Celtic music: Genres of influence

May 5, 2015
Celtic flag

The Celts were people in the Iron Age[1] and Medieval Europe[2] who spoke Celtic languages and had cultural similarities. The history of pre-Celtic Europe remains very uncertain, and the exact relationship between cultural, linguistic, and ethnic factors among the Celts remains controversial.

Who were the Celts?

The exact geographic spread of the ancient Celts is also disputed. According to one theory the common root of the Celtic languages (Proto-Celtic), arose in the late Bronze Age Urnfield culture[3] of Central Europe, which flourished from around 1200 BCE. Another theory proposed in the 19th century posits that the first people to adopt cultural characteristics regarded as Celtic were the people of the Iron Age Hallstatt culture in central Europe (circa 800–450 BCE). The name Hallstatt comes from an archaeological discovery within graves in Hallstatt, Austria, an area sometimes referred to as the Celtic homeland or Celtic heartland.

map of Celtic nations

Map of Celtic nations

Around the La Tène period[4] (a late Iron Age Celtic culture, roughly centered in Switzerland), the Celtic culture migrated to areas including the British Isles (known as the Insular Celts), France and the Low Countries (the Gauls), Bohemia, Poland, much of Central Europe, the Iberian Peninsula (the Celtiberians, Celtici, Lusitanians, and Gallaeci) and northern Italy (the Golaseccans, Cisalpine Gauls) and, following the Gallic invasion of the Balkans in 279 BCE, as far east as central Anatolia (the Galatians).

Celtic nations: Six or seven?

While Scotland and Ireland are most commonly associated with the Celts, the roots of the Celtic culture are spread throughout Europe. According to Wikipedia and many other sources, there are six territories recognized as Celtic nations:

  1. Brittany (Breizh): Brittany occupies a large peninsula in northwest France, an area of about 13k sq mi). After the Neolithic period, Brittany became home to several different Celtic tribes.
  2. Cornwall (Kernow): Cornwall forms the tip of the southwestern peninsula of Great Britain. It was occupied in the Iron Age by Celts. Cornwall was a division of the Dumnonii tribe, whose tribal center was in what is now the county of Devon.
  3. Wales (Cymru): During the Iron Age and early medieval period, Wales was inhabited by the Celtic Britons. A distinct Welsh national identity emerged in the centuries after the Roman withdrawal from Britain in the 5th century, and Wales is regarded as one of the modern Celtic nations today.
  4. Scotland (Alba): Alba is the Scottish-Gaelic name for Scotland. It occupies the northern third of Great Britain and it includes over 790 islands. Groups of settlers began building the first known permanent houses on Scottish soil around 9,500 years ago, and the first villages around 6,000 years ago.
  5. Ireland (Éire): Ireland is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island in the world. A Norman invasion in the Middle Ages gave way to a Gaelic resurgence in the 13th century.
  6. The Isle of Man (Mannin): The Isle of Man is located in the Irish Sea between the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, within the British Isles. It began to be influenced by Gaelic culture in the AD 5th century and the Manx language, a branch of the Gaelic languages.

Some lists include seven Celtic nations with Galicia as the additional Celtic nation. Galicia, an autonomous region on Spain’s rugged northwestern coast, is home to ancient relics, pagan myths and a vibrant, unique living history. Galicia descended from one of the first tribes of Celtic heritage in Europe. The name Galicia comes from the Latin name Gallaecia, associated with the name of the ancient Celtic tribe that resided north of the Douro river more than a millennium ago.

Celtic music

Celtic musicians performing

Celtic musicians performing

Celtic music, much like the Gypsy style or Roma music discussed in our last post, is hard to pin down or define in a very specific way. For one thing, Celtic music can mean different things in different countries. In general, it covers the traditional music of the Celtic nations – Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany (France), Galicia (Spain) along with other areas heavily influenced by the Celts, such as the U.S. and the maritime provinces of Canada, as well as some newer music based on traditions from these countries.

Breton musicians frequently play in Irish or Scottish music and at least one modern Galician group (Milladoiro) sounds quite Irish. In Canada and the US, the traditions are much more mixed, and it is there that the term Celtic is most used, though many groups from particular Celtic regions play music from other regions as well.

Ireland landscape

Castle in Scotland

The name Celtic music is itself sometimes controversial. For starters, the Celts as an identifiable race are long gone. There are strong differences between traditional music in the different Celtic countries, and many of the similarities are due to more recent influences. Also, to some, the word Celtic connotes Celtic mysticism and/or new-age music, which have little, if anything, to do with traditional Celtic music.

The term Celtic music is perhaps most often applied to the music of Ireland and Scotland because both have produced well-known, distinctive musical styles which share common features and mutual influences. In general, the strongest connections are between Irish and Scottish music traditions in the context of all areas considered to be Celtic nations. The definition is further complicated by the fact that Irish independence has allowed Ireland to promote ‘Celtic’ music as a specifically Irish product. However, these are modern geographical references to a people who share a common Celtic ancestry and consequently, a common musical heritage.

Celtic music album cover

Celtic music album cover

It is also worth remembering that even a term such as Irish traditional music is a lumping together of many different styles, from the raw, Scottish-tinged music of Donegal to the lyrical, easy-going style of Clare and many other regional styles that are only partly compatible.

Popular Celtic bands, groups, musicians

Instruments used in Celtic music

  • Fiddle
  • Flute
  • Tin whistle, aka pennywhistle
  • Bagpipes
  • Uilleann pipes
  • Bombarde
  • Melodeon
  • Concertina
  • Piano accordion
  • Button accordion
  • Mandolin
  • Banjo
  • Harp
  • Hammered dulcimer
  • Cittern
  • Bouzouki
  • Bodhrán
  • Guitar

Notes

[1] Iron Age

The Iron Age was the third and final technological and cultural stage in the Stone Age/Bronze Age/Iron Age sequence, when iron replaced bronze in implements and weapons for the most part. The Iron Age started and ended at different times, depending on the part of the world. It generally began in the Middle East and southeastern Europe around 1,200 BCE but did not begin in China until around 600 BCE.

[2] Medieval Europe

In European history, the Middle Ages (aka Medieval period) lasted from the 5th century to the 15th century, starting with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and on into the Renaissance – Wikipedia and the Age of Discovery – Wikipedia.

[3] Urnfield culture

The Urnfield culture, so named because of their custom of placing the cremated bones of the dead in urns, was a Late Bronze Age culture of Europe lasting for more than 1,700 years. It was widespread throughout Europe, first appearing in east-central Europe and northern Italy, later spreading to Ukraine, Sicily, Scandinavia, and across France to the Iberian peninsula. The Urnfield tradition of flat graves continued in most areas; in some places the urns were covered by round barrows.

[4] Hallstatt culture

The term Hallstatt refers to an important central European culture of the early Iron Age of the 1st millennium BCE – centred on Austria and the Upper Danube area – which is strongly associated with the arrival of Celtic tribes from the steppes of southern Russia. It is regarded as the first clearly defined Celtic culture, and it remained the principal early civilization of the region from around 800 BCE until superceded by the La Tene culture in the fifth century BCE.

By Stephen Frasier

Resources: Celtic music as inspiration

Celtic nations

Lists of Celtic bands, Celtic musicians

Celtic history & culture

Celtic symbols

Related resources

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