Celtic Revival

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Celtic High cross in Quebec, Canada (left) compared with the original Muiredach's High Cross (right) in Monasterboice, Ireland

The Celtic Revival is a multi-faceted and loosely defined movement, which has occurred since the 17th century, that saw a renewed interest in aspects of Celtic culture[disambiguation needed]. This has been commonly associated with reviving the Breton, Cornish, Galician, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh languages through the expansion of the body of literature and art, education and political movements promoting language rights in each respective nation.

Artists and writers drew on the traditions of Gaelic literature, Welsh-language literature, and so-called 'Celtic art' - what historians call Insular art (the Early Medieval style of Ireland and Britain).[citation needed] Although the revival was complex and multifaceted, occurring across many fields and in various countries in Northwest Europe, its best known incarnation is probably the Irish Literary Revival. Here, Irish writers including William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, "AE" Russell, Edward Martyn and Edward Plunkett (Lord Dunsany) stimulated a new appreciation of traditional Irish literature and Irish poetry in the late 19th and early 20th century.[1]

In many, but not all, facets the revival came to represent a reaction to modernisation.[citation needed] This is particularly true in Ireland, where the relationship between the archaic and the modern was antagonistic, where history was fractured, and where, according to Terry Eagleton, "as a whole [the nation] had not leapt at a bound from tradition to modernity".[2] At times this romantic view of the past resulted in historically inaccurate portrayals, such as the promotion of noble savage stereotypes of the Irish people and Scottish Highlanders, as well as a racialized view that referred to the Irish, whether positively or negatively, as a separate race.[3]

Perhaps the most widespread and lasting contribution of the revival was the re-introduction of the High cross as the Celtic cross, which now forms a familiar part of monumental and funerary art over most of the Western world.[4] Though, there has been criticism to the unified concept of Celtic culture.[5]


Early history, decline and rebellion (16th - early 18th century)[edit]

The inclusion of an English-language prayer book by Edward VI during The Reformation was met with fierce opposition in Cornwall, where English at this time was not the dominant language. In response, the “Prayerbook rebellion” was initiated and John Tregear translated 13 catholic homilies into Cornish in the mid-16th-century, albeit with linguistic gaps filled with English with the ambition of correcting. However, the “Prayerbook rebellion” was squelched with the death of three to four thousand West Country men, the language started its retreat to the south-west of the peninsula.[6][7]

Antiquarian researches into the Gaelic and Brittonic cultures and histories of Britain and Ireland gathered pace from the late 17th century, with people like Owen Jones in Wales and Charles O'Conor in Ireland. The key surviving manuscript sources were gradually located, edited and translated, monuments identified and published, and other essential groundwork in recording stories, music and language done.

The Welsh antiquarian and author Iolo Morganwg fed the growing fascination in all things Brittonic by founding the Gorsedd, which (along with his writings) would in turn spark the Neo-druidism movement.

The Initial Celtic Revival (18th - 19th century)[edit]

Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe (1890) by E. A. Hornel

During the early 1700s, after widespread decline of the language, only 500 Cornish speakers remained in the peninsular.[6] It was originally theorised that when the last native speak of Cornish, Dorothy Pentreath died in 1777 the language had ceased in use. However evidence has suggested the language remained in use on a colloquial level by Cornish diaspora and farmers and fisherman in the region.[7][6] In the mid-18th century after the decline of the languages due to political repression from the British state the culture was slowly being reviewed instead on the labelling of a unified concept of the Celt within artistic forms.[5][8]

Interest in Scottish Gaelic culture greatly increased during the onset of the Romantic period in the late 18th century, with James Macpherson's Ossian achieving international fame, along with the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the poetry and song lyrics of the London-based Irishman Thomas Moore, Byron's friend and executor. Throughout Europe, the Romantic movement inspired a great revival of interest in folklore, folk tales, and folk music; even Beethoven[9] was commissioned to produce a set of arrangements of Scottish folk-songs. As elsewhere, in what was then the United Kingdom of the whole archipelago, this encouraged and fed off a rise in nationalism, which was especially intense in Ireland.

In the mid-19th century the revival continued, with Sir Samuel Ferguson, the Young Ireland movement, and others popularising folk tales, dubious works of history, and other material in all the nations with a claim to be 'Celtic'. At the same time, archaeological and historical work was beginning to make progress in constructing a better understanding of regional history. Interest in ornamental 'Celtic' art developed, and 'Celtic' motifs began to be used in all sorts of contexts, including architecture, drawing on works like the Grammar of Ornament by (another) Owen Jones. Imitations of the ornate Insular penannular brooches of the 7–9th centuries were worn by Queen Victoria among others from the late 1840s,[10] many produced in Dublin[11] by West & Son and other makers.

In Scotland were John Francis Campbell's (1821-1885) works the bilingual Popular Tales of the West Highlands (4 vols., 1860–62) and The Celtic Dragon Myth, published posthumously in 1911. The formation of the Edinburgh Social Union in 1885, which included a number of significant figures in the Arts and Craft and Aesthetic movements, became part of an attempt to facilitate a 'Celtic' Revival in Scotland, similar to that taking place in contemporaneous Ireland, drawing on ancient myths and history to produce art in a modern idiom.[12] Key figures were the philosopher, sociologist, town planner and writer Patrick Geddes (1854–1932), the architect and designer Robert Lorimer (1864–1929) and stained-glass artist Douglas Strachan (1875–1950). Geddes established an informal college of tenement flats for artists at Ramsay Garden on Castle Hill in Edinburgh in the 1890s. Among the figures involved with the movement were Anna Traquair (1852–1936), who was commissioned by the Union to paint murals in the Mortuary Chapel of the Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh (1885–86 and 1896–98) and also worked in metal, illumination, illustration, embroidery and book binding.[13] The most significant exponent of the artistic revival in Scotland was Dundee-born John Duncan (1866–1945). Among his most influential works are his paintings of Celtic subjects Tristan and Iseult (1912) and St Bride (1913).[14] Duncan also helped to make Dundee a major centre for the Celtic Revival movement along with artists such as Stewart Carmichael and the publisher Malcolm C MacLeod.[15]

Modern copper jar, using a Celtic motif in restrained fashion.

The Irish Literary Revival encouraged the creation of works written in the spirit of Irish culture, as distinct from English culture. This was, in part, due to the political need for an individual Irish identity. This difference was kept alive by invoking Ireland's historic past, its myths, legends and folklore. There was an attempt to re-vitalize the native rhythm and music of Irish Gaelic. Figures such as Lady Gregory, WB Yeats, George Russell, J .M. Synge and Seán O'Casey wrote many plays and articles about the political state of Ireland at the time. Gaelic revival and Irish nationalism frequently overlapped in places such as An Stad, a tobacconist on North Frederick Street owned by the writer Cathal McGarvey and frequented by literary figures such as James Joyce (although Joyce was thoroughly contemptuous of the movement, feeling it betrayed the realities of urban Ireland) and Yeats, along with leaders of the Nationalist movement such as Douglas Hyde, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. These were connected with another great symbol of the literary revival, The Abbey Theatre, which served as the stage for many new Irish writers and playwrights of the time.

In 1892, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy said,

"A group of young men, among the most generous and disinterested in our annals, were busy digging up the buried relics of our history, to enlighten the present by a knowledge of the past, setting up on their pedestals anew the overthrown statues of Irish worthies, assailing wrongs which under long impunity had become unquestioned and even venerable, and warming as with strong wine the heart of the people, by songs of valour and hope; and happily not standing isolated in their pious work, but encouraged and sustained by just such an army of students and sympathizers as I see here to-day".[9]

In 1896 the Argentine government, after 30 years of the Welsh colony in Argentina, imposed that schools in the Chubut area of Patagonia change the educational language from Welsh to Spanish. This additionally lead to a demonization of the language.[16]

Interlace, (a.k.a Entrelac) which is still seen as a "Celtic" form of decoration—somewhat ignoring its Germanic origins and equally prominent place in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian medieval art—has remained a motif in many forms of popular design, especially in Celtic countries and above all Ireland, where it remains a national style signature. In recent decades, it had a re-revival in 1960s designs (for example, in the Biba logo) and has been used worldwide in tattoos and in various contexts and media in fantasy works with a quasi-Dark Ages setting. The Secret of Kells is an animated feature film of 2009 set during the creation of the Book of Kells which makes much use of Insular design.

In France, sublime descriptions of Celtic landscape were found in the works of Jacques Cambry. The Celtic Revival was strengthened by Napoleon's idea that the "French were a race of empire-building Celts," and became institutionalized by the foundation of the Académie Celtique in 1805, by Cambry and others.[17]

Revival in the modern era (20th – 21st century)[edit]

An increased interest in the Cornish language, started by Henry Jenner and Robert Morton Nance in 1904, saw a revival of Cornish culture and language in Cornwall.[7] This included the publishing of a handbook of the language.[7] The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies was formed in 1924 to "maintain the Celtic spirit of Cornwall", followed by the Gorseth Kernow in 1928 and the formation of the Cornish political party Mebyon Kernow in 1951. This revival has spread across the Irish sea towards Northern England, with the attempted reconstructions of numerous types of bagpipe (such as the Lancashire Great-pipe) and an increased interest in the Northumbrian smallpipes. There are also attempts to reconstruct the Cumbric language, the ancient Brythonic language of Northern (particularly Northwestern) England, a remnant of the Brittonic kingdoms of Hen Ogledd.[citation needed]

The Celtic Revival was an international movement. The Irish-American designer Thomas Augustus "Gus" O'Shaughnessy made a conscious choice to use Irish design roots as well as Art Nouveau influences in his artwork. Trained in stained glass and working in an Art Nouveau style, O'Shaughnessy designed a series of windows and interior stencils for Old Saint Patrick's Church in Chicago, a project begun in 1912 and completed in 1922. Louis Sullivan, a Chicago architect, incorporated dense Art Nouveau and 'Celtic'-inspired interlace in the ornament of his buildings. Sullivan's father was a traditional Irish musician and they both were step-dancers, which suggests that his creativity was not rooted only in his official education.[citation needed] In England, the Watts Mortuary Chapel (1896–98) in Surrey was a thoroughgoing attempt to decorate a Romanesque Revival chapel framework with lavish Celtic reliefs designed by Mary Fraser Tytler.

Celtic-style tattoo
An Archibald Knox design became popular during the 19th century.

The "plastic style" of early 'Celtic' art was one of the elements feeding into Art Nouveau decorative style, very consciously so in the work of designers like the Manxman Archibald Knox, who did much work for Liberty & Co., especially for the Tudric and Cymric ranges of metalwork, respectively in pewter and silver or gold. Many of the most extravagant examples of the plastic style come from the modern Czech Lands and influenced the Czech Art Nouveau designer and artist Alphonse Mucha (Mucha, in turn, influenced the Irish-American O'Shaughnessy, who had attended a series of Mucha's lectures in Chicago).

Celebration of 100 years of Welsh culture in Chubut in 1965 saw a dramatic[clarification needed] change in government policy in the Argentine government over the language's treatment, which has led to gradual revival.[16]

Galician gaiteiros (left) and Breton pipers

Galicia also started to experience its own Celtic revival during the 20th century.[18] During the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, all forms of regional culture were suppressed in favor of a unified "Spanish culture" that was heavily based on Andalusian culture[citation needed] (although Franco himself was Galician). This lasted until Franco's death in 1975, when the King was restored to power and all Spanish regional cultures were allowed to flourish once again. Prominent Galician Celtic musicians include Carlos Núñez, Luar na Lubre and Susana Seivane.[19] Currently, the Gallaic Revival Movement is seeking to revive the Gallaic language, also known as the Galician/Gallaecian language, for everyday use.[20][21][22][23] Neighboring northern Portugal is also undergoing a Celtic revival.[18]

The start of the century featured success in the recognition of Celtic languages on a political level in Europe. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages in 2003 recognised all of the Celtic languages in The United Kingdom and Galician in Spain. France, although a signatory, has been constitutionally blocked from ratifying the Charter in respect to the languages of France. The Irish language received full state support with the Official Languages Act of 2003 in Ireland.[24] The Scottish government ratified the Gaelic Language Act in 2005, advocating councils with historic connection to the Gaelic language to publish reports on how to further incorporate the language. In 2007 the Celtic languages alongside several minority languages received working status within the European Union (EU).[24] This change prompted two Galician MEPs that year to speak in the European Parliament in Brussels in Galician as a statement against the banning of Galician and other languages other than Spanish being spoken in Spanish Parliament.[25] In 2010, Scotland's at the time education minister Michael Russell spoke at an EU hearing in Sottish Gaelic, the first in the union's history.[26]

Due to the revival of Irish in educational settings since the 1970s, the immersion of Irish in university degrees at institutions like Dublin City University and bilingual upbringing, there has been an increase in young Irish people speaking the language under the Republic of Ireland. It is said it is more common to hear it spoken in Irish cities. Additionally, there is a "mini" revived interest in United States of Americs and Australia in learning Irish.[27][24] Language exchange programs between Ireland and The United States of America, such as the Fulbright Commission, have amplified their movement of Irish teachers to American schools and community organisations across the 21st century. With a third of learners doing it for heritage reasons[24] In September 2014 language learning application Duolingo introduced an Irish learning course. After one year of being available it had gained 1 million learners. This was noted as a significant figure as it was seven times the amount of recorded native Irish speakers at the time.[28] After two years it had gone up to 2.3 million users, only a quarter of which lived in Ireland.[29] Additionally in Northern Ireland, the incorporation of more Irish language support, particularly that in Belfast, has increased. Advocacy of Irish Language Act for the country, as promised in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, with political parties like Sinn Féin, SDLP and PUP stand firm against the Democratic Unionist Party.[30] Projects for developing the language in Belfast include programs to send young people to immerse in the language in County Donegal[31] and Irish-language community centres.[32]

In Scotland, the incorporation of "immerssion" education institutions in Scotland has proved greatly successful in reviving the language.[33]

In 2008, the “Standard Written Form” of Cornish was made from a compromise of the two leading Cornish language forms. This was seen as the start towards the establishment of Cornish in an educational setting.[7] There was believed to be 2,000 Cornish-language speakers in the region at this time.[34] In 2017 a new seven day festival centred around Cornish language, history and culture, The Kernewek Festival, started in Penzance.[35]

By 2014, 10 language centres in Wales by the Welsh regional government have been opened to contribute to the teaching of the language.[36] In 2016, The Welsh devolved government announced they wished to increase the amount of Welsh speakers to 1 million by 2050, this was a response to the notable drop in Welsh speakers between the 2001 census numbers of 582,000, to the 2011 level of 562,000.[37] A dialect of Welsh, Patagonian Welsh, is currently established by 5,000 native speakers in the Chubut province of Argentina[38] and in recent years has seen further support through bilingual teaching of Spanish and Welsh in the area.[39] In 2015, the Welsh-speaking communities in both Wales and Chubut cellerated 150 of establishment of the Welsh colony, or Y Wladfa.[40][16]

By 2014 it was recorded that there were roughly 2.5 million speakers of Galician.[25]

Analysis and debate[edit]

Reasons for decline[edit]

Decline of the Celtic languages has been associated with various reasons . The lack of translated religious literature and liturgy at a time of religious playing a significant part in identity has been noted.[6][41] On a political level, the Celtic languages had been repressed by the British state for centuries in favour of English- they were banned from use in schools.[8] The languages and those that spoke them were stereotyped by the gentry during their decline; Cornish, for instance, was seen as being one of poverty.[6]

Cultural grouping and homogeneity[edit]

In the modern day, the common view amongst anthropologists was that the name Celt wasn't a legitimate historical name a neither the tribes of Britain or Ireland identified with the name, nor did the Greek or Roman writers had never referred to the indigenous inhabitants of Britain or Ireland as such. Additionally, the unified notion of a Celtic culture has received criticism and debate, rather "many individual tribes with highly localised behaviours".[42] The term was "externally imposed" during the 18th century.[43][5] Scholars like Simon James argue the self-identification of Modern Celts is based on the social shift in emphasis from religion to ethnicity during the 18th century. But support is given to the notion of the modern Celt as they are seen as self-identifying and accepting of their differences and histories with each other.[41] Celtic art as movement is seen to be as imposed in name and style as the identity itself.[44]

Political motivation[edit]

Some have seen the revival of Celtic identity and culture as a threat to English hegemony within the British state.[42] Additionally others have perceived Celtic revival in the modern era as part of an anti-British sentiment from civic nationalist parties across the UK.[45] Other criticism has been focused more on the adoption of the political movement to promote Celtic culture in itself, spreading Celtic language to areas where it historically had never been spoken. An example is the use of Scottish Gaelic in parts of Scotland for signs where the language had no historic use, and the Gaelic counterparts are in fact translations of the English. Eliot Wilson when writing for The Scotsman was cynical of its application as a vanity project of the Scottish National Party.[45]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Foster (2003), pp. 486, 662.
  2. ^ Castle, 2–3.
  3. ^ MacManus, Seamus (1921). The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History of Ireland. Ireland: The Irish Publishing Co. ISBN 0-517-06408-1. Retrieved 24 October 2015. 
  4. ^ Stephen Walker, "Celtic Revival Crosses", Celtic Arts Website, accessed 22 November 2008
  5. ^ a b c Erica Wagner (25 September 2015). "There’s no such thing as a Celt – that’s why we had to invent them". New Statesman. Retrieved 23 January 2016. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Mark Stoyle (17 February 2011). "The Cornish: A Neglected Nation?". BBC. Retrieved 15 May 2017. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Lane Greene (29 April 2017). "Hebrew was the only language ever to be revived from extinction. There may soon be another". Quartz Media. Retrieved 16 May 2016. 
  8. ^ a b Annalena McAfee (27 January 2017). "Burns night: the battle over Scottish identity continues". The Guardian. Retrieved 12 May 2017. 
  9. ^ a b Castle, 239
  10. ^ Royal Collection Archived 9 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine., Brooch given in November 1849, and Christmas 1849.
  11. ^ Victorian penannular brooches from the V&A Museum.
  12. ^ Gardiner (2005), p. 170.
  13. ^ MacDonald, (2000), pp. 155–6.
  14. ^ MacDonald (2000), pp. 156–7.
  15. ^ Jarron, Matthew (2015). "Independent & Individualist": Art in Dundee 1867-1924. Dundee: University of Dundee Museum Services / Abertay Historical Society. pp. 48–91. ISBN 978-0-900019-56-2. 
  16. ^ a b c E Wyn James (16 October 2014). "Viewpoint: The Argentines who speak Welsh". BBC Magazine. Retrieved 30 January 2016. 
  17. ^ Watts, Andrew (2007). Preserving the provinces: small town and countryside in the work of Honoré de Balzac. Peter Lang. p. 168. ISBN 978-3-03910-583-0. 
  18. ^ a b Alberro, Manuel (2005). "Celtic Legacy in Galicia". E-Keltoi: Journal of Interdisciplinary Celtic Studies. 6: 1005–1035. 
  19. ^ Melhuish, Martin (1998). Celtic Tides: Traditional Music in a New Age. Ontario, Canada: Quarry Press Inc. p. 28. ISBN 1-55082-205-5. 
  20. ^ Archived 2 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  21. ^ "Gallaic Revival Movement". Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  22. ^ "Gallaic Revival". Retrieved 11 May 2013. 
  23. ^ "Old Celtic Dictionary". Archived from the original on 4 November 2012. 
  24. ^ a b c d Arminta Wallace (27 April 2015). "The mini-revival of the Irish language". The Irish Times. Retrieved 25 January 2017. 
  25. ^ a b Jo Lateu (June 2014). "Talking about a revolution". New Internationalist. Retrieved 25 January 2017. 
  26. ^ "Minister makes history with EU speech". The Scotsman. 11 May 2010. Retrieved 26 January 2017. 
  27. ^ Daniel de Vise (5 March 2012). "A modest revival for the Irish language". The Washington Post. Retrieved 23 January 2016. 
  28. ^ Frances Mulraney (16 September 2015). "New Irish language learning app provides lessons to over one million users". IrishCentral. Retrieved 25 January 2017. 
  29. ^ Gráinne Ní Aodha (25 November 2016). "Over 2.3 million language learners have signed up for Irish lessons on Duolingo". TheJournal.ie. Retrieved 25 January 2017. 
  30. ^ "Northern Ireland Assembly divided by Irish language". 14 January 2017. 
  31. ^ "Irish language bursary funding 'found' says Paul Givan". BBC. 12 January 2017. Retrieved 16 May 2017. 
  32. ^ Ryan Smith (18 January 2017). "Plans revealed for new £2million Irish language centre in West Belfast". Belfast Live. 
  33. ^ "Mod's fluent youth speaks volumes for Gaelic education". The Scotsman. 17 October 2007. Retrieved 26 January 2017. 
  34. ^ Simon Usborne (15 September 2008). "The Big Question: Is there really a Cornish culture, and does it deserve promotion?". The Independent. Retrieved 15 May 2017. 
  35. ^ "All you need to know about new Cornwall festival in Penzance". Cornwall Live. 16 January 2017. Retrieved 15 May 2017. 
  36. ^ "Welsh language centres will succeed, says Alun Davies". BBC. 13 January 2017. Retrieved 30 January 2017. 
  37. ^ "Welsh language target of one million speakers by 2050". BBC. 1 August 2016. Retrieved 30 January 2017. 
  38. ^ Ethnologue
  39. ^ Aeberhard, Benson & Phillips 2000, p. 602.
  40. ^ Michael Kerr (30 January 2015). "Welsh community celebrating 150 years in Argentina". The Telegraph. Retrieved 30 January 2017. 
  41. ^ a b Hale 2000, p. 151.
  42. ^ a b Hale 2000, p. 150.
  43. ^ Hemming 2001, p. 250.
  44. ^ Martin Gayford (26 September 2015). "The British Museum's Celtic masterpieces aren't Celtic - but they are fabulous". The Spectator. Retrieved 12 May 2017. 
  45. ^ a b Eliot Wilson (12 May 2017). "Comment: Gaelic signs a spurious vanity project for SNP". The Scotsman. Retrieved 12 May 2017. 


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