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The Gaels or Goidels are speakers of the Gaelic (or Goidelic) languages; a branch of the Celtic languages comprising Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Historically, the Gaels were a distinct ethnic group. 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 English term Gael derives from the Old Gaelic word Goídel. The modern spellings are Gael in Irish and Gàidheal in Scottish Gaelic. Goídel is thought to have been borrowed during the 7th century from the Primitive Welsh form which became Old Welsh Guoidel "Irishman" (attested as a male personal name in the Book of Llandaff). This may be derived from the Proto-Indo-European *weidh-(e)l-o-, perhaps meaning "forest people", partially cognate with the Old Gaelic Féni (from Proto-Indo-European *weidh-n-jo-, "forest people"; "warriors" in Proto-Irish), which is also the origin of Fianna and Fenian.
Early Greek and Roman authors called the Irish Ιουερνοι and Iverni, respectively, both derived from the Proto-Irish ethnic name *Iwerni "people of *Iweriū". Later Greek and Latin variants of this name included Ίερνοι, Hierni, and Hiberni.
Scoti or Scotti was another Latin name for the Gaels that came into use by the 4th century. It is not believed that any Gaelic groups called themselves Scot(t)i in ancient times, except when referring to themselves in Latin. This word was also adopted as Scottas (pl.) in Old English. It is also conjectured that the Latin term may mean "raider, pirate" as it is widely accepted that Gaelic raiders were attacking Britain's west coast during and following the Roman occupation.
Since the disappearance of Gaelic as a community language in the south and east of Scotland in the late medieval period, and the popularity of the terms 'highland Scot' and 'lowland Scot', the term Gàidheal has been used in Gaelic language conversation not merely to denote Gaelic identity but also as an equivalent for the English word 'Highlander'.
Up until the late 15th century, the Gaelic language in Scotland was generally named Scottish, both in its Latin form and in Early Scots. For example, the usage in The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie at the start of the 16th century is Erse (“Irish”) and Inglis (“English”). After this time, the Gaelic language generally became called Erse (“Irish”) and the lowland tongue Scots (“Scottish”).
Documentary evidence shows other subsequent alterations in general terminology, such as the appearance of the Latin term "Scotos Hibernicos" in 1521 and its English equivalent, "Scottish-Irish", by the English diplomat Ralph Sadler in 1558 to refer to Scottish Gaels.
In the earliest surviving writings in the Lowland Scots language (which had hitherto been called Inglis), a form of the term Gaidheal appears to discriminate between Gaels from the Scottish Highlands and Gaels from Ireland. In 1596, it appears in James Dalrymple's translation from Latin into Lowland Scots of the Historie and Chronicles of Scotland, 1436–1565 as the main element within the word Gaelic, referring to the language in Scotland, rather than in Ireland.
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The Lebor Gabála Érenn, a medieval Christian pseudo-history of Ireland, says that the Gaels sailed to the British Isles (the British and Irish Isles) via Scythia and Iberia, after spending hundreds of years wandering the Earth. The Gaels fight a battle of sorcery with the Tuath Dé, 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). Other medieval texts mention a belief that the Gaels all descend from Éber Donn, who appears to have been a god of the underworld.
Estimates of the emergence of proto-Gaelic in Ireland vary widely from the introduction of agriculture circa 7000–6000 BC to around the first few centuries BC. Little can be said with certainty, as the language now known as Old Irish—ancestral to modern Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx—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.
In the 5th century, the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata emerged on the west coast of Scotland. It also included a small part of northeastern Ireland, across the North Channel. The traditional view was that Dál Riata was founded by Gaelic Irish migrants, but this is no longer universally accepted. Archeologists, such as Ewan Campbell, say there is no archeological evidence for a migration or invasion, and suggest strong sea links helped maintain a Gaelic culture on both sides of the North Channel. Gaelic language and culture soon spread to most of the rest of Scotland and eventually became the dominant one. This led to the Latin name for Gaelic speaking peoples, "Scoti," being applied to the state founded by the Gaels: "Scotland". Since that time Gaelic language rose and, in the past three centuries, greatly diminished, in most of Ireland and Scotland. The most culturally and linguistically Gaelic regions are in the north west of Scotland, the west of Ireland and Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia where the descendants of the Highland Clearances were transplanted
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. A large part of the island's cultural heritage is Gaelic.
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 PDF (123 KiB), 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.