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Gaelic Culture/Beliefs/Customs/Clans


In early Celtic times stews (stobhaim) were important aspects of any banquet. We hear of warriors entering the kings hall where meat cooked and boiled in great vats. In it they would thrust a great fork and pull out their portion. St. Bridget while tending the stew one day reached into the pot and fed a dog a piece of meat - the meat reappeared in the pot as a blessing. The fireside (cois tine) is the focus of Irish cultural life. It is the place where stories (seanchai) are told, where fates are determined and of course where food is cooked. The Irish literally burn their history - the ancient peat - to stay warm.

It is said that the harp (cla'irseach) was invented by a man pursued by an angry wife who was forever scolding. As he was pursued by her he found himself walking along the beach where the wind was causing the sinues on a whale's ribcage to vibrate. Harpists (cla'irseoir) are important musicians who traveled with the chieftains and important persons throughout the land. Through their travels harpists encountered other musical traditions which they blended skillfully with the Native Celt.

The Irish table (bord) is low to the ground with diners sitting on banks of fern and moss. The best jugs (cru'sca) in Celtic times contained either beer or wine flavored with cumin. Of course in the 19th centuries potin or little pot was distilled as a fine spirit often distilled by widows as a source of income.

The greatest of Irish heros was named after the hound (cu') of the smith. The warrior as a boy killed the smith's dog and volunteered to serve in its place until a replacement was found. Dogs were very popular in Celtic times and appear in sever.

The Irish are of course famous for soda bread (ara'n) but there are many other important Irish breads. The Celts eat a wheaten bread soaked in honey at their feasts. There is a special bread baked using yeast or barm called barm brack.

We know quite a bit about Celtic art through finds of swords (claiomh) which were ritually drowned in bogs and springs. Swords were talked to and carefully cleaned. They had names as well as personalities. Many were decorated with human shapes.

The chief (taoiseach) ruled over the tribe or tuath. He inherited his power in early times however later in history chiefs became strongmen who dominated their neighbors. Ocasionally the members of the tribe elected a tannist to serve as chief. Warriors (gaiscioch) represent achieved power in Irish society. While the chief was a hereditary ruler warriors obtained their power by being brave and skillful in battle. It is in accordance with their rank as dtermined by a matching of stories.

The ancient Celts had no written language. All the information of the culture had to be learned by poets (fili) and storytellers (seanchai). There are many ranks of them, each with a certain number of primary and secondary stories to memorize.

Celtic warriors used to cut themselves before battle in a ceremony that immitated childbirth. They believed they could aquire some of the women's strength and recuperative powers, because women demonstrated endurance and strength during delivery and healed relatively quickly after bleeding. The Celts had images called sheila-na-gigs hung over the doorways to their temples. These reflected the woman's importance in their society.

Trees (crann) are very important for the Celts. They developed an alphabet which described their special spiritual powers. In particular the Oak tree was associated with the druids and later with St. Briget of Kildare.

In ancient Celtic society there were several lower classes - peasants (tuatha'nach) - beneath the kings, specialists and artists and warriors. Freemen helped with the essential tasks of production. Slaves were also a part of ancient Celtic society. Peasant dwellings were often filled with smoke (deatach) and very dark.

The west of Ireland is very rocky (carraig) however it was the lack of soil which helped the bronze age inhabitants find and use surface mineral deposits which they exchanged for the rich gold of the near east. Much of the ground (talamh) in Ireland is either rocky or exceedingly wet and bog covered. This nature of the landscape provided boundaries which separated people and made travel difficult in early times.

The head (ceann) is extremely important for the Celts. They never abstracted the head in their art. Kings passed around the brains of their victims mixed with lime and hardened to give them wisdom and altars with skulls inset have been found.

The Breacan Tartan is no doubt one of the most easily recognized celtic icons, a style of weaving which was identified as being worn by the celts by the earliest roman historical contacts. Although easily recognized, it is amazing how many myths exist about it and how misled the public perception of this mode of weaving has become.

Kilt wearers note! Women in Scotland do not wear kilts unless they are pipers or highland dancers! They wear kilted skirts. Men do not wear kilted skirts unless they are trying to look like women! It seems many people need to know where to look for Highland clothing. The kilt is worn in all the Gaelic-speaking areas, from Cork up to the top of the Outer Hebrides.

The best outfitter is:

Geoffrey Tailor Highland Crafts Ltd
57-59 High Street
Royal Mile
Tel: 031 557 0256

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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.