In a new book, Caoimhín De Barra points out how the Celtic idea came to explain Ireland's history.
The Celts. Beyond the debate over whether to pronounce the word with a hard or a soft C, we all know who they were, right? The ancestors of today’s Irish.
Not so fast, says Irish historian Caoimhín De Barra. His new book, The Coming of the Celts, AD 1860: Celtic Nationalism in Ireland and Wales, published by the University of Notre Dame Press, takes a hard look at the supposed connection of the ancient Celtic people and those who consider themselves Celtic today—whether they are in Ireland, Wales, Scotland … or America.
“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,” De Barra writes at The Journal, a Dublin-based Irish news website. “What many don’t appreciate is that the idea that Ireland was once settled by Celts has been called into question by many scholars. Archaeological 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.”
In fact, De Barra says, medieval Irish and Welsh writers said absolutely nothing about a Celtic past. It wasn’t until the early 18th century that two linguists, Paul Yves Pezron and Edward Lhuyd, said they discovered that the Gaelic languages and Brythonic languages (Welsh and Breton) were members of a single language family, De Barra explained. “Pezron suggested that the people of Brittany were the descendants of the ancient Gauls, who were Celts,” he wrote. “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.”
But alas, modern archaeologists now believe that the Breton language was brought to France from Britain.
“On the basis of a possible misunderstanding, the ancient history of Britain and Ireland was reimagined,” De Barra writes.
By the mid-19th century there was a significant increase in newspaper references to things Celtic, according to De Barra’s research. Archaeologists had uncovered evidence in Switzerland of an ancient Celtic civilization as well. Celtic language studies became a hot item in academia.
But these developments took place at a time when scholars increasingly linked cultural differences to biological ones, De Barra points out.
“Over a 20-year period, the Celts were established as a biological fact by scientists, given a glorious past by archaeologists, a sense of scholarly gravitas by linguists, and identifiable personality traits by litterateurs,” he write. “This made Celticness attractive to nationalists in Ireland and Wales, and by the turn of the 20th century, most people in both countries believed they were Celts.”
Fast forward 100 years. While it seems harmless for people to engage in “Celtic pride” while attending St. Patrick’s Day parades, feises, ceilis, or basketball games in Boston, De Barra believes that people should be aware that some people are taking pride in their bloodlines to an extreme. And they’ve coopted some of the iconography of Celticdom.
“White nationalist groups in both Europe and the United States have adopted the Celtic cross as one of their symbols,” he points out. “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,” he continues. “As the Celtic cross can be imagined as symbolizing an ancient, white, pan-European identity, it holds obvious appeal to such groups.”
It might just be, he suggests, that the Irish people will have to come to realize that their Celtic roots are not what they thought, and rethink their identity.