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Gaels facts for kids

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 · Na Gaeil · Na Gàidheil · Ny Gaeil
Green Sunburst Flag.svg
An Gal Gréine, a traditional Gaelic symbol first mentioned in the Fiannaíocht.
Total population
c. 1.9 million (linguistic)
Regions with significant populations
 Ireland 1,770,000 (linguistic)
 United Kingdom 122,518 (linguistic)
 United States 27,475 (linguistic)
 Canada 9,000 (linguistic)
 Australia 2,717 (linguistic)
 New Zealand 670 (linguistic)
Irish · Scottish Gaelic · Manx
(Non-Gaelic: English · Scots)
Christianity · Irreligion (historic: Paganism)
Related ethnic groups
Norse-Gaels · Gaelicised Normans

The Gaels or Goidels are speakers of one of the Goidelic Celtic languages: Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Goidelic speech originated in Ireland and subsequently spread to western and northern Scotland and the Isle of Man. Gaelic society traditionally centered around the clan, each with its own territory and chieftain.


The modern English term Gael derives ultimately from the Old Irish (Ancient Gaelic) word Goídel, which was spelled in various ways by Gaelic writers at different times. The modern Gaelic spellings are Gael (Irish) and Gàidheal (Scottish Gaelic). A gael is an Irish person who is interested in Irish language, culture etc. "Is rud amhain bígí Gaelige ach is rud amhain eíle bígí Gael." It is one thing to be irish but another to be a gael.

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 single English word 'highlander'.

Up until the late 15th century, the Gaelic language in Scotland was generally named Scottish. After this time, the Gaelic language generally became called Erse (Irish) and the lowland tongue Scots (Scottish).


  • Gaels – the ethno-linguistic group
  • Gaelic – of or relating to the Gaels
  • Goidels – an alternative term sometimes used to describe the Gaels in historical contexts
  • Goidelic – relating to the Gaels, particularly their language, in historical contexts


In their own national epic contained within medieval works, the Gaels trace the origin of their people to an ancestor named Goídel Glas. He is described as a Scythian prince, who is credited with creating the Gaelic languages. Goídel's mother is called Scota, described as an Egyptian princess. The Gaels are depicted as wandering from place to place for hundreds of years; they spent time in Egypt, Crete, Scythia, the Caspian Sea and Getulia, before arriving in Iberia, where their king, Breogán, is said to have founded Galicia.

The Gaels are then said to have sailed to Ireland via Galicia. The Gaels fought a battle with the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods, who inhabited Ireland at the time. A goddess of the land, promised the Gaels that Ireland shall be theirs so long as they pay tribute to her to which they agreed. 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).


A sculpture of Máel Seachnaill II in Trim, Co. Meath, by James McKenna
High King Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill was one of the leaders in the struggle with the Norsemen

Estimates of the arrival of proto-Gaelic in Ireland vary widely from the introduction of agriculture circa 4000 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, only began to be properly recorded with the Christianization of Ireland in about the 5th Century AD.

Ogham stones are found both throughout Ireland and where Gaelic invaders settled across post-Roman Britain. It is thought to have been in use as early as A.D. 400. They frequently encode nothing more than a name, and it is thought they may represent territorial claims. It is not known with any certainty when the Goidelic (or Q-Celtic) language developed in prehistoric Ireland, or how the Gaels came to be the dominant culture.

Ogham Stone, Cilgerran
Ogham Stone, Cilgerran

Christianity reached Ireland during the 5th century, most famously through a Romano-British slave Patrick.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Gaels were affected by the policies of the Tudors and the Stewarts who sought to anglicise the population and bring both Ireland and the Highlands under stronger centralised control, as part of what would become the British Empire. In 1542, Henry VIII of England declared the Lordship of Ireland a Kingdom and himself King of Ireland.

Decades of conflict followed in the reign of Elizabeth I, culminating in the Nine Years' War (1594–1603). The war ended in defeat for the Irish Gaelic alliance, and brought an end to the independence of the last Irish Gaelic kingdoms.

Since then, the Gaelic language has gradually diminished in most of Ireland and Scotland. The 19th century was the turning point as The Great Hunger in Ireland caused mass emigration. 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.


Kilt showing Moffat tartan

Gaelic society was traditionally made up of kin groups known as clans, each with its own territory and headed by a male chieftain. When a man became chieftain or king, a relative was elected to be his deputy. When the chieftain or king died, his deputy would automatically succeed him. The Gaels have always had a strong oral tradition. In the ancient and medieval era, most Gaels lived in roundhouses and ringforts. The Gaels had their own style of dress, which became the modern belted plaid and kilt in Scotland. They also have their own style of music and dance, and their own sports (see Gaelic games and Highland games).

Current distribution

The two comparatively 'major' Gaelic nations in the modern era are Scotland (Scottish Gaelic-speaking population approx. 60,000 native speakers) and Ireland (which has over 200,000). Communities where the language is still spoken are restricted largely to the west coast of each country.

According to the 2010 US Census, there are over 27,000 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.

There are between 500 - 1,000 Canadian Gaels although they are generally of a very advanced age and concentrated in Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island and Newfoundland.

Notable Gaels

Macbeth Engraving
Macbeth Engraving
  • Colm Cille or Columcille - was a Gaelic monk credited with introducing Christianity to Scotland. He is known as St. Columba in English
  • Johannes Scotus Eriugena – 8th century philosopher and theologian
  • Cináed mac Ailpín – often anglicized as Kenneth I of Scotland. Traditionally considered the first, founding king of Scotland
  • Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig (known as Brian Boru in English) - King of Munster and High King of Ireland, killed 1014
  • Mac Bethad mac Findláich - known in English as Macbeth, was King of Scots from 1040 until his death. He was the inspiration for William Shakespeare's play Macbeth
  • Diarmait Mac Murchada - "Dermot of the Foreigners", "Daimait MacMorchada"). Irish King of Leinster
  • Ruaidri mac Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair – often anglicized as Rory O’Connor; king of Connacht and High King of Ireland
  • Fiach Mac Aodh Ó Broin - popularly referred to as Fiach McHugh O'Byrne, a 16th century Gaelic (Irish) Chieftain
  • Aodh Mór Ó Néill - 2nd Earl of Tyrone and Irish resistance leader. Also anlgicized as Hugh O’Niell
  • Eoghan Rua Ó Néill - the early Irish nationalist and a major player during the Irish Confederate Wars
  • Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta - was a central figure in the seventeenth and eighteenth century school of Gaelic poets and songwriters
  • Rob Donn MacAoidh 18th - century Scottish Gaelic poet often referred to as ‘Rob Donn MacAoidh’
  • Art Mac Cumhaigh (1738–1773) - was among the most celebrated of the south Ulster and north Leinster poets in the eighteenth century
  • Eoghan Ruadh Ó Súilleabháin - one of the last great Gaelic poets
  • Antoine Ó Raifteiri - Irish language folk poet of the 19th century
  • Sir John A. Macdonald - Speaker of Scots Gaelic and first prime minister of Canada
  • Ned Maddrell – Purportedly the last native speaker of Manx Gaelic
  • Padraig Pearse - Irish poet, Gaelic scholar, and Irish Republican revolutionary. He also wrote many famous poems during his lifetime
  • Liam O'Flaherty – Irish novelist and shortstory writer
  • Sorley MacLean - Scottish Gaelic poet
  • Máire Mhac an tSaoi – Modern Irish language poet and wife of the Catholic Unionist Conor Cruise O'Brien
  • Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh – Irish Gaelic Athletic Association commentator for the Radio Telifís Éireann and a native speaker of Irish
  • Éamon Ó Cuív – Irish Minister for Gaeltacht Affairs
  • Cathal Ó Searcaigh – modern Irish language poet
  • Eithne ní Bhraonáin (Enya) – Irish Singer/Songwriter
  • Máire Ní Bhraonáin, better known as Máire Brennan or Moya Brennan – Irish Musician and song writer. Member of the band Clannad
  • Dara Ó Briain - Irish comedian

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See also

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