The Iron Age Celts brought modernity to a vast, unfarmed landscape. They sowed crops, most notably wheat and corn of various types. Long before the much-loved potato found its way to Irish shores (thanks to Sir Walter Raleigh), Celtic agriculture saw the land ploughed with oxen and arathar and they planted seeds, culled forests to make way for communal “families” (clans) and they mined for copper, iron and salt, which became valuable commodities. 5,000 years ago, the Celts domesticated cattle and created fenced fields as pasturelands. They transformed the landscape through agricultural means – and theirs was a vision of a sustainable future.
The Celts: The first farmers
The Celts were Indo-European in origin. If, indeed, they ever did arrive en masse in Ireland, it is certainly agreed that they introduced herd animals, such as horses and cattle, using them to plough the fertile grazing lands of the unfarmed Irish hills. They introduced sheep and goats into their landscapes, used them for milk and butter, and their hides for clothing.
Although meat was part of their diet, it was not their primary food source, preferring grain and curds. The Celts also settled down, no longer nomadic, and became farmers, staking their claim to a fertile land. Over time, they introduced crops into their food systems, notably grain and cereal crops, wheat in the main.
The arathar (plough) was pulled by oxen or, later, horses, and you can see a short video clip here of semi-recent farmers using ancient ploughing methods.
Farming Communities in the Iron Age
Historians estimate that by 5,000 BC the Celtic way of life had matured. The forests had been broken down to make way for fields and communities.
In Ireland and the British Isles, the dwelling type found most offer was the roundhouse, made of wattle and daub, with a thatched roof that reach almost to the ground. Their homes were lit with a central hearth, but there were no need for chimneys, for the smoke from the fire filtered out through the thick thatching, leaving behind a tarry blackness.
Historians estimate that during their heyday, Celts lived in massive multi-layered families and their houses were designed for comfort. Tribes were most often divided into smaller communities, a collection of homes, outbuildings, walled gardens and fields for their crops and for their cattle, goats and sheep.
With the development of pottery and the introduction of animal husbandry, farming began to develop swiftly within the region as more and more tribal systems sprung up.
How the Celts transformed the landscape
The Celts grew most of their grains, such as emmer wheat, oats and rye. They are the precursor of our most popular wheat. During the Iron Age, they bred for better hardiness, milking ability, and weight.
In addition to cattle, sheep and goats, they also raised pigs. Nourishing milk was poured into the pigs’ troughs with their feed, to aid growth and a prolific breeding pattern.
The Celts farmed their lands in both paddocks and pastureland, and most of their septs (villages that, when combined, made up one tribe) were made up predominantly of farmers and their livestock.
Agriculture stemmed from the lives and livelihoods of the first agriculturalists. We should not treat agriculture as a foreign concept but, rather, as an established system that developed over millennia. On the island of Ireland, ancient people were the first to start using cultivated plants.
Their resourcefulness and ingenuity with techniques and materials, as well as their superior sense of invention, enabled them to accomplish great feats of food production, employment and sustainability.
They were farming for the future, building established, nonmigratory communities with a view to a sustained livelihood. The Celts are the precursor to modern life.