[The piece below comes from a polemical article I wrote some time before 2000, entitled ‘No Gael is an island’. I’ve cut out the polemical parts and retained just what may be of general interest.]
The Celts were a conquering people who started off in what is now Northern Switzerland and Southern Germany. Like the later Germanic conquerors, they were to impose their language and culture on many older peoples – but so long ago that the pre-Celtic is very nearly forgotten. The particular small region of Wales where my father came from bears the puzzling name of Ewyas, once a miniature mediaeval kingdom, and rather unsuitably preserved in the village of Ewyas Harold. Having heard of possible links between Wales and North Africa, I asked a visiting Algerian Berber if the word had any meaning to him. It had, too – to him it meant ‘the dawn’. If we suppose that some seagoing culture drifted into what is now Wales from what is now the Irish Sea, a territory that lies on the eastern fringes of Wales could easily be called ‘dawn’. Or it could be just an accident. Who knows? Certainly, all of us have roots that go well beyond the modern division between Celt and Saxon. The mysterious standing stone monuments found across territories that are now part of Eire, the UK, Spain, France, Denmark etc. have long been recognised as something older than the Celts, and also local in its inspiration. Supposed links with Greece in the Homeric age are now discredited. More accurate radiocarbon dating that shows that even the trilithons of Stonehenge – one of the last products of this culture – are very much older. Stonehenge had been long forgotten by the time Julius Caesar noted the existence of British and Gaulish priests whom he called Druids. And never forget that Caesar was a bare-faced liar and propagandist, who definitely exaggerated differences between Gauls and Germans.
Research is continually shedding more light on the puzzles of prehistory. Thus:
‘The 2,200 sites studied by Dr Burl consist of a grand total of around 30,000 stones. His comparative analysis of all these British, Irish and Breton prehistoric monuments has revealed the way which architectural and religious traditions developed and spread between approximately 3300 BC and 1000 BC (the late Neolithic and Bronze Age). In particular, his in-depth study of stone avenues and rows (just published in book form by Yale University Press) shows, for the first time, how those monuments first developed in very rudimentary form in the Lake District, and then spread south to Wessex, Devon and Cornwall, and finally to south-west Ireland.
‘Northern Ireland was directly influenced by Lake District standing stone “architecture”, while western Scotland seems to have derived its inspiration from Brittany. This suggests not only that ideas travelled long distances, but that the sea was probably even more important as a cultural highway than scholars have hitherto believed. Dr Burl’s study also shows how prehistoric architectural fashion developed over time’. (The Independent, 8 March 1994.)
Welsh and Gaelic are not in principle any different from English – each is a language of conquerors that later became the tongue of the people. In both countries, the older language was particualrly unfortunate in being up against not just its largest neighbour, but also the de facto common speech of the modern world…
All real culture is a mixture of many things… The sagas tell of men who would go to church but also call upon Thor for good crops and protection against storms. Also a culture that was just as ‘broadminded, tolerant, richly humorous and poetic’ as Gaelic Ireland. The Norsemen who settled Iceland – displacing some Irish monks – were also cruel and ruthless raiders of their neighbours. But so too were the Gaelic Irish, for as long as they were a free people. And both the Gael and Norsemen were equal-opportunity plunderers, robbing and enslaving neighbours of the same culture and language as often as they went after strangers. Not really so different from warrior-heroic cultures all over the world, but since the different cultures of North-Western Europe were always in close touch with each other, the similarities are especially strong.
‘Clearly Celts and Germans had much in common, and were in close touch with one another in the Rhineland in Roman times, again in Britain in the fifth century AD, and in the British Isles in the Viking Age, even though they might be fighting one another for dominion or territory. Their life-styles were similar and it is often impossible to decide from burial customs or archaeological remains whether a particular settlement was Celtic or Germanic. But language, after all was an essential difference … and their literature, art and mythology developed in different ways. The tendency now is to see them as distinct culture and to ignore the strong links that undoubtedly existed between the thought patterns and world-pictures on which the myths were based. In each case the culture was an oral one, since writing and the Roman alphabet only came in with the establishment of the Christian church. (Davidson, Hilda Ellis. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. Published by Routledge, London and New York, 1993, p 4)
‘The link between religion and traditional wisdom was also a powerful one… Skill in words was valued by these peoples as much as valour in battle; they all delighted in riddles, word-games, intricate poetic language and skill in argument. The Celts in the second century BC, according to Diodorus Siculus, made use of riddling speech and hinted at meanings, leaving much unsaid. We know that the Scandinavians took great pleasure in puns and complex riddles and the intricacies of skaldic verse. It is unlikely that they would display a childish naivety in their myths, although one possible result of such subtlety in use of words might be that those who came into contact with them failed to understand their religious beliefs. Oratory, word-skills and inspiration were all seen as gifts from the gods, while the upholding of law was part of the divine order; it is essential to remember this and not to undervalue the significance of their myths or dismiss them as childish fantasies.’ (Ibid, p 8)
The god Lug plays some part in Irish literature, but the chief evidence for his cult in pre-Roman times comes from place-names. Lyon in France was formerly Lugudunum, derived from his name, and other towns such as Laon, Loudon and Leiden were also called after him, as well as Carlisle in England, whose Roman name was Luguvallium. There are many places called after him in Ireland, including hills, earthworks and lakes, one of which is Lough Lugborta at Uisnech, where according to local legend he was drowned. (Ibid, p 55.)
It is of course hard to say quite how seriously these stories were ever taken. Maybe they were of the same kind as our tales about the historic but much-transformed Billy the Kid, or the purely fiction Batman, James Bond and Zoro, each in its own fairly realistic setting. Were historians a thousand years in the future to compare such tales to what their archeology would tell them, how would they ever tell apart the real and the fictional? They might deduce that Star Trek was not particularly factual despite the large number of relics associated with it. But The Lord of the Rings would undoubtedly confuse them a great deal, with its mix of the old and the new and borrowed (though nothing blue).
Riddles were the pre-literate equivalent of crossword puzzles or chess problems, often dressed up in archaic forms. Natural enough in an oral culture with much leisure, possibly as ancient and unchanging as nursery rhymes, but not deserving of any aura of mysticism. Gaelic has mostly perished as a living culture because people in Ireland put their main energies into other matters. I have always thought it significant that the IRA has a purely English name, it is only the less serious aspects of Republicanism that tap the sentimental relics of what is now, sadly, a dead language.
[I’ve since learned that the proper name is Oglaigh na hÉireann. Very seldom used.]
Languages flourish only in as far as they are useful to people. Israel was able to revive Hebrew, mainly because the various Jews from all over the world needed some common means of communication. Yiddish was not in all cases a part of their heritage. And in the aftermath of the Death Camps it would have been odd for a Jewish state to standardise on a Germanic tongue. The great advantage of Hebrew was that it was a common means of communication for people who had a common identity but no other easy means of communication. Communication makes communities, and vice versa.
Celtic Christianity – very similar in Wales and Ireland and other parts of the Celtic fringes – is no more a pagan hybrid than any of the other forms that have called themselves Christian across the centuries. The standard Western calender is full of Romans Gods and Goddesses and deified Emperors and pagan festivals, as too are the days of the week. In English, Germanic deities replaced the Roman ones. And of course ‘Sunday’ has nothing to do with the Sabbath, which is definitely Saturday.
Oddly enough, all Christian churches apart from a few odd sects seem to be in breach of the Ten Commandments. Common Catholic practice is of course indistinguishable from the original idolatry that the Hebrew prophets condemned, intercessors between Man and God represented by visible images. But the Catholic Sunday is much more in line with the practice of the early pagan converts to Christianity. It was decided early on that they could become part of the Christian community without accepting most of the Jewish law: the basic rules laid down (Acts 15 19-21) do not include Sabbath observance any more than they prohibit pork. Instead they had a feast-day on Sunday, like their pagan neighbours, a fact which is confirmed by the Apologia of Justin Martyr. Confusion only arose when someone in mediaeval times decided to emphasise on small part of the Jewish law of Exodus as the ‘Ten Commandments’ – which are actually rather more than ten commands and statements, arranged in different ways by different traditions. Protestantism did correctly recognise how much Greek and Roman paganism had got into Christianity, but on the matter of the Sabbath they goofed, since even 2nd century Christianity treated it as part of the Jewish law that converts of pagan origin could ignore, and the Sabbath was anyway Saturday. The fact is, not one of the many varieties of Christianity is without admixtures of other elements. The archaic Celtic Church was nothing special in its continuance of pagan traditions. And it was in many ways truer to the original Christian teaching that the standardised and authoritarian creed that was pushed into these islands by Rome. Though celibacy had generally been seen as holy, it was never obligatory for priests until the Latin Church decided to alienate itself from the rest of society, the first of numerous changes of ‘party line’ that were to confuse the ordinary believers, so that more and more have given up on it.
Given that English has become the de facto common tongue of the whole world, the agreed means of communication when Japanese want to talk to Chinese or Germans to French, it is not exactly a disaster to be born a native speaker. And while it is no bad thing to go trawling for old bits of culture, there is no need to combine it with a closed mind against all similar and neighbouring traditions. Particularly when you appropriate little bits of their culture. Welsh ‘druidism’ can be silly enough, mostly 18th century forgeries to create a mystery tradition in line with the values of the Age of Reason. Ireland’s own cultural-religious traditions are something quite different, though in the Christian era they would undoubtedly have known about Druidism from Caesar’s accounts, and perhaps have appropriated it in the same way the Book of Conquests combines Homer with other elements that may or may not be native and authentic…
True art and beauty need no mysticism. And it is a waste of an interesting heritage to use it to lock oneself into a Gaelic ghetto, a futile self-defeating nationalism. Modern politics and economics has successfully homogenised most of the world and shows no signs of stopping, with even English and American culture losing the specific local aspects that once meant so much to people. Some of us continue to point out the alternatives…