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For people who are proud of and actively celebrate their Celtic heritage, there can be seemingly no bounds to the cultural and technological achievements of their Celtic ancestors. To the superfans, the ancient Celts were more than “mere” warrior-poet-metalworker-road-builders who sacked Rome before it was cool, they were also transatlantic voyagers who reached the New World ahead of the Norsemen and that infamous Genoan, Christopher Columbus.
On the other side of that coin, we have the Celtic deniers, people who belittle the accomplishments of the ancient Celts and claim, for example, that the Celts did not really settle in Britain ahead of the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons and the Romans, and that the reason the ancient Britons spoke a Celtic language and practiced Celtic customs was the result of a cultural invasion, not an actual one. But this is a debate for another day.
My point here is that the present shapes the past. Our current prejudices and cultural allegiances play a large role in what we believe.
On this humble website, I strive for objectivity. I try to separate my personal feelings and preferences from what actually exists in the historical record. So while personally, as someone with Celtic heritage, I think it would be pretty awesome if we could prove that the ancient Celts crossed the Atlantic in a currach all those centuries ago, the reality is there’s no concrete evidence to support such a claim.
Were the Celts the first Europeans to reach the Americas?
No, the Celts were not the first Europeans to reach the Americas. That distinction currently goes to a band of Vikings who settled (albeit temporarily) in what is now L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland around 1000 CE. According to the Icelandic sagas, a Viking by the name of Thorfinn Karlsefni led the expedition, disembarking from the west coast of Greenland with three ships, following a route established by Leif Eriksson a few years earlier. After about three years of living in the New World, during which time there existed a tumultuous relationship with the local, aboriginal tribes, Thorfinn and company packed up and left.
But they didn’t pack everything. And that’s how we know that this New World landing (or a similar one conducted by another band of Vikings) actually took place: In 1960, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad and her explorer husband Helge Ingstad discovered the remains of a Viking encampment at L’Anse aux Meadows. In addition to identifying the footprints of eight, wood-framed sod buildings, the husband and wife team uncovered several everyday items used by Norsemen and Norsewomen of that era, including an oil lamp, a bronze pin, a bone knitting needle, and part of a spindle.
In 1978, L’Anse aux Meadows was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I provide this overview of the history of the Viking transatlantic voyage and the Newfoundland archaeological site to illustrate an important juxtaposition: There is no such historical evidence to support an ancient Celtic voyage of a similar nature. No archaeological site brimming with telltale Celtic artifacts. There is nothing to support the ancient-Celts-in-America theory but conjecture.
So why do some people still believe it?
America B.C.: A Bogus Book That Started a Celtic Craze
A confession: I found a copy of Barry Fell’s 1976 “groundbreaking” work of pseudoarchaeology at a used bookstore in Montreal sometime in the late 2000s/early 2010s. And as a young(ish), impressionable Humanistic Studies major who played Irish and Scottish folk music at the local pubs (and occasionally at that very bookstore), I was enthralled.
At first glance, America B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World reads like an academic work, something rooted in sound science. What’s more, the author was a Harvard professor. Surely, with such a pedigree, he would’ve been above publishing unsubstantiated quackery?
Prepare to lose (even more) faith in humanity.
Recently, when reading a book on the actual, proven history of the Celts, The Celtic Empire by Peter Berresford Ellis (see my review here), I did a double-take. At the end of the book, Ellis spends a few pages dispelling a couple of common myths (not myths like myths and legends, but myths like widely held falsehoods) about the ancient Celts, one of them being that they crossed the Atlantic and reached the New World. And which book does Ellis credit with popularizing that myth? You guessed it.
Upon reading the title, I cast my gaze up at my bookshelf and bristled at the sight of the chunky black letters printed on the spine.
So what exactly is wrong with the archaeology presented in America B.C.? And how can we know for sure that the ancient Celts never reached the New World?
Let’s start with that second question first: It’s certainly possible that the ancient Celts reached the Americas before the Vikings. There’s just no evidence for it. And while believing in things without evidence has long been a hallmark of our species (and there’s been a tremendous and disheartening resurgence of it as of late), I cannot so swiftly bring myself to abandon the concept of shared, objective truth.
Demanding that others prove negatives (i.e. “Well, you can’t prove that X didn’t happen, can you?) is an exercise in futility. And sloppy, haphazard research and representations of ancient peoples, no matter how well-intentioned, will only serve to erode shared truths, including our shared knowledge of Celtic history. To quote Ellis:
“The ‘Celtic Renaissance’ of the nineteenth century in some ways did a disservice to ancient Celtic civilization for it saw the creation of a new era of myth-making as poets and novelists and musicians contributed to the production of a ‘never-never world’ of pre-Christian Celtic society.”source: The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History, 1000 BC – AD 51
In one version of that make-believe world, the ancient Celts not only made it to North America, they also settled there permanently and taught Gaelic to the ancestors of the Algonquins.
Debunking the Myth of the Transatlantic Ancient Celts
In America B.C., Harvard professor Barry Fell purports that between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE, the Celtiberians (the Celts of the Iberian Peninsula, what is now Portugal and Spain) migrated to North America, settling primarily in New England. He backs up this claim with two main pieces of “evidence,” which I will address in turn.
Firstly, Fell argues that many stones and monoliths in New England are rife with ancient Ogham inscriptions, Ogham being the hash mark-like system of writing allegedly employed by the Celtiberians. And here we’ve already run into a problem, because while Fell claims to have discovered Ogham inscriptions, both in Iberia and New England, which date back to around the eighth century BCE, Ogham itself would not be invented until the fifth century CE in southwestern Ireland.
There’s also the inconvenient (for Fell) fact that the ancient Celts did not write down sacred knowledge, not for lack of intelligence but because it was part of their culture. Druids spent decades memorizing lessons and stories and passing them down, orally, to the next generation. Writing was sort of viewed as cheating. So the idea that there were ancient druids in Vermont scribbling on stones does not mesh with the well-established historical record.
The Irish scholar and professor Gearóid Mac Eoin summed up the problem with the ancient American Ogham theory nicely when he wrote:
“The rock scratchings resemble Ogham script only insofar as they are lines on rocks…Dr. Fell ignores completely the question of Celtic history.”
Fell’s second piece of “evidence” for transatlantic ancient Celts stems from the idea that one can find Celtic loan words in the language of the Algonquins. Fell assumes the ancient Celtiberians spoke a Goidelic (Gaelic) version of Celtic, and historians agree that this was likely the case, with Brythonic (Brittonic) Celtic arriving in Iberia in later centuries. But where Fell falters is in his assumption that the Celtic languages remained static for thousands of years. Because in his attempts to translate the “Ogham” he discovered in New England, he uses modern Scottish Gaelic as his cipher.
This…is dumb. But instead of you having to listen to me dunk on Fell any further, I’ll let Ellis explain to you why this is so dumb:
“To illustrate the pitfalls, take the word cuithe, which Professor Fell claims was borrowed from the Celts into the Algonquin Indian language to survive today, its meaning being a gorge. He correctly points out that cuithe in modern Scottish Gaelic means a pit. But the word cuithe is in fact a loan word from Latin into Old Irish, coming from the word puteus. This would put its appearance in Old Irish [the progenitor of Scottish Gaelic] not much before the fifth or sixth centuries AD. How, then, could it have existed in the Celtic of Professor Fell’s intrepid explorers of the eighth century BC?”source: The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History, 1000 BC – AD 51
Here’s another question: How could such an educated and presumably smart person, a person with a PhD, a Harvard professor!, make such a rookie mistake? Welp, things might become more clear when you learn that Fell was not a professor of history, or linguistics, or archaeology. He was a professor of zoology.
And while he got a lot of things, nearly everything, wrong about the Celts, Fell the zoologist did get a few things right, including the fact that the Celtiberians did have the nautical technology and wherewithal to complete a crossing of the Atlantic. There’s just no evidence that they ever did.
So, is that the end of our story? Not quite. Because while there is no evidence of the ancient Celts ever having reached the Americas, fans of Irish history and/or Irish mythology and/or Irish hagiography may have a lingering question:
What about Brendan?
Did St. Brendan the Navigator reach the Americas before Columbus?
Whether you call him “the Navigator,” “the Voyager,” “the Anchorite,” or “the Bold,” St. Brendan, founder of the Clonfert monastery in Co. Galway, was a real, historical person. Born in Co. Kerry in 486 CE (or thereabouts), just a couple of decades after the death of St. Patrick (another historical saint whose legacy gets infused and entangled with mythology), Brendan is famous for his legendary voyage that took him around—and possibly across—the Atlantic Ocean.
Known as “Navigatio Sancti Brendani” (the Voyage of St. Brendan), the story was incredibly popular during the Middle Ages and was translated into multiple European languages. In it, Brendan learns from a man named Barinthus about a place called the Land of Promise. Intrigued, he sets out on the open sea, and all sorts of hijinks ensue. (At one point, Brendan makes landfall on an island…which turns out to be the back of a giant whale named Jasconius.)
According to Ellis, in his reference work A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, there’s no denying that the story of Brendan’s voyage “played an important part in inspiring the voyages which later resulted in the discovery [sic] of America.” (Note: Europeans didn’t actually discover America, a land that was already inhabited, but we understand Ellis’s intended meaning.)
But beyond inspiring transatlantic voyages, did St. Brendan the Navigator ever make the voyage himself?
It’s certainly possible that he did, as a sturdy currach (a wood- or wicker-framed Irish boat covered with a watertight animal hide) rigged with a sail could make the voyage, but once again we’re faced with that pesky little problem of no evidence, archaeological or otherwise. Because while Brendan is a historical figure, the story of his voyage is not. As Ellis points out:
“The tale seems to be based on the earlier ‘Voyage of Mael Dúin‘ by a late ninth- or early tenth-century Irish Latinist…Like Mael Dúin [Brendan] came to an island populated by spirits in bird form, found a crystal column in the sea, sailed a translucent sea and came to an island of giant smiths.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention that kernels of truth can sometimes be found within myths and legends. Look no further than the Icelandic sagas, and the story of Thorfinn Karlsefni, to see an example of how a centuries-old story can eventually be proven true.
Will archaeologists someday discover evidence of pre-Columbian Irish contact with the Americas?
The Celts: Search for a Civilization by Alice Roberts
Celts: The History and Legacy of One of the Oldest Cultures in Europe by Martin J. Dougherty
The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History, 1000 BC – AD 51 by Peter Berresford Ellis
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More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.