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How being Celtic got a bad name – and why you should care

Never a cross word? Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The British Museum has just trailed its big new autumn exhibition, “Celts: art and identity”, in partnership with the National Museums of Scotland. Opening in London in September and then moving to Edinburgh next year, director Neil MacGregor said the purpose of this exhibition is “to ask what ‘Celtic’ means and ‘who are the Celts?’”

Working as I do in the field of Celtic studies, I can’t help but feel a twinge of anxiety. These questions have been under the spotlight before, and the results have at times been contentious. To explain what I mean, let me strap myself into my intellectual DeLorean and prepare to go back to the future.

I suspect that few people in universities have seen the name of their field of teaching and research subjected to a sustained attack from the outside. That is what happened to the discipline variously called Celtic studies or sometimes just Celtic, especially in Britain and Ireland in the 1990s.

It started with sensible housecleaning of problematic terminology. This was primarily by archaeologists, who called into question the term “Celtic” for being used lazily and unthinkingly. They challenged the use of the term to describe art and artefacts, and extended this criticism to call into question the political and social motivation behind the use of the term more widely.

It was an uncomfortable time, especially as few of those doing the attacking seemed interested in the current fate or health of the modern Celtic languages. Indeed, those on both sides tended to avoid discussing the evidence of language, preferring to focus on art, archaeology, and whether people identified themselves as Celts. Since Celtic as a field of academic study is primarily one based in languages, this was a bit disheartening, and not a little disenfranchising. It seemed we were being told we couldn’t use our own term for our discipline, but based on someone else’s type of evidence.

It is worth remembering that Welsh, Breton, Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and also the revived languages of Cornish and Manx, were particularly stigmatised by law, education and imperial mindsets during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most of the people challenging the term (and quite a few defending it) were based outside the countries where these are spoken as living languages. It is perhaps understandable that in radio interviews and live debates, matters got a bit heated.

The irony was that the discipline had been going through a period of internal soul-searching, worrying that “Celtic” had become a term that could mean anything to anyone. This failure to pay attention to how “Celtic” was used had led scholars into a variety of paradigms about the past – and sometimes the present – that just didn’t stack up. Ideas like “Celtic Christianity” and “Celtic nature poetry” were examined and found wanting, for example. Popular writing generally ignored such concerns. Caught between what Patrick Sims-Williams of Aberystwyth University called “Celtomania and Celtoscepticism”, most scholars just stopped using the C-word and got on with their work.

New language barriers

At the same time, there was another loss of confidence in what it might mean to be Celtic. People of my generation or older who studied Celtic languages were exposed to more than one of them at university, usually from different branches of the family – Scottish Gaelic speakers would study Welsh, for instance. We were also exposed to older periods of the languages, such as Middle Welsh or Old Irish. This made sense in a field born out of comparative linguistics – you learned the ins and outs of the languages by laying them side by side.

But in the 1990s and into the new millennium, things began to change. This was a time of radically declining numbers of native speakers, and a need to make these languages relevant and vital in the modern world. The “Celtic” project was increasingly rejected as not helpful to, for instance, revitalising Welsh or supporting Gaeltacht communities in Ireland.

It has become rarer to find young academics trained in more than one language as increasingly, partly due to funding pressures, university departments only offer their own local language. The positive side of this is that the modern languages are taught in more invigorating ways, which enhance students’ fluency, preparing them for successful careers where the language is a genuine asset.

But the new landscape presents challenges. The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s decision in 2013 to fund a multi-institutional Centre for Doctoral Training in Celtic Language, led by the University of Glasgow, acknowledged what risked being lost. The centre allows budding researchers to exchange ideas with research students and gain access to the resources of Celtic-language units across the different countries within the UK.

The road signs that typically appear in the Celtic countries nowadays - in this case Scotland. Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Standard bearers

These debates smoulder on, though much less heatedly than in the 1990s. We shall see what the British Museum exhibition does to fan the embers. In the meantime academics are convening in Glasgow between July 13 and 17 for the 15th International Congress of Celtic Studies, which has been taking place at regular four-year intervals since 1959.

The Congress encompasses a big, baggy, interdisciplinary field. Scottish archaeologists will rub shoulders with Welsh socio-linguists, and experts on medieval Irish poetry will buy pints for scholars of Gaulish place names. It is extremely international, with 500 delegates from 25 countries and 130 institutions. The plenary sessions will take in Welsh modernism, Germany and World War I; Breton ballads and early modern history; continental Iron Age urbanism; medieval manuscript culture; and Celtic studies in the digital age. Despite all the debates, they still gather under the name of “Celtic Studies”.

Why should anyone care? This university discipline is tasked with attending to the health of several of the native languages of Britain and Ireland; and preserving the ancient, medieval and modern heritage of much of Britain and Ireland, including parts of what is now England. In other words it should remind people in Britain that, never mind current controversies over immigration, these islands have been from our earliest historical records a multicultural and multilingual place.

In the devolved regions that diversity of language is increasingly there to see and hear – in Welsh conversations on Aberystwyth streets, on A82 road-signs in Scottish Gaelic, and Irish-language television channels. Many of these Celtic languages are experiencing a real resurgence an aghaidh na sìorraidheachd (“in the face of eternity”). It’s better to face the future together.


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