One of the most famous pieces of ancient sculpture is The Dying Gaul, until recently regarded as a Roman copy of a lost Greek original of c. 220 BC from Pergamon in Asia Minor. It may in fact be an original. It is an arresting and deeply moving image of a naked warrior lying on his shield, a gaping wound in his side, his head bowed, awaiting death. The original was almost certainly commissioned to commemorate a Greek victory over the Celtic Galatians, and as such it provides easily the most memorable visual image of the Celts. The Dying Gaul is sometimes called ‘The Dying Trumpeter’: coiled around the warrior’s legs is a large, curved, bronze trumpet. Trumpets such as this were used in battle by Celtic peoples. The Roman historian Polybius wrote of one battle that ‘the noise of the Celtic host terrified the Romans; for there were countless trumpeters and horn blowers and…the whole army was shouting its war cries at the same time’.
This splendid bronze trumpet, one of four found in a dried-up lake at Loughnashade (‘lake of the treasures’), near the important royal centre of Emain Macha, in Co. Armagh, is similar to the one at the feet of The Dying Gaul and to those that so terrified the Romans. It is an outstanding piece of Celtic art. The main section of the tube is a masterpiece of skilled riveting. The bell end is superbly decorated with a lotus-bud motif, the origins of which lie in Mediterranean art. The style, with elaborate curved patterns, is that of high Celtic art, called La Tène after a site in Switzerland, and it would dominate Irish art for many centuries.
The Loughnashade trumpet is thus strong evidence of Celtic influence in Ireland. Does it mark what is still referred to as ‘the coming of the Celts’? No. La Tène objects of this period are rare and heavily associated with a warrior aristocracy. There is simply no evidence of a largescale invasion of Ireland by new peoples. What about the Irish language, which is part of the Celtic linguistic family? There is no reason to suppose that it arrived in Ireland with invaders during the Iron Age. It is probably much older. Barry Cunliffe suggests that contacts between what he calls the communities of the ‘Atlantic zone’ were intensified in the period 1300–800 BC. ‘It would not be surprising to find the development of broadly similar languages evolving out of the common Indo-European’ with which they all started. What the Loughnashade trumpet tells us, therefore, is that there were strong contacts between Ireland and the European continent in the last century BC, as had been the case for thousands of years, and that over the course of that time some Irish elites adopted influences from the latest European style.