Will Coleman asks: is there such a thing as a ‘Celt’?
Hang fire one misty mythical moment; just before you slip into your ancestral Celtic kilt, charge off to a traditional Celtic ceilidh and gulp down copious quantities of cleverly-branded Celtic Korev, are you aware that there are dozens of detractors lining up to tell you that you don’t exist?
There are plenty of clever people out there, academics, archaeologists and anoraks, all very keen to let you know that the very notion of ‘Celtic’ is a modern myth, a product of dubious nationalist sentiments and a politically dangerous falsification of history.
Yes; the term ‘Celtic’ originally meant the continental European tribal peoples
encountered by the Roman legions in modern-day France and Germany.
Most archaeologists and academics are now agreed that there was no ‘Celtic invasion’ of Britain from the European mainland. The early peoples of Britain and Ireland were essentially ‘indigenous’ (although certain continental ‘Celtic’ cultural trappings were adopted e.g. swords, jewellery and
So, given that there were people here in these islands before the English arrived; what shall we call them?
Easy; in Ireland they were called the Irish and in Britain they were called the British!
Yet what of their descendants? If there is a thread of cultural, ethnic and linguistic continuity between those ancient people and the modern peoples of Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, why are we now known as ‘Celtic’?
It is certainly true that no one living in Britain or Ireland ever called themselves ‘Celtic’ before the 18th century.
The term ‘Celtic’ to mean these non-English inhabitants of our Atlantic sea-board was coined by the great pioneering linguist, Welsh scholar and patriot Edward Lhwyd. He needed a word to describe the related family of non-English languages spoken from Scotland to Brittany, avoiding the term ‘British’ because that word had suddenly acquired a new meaning. With the Act of Union in 1707, a new political identity was officially created; to be ‘British’ now meant to be Scottish and/or English (both Welsh and Cornish were subsumed within the ‘English’ category).
Without a great deal of supporting reasoning, Lhwyd chose the word ‘Celtic’. This is still the recognised term for our language group but has now grown to also include the peoples of those lands.
Critics would say that if, anciently, no-one ever said ‘I am a Celt’ how can we look back now and say ‘They were Celts?’. Yet no one living in America ever called themselves a ‘Native American’ until recently.
Does that mean we cannot use the term to describe the ancestral Sioux, Mohawk or Navajho? No, we use ‘Native American’ to describe the descendants of the indigenous population before the white man’s colonisation.
In exactly the same way, we now choose the term ‘Celtic’ to describe the descendants of the indigenous British and Irish before the English colonisation.
The English National Curriculum has conveniently airbrushed the ‘Celts’ from history. In the widespread topic of ‘Invaders and Settlers’ children are taught about the Romans (who miraculously ‘invaded England’ hundreds of years before such a place was ever named), the Anglo-Saxons (who interestingly, didn’t invade but ‘settled’ – ah, the land must have been uninhabited) and the Vikings (who were bad Nordic pirates pillaging from the rightful indigenous dwellers – hey, isn’t that an exact description of the Anglo-Saxons too?).
Of course ‘history’ is not ‘what happened in the past’, rather it is ‘the stories we choose to tell about the past’. All history is a construction of the past as imagined by modern minds. Similarly ‘ethnicity’ is not a fixed thing; it is a cultural construct,
continually being lived out, negotiated, reaffirmed and updated. Someone’s
ethnicity is what they believe it to be.
If we choose to counter Anglo-centric histories with our own Celtic story, that is our prerogative. If we choose to rebuild relationships and link with our Celtic cousins in other lands, that is our creative culture in action. If we choose to call ourselves ‘Celtic’ that is our unalienable right. None of this need be xenophobic, inward-looking or regressive. We all wish to build a future that is inclusive, constructive and celebratory; surely that begins with allowing people to self-define?
So, please go ahead and be exactly as Celtic as you wish to be; swirl that kilt, swagger at the ceilidh and swig your Korev. If we know who we are and we know who we want to be, perhaps we will leave our own Celtic cultural legacy that our descendants will be proud to be part of.