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The Gaels (Irish: Na Gaeil; Scottish Gaelic; Na Gàidheil), also known as Goidels, are a Celtic race, 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[1] 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 MacDonald and MacLeod) became Gaelicised.

During the Early Modern period, some Gaels moved out to Continental Catholic countries (mostly Romance speaking ones) such as Spain, France, Austria and their colonies as part of a military diaspora (widely regarded as a martial race). The industrialisation period saw many Gaels; traditionally a rural society; torn off the land, including both the core Gaelic nation in Ireland and the Highland Scots of the Scottish Highlands, leading to significant migration, especially urban centers in the British Empire; particularly England, the United States, the Scottish Lowlands, Canada and Australia.



The word Gaelic is first recorded in print in the English language in the 1770s,[2] replacing the earlier word Gathelik which is attested as far back as 1596.[2] Gael, defined as a "member of the Gaelic race," is first attested in print in 1810.[3] 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.[1] 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".[1] This shared a root with the Irish fíad and was partially cognate with the ethnonym Féni, from the Proto-Indo-European *weidh-n-jo-.[1][4]

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.[5][6] 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.

Milesian Gaelic forces under Éber Finn are said to have landed at Kenmare Bay, County Kerry during their conquest.

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.[7] 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),[8] 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 pharaoh.

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[9] 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,[10] 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[11] and a lack of evidence of any mass invasion,[11] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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.

St. Martin's Cross, Iona. The Gaels erected many medieval high crosses.

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.[13] 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.[14] 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 Gaelic Christian mission brought the Gaels influence at courts right across Western Europe, including Northumbria, Pictland and the Carolingian Empire.[14]

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

Uí Ímair symbol, Norse-Gael rulers of Dublin, Limerick, Waterford, Northumbria, the Hebrides & the Isle of Man.

An interaction began in the late 8th and early 9th century which would have a profound impact on the Gaelic world; a 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. The Foreign Gaels left a permanent mark on the Highlands, with some of them becoming the MacDonald, MacLeod, MacDougall and various other clans, as well as the Doyle, MacDonnell and O'Donovan (possibly) families in Ireland.

High and late Medieval period

Dawn of the modern nation state

Hugh Mór O'Neill led a rising of Gaels known as the Nine Years' War allied with Habsburg Spain against the Elizabethan state.

Industrialisation and diaspora

Some people say that it is the effect of race; pointing to the Celts of Kerry and Barra, distant some four hundred miles from each other, yet precisely in the same condition of hopeless, listless, actionless, useless penury. In fact, the utilitarian march of Lowland entreprise must inevitably settle this question by the imperious laws of political economy, and the function of the philanthropist will not be in attempting to prevent the conversion of paddocks into sheepwalks - for that must take place. Gradually the Celt was driven from the country to the mountain because an active energetic people could apply the plain to use. The same people now find in sheep-farming a use for the mountain, and, by the gradual industrial pressure which drives the idle out of the heritage of industry, the Celt must give up the mountain to the sheep-farmer. He must be "improved out", as the Americans call it.

The Scotsman, July-September 1851, liberal utilitarian publication under editorialship of masonic Lowland Scots.

Culture and society

Music, high and folkish

An Irishwoman busking in Dublin while playing a clàrsach.

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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] Some of the participants included Turlough O'Carolan, Donnchadh Ó Hámsaigh and Arthur O'Neill.[17]

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).


Those amongst the lowest rank among a great tribe traced and retained the whole line of their descent with the same care which in other nations was peculiar to the rich and great; for, it was from his own genealogy which each man of the tribe, poor as well as rich, held the charter of his civil state, his right of property in the cantred in which he was born, the soil of which was occupied by one family or clan and in which no one lawfully possessed any portion of the soil if he was not of the same race as the chief.

—John O'Donovan, 1849, Miscellany of the Celtic Society.


See also


  1. 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.
  2. 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.



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Koch 2006, p. 775.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Gaelic". Online Etymology Dictionary. 6 November 2012. 
  3. "Gael". Online Etymology Dictionary. 6 November 2012. 
  4. "Féni". Oxford Reference. 13 November 2012. 
  5. Koch 2006, p. 1571.
  6. "Scot". Online Etymology Dictionary. 14 November 2012. 
  7. Kidd 1999, p. 152.
  8. Kidd 1999, p. 153.
  9. "Remonstrance of the Irish Chiefs to Pope John XXII by Domhnall Ó Néill". University College, Cork. 6 November 2012. 
  10. "DNA Research Links Scots, Irish And Welsh To North-western Spain". History News Network. 10 September 2004. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Adolph 2010, p. 170.
  12. "Were the Scots Irish? by Dr. Ewan Campbell". Electric Scotland. 6 November 2012. 
  13. "Christianity in Ireland before St. Patrick's Arrival". Library Ireland. 8 November 2012. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Coming of Christianity to Ireland". Wesley Johnston. 8 November 2012. 
  15. Clark 2003, p. 52.
  16. Czulinski 2004, p. 24.
  17. 17.0 17.1 Czulinski 2004, p. 86.


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