Tuesday, 15 September 2009

'The Celts' by Barry Cunliffe

I purchased this book at the visitors’ centre at Newgrange in Ireland. Newgrange is an astonishing reconstructed Neolithic site that pre-dates the Celts by up to 3,000 years. The book attempts to give a balanced and factual study of who the Celts really were, and untangle the many myths that have accreted around them. It educated me, and was particularly illuminating about how the eighteenth and nineteenth century built up a largely false romantic image of the Celts which is still used for political and secessionist reasons.

The book describes itself as “A very short introduction” and at 145 pages, in small format paper sizes, it is certainly short. Maybe I would prefer a more thorough coverage, but I think I have had enough of the Celts. Somehow Cunliffe manages to repeat himself several times in such a short book, and I sometimes felt that the short space was being wasted.

As a quick primer the book has its uses, and it certainly gave me an objective and factual survey of the subject. I did not emerge with a clear idea of who the Celts were, though that may simply reflect the sparse historical information about them. They were very diverse, ranging from the ‘Lusitanian’ Celts in Portugal to the ‘Lepontic’ Celts in Italy to the ‘Goidelic’ Celts in Ireland and Scotland. The biggest block of Celts were the Gauls, who inhabited large areas of France and Germany before the Roman empire expanded and later was invaded by Eastern tribes, such as the Huns and Franks. The genocide conducted by Julius Caesar against the Gauls was a revelation.

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