The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

‘Eternal Elves of the West’


Seaghán Ó Murchú • 7 December 2004

In The Last of the Celts (New Haven/London: Yale UP, 2004), Marcus Tanner offers an extended eulogy, stripped of sentimentality, for the languages of those peoples predating the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. The sheer timespan of that last clause, from our 21st century perspective, shows how durable has been the legacy of a language-group that we don’t even know the true name for—only that many of us descend from varied ethnicities who shared related systems of communication, dating back thousands of years. Even the name Celt is a Greek invention. Defining the Celtic, then, depends upon its clash with the foreigner; so much that Cornwall and Wales owe their names to what the Saxons called the ‘Other’, those outside the common-wealth, those un-familiar, those pushed back to, as a Cornish author lamented over two hundred years ago, ‘about the cliff and the sea’.

Notice that Tanner, in looking for the remnants of those who speak or revive Celtic languages, differentiates speech from the material culture of the six nations he explores. He visits the Scots Isles, Conamara, West Belfast, the Isle of Man, North and South Wales, Brittany, and finally the outlying colonies in Canada’s Maritimes and Argentina’s Patagonia. While he finds music, say in Cape Breton, vibrant, there Scots Gaelic, despite the murmur of tourist brochures, will be far less heard—spoken by at most 500 people. Brittany and Galway certainly cater to cultural tourism, and hawk their Keltic Krafts diligently, but in these more ancient redoubts, too, Tanner records endemic indifference to language perpetuation. Over and over, he notes, outsiders—those who have taken as adults to learning Celtic languages—find themselves resented, marginalised, or dismissed by natives embarrassed to speak to strangers, ashamed of their own lack of fluency, or determined to let their language die a quiet death in their homes rather than in public.

The conclusions he raises will depress those for whom cultural revivals portend linguistic renaissance. The strongest part of the book, in fact, is its introduction. Tanner sketches how, since the entry of clerical control from Rome in early mediaeval times, revivals have occurred! Monks eager to draw a lineage rooted in native genealogies manufactured branches for those grafting papal foliage onto arguably indigenous Catholic varietals.

Anglo-Saxon and Norman invaders invented Celtic origins for their dynasties and legends; Reformers and Romanticists followed after Catholicism had succumbed to first Protestants and then the cult of nature—these in turn sought antiquarian justification for their authority. Finally, the New Age/Wicca/ecological movements have manufactured a spuriously feminist, magickal, and pacifist kingdom in which an alienated urban, affluent, Western European consumer can recapture a realm of vegan, polysexual, pagan lifestyles.

Tanner, whose previous The Irish Wars: the struggle for a nation’s soul: 1500-2000 offered readers a popular, well-researched history, here delves into issues motivated by his own father, a Welsh-speaker who had left his homeland and intermarried in London. Tanner, vowing to decipher his family’s gravestones, eventually learns some Welsh and later Scots Gaelic, and embarks on his quest. But we already know what to expect. His preface concludes rueing the label given the Celts by so many for so long: dreamers denied political victory, quaint and charming, shunted off to live as Tolkienesque ‘eternal elves of the West’. He does not mention that even the elves left at the end of the 3rd age.

And it seems that the Celts too are departing, and their ancient tongues, upon which the philologist JRR Tolkien in part had invented his own array of fictional but linguistically correct tongues, will be as removed from our future reality as those of Middle-Earth’s. People may learn Breton as they do Elvish or Esperanto, but as a community language, Tanner predicts, it will be as dead as Manx or the three debated re-versions of Cornish.

He ends his forward with a poignant panorama. The Celtic sea ebbs, first into pools, now into puddles. Where can we immerse when these last splashes dessicate and evaporate?

For, as Tanner’s scholarship demonstrates, no continuous territory remains over which a Celtic language is spoken. We see this in the broken Gaeltachtaí, the loss of Welsh and Scots regional cohesion, the disappearance of any Breton-speaking heartland, and the nearly extinct numbers of speakers of Welsh in Patagonia and Gaelic in Canada. On the other hand, many whom Tanner interviews simply shrug that this demonstrates a Darwinian natural selection. The fittest languages remain, English, French, or Spanish in these cases. Why, after all, keep a minority language as a curiousity when no monoglots still exist in any Celtic tongue? What’s the value, economically, educationally, emotionally, of holding on to an unwieldy, unremunerative, and unattractive heirloom?

I examined in recent Blanket essays two books that addressed the survival of Irish within a climate. Tanner differs from James McCloskey’s Voices Silenced? and the contributors to Ciaran MacMurchaidh’s ‘Who Needs Irish?’ by answering these titular questions with, respectively, ‘yes, sooner or later’ and ‘not many, as numbers show’. The appeal of Celtic as an antidote to English materialism, advanced by writers as diverging as Matthew Arnold and Peter Berresford Ellis (see his The Celtic Revolution for a countercultural, radical 1970s take on the issue of language within the Celtic Fringe political campaigns then), for Tanner, rings hollow. It’s as silly as expecting elves to sail back.

His chapters on Ireland, as with his previous book, lumber on, wallowing in far too much historical summary. He starts promisingly, looking into An Spideal and contrasting a diligent ‘blow-in’’s efforts to raise his family using Gaelic vs. the bemused reactions of the native folks. But such vignettes remain underdeveloped, for within a purportedly Conamara-based chapter, we are taken into the whole damned history of our nation once again. I know that readers do not necessarily know what we, scanning The Blanket, probably can be expected to already have imbibed about our nation’s past, but these pages didn’t add much to my own mental treasure-house. His spin on Dan O’Connell, however, I found sharp: his sphinx-like quality, in Tanner’s phrase, allows the Liberator to weaken his Irish-language origins as a pragmatic preparation for what the Free State will further in their shared goal of national power at the expense of its native dúchas.

This leads to the best insight in the whole book, on pg. 98. Unlike 19c European revivals of languages (e.g. Finnish, Hungarian, Slovene, Czech, Baltic varieties), Irish failed to catch fire after 1922 because its revival happened too late. Why? TV, tourism, and technology did it in. Earlier, local clergy, patriotic leaders, and the pressure to conform all aided shifts away from German within much of Central Europe. (Tanner’s first book was about a trip at the end of the Cold War around such hinterlands, and he lived in the Balkans, having written from and on Croatia in the 1990s). For Saorstát Eireann, the Anglo-American hegemony already was far too advanced. The media penetrated, fashions altered, and emigration encouraged giving in to a more Westernised attitude that discarded Celtic languages as the passions of the scholar, the city-dweller, or the day-tripper—certainly not those of the peasant. This class distinction, so often found in those who headed 20c Celtic revivalism no matter where in the six nations, distanced those speakers whom it meant to encourage from those who brought, often in stiffly learned diction and stilted exchanges, the encouragement.

This legacy continues in, Tanner contends, today’s ‘Celtic culture’ sold to visitors. Depressing scenes of spirited music but nearly no political activism nor linguistic continuity at well-attended festivals all over the Celtic fringe attest to this disjunction. Both its sellers and its buyers, Tanner implies, are trapped. It’s junk, he snarls, repackaged for those who destroy the very purity the natives live off of and the culture pollutes. They trade in our stereotypes, while the ground for these once-pristine images erodes like the Celtic shore. This theme-park existence, Tanner suggests, is false. I add: perhaps a comparison to Star Trekkies conversing in Klingon or Tolkienists chatting in Entish, then, shows the context in which Celtic culture will survive in future generations?

The chapter winds on. I raised an eyebrow at one contention: the IRA ‘was always entirely Catholic in its membership and support’ over its existence, Tanner affirms (122). He differentiates it from other separatist movements that have tried to include those from across a sectarian or national divide. I leave his claim for those better qualified than I to examine, but I can think of Jewish and Protestant members in the ‘old’ IRA. Perhaps he means only the most recent incarnation of the IRA, but, again, the whole Sticky-INLA diversion from the Provos will, in my opinion, qualify—or verify--this ‘factoid’. Maybe within the Provos such a purportedly Catholic monolithical representation has been achieved, but certainly, as contributors to The Blanket have proclaimed, this’d have to tally many ‘Catholic atheists and agnostics,’ to vary the well-known punchline.

Speaking of the IRA, Tanner moves to West Belfast in a brief chapter that glances at the Culturlann and talks to Mairtin Ó Muilleoir at some length to exemplify the liveliest gaeltacht in Ireland. But, I contend, Tanner ignores the role of Shaws Road, the determination from the 1970s, and Jailic, in jump-starting this energy. A reader gets too little sense that young children are being educated in Irish, although the role of receives much attention. He credits nearly all of the dynamism to the Shinners; he talks with Pobal’s Janet Mullar, who wants to attract tourists to the urban outpost of an teanga gaelach. Tanner correctly acknowledges the tendency of the language to be identified with the republicans nearly exclusively, while quoting from Padraig Ó Snodaigh’s Hidden Ulster to remind us that of the origins of the language revival, until the 1850s, within the Presbyterian movement in Belfast. This whole chapter, once again, bogs down in material about the United Irishman and 19c factionalism that could have been edited down in favour of broader interviews beyond a quick junket escorted about by SF.

The remainder of the volume covers other regions, with grim correspondences. The Manx, on pg. 148, confront a wave of incomers from England fleeing urban blight and racial tensions. Tourism combined with holiday homes owned by our century’s version of ‘rotten boroughs’ or ‘absentee landlords’, drive up home prices beyond range of the locals. They, unlike their Celtic ancestors, are driven away from cliff and sea, for these views are too dear to be left affordable to merely a native gaze. On pg. 279, since prices in Cornwall and Wales along the coast have skyrocketed due to the Sasanach, now technology allows British the convenience of taking the ferry over to retire upon far cheaper parcels along the gentrifying vistas of Brittany. There, the language has not been taught to any substantial younger folks since WWII. Only 6% of Breton speakers are under the age of 40; 64% are over 60. The language advisor for Finistere quips:

‘In ten years time there will be less and less Breton spoken. It will be a language of societies, like an Internet language--a community of interest, almost like being gay!’

Previously, a Welsh pundit in Tanner’s pages made a similar apercu: his language, he mused, sidles towards the edges, spoken ‘among consenting adults’. The lack of continuity, repeated in Tanner’s descriptions, serves to minimize the efforts brought by many well-meaning mature learners to master Celtic languages. As the efforts in Belfast show (even though unremarked by Tanner), without the choice to sustain a community language—rather than one merely spoken at home to intimates—Celtic languages face doom when not passed on to the next generation. If only ten or fifteen years pass, James McCloskey has noted, with a gap between elders and youth picking up the language, then the language as a publicly demonstrated way of communication can die. Tanner and McCloskey both cite the example of California’s fifty native languages extant, none of which will be passed on to more than a handful of speakers to come.

As Tanner’s own father demonstrates, the appeal of the outside world counteracts that of the community and its language. An observer of the Welsh colony in Patagonia chuckled back in the 19th century that any good-looking Argentine woman would ‘make roast meat of the heart’ of the most committed Welsh-language activist, and all of the efforts to build among the semi-desert wastes a new Cymru would eventually crumble before such allure.

For the Welsh remaining there, they have kept their evangelical faith, but now sing its praises in Spanish. For the Scots, the Manx, and the Welsh, biblical translation cemented for a time resistance to international threat—whether the Latinate rituals of an alien pope or the anglicised temptations of a larger secularism that isolation could for a while forestall. Eventually, emigration, the media, and the loss of faith erode the language even if the tunes recover. They can be re-learned, but the language cannot be reconstituted as a community language from such remnants. The attempts of Manx and Cornish prove this fate. Its sincere learners may speak to a few hundred others, but, as a Nova Scotia professor of Gaelic reminds us, 30,000 are needed for a daily language. Irish is arguably at this communal level now. Welsh speakers number in the hundreds of thousands, as do Bretons, but they too face endless incursions by holiday makers and inflation that drives their ability to remain in their scenic areas away into those more favoured by capital(s).

In closing, Tanner cites Mark Abley’s wider linguistic itinerary in Spoken Here (2003). Abley finds that Yiddish fades. Its loss leaves not only a shrivelled vocabulary but a void once filled by gestures, body language, and facial expressions over centuries cued along with the speaker’s litany of verbal expressions. Think of a sean-nos singer’s pose, and what’s lost in translation from Irish. Irrevocably, Tanner agrees, Celtic tides keep ebbing.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

11 December 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Post-Debacle Stress Syndrome
Anthony McIntyre

Keeping the Lid on Pandora's Box
Davy Adams

Paisley's Guide for Penitent Provos
Brian Mór

Talking to Mr. George
Fred A. Wilcox

Dr No Says No, Again; Dublin Wrong to Back Photos
Fr. Sean Mc Manus

A Way Out of the Impasse
Liam O Comain

'Eternal Elves of the West'
Seaghán Ó Murchú

Bobby Tohill vs. The Andersonstown News
Liam O Ruairc

Peace Comes Dropping Slow
Brian Lennon

6 December 2004

The Fleece Process
Anthony McIntyre

Padraic Paisley
Anthony McIntyre

Revolutionary Unionism
Dr John Coulter

Official Secrets
Mick Hall

Kilmichael Controversay Continues
Liam O Ruairc

Turkish Man Beaten and Racially Abused by PSNI in front of Witnesses

Iraq is Not the Second World War
Fred A Wilcox

Dancing at the Edge of the Abyss
Karen Lyden Cox



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