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When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going

This common saying embodies much of the history of mankind. The mobility of the human race over many thousands of years has been one of its marked features. One of the main stimulants to mobility has been the quest for food. Disappearance of traditional game sources,failure of crops often due to changed weather patterns, livestock diseases, all contributed to large people movements. ,The arrival of new immigrants in an already populated territory often occasioned the departure of the existing population – a “domino effect”.Apart from movement created by real need there have of course been situations where a basic desire for “greener grass on the other side of the hill” , a desire for adventure, aggressive tendencies, all have contributed to movement. In a great number of cultures there is a long-lasting oral tradition of the origins of the current population, often borne out by DNA research. It would be very hard to identify a truly “aboriginal” population today. The world was peopled before the last Ice Age. One can only imagine the degree of movement over a period as people and animals alike sought ever-diminishing warmer climes. On a smaller scale, and more recently, in the mid-19th. century a series of wet harvest periods, when grain and root crops lay rotting in the fields, in colder Northern lands of Europe and America caused millions of deaths and massive population movement over a period. (The Irish Potato Famine being one well-documented event of this era). It was in this period that the discovery of gold in North America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand triggered a movement of people from affected areas in search of wealth. Not succeeding in their hopes, most would have stayed to settle. 

Empires are another source of movement. For whatever reason an empire grows, whether it be self-defence or self-aggrandisement, it creates a situation where constituent populations mingle, travel freely, work,, settle away from their original home. There have been many such empires, but the Roman and the British Empires are among the best-known. In an empire the language of the dominant party tends to be the accepted “working” language, while local vernacular tongues tend to remain as day-to-day local speech. Thus Latin and English became the working languages of their respective empires. 

Throughout the Roman Empire there was a freedom of movement from the Atlantic to the Middle East, from Scotland to North Africa. The very large Roman Army was a cosmopolitan force, including units drawn from outside the Empire itself. Recent DNA research in the Hadrian’s Wall area in the North of England showed North African traces. This was soon explained by the fact that North African troops had served in the area. When soldiers retired they were encouraged to settle in the area of their last posting,and many would already established family liaisons with the local population.

In the case of the British Empire a parallel effect can be observed .Just as Roman public servants were sent to all corners of the Empire with their families, the same applied to British officials. As in Roman times merchants located themselves wherever their work was – as in the case of the East India Company which until mid-19th.century even had its own army to advance and safeguard its interests. In both Empires a proportion of ex-pats returned home but many stayed to become a permanent feature  of their new homeland. 

We must not ignore the impact of “commercial empires ” on people movement. The pre-Roman Phoenicians had a great influence on Europe and Western Asia, establishing their alphabet wherever they went. Greece, although a conglomeration of independent city-states rather than a nation, had an enormous commercial and cultural impact on the Mediterranean and the Middle East, with its citizens being found all over these areas. 

Not all population movement is positive. War has always led to waves of refugees seeking new homes. The Second World War produced millions of “displaced persons” More recent Middle Eastern tensions have created a massive refugee movement which will have long-lasting consequences. Religious and political persecution of minorities has produced great changes in the history of many nations. In he 17th. century the persecution of such groups as Puritans, Quakers, etc. resulted in the settlement of the East coast of North America. The rest, as they say, is history! 

Forced movement of labour from areas where  labour is abundant to areas where it is scarce has always been a factor in population shift. Slavery as evidenced in North America and the West Indies immediately come to mind. Slavery is a very ancient and widespread institution, for example the consequence of capture in war. (Prisoners of war and captured civilians not being repatriated at the end of hostilities but sold on as forced labour). Quite often Roman slave-owners set free their workers eventually, enabling them to become free workers. The story is told of one Roman politician who suggested to the Emperor that freed slaves should be made to wear a badge in public, to which the Emperor is said to have replied that it was not a good idea “in case they find they outnumber the rest of us!” Slight exaggeration perhaps – but a pointer to a mobile labour force. 






In the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries antiquarians in Britain became interested in the vast numbers of stone monuments which abounded. At first they classified all such monuments as “Roman”. Excavation at Pompeii and a study of other Roman buildings on the Continent proved this was untenable. Then they resurrected the word Kelt/Celt from Greek and Roman authors. But these authors varied in their definition of “Celt”. To the more “intellectually superior” it meant ALL the non-Greek and Roman populations — in their eyes barbarians. To those with more inside knowledge like Julius Caesar who had to fight them, the word Celts had a highly specific meaning.


The term, as used by Caesar and others, referred to a large number of “Germanic” tribes living in the Upper Danube Valley, Austria, and Switzerland. These tribes were warlike, aggressive, constantly wasting energy on fighting one another, and because of this never capable of creating a nation. They were mainly tall and fair-haired. Strictly speaking this is what is meant by “the Celts”.


But the other side of the coin was that the Celts were also aggressive in other areas such as the pursuit of knowledge, development of language, art, music, agriculture, religious concepts, technology etc. They learned the use of iron from the Hittites of Turkey after 1000 BC and used this knowledge to create fine quality tools and weapons, an improvement on bronze. This benefited their agriculture, increasing their population as a result. This however created a need to expand into other areas and use their superior weapons in the process. As traders, their net extended from Ireland and Spain to China. Salt (from Salzburg area) was a great source of wealth. Their trade networks extended across Europe and into Asia — but based on individual enterprise and not as a nation. Mining, prospecting, import, export were important.


From time to time amalgamation of Celtic tribes took place to enable them to carry out a planned expansion. Such combinations could be terrifying to other European areas like the Greek states and Rome , but tended to be short lived. The Celts, still as tribes, expanded southwards across Europe from 500 BC, at one point taking over Greece as far as Delphi, settling in the north of Italy, even capturing the city of Rome briefly, and also establishing a permanent colony in the middle of Turkey (Galatia).


In the 300s BC Alexander the Great had to do a deal with a confederation of Celtic tribal leaders before setting off to conquer “the rest of the world”. By around 50 BC the Celtic tribes of Central Europe were a major threat to Rome’s expansion as they would appear to have had their eyes on areas such as France and Spain, not just through trade etc but for settlement. Julius Caesar had the task of crushing the Celtic tribal confederations so that Rome could move unhindered into France {Gaul), Switzerland, Spain, and eventually Britain. His account of their organisation and customs is unique.


What is clear from history and from DNA research in recent years is that Celtic COLONISATION never reached Scotland, Wales, or Ireland . Such territories were poor in climate, terrain etc. While it is true that Celtic large-scale settlement of these areas did not occur, these Western lands, in common with the rest of Western Europe, absorbed a vast amount of Celtic culture. Language, art, religious ideas penetrated the western lands, carried by traders, miners, scholars and others. Thus cultural — artistic – linguistic and other links to the Celts have survived, even to the present day, in these areas because Roman and later barbarian influences did not reach so far west. On the other hand areas like France (apart from Brittany) and Spain, which had been Romanised, losing Celtic cultural influences in the process, lost much of their acquired Latin culture to barbarian influence when the Roman Empire fell . So the DNA of Ireland reflects the post-ice age settlement from Iberia around 8000 BC, the Middle Eastern First Farmers post 5000 BC, the Vikings/Norsemen post 800 AD, the English from Tudor times, and the Scots from 1600 AD — not to mention the Poles from the era of the “Celtic Tiger”!


When we come to look at the art, religious beliefs, social structure, customs, education, law etc of Ireland we will see much that was paralleled in Celtic culture in Central Europe. However at the same time there are strong signs in the Irish and Western cultural background of something which is related to an even older civilisation, embracing the megalithic period. It is this which puts Ireland and other Western “Atlantean” areas outside the Central European Celtic sphere. Even the Druidic system which the Celts were so influenced by, was presumably, as Caesar tells us, much older than Celtic culture and came “from the West” in the megalithic era. Maps indicating the proliferation of megalithic monuments in Western Europe show evidence of a sea-borne culture reaching Western areas at the time of the coming of agriculture, possibly around 4000 BC, and showing signs of decline by the Bronze Age period (around 1500 BC).


“Fighting retail, they were defeated wholesale.

Had they been inseparable

They would have been insuperable.”

(Free translation from the Roman historian Tacitus’ epitaph on the Celts.)