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Opinion: Our Celtic identity might not be what we think it is

Author Caomhín De Barra asks about Ireland’s Celtic past, and whether it really is what we think it is.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor, Irish history

WHENEVER IRISHNESS IS discussed, the word “Celtic” comes to mind. Indeed, “Celtic” is often a synonym to describe things “Irish”. We label things as Celtic music, Celtic art, and Celtic crosses. When we reflect on the personality traits we as a people have, we regularly attribute them to our ancient Celtic ancestry.

In the popular view of Irish history, our island was invaded in the distant past by the Celts, who brought a language and culture that was to dominate Ireland for millennia.

While we now speak English and share much of our culture with the Anglophone world, we still feel our Irish identity is rooted in our Celtic past.

Settled by Celts?

What many don’t appreciate is that the idea that Ireland was once settled by Celts has been called into question by many scholars.

Archeological digs offer scant evidence that there was ever any sudden change in culture in Ireland’s ancient past that we would expect to see if invaders suddenly arrived from the continent.

Whatever about whether the Celts ever did come to Ireland, what is undeniable is that medieval Irish and Welsh writers said absolutely nothing about a Celtic past. Nor did they suggest that the Irish and Welsh people had an affinity for one another based on this shared heritage.

In other words, before the year 1700, no one called the Irish and Welsh Celts. So where did the idea that we are Celts come from?

The story starts in the early eighteenth century. Two linguists, Paul Yves Pezron and Edward Lhuyd, discovered that the Gaelic languages and Brythonic languages (Welsh and Breton) were members of a single language family. Pezron suggested that the people of Brittany were the descendants of the ancient Gauls, who were Celts.

Because of the close similarity of Welsh and Breton, he assumed that Welsh had been brought to Britain from ancient Gaul. Building upon this, Lhuyd hinted that the language family they had discovered should be labelled as “Celtic”.

The problem with Pezron’s idea is that modern archeologists are now confident that the Breton language was brought to France from Britain (and not the other way around). On the basis of a possible misunderstanding, the ancient history of Britain and Ireland was reimagined.

Nevertheless, the Celtic connection with Ireland had been established, but it took time to gain widespread acceptance. My own research has shown that the word Celtic rarely appeared in Irish newspapers in the early nineteenth century. Suddenly, the regularity of its use increased dramatically in the 1840s. It doubled again in the 1850s, and by the 1880s, had doubled once more.

Clearly, something happened between the 1840s and 1860s. But what?

The most important factor in the formation of our Celtic identity was the emergence of a “scientific” understanding of race. Scholars increasingly believed that cultural differences were evidence of biological differences. As many of the academics who worked studying racial biology were also linguists, it is not surprising that knowledge from one field crossed to the other. Each language family was assumed to mark a subspecies of the various human races. The Celtic identity suddenly had a “scientific” basis.

Other contemporary events built upon this. Archeological excavations in Switzerland in the 1850s revealed evidence of an ancient Celtic civilization that had once dominated Europe. Meanwhile, Johann Kaspar Zeuss published Grammatica Celtica in 1853. This was the first scientific analysis of the Celtic language family, and made Celtic studies one of the hottest fields of academic research in the later nineteenth century.

At the same time, writers like Ernest Renan discussed the Celtic influence on modern English and French literature. To do this, they first had to explain what characteristics the “Celts” had. Renan described the modern Celts as romantic, whimsical, emotional and with great powers of imagination. They were very unlike the stoic, rational, hard-working Anglo-Saxons. Such stereotypes still hold considerable influence in how Irish people are perceived today.

Over a twenty-year period, the Celts were established as a biological fact by scientists, given a glorious past by archeologists, a sense of scholarly gravitas by linguists, and identifiable personality traits by litterateurs. This made Celticness attractive to nationalists in Ireland and Wales, and by the turn of the twentieth century, most people in both countries believed they were Celts.

Racial identity

The belief that we share a Celtic identity with the Welsh and the Scottish is still widely held today. But what does this mean? What do we actually have in common with them that we could say points to a common Celtic identity? People might say Celtic music, dancing, or languages. yet these are only practiced or spoken by a small minority in each country and can’t truly be said to unite the three nations.

What links us with our fellow Celts today is a lingering sense of a common racial identity. Of course, in a post-Nazi world, most people steer clear of any association with “blood nationalism”. Yet, subconsciously, that is still at the core of the bond we supposedly share with the Welsh and the Scots.

When the Provisional IRA announced in 1972 that they would not carry out attacks in Scotland or Wales, they justified it by stating that they stood with their “Celtic brothers”.

During the Six Nations next year, count the number of times the players from those countries are called “our Celtic cousins”. “Brothers” and “cousins” are meant as friendly terms, but they also reinforce the idea of a relationship based on common bloodlines.

This probably has never occurred to the vast majority of Irish people. But it has not escaped the notice of those who are interested in race-based identities. White nationalist groups in both Europe and the United States have adopted the Celtic cross as one of their symbols. Stormfront, one of the largest white supremacist websites, uses the Celtic cross as its logo.

Bans have been put in place in Italy and Germany on the use of the Celtic cross at neo-Nazi rallies, as some groups use it to get around bans on swastikas. As the Celtic cross can be imagined as symbolising an ancient, white, pan-European identity, it holds obvious appeal to such groups.

Will Ireland retain its Celtic identity? As the meaning of “Irish” evolves towards greater inclusivity of people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, and if the link between Celtic symbols and white nationalism gains more attention in mainstream Irish society, hard questions might be asked as to whether “Irish” and “Celtic” are really the same thing.

In the same way that Celticness became a central part of Irishness in the nineteenth century, it is possible that the twenty-first century will witness a disentangling of these identities once more.

The book is called “The Coming of the Celts, AD 1860: Celtic Nationalism in Ireland and Wales”. It is published by the University of Notre Dame Press and can be purchased through Amazon or here.

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor, Irish history

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