The Gaels (Irish: Na Gaeil; Scottish Gaelic: Na Gàidheil), also known as Goidels, are an ethnolinguistic group indigenous to northwestern Europe. They are associated with the Gaelic languages; a branch of the Celtic languages comprising Irish (Munster Irish, Connacht Irish, Ulster Irish), Manx and Scottish Gaelic. Other terms associated with the Gaels include Irish and Scots, but the scope of those nationalities is today more complex.

Gaelic language and culture originated in Ireland, extending to Dál Riata in southwest Scotland. In the Middle Ages it became dominant throughout Scotland and the Isle of Man also. However, in most areas, the Gaels were gradually anglicized and the Gaelic languages supplanted by English. The modern descendents of the Gaels have spread throughout much of Great Britain and as far as the Americas and Oceania.


Throughout the centuries, Gaels and Gaelic-speakers have been known by a number of names. The most consistent of these have been Gael, Irish and Scot, which continue to be used today, although the latter two have developed more ambiguous meanings (due to the early modern concept of the nation state and later romantic ideas, which encompasses non-Gaels). Other terms such as Milesian are not as frequently used. Informally, archetypal forenames such as Tadhg or Domhnall are sometimes used for Gaels.


The word Gaelic is first recorded in print in the English language in the 1770s, replacing the earlier word Gathelik which is attested as far back as 1596. Gael, defined as a "member of the Gaelic race," is first attested in print in 1810. 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 words Gaelic and Gael were spelled respectively Gaoidhealg and Gaoidheal. The antiquarian term Goidels came to the fore in scholarly circles, due to Edward Lhuyd's work on the relationship between Celtic languages.

According to the scholar John T. Koch in his Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia, the word in the form of Guoidel was borrowed from a Primitive Welsh form which became Old Welsh term, roughly meaning "forest people", "wild men" or later "warriors". It is recorded as a personal name in the Book of Llandaff. This term shared a root with the Old Irish fíad "deer", and was partially cognate with Féni, from the Proto-Indo-European *weidh-n-jo-. This latter word is the origin of Fianna and Fenian.


A common name, passed down to the modern day, is Irish; this existed in the English language during the 13th century in the form of Irisce, which derived from the stem of Old English Iras "inhabitant of Ireland", from Old Norse irar. The ultimate origin of this word is thought to be from the Old Irish Ériu, which is from Old Celtic *Iveriu, likely associated with the Proto-Indo-European term *pi-wer- meaning "fertile." Ériu is mentioned as a goddess in the Lebor Gabála Érenn as a daughter of Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Along with her sisters Banba and Fódla, she is said to have made a deal with the Milesians to name the island after her.

The ancient Greeks; in particular Ptolemy in his 2nd century Geographia, possibly based on earlier sources; located a group known as the Iverni (Greek: Ιουερνοι) in the south-west of Ireland. This group has been associated with the Érainn of Irish tradition by T. F. O'Rahilly and others. The Érainn; claiming descent from a Milesian eponymous ancestor named Ailill Érann; were the hegemonic power in Ireland prior to the rise of the descendents of Conn of the Hundred Battles and Mug Nuadat. The Érainn included people such as the Corcu Loígde and Dál Riata. Ancient Roman writers such as Caesar, Pliny and Tacitus derived from "Ivernia" the name Hibernia. Thus the name Hibernian also comes from this root (although the Romans tended to call the Gaels "Scoti").


The Romans began to use the term Scoti to describe the Gaels in the Latin language from the 4th century onwards. In the context of the times, the Gaels were raiding the west-coast of Britain, raiding for hostages and took part in the Great Conspiracy; it is thus conjectured that the term means "raider, pirate". Although the Dál Riata settled in Argyll in the 6th century, the term "Scots" did not just apply to them, but to Gaels in general. Examples can be taken from Johannes Scotus Eriugena and other figures from Hiberno-Latin culture and the Schottenkloster founded by Irish Gaels in Germanic lands. It is also worth noting that eponymous characters were created in medieval Irish pseudo-histories: Scota, described as an Egyptian princess, and her husband Goídel Glas.

The Gaels of northern Britain referred to themselves as Albannaich in their own tongue and their realm as the Kingdom of Alba (founded as a successor state to Pictland and Dál Riata). Germanic groups tended to refer to the Gael as "Scottas" and so when Anglo-Saxon influence grew at court with Duncan II the Latin Rex Scottorum began to be used and the realm was known as Scotland; this process and cultural shift was put into full effect under David I who let the Normans come to power and furthered the Lowland-Highland divide. Lowland Germanics in Scotland spoke a language called Inglis, which they started to call Scottis (Scots) in the 16th century, while they in turn began to refer to Scottish Gaelic as "Erse".


Kinship groups

In traditional Gaelic society, a patrilineal kinship group is referred to as a clann; this signifies a tribal grouping descended from a common ancestor, much larger than a personal family, which may also consist of various kindreds and septs. Using the Munster-based Eóganachta as an example, members of this clann claim patrilineal descent from Éogan Mór. It is further divided into major kindreds such as the Eóganacht Chaisil, Glendamnach, Áine, Locha Léin and Raithlind. These kindreds themselves contain septs which have passed down as Irish Gaelic surnames, for example the Eóganacht Chaisil includes O'Callaghan, MacCarthy, O'Sullivan and others.

The Irish Gaels can be grouped into the following major historical clans; Connachta (including Uí Néill, Clan Colla, Uí Maine, etc.), Dál gCais, Eóganachta, Érainn (including Dál Riata, Dál Fiatach, etc.), Laigin and Ulaid (including Dál nAraidi). In the Highlands, the various Gaelic-originated clans tended to claim descent from one of the Irish groups, particularly those from Ulster. The Dál Riata (i.e. - MacGregor, MacDuff, MacLaren, etc.) claimed descent from Síl Conairi, for instance. Some arrivals in the High Middle Ages (i.e. - MacNeill, Buchanan, Munro, etc.) claimed to be of the Uí Néill. As part of their self-justification; taking over power from the Norse-Gael MacLeod in the Hebrides; the MacDonalds claimed to be from Clan Colla.

For the Irish Gaels, the old clan system did not survive the incorporation of the Gaelic realms into the Kingdom of Ireland and the subsequent Flight of the Earls. As a result of the Gaelic revival, there has been renewed interest in Irish genealogy; the Irish Government recognised Gaelic Chiefs of the Name since the 1940s. The Finte na hÉireann (Clans of Ireland) was founded in 1989 to gather together clan associations; individual clan associations operate throughout the world and produce journals for their septs. The Highland clans held out until the 18th century Jacobite risings. During the Victorian-era, symbolic tartans, crests and badges were retroactively applied to clans. Clan associations built up over time and Na Fineachan Gàidhealach (The Highland Clans) was founded in 2013.

Human genetics

At the turn of the 21st century, the principles of human genetics and genetic genealogy were applied to the study of populations of Gaelic origin. It was found that the overwhelming majority belonged to haplogroup R1b in their Y-chromosome DNA (as with much of Western Europe), with the marker R-P312-4 (R-L21) being specifically associated with the Gaelic Irish. The two other peoples who recorded higher than 85% for R1b in a 2009 study published in the scientific journal, PLOS Biology, were the Welsh and the Basques.

The development of in-depth studies of DNA sequences known as STRs and SNPs, have allowed geneticists to associate subclades with specific Gaelic kindred groupings (and their surnames), vindicating significant elements of Gaelic genealogy, as found in works such as the Leabhar na nGenealach. Examples can be taken from the Uí Néill (i.e. - O'Neill, O'Donnell, Gallagher, etc.), who are associated with R-M222 and the Dál gCais (i.e. - O'Brien, McMahon, Kennedy, etc.) who are associated with R-L226. With regards to Gaelic genetic genealogy studies, these developments in subclades have aided people in finding their original clan group in the case of a non-paternity event, with Family Tree DNA having the largest such database at present.


In countries where Gaels live, census records documenting population statistics have taken place. The following includes the number of speakers of a Gaelic language (either Gaeilge, also known as Irish, Gàidhlig, known as Scottish Gaelic, or Gaelg, known as Manx). The question of ethnic identity is slightly more complex, but included below are those who identify with Irish or Scottish ethnicity. It should be taken into account that not all will have Gaelic descent, especially in the case of Scotland, due to the nature of the Lowlands. It also depends on the self-reported response of the individual and so is a rough guide rather than an exact science.



Although the concept of European pre-Columbian contact with the Americas remains a controversial field, there are a number of questions raised, which are relevant to the Gaels. Perhaps the most prominent is the story of Brendan the Voyager and his 6th century North Atlantic immram. Scholars have speculated as to the location of St Brendan's Isle with some associating it with North America. In the 1970s, Barry Fell first claimed that some American rock petroglyphs are Gaelic ogham, although many of his claims have been dismissed, David H. Kelley still contends that in some instances the inscriptions are indeed ogham.

On a more firmly established historical footing are the examples of the Gaelic diaspora in Europe. As the Roman Empire began to collapse, the Gaels; along with the Anglo-Saxons; were one of the peoples able to take advantage in Great Britain from the 4th century onwards. The proto-Eóganachta Uí Liatháin and the Déisi Muman of Dyfed both established colonies in today's Wales. Further to the north, the Érainn's Dál Riata colonised Argyll (eventually founding Alba), there was a significant Gaelic influence in Northumbria and the MacAngus clan arose to the Pictish kingship by the 8th century. Gaelic Christian missionaries were also active across the Frankish Empire. With the coming of the Viking Age and their slave markets, Gaels were also dispersed in this way across the realms under Viking-control; as a legacy, in genetic studies, Icelanders exhibit high levels of Gaelic-derived mDNA.


Since the fall of Gaelic polities, the Gaels have made their way across parts of the world, mainly under the auspices of the British Empire, but to a lesser extent under the Spanish Empire. Core destinations for "exiles" have been North America (what is today the United States and Canada) and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand). As well as this there has been a mass "internal migration" within the Isles from the 19th century, with Gaelic Irish peasantry and Highlanders migrating to the English-speaking industrial cities of London, Dublin, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Edinburgh and others. Many underwent a linguistic "Anglicisation" and some eventually merged with Anglo populations.



In their own national epic contained within medieval works such as the Lebor Gabála Érenn, the Gaels trace the origin of their people to an eponymous ancestor named Goídel Glas. He is described as a Scythian prince (the grandson of Fénius Farsaid), who is credited within creating the Gaelic languages. Goídel's mother is called Scota, described as an Egyptian princess (some modern writers associate her with Meritaten). The Gaels are depicted as wandering from place to place for hundreds of years; they spend time in Egypt, Crete, Scythia, the Caspian Sea and Getulia, before arriving in Iberia. It is here that their king, Breogán, is said to have founded Galicia.

The Gaels are then said to have sailed to Ireland via Galicia in the form of the Milesians, sons of Míl Espáine. The Gaels fight a battle of sorcery with the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods, who inhabited Ireland at the time. Ériu, a goddess of the land, promises the Gaels that Ireland shall be theirs so long as they give tribute to her. They agree, and their bard Amergin recites an incantation known as the Song of Amergin. The two groups agree to divide Ireland between them: the Gaels take the world above, while the Tuath Dé take the world below (i.e. the Otherworld).

Advances in DNA studies have revealed some clues about the origin of the Gaels (who are associated with paternal R-L21). Haplogroup R originated 26,800 years ago in Central Asia during the Last Ice Age. The R1b branch had broken off by the Paleolithic and it's derivative R-M269 was found at the Pontic-Caspian steppe by the Chalcolithic (the Kurgan hypothesis makes these speakers of Proto-Indo-European). First entering Europe proper 7,000 years ago, the Indo-Europeans developed bronze weapons and domesticated the horse, giving them the upper-hand in their conquest of the Old Europe and the proliferation of their lineages. After the R-L51 subclade founded the Unetice culture, a derivative R-L21 moved West arriving in Britain c. 2100 BCE and Ireland c. 2000 BCE, becoming the Gaelic people.


According to the Annals of the Four Masters, the early branches of the Milesian Gaels were the Heremonians, the Heberians and the Irians, descended from the three brothers Érimón, Éber Finn and Ír respectively. Another group were the Ithians, descended from Íth (an uncle of Milesius) who were located in South Leinster (associated with the Brigantes) but they later became extinct. The Four Masters date the start of Milesian rule from 1700 BCE. Initially, the Hermonians dominated the High Kingship of Ireland from their stronghold of Mide, the Heberians were given Munster and the Irians were given Ulster. At this early point of the Milesian-era, the non-Gaelic Fir Domnann held Leinster and the Fir Ol nEchmacht held what was later known as Connacht (possibly remnants of the Fir Bolg).

During the Iron Age there was heightened activity at a number of important royal ceremonial sites, including Tara, Dún Ailinne, Rathcroghan and Emain Macha. Each was associated with a Gaelic tribe. The most important was Tara, where the High King (also known as the King of Tara) was inaugurated on the Lia Fáil (Stone of Destiny), which stands to this day. According to the Annals, this era also saw, during the 7th century BCE, a branch of the Heremonians known as the Laigin, descending from Úgaine Mór's son Lóegaire Lorc, displacing the Fir Bolg remnants in Leinster. This was also a critical period for the Ulaid (earlier known as the Irians) as their kinsman Rudraige Mór took over the High Kingship in the 3rd century BCE; his offspring would be the subject of the Ulster Cycle of heroic tradition, including the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge. This includes the struggle between Conchobar mac Nessa and Fergus mac Róich.

After regaining power, the Heremonians, in the form of Fíachu Finnolach were overthrown in a 1st-century AD provincial coup. His son, Túathal Techtmar was exiled to Roman Britain before returning to claim Tara. Based on the accounts of Tacitus, some modern historians associate him with an “Irish prince” said to have been entertained by Agricola, Governor of Britain and speculate at Roman sponsorship. His grandson, Conn Cétchathach, is the ancestor of the Connachta who would dominate the Irish Middle Ages. They gained control of what would now be named Connacht. Their close relatives the Érainn (both groups descend from Ã"engus Tuirmech Temrach) and the Ulaid would later lose out to them in Ulster, as the descendants of the Three Collas in Airgíalla and Niall Noígíallach in Ailech extended their hegemony.


The Gaels emerged into the clear historical record during the classical-era, with ogham inscriptions and quite detailed references in Greco-Roman ethnography (most notably by Ptolemy). The religion of Christianity reached Ireland during the 5th century, most famously through a Romano-British slave Patrick, but also through Gaels such as Declán, Finnian and the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. The abbot and the monk eventually took over certain cultural roles of the aos dána (not least the roles of druí and seanchaí) as the oral culture of the Gaels was transmitted to script by the arrival of literacy. Thus Christianity in Ireland during this early time retained elements of Gaelic culture.

By the 6th century, the division of Ireland into two spheres of influence; Leath Cuinn and Leath Moga; was largely a reality. In the south, the influence of the Eóganachta based at Cashel grew further, to the detriment of Érainn clans such as the Corcu Loígde and Clann Conla. Through their vassals the Déisi (descended from Fiacha Suidhe and later known as the Dál gCais), Munster was extended north of the River Shannon, laying the foundations for Thomond. Aside from their gains in Ulster (excluding the Érainn's Ulidia), the Uí Néill's southern branch had also pushed down into Mide and Brega. This era was also marked by a Gaelic presence in Great Britain; in what is today Wales, the Déisi founded Dyfed and the Uí Liatháin founded Brycheiniog. To the north, the Dál Riata are held to have established a territory in Argyll and the Hebrides. The Romans called these Gaels "Scoti".

Some; particularly champions of Christianity; hold the 6th to the 9th centuries to be a Golden Age for the Gaels. This is due to the influence which the Gaels had across Western Europe as part of their Christian missionary activities. Similar to the Desert Fathers, Gaelic monastics were known for their asceticism. Some of the most celebrated figures of this time were Columba, Aidan, Columbanus and others. Learned in Greek and Latin during an age of cultural collapse, the Gaelic scholars were able to gain a presence at the court of the Carolingian Frankish Empire; perhaps the best known example is Johannes Scotus Eriugena. Aside from their activities abroad, insular art flourished domestically, with artifacts such as the Book of Kells and Tara Brooch surviving. Clonmacnoise, Glendalough, Clonard, Durrow and Inis Cathaigh are some of the more prominent Ireland-based monasteries founded during this time.


The late 8th century heralded external involvement in Gaelic affairs as the Norsemen from Scandinavia; known as the Vikings; began to raid and pillage settlements looking for booty. The earliest recorded cases of this were Rathlin and Iona in 795; these hit and run attacks would continue for some time until they began to settle in the 840s at Dublin (setting up a large slave market), Limerick, Waterford and elsewhere. The Norsemen also took the Hebrides and the Isle of Man from the Dál Riata clans and established the Kingdom of the Isles. Around the same time the MacAlpin clan were founding the Kingdom of Alba, after the Gaels had gradually submerged Pictland; Kenneth MacAlpin is most associated with this process.

After a spell where the Norsemen were driven from Dublin by Leinsterman Cerball mac Muirecáin, they returned in the reign of Niall Glúndub, initiating a second Viking period. The Dublin Norse; some of them, such as Uí Ímair king Ragnall ua Ímair now partly Gaelicised as the Norse-Gaels; were a serious regional power, with territories across Northumbria and York. At the same time, the Uí Néill branches were involved in an internal power struggle to see if the northern or southern branch would be the hegemonic Gaelic force. Donnchad Donn raided Munster and took Cellachán Caisil of the Eóganachta hostage. The destabilisation inadvertently led to the rise of the Dál gCais and Brian Bóruma. Through military might, Brian went about constructing a Gaelic Imperium under his High Kingship, even gaining the submission of Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill. They were involved in a series of battles against the Vikings; Tara, Glenmama and Clontarf; the latter of which saw Brian's death in 1014, glorified in the Cogad Gáedel re Gallaib.


During the 15th century, with the advent of the early modern age, the Gaels were affected by the policies of the Tudors and the Stewarts who sought to Anglicise the population and bring both Ireland and the Highlands under a stronger monarchial control, as part of what would become the British Empire. The Kingdom of Ireland, which had its power in the Pale of Dublin was implemented and the high aristocracy was encouraged to apply for a surrender and regrant. This brought to end the independence of the last few Gaelic Irish kingdoms. The policies of the Lowland Scots Parliament were similar with the Statutes of Iona taking place in 1609 before the Union of the Crowns.

Since that time Gaelic language rose and, in the past three centuries, greatly diminished, in most of Ireland and Scotland. The 19th century was the turning point as The Great Hunger in Ireland and across the Irish Sea, the Highland Clearances, had the effect of causing mass emigration (leading to Anglicisation, but also a large Irish diaspora in particular). The language was rolled back to the Gaelic strongholds of the north west of Scotland, the west of Ireland and Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.


The Gaelic revival also occurred in the 19th century, with organisations such as Conradh na Gaeilge and An Comunn Gàidhealach attempting to restore the prestige of Gaelic culture and to restore the hegemony of their language. Many of the participants in the Irish Revolution of 1912-1923 were inspired by these ideals and so when a sovereign state was formed (the Irish Free State), the ideal of Gaelic culture was now more popular. Despite policies such as mandatory Irish language education, the living first-language communities have continued to become smaller however.

The Isle of Man (Manx: Ellan Vannin, 'Mannin's Isle', from the pre-Christian deity known as Manannán mac Lír) also came under massive Gaelic influence in its history. The last native speaker of Manx died in the 1970s, though use of the Manx language never fully ceased. There is now a resurgent language movement and Manx is once again taught in all schools as a second language and in some as a first language.




Estimates of the emergence of proto-Gaelic in Ireland vary widely from the introduction of agriculture circa 7000â€"6000 BC to around the first few centuries BC. Little can be said with certainty, as the language now known as Old Irishâ€"ancestral to modern Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manxâ€"first began to be properly recorded with the Christianisation of Ireland in the 4th century, after the introduction of the Roman script. Primitive Irish does appear in a specialised written form, using a unique script known as Ogham. The oldest examples of Ogham have survived in the form of memorial inscriptions or short epitaphs on pillar-like stone monuments (see Mac Cairthinn mac Coelboth.) Ogham stones are found throughout Ireland and neighbouring parts of Britain. This form of written Primitive Irish is thought to have been in use as early as 1000 BC. The script frequently encodes a name or description of the owner and surrounding region, and it is possible that the inscribed stones may have represented territorial claims.


The two comparatively "major" Gaelic nations in the modern era are Ireland (which in the 2002 census had 185,838 people who spoke Irish "daily" and 1,570,894 who were "able" to speak it) and Scotland (58,552 "Gaelic speakers" and 92,400 with "some Gaelic language ability" in the 2001 census).

Learning Irish is compulsory in Irish schools; learning Scottish Gaelic is not compulsory in Scotland. Communities where the languages are still spoken natively are restricted largely to the west coast of each country and especially the Hebrides in Scotland. However, a large proportion of the Gaelic speaking population now lives in the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland, and Donegal, Galway, Cork and Dublin in Ireland. There are about 2,000 Scottish Gaelic speakers in Canada (Canadian Gaelic dialect), although many are elderly and concentrated in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island. According to the 2000 US Census, there are over 25,000 Irish-speakers in the United States with the majority found in urban areas with large Irish-American communities such as Boston, New York City and Chicago.



The Gaels underwent Christianisation during the 5th century and that religion, de facto, remains the predominant one to this day, although irreligion is fast rising. At first the Christian Church had difficulties infiltrating Gaelic life; Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire and was a de-centralised tribal society, making patron-based mass conversion problematic. It gradually penetrated through remnants of Roman Britain and is especially associated with the activities of Patrick; a Briton who had been a slave in Ireland. He tried to explain it's doctrines by using elements of native folk tradition, so Gaelic culture itself wasn't completely cast aside and to some extent local Christianity was Gaelicised.




External links

  • Foras na Gaeilge â€" Irish agency promoting the language
  • Bòrd na Gàidhlig â€" Scottish agency promoting the language
  • Culture Vannin â€" Manx agency promoting the language
  • The Columba Project â€" Pan-Gaelic cultural initiative

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