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Story of the Celts: The Celts Today

Author: John Patrick Parle

Copyright © 1999

The Celts Today [40]

The Celts, and Celtic peoples, are alive and well today. Celtic culture is well documented and preserved, and there are millions of people on different continents who make it a point to identify with that culture.

In Ireland

Irish Gaelic, a Celtic language, is one of the official languages of Ireland, along with English. Gaelic is taught in schools, and there are "Gaeltacht" areas, as in parts of Co. Donegal, where the use of Gaelic by native speakers is officially encouraged by the government. According to the World Book Encyclopedia, [41] one in five people in Ireland can speak Gaelic (about 700,000 people), and one in 20 speak Gaelic every day (about 100,000 people).

Still, the English language is not going to disappear in Ireland, and most don't want it to--English is a very versatile language. Even so, the Irish have a distinctive way of expressing English. Scholars say that there is a form of Hiberno-English [42] (or Irish-English) that is different than standard English. Irish speakers of English have their own usages and grammatical construction, and it's widespread.

And the Irish accent, [43] the brogue that so delights people, sets Ireland's English apart--there are Celtic sounds found therein. The literary expressions found in the work of Ireland's James Joyce (Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake), and in plays like "Playboy of the Western World" by J.M. Synge are full of Irish Celtic flavorings. Recently the Nobel Prize in Literature went to Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who bears Ireland's form of English well.

The World Almanac, [44] in its section on the Republic of Ireland, says that the majority ethnic group of Ireland is "Celtic," and that there is an English minority. Celtic expert Frank Delaney, who presented the BBC series on The Celts, echoes Thomas Cahill in reporting that Ireland is the world's only Celtic nation state.

The World Book Encyclopedia suggests that a "Celt" of today is someone who is the native speaker of a Celtic language. I think that is too narrow of a definition. To my mind, a Celtic person has three necessary characteristics: 1) Celtic ancestry; 2) identifies with Celtic culture; and 3) wishes to think of oneself as being Celtic, or even as a Celt. [45]

There is a revival of Irish culture happening right now--some say an Irish renaissance. Celtic ethnic elements are bigger than ever. In the United States, St. Patrick's Day has become a general celebration, and Irish pubs are quite the rage. Still, Irish immigrants have always valued their Gaelic roots. In Massachusetts, where there was a large concentration of such immigrants, there is even a professional basketball team named after the Celts.

Other Celtic Areas

In Wales there is a resurgence of Celtic nationalism. The Welsh flag, a dragon over a green and white background, is shown prominently. Annual Celtic festivals called Eisteddfods preserve and display Welsh culture.

Perhaps the area where Celtic Wales is making the most headway is in the area of the Welsh language. It is taught in the schools, and a popular television station broadcasts all its programs in Celtic Welsh. For TV, a Welsh cartoon series and animated programs connect children and young people with the Celtic language of Wales. The people of Wales have forced the government to use bilingual road signs, and they have changed place names back to Celtic Welsh--as in Dyfed, Clwyd, Gynedd, and Powys.

In Scotland, over 80,000 people still speak Scottish Gaelic, mostly in the highland and nearby islands. Other Celtic elements include references to the clans, bagpipe music, interest in tartan plaids and kilts, Scottish field games, and Scottish step-dancing. In the beginning of July, 1999, the Scottish parliament met again for the first time in nearly 300 years; some observers feel that at some point there will be a move for more political independence for the Celtic people there.

In Brittany, the pan-Celtic festival is held annually in Lorient. Several times a year there are religious-social celebrations called Pardons which preserve Celtic Breton culture. Breton scholars report that young people are taking a deeper interest in learning the Breton language, and Celtic music is gaining a resurgence of attention there.

Even in England, where the Celtic Britons once ruled, there is the prominent statue of Boadicea, the Celtic chieftain. Then there are the references to the Celtic maypoles and May Day, and the garland festivals and dances. And in old Celtic Cornwall, there is a tourist industry surrounding the Celtic heroes of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

And around the world, people who are interested in the Celts can find many websites dealing with the Celtic civilization on the Internet. Just try entering the word Celt into your favorite search engine and find out for yourself.

Presumably, present-day people of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark don't think of themselves as Vikings. Culturally-minded people of Germany don't harken back and call themselves Ostrogoths. Why then should people from Ireland and similar cultural areas think of themselves as being Celtic, or as Celts?

For one thing, more people would want to think of themselves as Celtic than as Vikings. The Celts have had a better press in history than a lot of barbarian peoples. Arguably, they became the first civilized barbarians, as in the Romanized Celts of Gaul, or even of Britain. At a time when the German barbarians and then the Vikings were smashing civilization in Europe, the Irish monks and the Celtic church were trying to uphold civil culture.

The lovers of things Celtic appreciate and cherish the many elements of Celtic culture that are alive today, as in the sound of Gaelic languages or Celtic accents, the music of harps or bagpipes, the stories of King Arthur and mythic literature, interlacing patterned art, Celtic folk-dancing, ethnic clothing, soda bread and Celtic foods, colorful talking, and even a certain freewheeling feature of the Celtic mind.

There are enough beautiful celticisms in the modern world, that throngs of people of Celtic ancestry wish to be associated with this beauty. Thus the word Celtic (or even Celt) hasn't become an historical souvenir, but rather, represents cultures that still exist, even within the mixture of other cultural influences.

Those of us who think of ourselves as modern-day Celts realize that we are no longer the barbarian Celts who once dominated most of Europe. We live in civilized society and appreciate civil values. Yet in us the Celt carries on. For me, there is a call from the misty past, almost the voice of a distant bard, and it says that my Gaelic roots are deep and that I need always to cherish that which is Celtic.

Part V: The Celts in Ireland

There are quite a few scholars in Europe and elsewhere who, unlike me, are bone fide experts on the Celts and things Celtic. One lively topic among these experts is just how much of Celtic culture remains in the world today? I obviously agree with the experts who contend that Celtic civilization is very much alive and vibrant in the modern world. (The opposition are curmudgeons.)

From article on "Gaelic Languages." The article contained the fractioned numbers, and I calculated the number of speakers from those fractions.

This section on Irish English is from MacNeil et al, The Story of English (op. cit.)

To be sure, the Scots and Welsh also have very interesting accents, and use very interesting applications of the English language.

The World Almanac (1997 edition; Mahwah, New Jersey: World Almanac Books)

The reason this third condition is included is that there are some people from Celtic areas of Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Brittany who either don't realize they are Celtic, or who don't really want to connect themselves with the word Celt or Celtic. They wish only to identify with their particular nationality group.

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