Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Celtic Diaspora

As most of you know, I am of partially Celtic extraction. Specifically, I am 1/4 Cornish. My Grandma Jean, nee Rowe, is purely Cornish, and her mother and father emigrated to the United States. Her family comes from Cornwall, one of the six Celtic nations; In the linked map, Scotland is blue, Ireland is green, Wales is red, Cornwall is yellow, Brittany is black, and the Isle of Man is tan. The Celts were and are an ethnic and linguistic group of unclear origin, which settled in Middle Europe, the Iberian Peninsula, and the British Isles in the late centuries B.C.

The rise of Rome and later of the barbarians drove the Celts westward, to Britain. Britain is the most heavily Celtic region of Europe, partially because the Romans arrived there comparatively late in their golden age, and didn't stay very long compared to other regions in Britain. After the Roman retreat across the Channel, the Celts flowered in the Isles, and remained the dominant force there until the Angles and Saxons invaded from Continental Europe. Some Celtic nations made the mistake of allying themselves with the Danes and Vikings against the Anglo-Saxons, and when the Norsemen were defeated, the invaders were even more anti-Celt.

Sub-Roman Britain is a confusing picture. In many ways we know more about the time of Christ than we do about this era. We do know that the British Isles were split into small, frequently warring kingdoms. Cornwall was one, and there were several each in Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. In many ways, it was a very mythic age. It is startling how little we know. Unlike, say, Easter Island, the archaeological evidence the Sub-Roman Celts left has not been left untouched by human activity since the deaths of its builders. Britain was, for at least five hundred years, the crux of civilization, and the descendants of the Anglo-Saxons still felt a genetic distaste for all things Celtic. The greatest medieval myth, and the greatest fruitless quest both came from Celtica: the sagas of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, and the Quest for the Holy Grail. Legend has it that Arthur himself was born in Tintagel Castle, Cornwall. In time the Kings of Wessex and the other Anglo kingdoms conquered the Celts, and were in turn conquered by the Normans. But the Celts remained apart, seperated from their continental usurpers by language and a proud heritage.

Perhaps the Celts had something that the straitlaced, conservative Anglo-Saxons, and even more so the later invading, French-speaking Normans, did not. Certainly much modern day fantasy and yearning for the past dwells on the Celtic era. All modesty aside, I am quite well-read in modern fantasy, and I have yet to come across a fantasy with no Celtic aspirations. Tolkien's mythos was drawn from Welsh and Finnish languages and legends, and everyone else has built upon him. The Narnia stories are a sole exception, seeming oddly very Anglo-Saxon. Series' like Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone and Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain are explicitly Celtic, and it is perhaps in reading them that I developed my fascination with the Celtic aspect, although some of it can be attributed to my ancestry and my wider love of everything to do with Britain.

Enter Marcus Tanner's Last of the Celts. This thick book devotes a long chapter to each of the Celtic nations, concentrating primarily on their modern state. In brief, I will summarize him. Scotland, although granted some token measures of independence, is still subservient to England in every way. Since the Battle of Culloden and the defeat of the Scottish Stuart claim to the English throne in 1746, the Scottish have been firmly under the British boot, and unlike their neighbors across the Irish Sea, have shown little interest until recently in doing anything about it. The Lowlands of Scotland were settled by Non-Celts very, very early, and lost Scottish Gaelic early on. In the Highland and island regions of Scotland, however, it survived and survives to this day, although there is little support for it and the number of speakers is decreasing dramatically.

Ireland, on the other hand, was in a bloody constant state of rebellion for years, and was finally granted independence from the United Kingdom in the 2os. Since then, it has become the "Celtic Tiger," a powerhouse Capitalist economy, now with a higher GDP than its British neighbor. The language, however, is not in as great shape. There is huge government support for it, but Irish speakers are in a minority, and possibly shrinking. Still, the Irish have much to be hopeful for. Northern Ireland, the part that remains under the Crown, is in some parts like inner-city Belfast, are mini-Irish-language areas, called "Gaeltachts." However, under even less supportive Great Britain, it is unclear, in the years after "The Troubles" between the Protestant Unionists and the Catholic Nationalists, how Irish in the North can move forward.

Wales is almost as divided as Ireland. In earlier centuries, the South and North were both deeply Welsh. Anglicization was almost unthinkable. However, the Industrial Revolution turned the tables. Tiny medieval villages were transformed into hellish industrial landscapes by coal and copper and iron. This led to a huge influx of workers, Anglophone workers, and South Wales soon became in some ways a part of England. North Wales, however, where I've been, looks better. Everyone we met and spoke to in the extreme northwest, near Bangor, had a strong Welsh accent. For some, Welsh was obviously their first language. Wales has a space-age Assembly building and some token gestures of devolution granted by London, but still remains subservient to England.

Breton is barely spoken in Brittany any longer. The rampant Francophone centralization of every French government since the Bourbon monarchs, and especially since the Revolution. French was the language of the Revolution, Paris was the city of the revolution. Far worse than in the UK, Breton is actively persecuted in France. This medieval attitude is a further example, as if anyone needed it, of the wine-sodden depravity of the dirty, unshaven vinos across the Channel...sorry.

Cornwall is perhaps the most melancholy story at all. The Cornish language is fully extinct. The last speakers were not recorded in any way. Dolly Pentreath, the improbably famous fishwife from St. Ives who was the last full Cornish speaker, died in the eighteenth century. Revival efforts are doomed to failure. The inflection, the pronunciation are all gone--all that is left is stilted, melancholy phrases. Cornwall itself may eventually achieve its own Assembly, just as Wales and Scotland have, but it is of all of the Celtic Nations, besides the Isle of Man, the only one to have lost its language. A sad state of affairs.

Marcus Tanner's book is pessimistic until the last few sentences, where he quotes an Irish poem talking about putting the Irish language in the river, hoping that it might be picked up by "some Pharaoh's daughter." A somewhat fatalistic and lackadaisical attitude towards the whole future of the Celtic identity.

Why is Celtic identity so important? What do the Celts have that makes them unique. On my Facebook profile, I divide myself this way: "I am from British-Norwegian-Celtic extraction, and my I think I am equal parts British (my worldliness, love of literature and the Bard,) Norwegian, (the Blue-Collar part of me; humor) and Celtic, (the mystical, supernatural side.)" Being Celtic could be summarized as irrational escapism from the emotionless panorama of Anglo-Saxon rationality, but it is something more. The Universe is not rational. God is not rational. God is above both rationality and its opposite, emotion, and his perfect creation is as well. We humans cannot achieve that; we give in too much to one or the other. We need to integrate both into our belief. The Celts, as prime exemplars of the emotional worldview, are worthy of close scrutiny.


elisabeth said...

hi, intresting. Celtic, never would have thought to post on that;)