An enthralled audience which filled the Parade Tower to capacity heard four of Irelands leading Celtic scholars defend and attack the motion ‘The Celts - did they occupy Ireland’. The enthralling debate waxed first one way and then another before concluding with a resounding defeat for the motion.
The question was debated on two levels. The negative, if the Celts did not come to Ireland, then how and why do we have a Celtic language which is a manifest reality. This strong argument was advanced by Professor David Stifter, professor of Old Irish in Maynooth College who was supported in this contention by Dr. Graham Isaac of NUI Galway. There seems little opportunity to set aside the logic and rational of their well argued position.
Indeed with faint praise Professor Tadhg O’Keeffe acknowledged their argument was cogent, well argued and substantial. That was before he in a stroke dismissed it with the remark, “What a pity it is also so wrong!”. Calling on his undoubted expertises in the world of archaeology he alluded to the total absence of any Celtic structures, the total absence of finds of any artefacts of a nature which could be linked to the Celtic race. He sited the extent of arrowheads, spears, ritual monuments, standing stones, barrow’s, stone circles and ring forts all of which date to the Bronze Age prior to the supposed arrival of the Celts in 500 BC. The total absence of any artefacts linked to the style which has become know as the Hallstatt and dating to 700BC to 400BC he suggested should remind all that not one item of this type or period has ever been found in Ireland. “ Not one” he declaimed. The Hallstatt period gets its name from a small town in Austria, site of a burial ground of this period. The term has become associated with an early cultural phase of the late Bronze Age early Iron Age in Europe. Despite the telling effect of a pithy remake from a lady in the audience “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” by the force of his arguments – together with his personality- he succeeded in turning the scales among the audience and with Professor Peter Woodman, Professor Emeritus of Archaeology in UCC the “nays” won the day.
The debate organised by Kilkenny Archaeological Society proved a most entertaining and informative evening. The proceedings were in the capable hands of Dr. Proinsias O’Drisceoil who commenced the evening by calling for a’ no abstentions’ role call of all in respect of the motion. Those who raised their hands in response to his request were deemed in favour of the motion while all those who did not raise their hands were deemed to be against the motion. His initial “cold canvas” results were not revealed until the concluding moments when they were shown to be a modest majority in favour of the motion. However at the end of the evening the situation was very much reversed, with only 29 people from the 124 in attendance remained convinced that the Celts did occupy Ireland.
Speaking afterwards, Vice-President of Kilkenny Archaeological Society and Chairman of the Organising Committee, Pat Nolan expressed his appreciation to the 4 speakers who had come from almost the 4 corners of Ireland, from Cork, Dublin, Maynooth and Galway, also to the Chairman Dr. Proinsias O’Drisceoil and especially to the large attendance.
He posed this final question about the event “did you enjoy the evening” to be greeted by a resounding round of applause to which he happily responded “this motion carried unanimously”.
The success of the venture has prompted the Kilkenny Archaeological Society to contemplate an annual event along these lines.