sun setting picture

The Culture of Celts

Regarding the joke played on Celts which has lasted for an eternity. The Gorsedd.

An excerpt from

The Celts by Frank Delaney copyright 1986

Page 219 Under Bequests

The hidden agenda of Matthew Arnold’s jokey and pompous patronage asked – and still asks – an awkward question. How can the genuine causes of Welsh language, poetry, music, identity, be pursued unselfconsciously – the key word in the preservation of any culture – with the continuing presence of such unnecessary counterfeit?

Do the principles of Saunders Lewis and Gwynfor Evans need daft and shaky inventions?

The presence of the Gorsedd illustrates the dilemma of the Celtic bequest. In a number of territories the word ‘Celtic’ and all the attendant legacies has meant a pleasingly egregious identity. [egregious meaning is either shockingly bad or amazingly good]

Being ‘Celtic’ guarantees a right to the possession of romance and colour. ‘Celts’ – with long memories – may still distinguish themselves haughtily from those who once colonised them. The modern Celt can create a kin odd ethnic elite, satisfy the hunger for roots – hunger which increases under the pressure of monolithic cultures.

The old Celtic world stood for freedom on all fronts – imagination, movement, belief – as witnessed by the brilliant and curvilinear art forms, the great migrations, the multifarious deities. Celtic art, within its own form of expression, had no beginning, no middle, no end: of itself, it invited more than participation, it insisted upon total involvement, it became its own inner world.

The right to interpret remained the guiding principle. Even when representational art makes an appearance, particularly under the influence of the Romans, who impose the finite upon the Celtic artist in the same way as they had done upon the Celtic worshipper, the representation still appears reluctant.

The Celts great and ceaseless migrations predicted and epitomised physically their political posture: the freedom of all movement, intellectual, social, environmental, artistic, had always been much too important to accept any ordered enclosures such as the bureaucratic processes of the Roman Empire.

The military reverberation of this posture gave them no protection: if the Western Empire had to be opposed, then it ought to be fought as much for the honour and glory of the warrior, and for the preservation of the familial society as for any national or political reasons. Vercingetorix, remember, could not raise an army against Caesar in Gaul without widespread coercion of his fellow-Celts.

In modern terms, and allowing for pretentiousness, the cultural revivals of the ‘Celtic Fringe’ represent this refusal to participate with the conqueror – a real, if unrealistic bequest.

The Bretons in France fright for independence, speak the language, wheedle, force or cajole grants-in-aid of the central government in Paris. And all in order to distinguish themselves from France and the French by holding on their intensively Celtic traditions. Although the political facts weigh overwhelmingly – ludicrously so – against them, stubbornly they make the language live on, in ever-shrinking pockets, and where spoken it creates the most immediate of frontiers.

The Welsh have perfected this device: their language is frequently operated, manipulated, as a true border – the speaking of Welsh in a public place accumulates and takes on a greater significance if ’strangers’ are present. The Scots display more sense and realism: language and poetry, as spoken and practised particularly in the western islands, keep the sounds alive, and some of the spirit intact.

But they have long since accepted what happened. Two thousand years ago, the Celts of Europe, from which they are – or may be – descended and went into a decline. History did the rest: the only real lingering defiance came, and still comes, from a scattering, in numerical terms, of Gaelic-speakers. And generations ago, Glasgow and Boston took the cream of those.

Being ‘Celtic’ today means old memories dying hard. Ireland, as it capitalised culturally upon the Romans’ failure to invade, continues to plead a special case.

Arguments may rage: should Northern Ireland be seen as a Celtic legacy or a Celtic fringe issue?

Magnificent rhetoric may be derived from the old Celtic imageries, of their brave and elite warrior corps defending the culture of their people against the erosion, and the final destruction of the invader.

The polarisation between the communities underlines a cultural cliché – and the natives, aka Catholics, aka nationalists, aka Republicans, aka Celts have all the bright music, the native culture, the deepest traditions. And that the Planters, aka the Protestants, aka the Unionists, aka the invaders, aka the Romans/Anglo-Saxons, aka the English, have no indigenous culture.

Where is their music? Who are their poets? What is their language? Back comes the cry – how many centuries do you have to live in one place to create a civilisation? To see it in terms of a Celtic bequest is not entirely or satisfyingly accurate except among devils who cite scripture for their own purposes. (In reality many Planters of Ulster came from Scotland: out of what tribal or genetic pool did they swim? Some of them Picts, after all spoke a Celtic language.)

The real Celtic bequest in Ireland lies elsewhere – in the words, and the way in which they illuminate the imagination. In this respect, as with Wales, the term ‘literature’ broadens to include the oral tradition. This body of deep and brilliant material, timeless and varied, has unique characteristics.

The first Irish Poet, Amheirgin, a man of, and with, the Milesians, came to Ireland in 1268 BC, and bequeathed for all time ‘The song of Amheirgin’.

from The Celts by Frank Delaney copyright 1986

25th June 2020

I’m hoping Frank Delaney doesn’t mind me using a bit of his great book to make a point today, maybe the point doesn’t need to be made but with the conversations I’m having online with other folk I think it does.

This is the poem, for those of you who are unfamiliar.

If you think England uncultured you won’t be familiar with it.

You will not understand how important this poem is to us here in England, to our culture, nation, community and wellbeing. For those of us who do know it are lucky. And those among us who know it and understand it are ‘enlightened’.

The song of Amheirgin

I am a stag:          of the seven tines,

I am a flood         across a plain,

I am the wind:     on a deep lake,

I am a tear:          the sun lets fall,

I am a hawk:        above the cliff,

I am a thorn:       beneath the nail,

I am a wonder:   among flowers,

I am a wizard:    who but I

Set the cool head aflame with smoke?


I am a spear:       that rears for blood,

I am a salmon:    in a pool,

I am a lure:          from paradise,

I am a hill:           where poets walk,

I am a boar:        ruthless and red,

I am a breaker:  threatening doom,

I am a tide:         that drags to death,

I am an infant:   who but I

Peeps from the unknown dolmen arch?


I am the womb:  of every holt,

I am the blaze:    on every hill,

I am the queen:  of every hive,

I am the shield:   for every head,

I am the grave:   of every hope.


It’s a great poem. It stands the test of time.

This poem was handed down orally – on purpose, for a reason.

Julius Caesar was frustrated at ancient Celts for not writing down their knowledge. As long as those, rites, wisdoms and runes, were not written, he could not take them.

Thanks for reading.

For those interested, the poem is a code of our history.

There are some obvious clues, but others are hidden from view.

An easy line, for instance is, “I am a breaker: threatening doom,” is a nod to Christians who break bread and say it’s the end of the world…

Thanks for reading. All comments welcome.