Celtic Revival: New Ideas Dressed in Old Garb

But seek alone to hear the strange things said
By God to the bright hearts of those long dead,
And learn to chaunt a tongue men do not know.
Come near; I would, before my time to go,
Sing of old Eire and the ancient ways:
Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days.

-William Butler Yeats

This article will be a little more academic than I usually write. But I believe that it addresses issues of genuine concern in modern Celtic Christianity and Paganism alike. I wrote this as part of a Celtic Christianity course during my undergraduate degree in religious studies. I pray it can open something for those of you coming into relationship with your ancestry and culture, whether Celtic or not. Blessed reading.

Murray Pittock describes the Celtic revival as “a profound commitment to the past, but depoliticised in the context of…a commitment to contemporary ideas of liberty which owed more to the hermeneutics through which primitive simplicity was codified than to a historical grasp of its reality.” The focus of this paper will be on the aforementioned contemporary ideologies as well as ethnic identity as these are presented through the medium of the Celtic revival. It will trace the Celtic revival from the Victorian era to the present day and provide a theoretical framework to explain the unique ability of Celticity to provide this medium in British and British colonial culture.

Paul Hiebert, in his paper “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle”, has identified that in most pre-Christian societies there are three essential levels of human need met by religious and medical practitioners (with a great deal more overlap between these three roles than is present in modern Western culture). There are the saints and priests who intercede with God on behalf of the people in need; the magicians who deal with attacks from evil spirits and give guidance as how to best maneuver around natural mystic forces such as astrologic effects; and the medical practitioners who prescribe medicines and diagnose physical illness. He notes that in Western society we have both the priest and the doctor but have no substitute for the magician. Despite the modern Western assertion that the magician is unnecessary the perceived need by the common folk has persisted and is often filled by sources outside of mainstream religion and science.

This can be noted by the common inclusion of weekly horoscopes in almost every newspaper and the belief in good luck charms such as rabbit feet and wishing wells which people still, at the very least, speak of and maintain as common folk knowledge. Up until the mid-17th century Western Europe maintained many more of the magical elements we think of today as incongruent with Christianity. However, with the age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries came the force of rationality. This cultural movement actively promoted critical, analytical, and scientific thought and, as a result, a cultural purge of what was deemed superstition came about. From this purge a gap emerged and fairly soon afterwards a cultural movement know as Romanticism came about to fill it.

Celtic religion and culture held a unique place in Western society enabling it to provide what people felt, either consciously or unconsciously, was missing in this new world view of rationalism. Academic knowledge of the ancient Celts was severely lacking at the time, however, there was a certain amount of folk-memory which gave Celticity an air of mystery and a romantic appeal. This folk memory combined with the innate human reverence for all things ancient and mysterious made Celticity a prime candidate to fill the role of magician as identified by Hiebert. During the Victorian era, and more particularly with the rise of Romanticism, English identity came to include a Celtic heritage which had previously been ignored. As with many cultural identities it largely came about in opposition to those which surrounded it. Celticity was appropriated by the British government and used in the promotion of a nationalistic sentiment. This was largely accomplished by the use of literature, popular poetry, and other works of art.

Prussia, a culturally and genetically Teutonic nation, was England’s immediate neighbour and rival power. In order to establish a unique identity separate from their shared Teutonic roots English literature sought to incorporate Celtic elements into its cultural repertoire. This process was aided by the perceived nature of Celticity as both nature loving and inherently intuitive. This appealed to the Romantic ideas of the period which sought to re-establish the mystical elements which had been lost during the Enlightenment. However, the qualities attributed to Celticity may only have been a reflection of the Romantic ideals of the time. As well as distinguishing Britain from Prussia, Celticity was a primary force in stirring a sense of militaristic pride, among those who considered themselves Celts, in the Napoleonic wars. The history of relations between the three powers of England, France, and Scotland was overwritten by a new literary style so that the Scotsmen of the time felt allegiance to England (which was once their sworn enemy) and animosity towards France (forgetting the Auld Alliance of their ancestors).

This national British identity also served to mitigate differences that were becoming serious between the Scots and the English. With the Jacobite rebellions and the English civil war a great deal of ideological strife had arisen and become a serious physical problem. A unity between Anglo Saxon and Celtic culture in the literary world made for a peaceful subduing of the growing tensions. One of the central locations where this literature and art was being produced was the island of Iona. This island became popular largely because of the historical connection to St Columba who had started what many consider to be Scotland’s first Christian community. The history of Iona and the nearly mythical status of its patron saint provided an almost magical quality to the island. In a society still searching for the magician it had exiled, this remote and romantic island was held in high esteem. However, the massive influence of Iona would not be felt in the Celtic revival until 1938 when George McLeod would establish the Iona community which is still active and influential today.

Iona is a small island off the western coast of Scotland and is considered by many to be the heart center of the modern Celtic revival. However, a closer inspection can demonstrate that this influence is largely superimposed on the community by outside sources who long for a cultural home base for the movement. While Iona has gradually grown to fill the roll it was given by the outside world, the life and work of Iona in the 40’s did not contribute to current notions of Celticity in any significant way. In fact, the founder of Iona most likely used the obscure and largely unverifiable premise of following ancient Celtic practice to allow him to integrate Eastern Orthodox elements, of which he was very fond, into his vision of reform for the Church of Scotland.

George McLeod was the man responsible for the establishment of the modern community on Iona. A minister with the Church of Scotland, McLeod originally established the community in 1938. Previously he had been a soldier in the First World War and afterwards worked in an impoverished area of Scotland and had a direct experience of the effects of the Depression on the common people. His disdain for the Church’s apathy towards their plight lead him to establish the community as a training center for Church of Scotland ministers in the hope that they would then work to relieve the suffering of the downtrodden.

This socially minded mission of McLeod’s community was very different from the direction Celticity would take in the decades to follow as well as the purpose it had served during the Victorian era previously. The drastic leap of Celticity from serving as a force for the cohesion of cultural identity and nationalistic military efforts to being a force for the relief of the poor and social reform is substantial. The direction which it took after McLeod’s resignation as leader in 1967 was entirely different from either of these. The work of Iona maintained a notion of social justice, but turned its efforts away from physical relief and towards the production of liturgies and hymnody.

An individualistic and personal approach to spirituality came to dominate the Celtic revival in the 1980’s and, as such, social reform was set aside. The current approach to Celticity draws more from Western middle class culture than it does from the historical Celts themselves. This individualistic approach to Celticity has led to a cultural phenomenon in Canada and America which seeks to give people of “Celtic roots” a unique identity, much in the same way that African-Americans have a unique cultural status. While the Celtic revival of the Victorian era was focused primarily on the geographical areas of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales the most recent wave of Celtic revivalists come from a wide range of geographic locations due to the colonial practices of Britain in the years preceding it. Celticity, as a social phenomenon, has arisen in particular in the Americas where cultural identity is difficult to pinpoint and maintain due to the wide array of cultural influences and the pluralistic nature of the New World.

For those living in the US and Canada cultural identity can only go back a few centuries and those who are “native” to the country find that there are distinct cultural differences amongst the descendants of various ethnic groups. The descendants of Irish immigrants have a unique culture in comparison to the Jewish immigrants from Western Europe, the descendants of African slaves, or the Indigenous peoples native to the area. While all these groups may legitimately call themselves “American” or “Canadian” they are not a unified people, culturally speaking. This leads to a sort of cultural cognitive dissonance among the citizens of the aforementioned countries and creates the need for hyphenated cultural identities such as African-American, Native-American, Jewish-American, or Celtic-American.

A clear distinction can be made here between what happened in the Victorian era in Britain and what is happening in America and Canada today. While Celticity served to unite a single nation in the former it serves to establish separate ethnic groups within a nation in the latter. This use of Celticity to divide a nation is even more prominent in the motives of The League of the South founded in 1994. The League of the South is a separatist movement in the US which argues that the Confederate states are descendants of Celtic Scots while the Northern states are descendants of the Anglo-Saxon English. This distinct cultural difference (and historical feud) serves as the foundation for their political agenda to separate the US based on the geographical, and alleged ethnic, boundaries of the Civil War.

The identification of “Celtic roots” among Irish and Scottish diaspora implies that Celtic people have a static and unchanging lineage which ties them directly to their ancestors. However, this could not be further from the truth. What an analysis of the history of Celticity has shown is that there is no static Celtic culture. The irony is that each subsequent wave of Celtic revivalists has identified an ancient and unchanging Celtic motif which simply reflects the ideology and social needs of their time and location. The fluidic and adaptive nature of the Celtic revival is a product of its filling the niche which was left behind when the role of the magician, as identified at the beginning of this paper, was eliminated. Neither the cold hard facts of science nor the lofty and unattainable realm of the divine would have been able to express the intuitive yet worldly aspirations of those poets, political reformists, and religious leaders who so craftily utilised the Celtic.

The adoption of Celticity into English culture during the Victorian era spurred a sense of nationality and formed a foundation upon which the strong national identity of the British Empire would come to rest. However, this notion of nationalism was in direct opposition to what Celtic culture is considered to embody today. The most current embodiment of the Celtic revival values a decentralised approach to identity and culture, as can be seen by the separatist nature of American hyphenated identities. The use by George MacLeod of Celtic elements in his mission of religious and social reform shows another of the various ways in which Celticity may be shaped and formed to suit the needs of its particular time and location.

One can conclude from the wide range of definition given to Celticity that there is no one static ethnicity which can be called Celtic. Perhaps there were once peoples who shared a general physical locality and some similar cultural and genetic traits, but it is a vague and non-descript term which has adopted a wide array of meanings over the course of its popular use in modern culture. Linguistic, cultural, and social similarities are fluid, variable, and always adapting both to interactions with neighbours and internal ideological and political changes. To establish a cultural identity with a clear and distinct historical validity is difficult for any group and especially for those inhabitants of the British Isles, and their diaspora descendants, who have been invaded by, interbred with, and in turn colonised numerous peoples.

However, this does not make the Celtic revival invalid. It is the nature of culture to adapt to the real life experiences of those people living within it. The Celtic revival has given a voice and an outlet for creative expression to a people and, as such, is of immense value. While the Celtic revival is arguably not actually very historical, it is still a viable and legitimate social phenomenon and one which has found a place in the hearts of many people across the world. It is a valid and meaningful part of a living tradition. One could not speak of Celticity without the Celtic revival – it is now history too.

It is a genuine expression of religious aspiration and spiritual longing. Our Celtic ancestors were not afraid to adapt their culture and traditions to the needs of their time. That’s why the church was so quickly accepted and why that same church was not afraid to retain many of its pagan ways. A living tradition is one that changes and grows, not one that rigidly holds to an idealized notion of a perfect time in the past to which we must adhere fervently. So do something new my friends and let the past guide you but not define you. Your ancestors would be proud.

If you enjoyed this article, please share it on your favourite social media or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more about Celtic Christianity and Contemplation, check out some of the free videos from our virtual retreat: Sacred Spaces: Contemplation and the Celtic Spirit.

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