Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Celts - Introduction


This is going to be a very long article in about 5 or 6 parts. It lays no claim to originality; in fact, I have plundered shamelessly throughout, carrying away great tranches of material directly from the pages of my sources. I mention this not as an excuse but as a fact: the purpose of this paper has been to gather information and in the time-honoured fashion of my ancestors I have swooped in, raided, and carried off what I wanted.

My motive was curiosity. I wanted to make sense of the subject and bring together the facts available to me but scattered here and there in a variety of different works. I began with the idea of acquiring material separately and somehow cobbling it together but soon discovered that this would not work. Editing began to impose a certain logic of its own so that a single paragraph can contain sentences taken from several different sources and sections from one paragraph in a given source can show up in widely separate portions of the finished paper. I have neither suppressed nor altered information nor have I edited direct quotes in order to emphasize elements which were not intended in the original. I have inserted occasional transitional paragraphs and some lengthy passages of my own commentary; I have also rewritten or abridged passages from the original when I think my own version is more succinct or an improvement on the writing. Absolutely shameless. I have been a predator, I admit, but a predator with a purpose and maybe even a sense of style. So much for method.

My curiosity about the Celts stems from the fact that I trace my own descent to Celtic ancestors - insofar as any Irish person in the modern day can venture to do so, given the murky genetic stew that prevails on our island. My surname is Gaelic and as a tribal name it can be traced back in at least one (somewhat reliable) account to the third century BC. What happened after that is a matter for conjecture but I do know that my parents and their parents and their parents and grandparents before them were all born in Ireland, that the family name continues, and that's enough to be going on with. In addition, I've been hammered with the sagas and the "glories of the Gael" since I was a child. I've always taken pride in the Celtic past in a fuzzy nationalistic sort of way and I think most of us do in Ireland without any particular need or desire to get into the details. The hijack of the old civilization by Irish Nationalists has encouraged the belief that the Celts and the Irish were interchangeable. There's hardly a flicker of interest in the Scots and the Welsh, for instance, and it was years before I discovered that the Gauls of France and the Iberians of Spain had been Celts as well. This came under the heading of Foreign Affairs. For many of us the statue of the dying Cuchulainn in the GPO sums up our Celtic inheritance, a neat telescoping of the whole tradition from xx BC to 1916: Ireland Reborn, A Nation Once Again!

As proud descendants of the Gael my father's generation (and to a lesser extent my own) were supposed to wear little silver doughnuts on their lapels called "fainne" to show they could speak Irish; they were also supposed to stay away from soccer and cricket and rugby matches since these were "foreign" games; they were to go on their holidays (by bicycle) to the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht to rub shoulders with honest farmers and fisherman, gasping with the poverty but native-speakers all; they were to avoid sex, sin and women (same thing) and stay off the booze, a bit anyway; and when they - and many of my own generation as well - had to go to England because there wasn't a smell of a job at home, they were to live with Irish landladies in Cricklewood or Willesden, wear a suit and tie to Sunday mass, and steer clear of the local women. This was our earnest Irish-Ireland. I think the Celts would have died laughing. Since the war with England we had been subjected to a series of fossilized and xenophobic governments hand-in-glove with a reactionary clergy. Books were banned - all the interesting ones, anyway - and dancing and courting frowned upon. There wasn't a chance of sex outside marriage (they were all in the Legion of Mary) and as late as the 1960s we all played violent sports, drank ourselves silly and got out at the first opportunity. That's all changed, thank God. But I can remember it still and how the respectability lay like a damp fog over everything. You felt you couldn't breathe in the place.

Every successful revolution turns in on itself and ours was no exception. The events were within living memory when I was a child and the hard men of the 20s were still running the show, rigid geriatric old bastards for the most part. DeValera, more dead than alive, was still leading the band, the man who had once said "I have only to look into my own heart to know what the people of Ireland want" and who had then led us into a Civil War to prove it. We hadn't been left with the best of them when the dust had settled and that was a fact: James Connolly was gone, executed after the Rising; Arthur Griffith was dead and so was the man who had done more to pull it off than the whole gang of them put together, Michael Collins. Ireland entered its newly-won freedom under the leadership of the B-Team and it showed, it showed. But weren't we still the reborn Celtic nation, proud sons of the Gael; hadn't we cast off the yoke of the foreign oppressor and hadn't we our own people ruling us again - the inheritors of the dusty old kings? They may have been a pack of eejits, but, by God, they were the home-grown article.

There was a degree of emotional and indeed literal truth to this view. Looked at from a cooler, less nationalistic perspective, however, we were not the only descendants of the Celts at all. They had settled in Ireland, to be sure, but Ireland was only the western branch of a loose federation that had extended as far south as Spain and as far east as Turkey. In addition, it seems almost certain that when the Celts arrived in Ireland they had encountered an even earlier population and, if later history is anything to go by, the Celts had fought and then intermarried with them. These people, also, were our ancestors. The Celts did manage to impose their language and social customs on their predecessors and the Irish-Celtic or Gaelic way of life then survived in Ireland until the beginning of the modern era, chiefly because the country was protected by the sea and distant from the European centre. Celtic civilization continued to flourish in Ireland long after it had disappeared elsewhere so that even in the seventeenth century the Irish people were still readily identifiable with the Celtic tribes of continental Europe at the time of the Romans. But the ideas and social organization and customs of the Celts had never been native to Ireland. The civilization of the Celts had arisen in southern Germany and Switzerland and had been highly developed long before it reached our island.

Our loyalty to the national flag today is a form of tribal nationalism, reduced in scale, sufficient for the World Cup (either football or rugby) and shootouts with British soldiers -- well, at least until the recent ceasefire. Some would argue that our fierce identification with the idea of the Irish nation is very much a modern phenomenon, a product of three centuries of foreign occupation (eight centuries if you count the Normans, but they assimilated into Irish culture, so few of us do) and that it has as much to do with the Celts as the Man in the Moon.

Others would not.

Read on. The material is interesting. See what you make of it.