Wednesday, August 20, 2008


I'm not talking about football, but identity. This is another great book I have sitting in the pile, waiting to be read sometime soon. I've had a flick through the pages and it looks like another exocet of a myth-buster.

"Celticness" is everywhere, from faux craft shop kitsch with swirls and stuff, to a descriptive term which is sometimes used innocently enough, but now and again it is code for "non-English", or sometimes even "anti-English". With an English wife and subsequently an English extended family, I don't appreciate anti-English sentiment. Everyone deserves criticism when it's due, regional rivalry has its place, and I will admit to a few tears of joy when Northern Ireland beat England at Windsor Park in 2005!.

However, anti-Englishness seems, in some quarters, to be acceptable. Northern Ireland-style sectarianism has often been described as "Scotland's Secret Shame" - but others now see anti-Englishness as a much bigger problem there. (Have a look at this page, and some of the posts - especially no. 109). The label "Celtic" can be one way that English people are alienated and branded as outsiders. Politics, nationalism and romantic nonsense are a heady combination - one which has even crept across the Atlantic into Appalachia.


The assertion of this book "The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?" (published 1999) is that the modern label 'Celtic" (ie how the term has been applied since around the 1700s) is nonsense, all made up, with no archaeological evidence to support it.

The author is not some crackpot obsessed with ancient history and constructing identity myths - quite the opposite. Published by the British Museum Press, Dr Simon James is an accomplished Iron Age and Roman archaeologist, currently at Leicester University. Here's an old website he had. And here's an old article from the Scotsman newspaper:


Did the Ancient Celts exist?

MILLIONS of people around the world think of themselves as Celtic and believe that their remote ancestors in the British Isles were Celts too. But many British prehistorians now argue that the idea that the pre-Roman peoples of the isles were Celts is misleading and probably just wrong. Why?

One fundamental, startling reason, is that no-one in Britain or Ireland called themselves "Celts" before 1700. Our earliest evidence for the identities of these peoples - the 2,000-year-old writings of their Greco-Roman neighbours - records Celts only on the continent, most notably the Gauls of modern France. The inhabitants of the isles were already called "British" and "Irish", and these were distinguished from the continental "Celts".

So where did the idea of insular Celts, ancient and modern, come from? It appears in the 18th century. "Celtic" came into use in the context of the isles as the result of the work of a pioneering linguist, the Welshman Edward Lhwyd, who demonstrated that Scots and Irish Gaelic, Welsh, Breton and related languages were also related to the extinct tongue of the ancient Gauls. He chose to call this family of dead and living languages "Celtic". Soon it was being used as an ethnic label for living peoples, and was applied to ancient monuments too. It became fixed in popular consciousness with remarkable speed. A century later, in "Rob Roy" Sir Walter Scott could refer to an 18th-century Highlander as a Celt without elaborating; his readers knew what he meant. By then, modern Celticness, and an ancient Celtic past, were part of agreed popular history. It has come to be believed that the Celtic ancestors were invaders from the continent.

I believe that the rapid uptake of belief in Celtic identity, and Ancient Celtic roots, was driven by the perception among Welsh, Scots and Irish that their several identities were in danger of being swamped by the new English-dominated superstate. Celticism provided an alternative, shared, non-English identity. Celtic identity, then, and British identity, are twins, both initially political creations of the 18th century. This in itself is nothing very surprising: every such identity is created at some time, for good contemporary reasons. Scottish and English identities also have such histories, but can be traced back much further. It is also almost universal for ethnic or national identities to claim roots in the distant past, which may be authentic or may be exaggerated, or spurious; it is an important way of legitimating our sense of self, and our claims to our place in the world.

Archaeology was a late addition to all this, only really developing in the later 19th century. As early discoveries were made, they were interpreted according to the already established Celtic model. Many seemed to fit it well: Britain, Ireland and Gaul all have hill-forts, and some magnificent ancient metalwork decorated in similar, exquisite patterns. But more recent research has probed much deeper into the Iron Age past and has found not evidence for Iron Age Celtic invasion, but basic continuity from earlier prehistory; these peoples were, mostly, already here.

Also, the evidence for types of houses, settlements, farming and economy, the way people lived, the things they made and used, and the ways in which they disposed of their dead, are not uniform and often not even very similar. There seem to have been many different peoples living in Britain, probably with a multiplicity of identities. It is implausible that they all thought of themselves as sharing common Britishness, let alone a wider Celticity.

The idea of overarching identities linking vast areas appeared briefly with the Romans, and more recently with the quite new ideas of Britishness, pan-Celticness and now, European integration. It is up to the peoples of the present to decide whether they wish to establish a Celtic Union, or a United States of Europe. But projecting Celtic identity on to the ancient peoples of the Britain may, ironically, be to rob them of their many, diverse, real self-identities.


James' work has got him into some hot water and controversy over the years - defying the establishment usually has that result. (as someone pointed out to me in the Independent newspaper earlier this month, ask Radovan Karadzic!)

Identity in Northern Ireland is a loaded issue. Maybe "Celticness" should be consigned to the dustbin?

PS: Here's a link to something I posted online over 5 years ago.