The Celts: an invented people

The Celts, I’ve learnt today at the British Museum, are an invented people. We think of them now as the people of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany, the people of the edge of Europe, of the Atlantic; wild, red haired, bagpipe-playing people.  But these are different peoples bound together only in an artistic and political creation.

The Greeks first talked of Celts around 500 BC, but they were referring to a people from Germany. They produced beautiful abstract art unlike that of the classical world.

When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD they pushed the indigenous people to the edges of the country. They never conquered Scotland and Ireland and perhaps couldn’t be bothered to go as far West as Wales or Cornwall. Roman Britain was cosmopolitan, and the people of the edge intermingled with the Romans, trading and learning from each other, including in art.

The Romans left  around 410 AD, and the Anglo Saxons replaced them. They worshipped their own Gods, but the people of the edge were Christians. I’ve seen Celtic crosses from the 8th century on the Western edges of Scotland.  (The crosses, with their characteristic circle, seemed to have arisen because the wild weather knocked down the arms—and the circle was needed to support the cross.)  Monasteries, like those in Iona and Lindisfarne, kept Christianity, learning, and art alive during the perjoratively-named Dark Ages. (One of things I determined to do before I die is to visit Iona; another is to cycle to Sligo, in homage to Yeats.)

But the peoples of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and Brittany were just that until around 1700 when the idea of the Celts was invented. One of the great Celtic bards was Ossian, who unfortunately turned out to the creation of James McPherson, a Scottish poet. But once launched the Celtic idea gathered great energy, clearly demarcating the people of the edge from the English and French. Walter Scott added to the mix, creating the kilt and much of what we now associate with Scotland. Another great writer, W B Yeats, added to Celtic mythology. Visual artists like Charles Rennie Mackintosh fused the traditional designs with art nouveau.

The invention was then mixed with politics, fuelling the Easter Uprising and appearing on the walls of Belfast.

And the Celts have spread across the world, producing US presidents (John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan), film stars (Errol Flynn, Richard Burton), and gangsters (Ned Kelly). Almost every city in the world has an Irish pub and a Caledonian Society, and 30 million people in the US claim Irish ancestry (six times the population of Ireland).

I love most things Celtic, particularly the wild countryside, the whiskey, and the melancholic poetry. I cry whenever I hear the bagpipes. I’m glad that I know that the Celts are invented, but it hasn’t altered my feelings. We are all of us largely invented.


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