Resurgence & Ecologist - Vol 1 No 16 - October 1971
Celtic Nationalism by P. Berresford Ellis
Celtic nationalism is part of a world movement: a reaction to a growing world sickness. Al l over the globe there is a groping new individualism rising in revolt against the mass society of our day. The revolt is against the tremendous drive of "big power" politicians towards a world state, a world government and a world language and culture.
Unity through uniformity where there are no national barriers. This is the simplicists' way of achieving world peace and co-operation by an attempt to destroy natural differences between men (i.e. language and culture) . . . the achievement of the fallacious dream of a Brave
Celtic nationalism, along with the struggle of other small nationalities to achieve cultural, political and economic freedom, is a reaction to this idea. I n Europe we have Basques, Catalans, Galicians, Wends, Frisians, Flemings, Lapps etc, who are struggling to preserve their national identity. I n North America the rise of the American Indian and Negro movements (which places a heavy accent on cultural environment) is another aspect of the revolt against uniformity.
Why are small linguistic-cultural communities important? I t is often said that language is merely a means of communication. I f i t were true, then the development of the vast range of different languages spoken throughout the world would have been one of the great catastrophies of human history. Language, however, is more than a material means of communication.
Culture is that very distinct quality of living that is to the community what personality is to the individual. The main medium of mental cultivation, or culture, is language, and diversity of language is absolutely necessary for a rich diversity of culture.
As Martin Brennan writes: "I f this ever growing uniformity of the material side of our life is not offset by a rich cultural diversification, then man will face an awful crisis of a deadly sameness and monotony of life, a frightening prospect of utter boredom
of spirit which would deprive him not merely of the will to achieve but the very desire to survive."
The more the individual, the community and the nation feel that they have something particularly their own to contribute to mankind, the more they will respect themselves, and respect other people; the more they will be heartened to develop that unique set of values which they possess. I t would seem that diversification of language and culture is the product of a very fundamental law of human nature.
Critics claim that languages are barriers but barriers need not be purely negative things; they can be creative. Barriers to reproduction between originally interbreeding sections of plant and animal species have been the means of enabling these to speciate and produce the present rich variety of living forms. A t the cultural level the partial barrier of language enables different groups to develop, diversify and enrich their own inherited cultures instead of having their individuality finally washed out in a flat uniformity.
The language and culture of a people are that people's very basis for being. Language is a product of many centuries of cultural development, a vehicle of all the wisdom, poetry, legend and history which is bequeathed to a people by its forebears. Rough hewn, chiselled and polished with loving care i t is handed down as a beauti
ful work of art—the greatest art form in the world—the noblest monument of man's genius.
The repression of small languages and cultures is due not only to a cynical expansionist policy but also to a lack of understanding of the values enshrined in the languages of minority groups. I t is generally believed that a language that does not possess a rich literature is a poor vehicle of expression Eduard Sapir wrote: "The most primitive South African Bushman expresses himself with the help of a rich symbolic system which in essence is quite comparable to the language of a cultured Frenchman.... Many primitive languages have a richness of form, a wealth of possibilities of expression which surpasses anything known in languages of modern culture."
Language, thought and culture are inseparable. No idea can exist without linguistic expression. Language and thought are but two aspects of the same thing. To change one's language is tantamount to changing one's mentality.
As Benjamin Lee Whorf writes: "We are inclined to think of language simply as a technique of expression and not to realise that language first of all is a classification and arrangement of the stream of sensory experience which results in a certain world order, a certain segment of the world that is easily expressible by the type of symbolic means that language employs. I n other
words, language does in a cruder but also in a broader and more volatile way the same thing that science does."
I n the countries where languages and traditions have been suppressed or relegated to second class positions the members of the ethnic groups are correspondingly deprived and degraded. This is true, unfortunately, of Celtic society. The Celt finds himself in an environment where he is taught that his status as a Celt is of no importance.
He is taught that his status can only be improved by being assimilated into English or French society, that his culture is of no significance and that his only useful role in life is as the physical producer of material goods.
Is i t any wonder that Celtic society produces a fantastically high percentage of alcoholics—one hospital in Brittany estimates that two-thirds of its admissions are alcoholic cases; that Celtic society produces the biggest percentage of prostitutes in the UK and in France; that Celtic society has the highest rate of social misfits? In short, the unhealthy Celtic society is a product of years of Celtic degradation and the imposition of alien cultures and ideals.
Fortunately the system of punishing children who spoke a Celtic language in schools has stopped (not in Brittany, however). I n Welsh schools until the early years of this century great use was made of the "Welsh Not", a piece of wood hung round the neck of anyone heard speaking Welsh in school. I t was passed from child to child during the course of the week and the boy who happened to be wearing i t on Friday was flogged. One of the 1844 education Commissioners in Wales wrote: "My attention was attracted to a piece of wood, suspended by a string round a boy's neck, and on the wood were the words, 'Welsh stick'. This, I was told, was a stigma for speaking Welsh. But in fact his only alternative was to speak Welsh or say nothing. He did not understand English and there is no systematic exercise in interpretation". More "humane" teachers, such as Dr Phillips of Neuaddlwyd sent a monitor to collect pennies in fines from pupils overheard speaking Welsh.
The beatings in Scotland continued to more recent times. Dr J. L . Stewart now of Magoebaskloof, South Africa) wrote: "When I was a boy most of the teachers in Highland schools came from the Lowlands and were encouraged to discourage the Gaelic. I well remember such a teacher named Todd from Hawick who gave boys the Tawse (leather strap) i f he heard them speaking the vernacular". Miss Sarah Macphail recalls: "The children did not have the nerve to be heard speaking Gaelic when they were playing for they would be beaten for doing so. They had to tell on each other when they heard Gaelic being spoken. A girl in school who was heard using Gaelic and a school friend told the master and she was beaten for it" . I n one Scottish school an actual human skull was placed round the neck of the child who dared to express himself in his own language.
I t does not require a great deal of imagination to realise what sort of product would emerge from this "educational" establishment. One cannot wonder that the average Gaelic speaker today is diffident, clannish and slightly hostile to all strangers even to those strangers who by their willingness to learn Gaelic have shown they are in great sympathy with the future well being of the Gaelic speaking peoples.
To suffer the traumatic experience at the age of five of being pitched suddenly into an absolutely hostile environment where the only language they then knew was beaten out of them with a Naide Crochaid, hanging stick, has resulted in the terrible environmental sickness of the Gaelic speaker.
Today there are few cases of children being beaten for speaking the language but the traumatic experience is still the same. Tormod MacLeoid recalled in 1965:
"As an infant of five, newly arrived in the classroom, I was confronted with a young lady, who seemed to me to be a goddess, but remote. We had no common language. I knew no English, but she spoke no Gaelic. Learning the Roman Alphabet might seem to be a task equal for all normal infants, but the task is made difficult for the child who receives instruction and explanation in a foreign language which he does not know."
The observer recently admitted: "Over many centuries and until quite recently, the English treated the Irish, the Scots and the Welsh much as the Germans treated their Slav neighbours —with a mixture of ruthlessness and mockery." The days of ruthlessness in eradicating Celtic nationality (i.e. lang
uage and culture) seem to have gone in the UK but the mockery continues unabated and many of the "brainwashed" Celts have joined forces with their oppressors in sneering and ridiculing their heritage and those "provincials" who still cling to it.
Such a hostile environment to the Celt has produced a general inferiority complex. This inferiority that the Celt is made to feel reveals itself in the way many Celts who are native speaking of their respective languages will pretend to outsiders that they have no knowledge of the tongue and insist on speaking English or French, no matter how scanty their knowledge of these second languages. One aspect revealed itself to the author when a Scottish friend wrote to a school in the Gaelic speaking area of Scotland, to a school teacher who was a native Gaelic speaker. This friend therefore wrote in Gaelic. The reply from the native Gaelic speaker came back in English with even my Scottish friend's name Anglicised on the address!
Loss of Identity
The neutralisation of Celtic history has led to many anomalies in these islands. The average Breton will insist that the Breton language is a dialect of French! The Scot will insist that there are two nationalities in his country— the Highlander (who is a Celtic speaker) and the Lowlander—who is a Teuton, despite the fact that Gaelic was still spoken in Galloway and Ayrshire until the 18th century, and that Gaelic was spoken all over Scotland from the 11th to 13th centuries. There is the society "Monmouth is an English County" who insist the county was never a part of Wales! The average Cornishman thinks he is just as much English as a man from Kent.. . despite the fact that his language (whose last native speakers died in the latter half of the 19th century) gave the world the romance of Tristram and Iseult and the legends of King Arthur.
The Celtic societies are culturally sick. The cure is well known and has been successfully carried out in other countries .. . it consists in reviving their language and with i t their literature, history and traditions and all the other half-forgotten aspects of their cultures. Only then, will they regain their true identity, and only then will they feel pride in their past and confidence in their future.