place names that still exist today recalling those inhabitants.

Large swathes of the United States of America were subject to migration from Celtic peoples, or people from Celtic nations. Irish-speaking Irish Catholics congregated particularly in the East Coast cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, and also in Chicago, while Scots and Ulster-Scots were particularly prominent in the Southern United States, including Appalachia.

A legend that became popular during the Elizabethan era claims that a Welsh prince named Madoc established a colony in North America in the late 12th century. The story continues that the settlers merged with local Indian tribes, who preserved the Welsh language and the Christian religion for hundreds of years.[83] However, there is no contemporary evidence that Prince Madoc existed. An area of Pennsylvania known as the Welsh Tract was settled by Welsh Quakers, where the names of several towns still bear Welsh names, such as Bryn Mawr, the Lower and Upper Gwynedd Townships, and Bala Cynwyd. In the 19th century, Welsh settlers arrived in the Chubut River valley of Patagonia, Argentina and established a colony called Y Wladfa (Spanish: Colonia Galesa). Today, the Welsh language and Welsh tea houses are common in several towns, many of which have Welsh names. Dolavon and Trelew are examples of Welsh towns.

In his autobiography, the South African poet Roy Campbell recalled his youth in the Dargle Valley, near the city of Pietermaritzburg, where people spoke only Gaelic and Zulu.

In New Zealand, the southern regions of Otago and Southland were settled by the Free Church of Scotland. Many of the place names in these two regions (such as the main cities of Dunedin and Invercargill and the major river, the Clutha) have Scottish Gaelic names,[84] and Celtic culture is still prominent in this area.[85][86][87]

In addition to these, a number of people from Canada, the United States, Australia, South Africa and other parts of the former British Empire have formed various Celtic societies over the years.

See also


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