After deciding to go to graduate school, I went through months of agonizing decision between pursuing a degree in Writing or one in Irish Studies. Ultimately, I got an MFA in Writing but came very close to enrolling in the M.A. in Irish Studies program at NUI in Galway, Ireland. One of the things that most appealed to me about this particular program was the question its literature at the time posed. The question asked whether being Irish had to do with the geography of one’s birth or the culture in which one was raised. It had at its heart the question of whether children of the diaspora could be considered “Irish” even though they were born outside that country. Today’s post explores a similar question: what makes a nation or its people “Celtic”?
The Celtic Moonfish blog focuses on all things Celtic but its content tends to be primarily from or about Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. These three are the places most people would list as “Celtic lands.” However, there are six to seven geographic areas which have become known as “The Celtic Nations.” In addition to the aforementioned three, they include Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Man. Some sources also include Galacia in Spain. But the Pan-Celtic Movement insists that even more places, many outside Europe, should be acknowledged as “Celtic Heritage” lands. Some of these include Australia, Canada, and the United States. Perhaps surprisingly, they also list Austria, Iceland, and Argentina, among others. Whew! Since it would be a monumental task to explain, let alone defend, that thesis, I’m just going to discuss the Celtic Nations I’ve given short shrift to, i.e., Brittany, Cornwall, Galacia, and the Isle of Man.
Brittany / Breizh
Located in the western part of contemporary France, Brittany has been an independent kingdom, a duchy, and a province of France. Before all that, it was a part of Roman-occupied Gaul, and before that, it was home to Neolithic Celtic tribes. But the Celts didn’t leave after the Romans arrived. In fact, they were still there after the Romans left. Then, towards the end of the 4th century AD, Celts from Wales, tired of the invasion of Angles and Saxons in Britannia, immigrated to Brittany to join their Celtic cousins, who are now known as the Bretons.
Over the centuries, the Bretons have endured and have fought to hold on to their cultural heritage and identity. A 2008 poll revealed that at least half of the inhabitants of Brittany consider themselves Breton as much as French. The same poll showed that a little less than a quarter of the population (22.5%) considered themselves more Breton than French. While French is the official language of the region and the majority of Bretons speak it, they’ve done so only recently. Brittany’s inhabitants spoke either Breton or Gallo as their main language up until the 19th century when French finally began to be widely adopted. In eastern Brittany, Gallo continues to be spoken by some. It is a Latin-derived language with Celtic vocabulary influences in it. Many among the rural population continue to speak Breton, Brittany’s historic common language. Breton is a Celtic language related to Welsh and Cornish.
Tourists to Brittany will find a treasure trove of megalithic structures like those which dot the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish landscapes. Relics show that the Bretons worshipped many of the same deities as their Celtic cousins, and Brittany has a rich folklore that has elements similar to that of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Check out my post, “Tryphine and the Celtic Bluebeard,” as an example.
Galicia is only sometimes included in the list of Celtic nations and, in truth, it’s hard to make a case for its Celtic-ness. It is an autonomous community located on the Iberian Peninsula in Spain. The place name comes from a Celtic tribe, the Gallaeci, who lived there from 1,000 BC and beyond. The name is believed to come from the Romans, who occupied the area and made it a Roman province in 3 AD. Unlike the other six Celtic nations, Galicia has not retained a native Celtic language. The two languages which are widely spoken are Castilian Spanish and Galician, a Romance language related to Portuguese. Galician contains many Celtic words in its vocabulary. Those who promote Galicia as a Celtic nation point to some of its Celtic place names. They list as an example the city of Lugo and say it was named for the Celtic sun god, Lugh. In addition, they note the presence of ancient hill forts, similar to those found in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and they mention the Gaita, which is a bagpipe of sorts.
To strengthen their argument, I would add that Irish mythology speaks of a race of people, the Milesians, who were one of the founding races of Ireland. According to the mythology, the Milesians were Gaels who sailed from what is now the Iberian Peninsula. They fought the Tuatha dé Danann, the island’s magical occupants, to a draw. A truce was called and the two sides agreed to share the island equally. The Tuatha dé Danann went underground and became the people now known as faeries while the Milesians lived topside. Perhaps Galicia was the original home of the Milesians?
Cornwall / Kernow
In the southwest corner of England is the county of Cornwall. The people of Cornwall proudly consider themselves descendants of the Celts who inhabited Britannia before the arrival of the Romans. In response to the Roman occupation, many Celts moved to the northern and western parts of the island, into the areas now known as Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall, sometimes referred to as the Celtic Fringe.
Until the mid-16th century, the primary language spoken in Cornwall (even after it became a part of England) was Cornish, a Brythonic Celtic language closely related to Welsh. The change from Cornish to English as the common language came only because the Tudor government forced the change. In the 20th century, the people of Cornwall reclaimed their identity as Celtic Britons with a renewed interest in their folklore, folk customs, and a revival of the Cornish language. In a 2001 census, 34,000 people of the approximately half a million people living in Cornwall identified themselves as Cornish rather than British. Now, the Cornish language is taught in primary school along with English. Additionally, there has been a revival of songs sung in Cornish.
Among the riches of Celtic heritage that can be found in Cornwall are the standing stones on Bodmin Moor, such as the three circles of stones called the Hurlers’ Stone Circles. The legend now attached to them says the stones are men who were petrified for playing hurling on Sunday. There are sites of wild beauty, such as The Waterfalls at St. Nectain’s Glen where faeries and, of course, pixies, roam. Finally, there are the ruins of Tintagel Castle, a location that plays a pivotal role in the legend of the great Celtic king, Arthur. In the legend, Arthur is conceived at the castle (with some magical assistance from Merlin) during a nighttime encounter between Uther Pendragon and Igraine, the Duchess of Cornwall. In case you’ve been under the impression Arthur is a medieval Anglo-Saxon king, please read my post, “Arthurian Legend: The Celtic Connection” by clicking here.
Isle of Man / Mannin
Located in the Irish Sea off the northwest coast of England, the Isle of Man is considered one of the British Isles and a crown possession, but it is self-governing. Until the mid-19th century, the main language spoken on the island was Manx, a language from the Gaelic branch of the Celtic family of languages. It is believed to be descended from the language spoken by the island’s earliest inhabitants, the Celts. Modern spoken Manx is closely related to Scots Gaelic and Irish. The language nearly died out in the late 1970s but efforts to revive it have been made. Still, only about 2% of people on the Isle of Man speak Manx.
The Romans never occupied the Isle of Man but, just as with Brittany, Celts from the island of Britannia migrated to Mannin, possibly as a result of the Roman invasion of the latter island. There also is speculation that the Isle of Man became a refuge for Druids. Archaeological discoveries of Ogham-inscribed stones indicate a migration of Irish people to the island.
The influence of the Celts on the Isle of Man is evidenced by place names and surnames. According to www.celticlifeintl.com, 68% of the place names are Celtic in origin and 65% of the surnames are Celtic.
The mythology and folklore of the Isle of Man have similarities to that of Scotland and Ireland. There certainly is no shortage of faeries in the folklore. A couple of notable faeries from the Manx tradition are Arkan Sonney and Fenodyrees. Arkan Sonney is a faerie that appears in the form of a white pig. Just seeing this faerie will bring you good luck but catching the pig, according to the lore, will bring you silver. Fenodyrees are helpful faeries similar to the Scottish Brownie. They will do the hard work on farms, such as moving rocks from one place to another. Although small in stature, they are said to cut the grass in a field with amazing speed. But never give the hairy and naked Fenodyree clothes or he will be insulted and leave forever.
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Slan go foil!
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