The Celts Under the Modern States (ca.1500-Present)

By the end of the 15th century the spectacular rise of an urban middle class that owed its success to emergent capitalism had made the feudal system cumbersome and outdated. In its place came the concept of the modern centralized state, served by a bureaucratized administration that directly affected the lives of all citizens. The emphasis on centralization and control led to an ideal of prescribed uniformity for the entire population within a state's borders: all the inhabitants should follow the same religion, speak the same language and have the same culture, share the same sense of historical identity as a nation, etc. This meant that ethnic minorities were denied the right to their cultural autonomy, and were often actively persecuted as threats to the unity of the nation. Since no Celtic community was allowed to form a modern state (Brittany lost its sovereignty in 1532, Scotland in 1707), all the Celts found themselves under the rule of English- or French-oriented political elites. Native elites that resisted this complete loss of autonomy were either massacred or driven into exile, turning the remaining Celtic areas into purely peasant communities. Without the patronage of cultured aristocrats, the native literary class (what remained of the bards) found itself deprived of both an audience and financial support, and dwindled rapidly. By the late 1700's, literacy in any Celtic language had become rare (except in Wales, where the translation of the Bible into Welsh and the prevalence of nonconformist Welsh-speaking chapel communities helped keep the language alive at all levels of use until the 20th century). Increasingly centralized and influential educational systems depreciated the Celtic languages and the cultural heritage that came with them, while emphasizing the social importance of identifying with the majority culture.

Economic developments put Celtic communities under even greater stress. The industrial revolution in the 19th century shifted the centers of economic activity to urban areas and drove marginal rural areas into deep poverty. As in most colonial situations, Celtic farmers worked to provide foreign landlords with exportable goods and were left with a limited range of products for their own sustenance. In Ireland small farmers were expected to survive on potatoes, so that when a blight killed most of the potato crop in the 1840's a terrible famine ensued, leading to the death of a million people and massive emigration, mostly to America. Elsewhere, less dramatic crises (for instance, the expropriation of small farmers to make room for large-scale agribusiness projects) resulted in an equally serious drain on Celtic populations. Scattered across the world, the vast majority of these emigrants wound up in culturally alien cities where they abandoned most of their Celtic heritage and assimilated into the majority culture. While there still are Gaelic-speakers in Nova Scotia and Welsh-speakers in Patagonia, they're no more than a tiny remnant within a largely acculturated population.

In the Celtic countries themselves, there was a sharp reduction of the territories where Celtic languages and culture were dominant. In the aftermath of the Famine many Irish families avoided passing on the use of Irish to their children in order to make sure that they identified with English language and culture. By the turn of the 19th century Cornish had ceased to be a community language, and the same fate befell Manx in the 20th century (although today, thanks to a heroic revival effort, both languages again have native speakers).

However, even as economic and political circumstances caused native Celtic communities to decline, international scholarship began to take an interest in Celtic culture. The contents of mediaeval Irish and Welsh manuscripts were studied and published by people like Eoghan O'Curry, Whitley Stokes and Lady Charlotte Guest. J. F. Campbell and Alexander Carmichael researched ancient native traditions still surviving in the Scottish Highlands. Fran ois Luzel (Fa–ch an Uhel) did the same in Brittany. Translations of this material gave the general reading public a sense that there was something exciting and valuable about the Celtic heritage. It also restored a measure of self-respect to Celtic communities themselves, making some people have second thoughts about assimilating completely into the English- or French-speaking worlds. In the latter half of the 19th century this translated into organized movements that sought to restore the languages in areas that had abandoned their use and to win back the political freedom of Celtic nations. One of the most notable of these institutions was the Gaelic League, created in 1893 to win Irish people back to their native culture through a program of lectures and language classes. Douglas Hyde, the League's founder and mastermind, saw this as a cultural project with long-term political goals: it would gradually "de-Anglicise" Ireland to the point that the cultural separation would lead inexorably to a political separation. But the movement for political separation gathered momentum more quickly than Hyde had anticipated, leading to independence for twenty-six counties of Ireland without a real transition back to the native culture.

Nevertheless, the struggle of Celtic communities to reassert their autonomy and preserve their culture has continued unabated throughout this past century. Since, of the six Celtic nations, only Ireland has achieved even partial independence, all face a certain amount of resistance from centralized government agencies that either ignore their culture or are actively hostile to it. Yet the past thirty years have seen some erosion in modern states' anti-pluralist ideology, allowing more and more of a presence for the Celtic languages in education, publishing and the media. Periodicals appear regularly in all six languages, and all six are represented in the mass media of their countries to varying degrees. Pressure from Celtic-speakers in alliance with speakers of other minority languages has earned the Celtic languages official status as "Lesser-Used Languages" within the European Union, which has in turn pressured its member states to give more of a public role to these languages in the communities where they are spoken. Edward Lhuyd's "Celtic" concept had become widely known by the 19th century, so that many people developed an interest in the common roots of the six modern cultures, and saw this original unity as a source of strength. As a result, pan-Celtic organizations like the Pan-Celtic Congress and the Celtic League have served to open and maintain links between all the surviving Celtic communities, helping them learn from each other's struggles and reinforce each other's efforts. Some of these efforts have begun to bear fruit at the political level, as became evident in 1997 when a referendum allowed the Scots to re-establish their Parliament, and the Welsh to obtain a National Assembly. Also, descendants of Celtic immigrants around the world are rediscovering the value of their ancestral heritage and providing assistance to the cultural movements in Celtic countries. The greatest danger now, however, lies in the deadly effect of the Anglo-American commercial mass media, which tend to crush out of existence any cultures that aren't supported by strong, autonomous institutions.

      Those of us who are involved with [CR] as a religious and spiritual project could be of great assistance to this ongoing renewal of the Celtic world. Modern Celts are often ambivalent about their ancient, pre-Christian past, because it has so often been distorted and misappropriated by outsiders. As long as we don't fall into this same trap of using the Celtic world as a canvas on which to project completely foreign fantasies and desires, and as long as we maintain a true respect for the living essence of Celtic tradition, our appreciation of the value and viability of the ancient root heritage of all the Celts can give more self-assurance to Celtic communities, and ensure that the Celtic tradition endures as a living force into the future.  

Suggested reading:  


ELLIS, Peter Berresford. _The Celtic Revolution_. 1988.

 ELLIS, Peter Berresford. _The Celtic Dawn_. 1993.     

HECHTER, Michael. _Internal Colonialism: the Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966_. 1975.

16th century:

ELLIS, Steven. _Ireland in the Age of the Tudors, 1447-1603: English Expansion and the End of Gaelic Rule_. 1998.

OWEN, G. Dyfnallt. _Elizabethan Wales_. 1962.

REES, J.F. _Tudor Policy in Wales_. 1935.

WILLIAMS, Glanmor. _Recovery, Reorientation, and Reformation: Wales, ca. 1415-1642_. 1987.

WORMALD, Jenny. _Court, Kirk, and Community: Scotland, 1470-1625_. 1991.  

17th century:

COWAN, Edward J. _Montrose: For Covenant and King_. 1977.

CUNNINGHAM, Bernadette. _The World of Geoffrey Keating: History, Myth and Religion in Seventeenth-Century Ireland_. 2000.

DICKINSON, J.R. _The Lordship of Man Under the Stanleys: Government and Economy in the Isle of Man, 1580-1704_.

DODD, A.H. _Studies in Stuart Wales_. 1971.

FITZPATRICK, Brendan. _Seventeenth-Century Ireland_.

GRAINGER, John D. _Cromwell Against the Scots: The Last Anglo-Scottish War, 1650-1652_. 1997.

LEACH, A.L. _A History of the Civil War in Pembrokeshire, 1642-1649_. 1937.

LENIHAN, Padraig (Ed.). _Conquest and Resistence: War in Sevententh-Century Ireland_. 2001.

OHLMEYER, Jane H. _Political Thought in Seventeenth-Century Ireland: Kingdom or Colony_. 2000.

PREBBLE, John. _Darien: The Scottish Dream of Empire_.

PREBBLE, John. _Glencoe: The Story of the Massacre_.

ROY, David. _The Covenanters: The Fifty Years Struggle 1638-1688_. 1997.

WHEELER, James Scott. _Cromwell in Ireland_.  

18th century:

JENKINS, Geraint H. _The Foundations of Modern Wales: Wales 1642-1780_.

KEE, Robert. _The Green Flag: The Most Troublesome Nation_.

MORGAN, Prys. _The Eighteenth Century Renaissance_. 1981.

NEWTON, Michael. _We're Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States_. 2001.

PITTOCK, Murray G.H. _Jacobitism_. 1998.

PREBBLE, John. _Culloden_.

SUTHERLAND, Donald W. _The Chouans: The Social Origins of Popular Counter-Revolution in Upper Brittany, 1770-1796_.

WAUGHAN, W.E. (Ed.). _A New History of Ireland: Eighteenth-Century Ireland 1691-1800_.

WILKINS, Frances. _The Isle of Man and the Jacobites_.

WILLIAMS, David. _Wales and America_. 1962.

WILLIAMS, Gwyn A. _Madoc: The Making of a Myth_. 1980.  

19th century:

DONNELLY, James S., Jr. _The Great Irish Potato Famine_. 2001.

EVANS, D. Gareth. _A History of Wales, 1815-1906_.

KEE, Robert. _The Green Flag: The Bold Fenian Men_.

LAXTON, Edward. _The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America_. 1998.

MOLLOY, Pat. _And They Blessed Rebecca_. 1983.

PREBBLE, John. _The Highland Clearances_.

PREBBLE, John. _The King's Jaunt: George IV in Scotland, 1822_.

WEBER, Eugene. _Peasants Into Frenchmen: the Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914_. 1978.

WILLIAMS, David. _John Frost: A Study in Chartism_. 1939.

WILLIAMS, David. _The Rebecca Riots_. 1955.

WILLIAMS, Gwyn A. _The Merthyr Rising_. 1978.

WOODHAM-SMITH, Cecil. _The Great Hunger_. 1980.  

20th century:

BELCHAM, John (Ed.). _A New History of the Isle of Man: the Modern Period _1830-1999_

DARGIE, Richard. _Explore Scottish History: Scotland Since 1900_.

DE FREINE, Sean. _The Great Silence_.

EVANS, D. Gareth. _A History of Wales, 1906-2000_. 

KEE, Robert. _The Green Flag: Ourselves Alone_. [all three Kee titles can be obtained in an omnibus volume from Penguin: _The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism_.]

KERMODE, David G. _Offshore Island Politics: The Constitutional and Political Development of the Isle of Man in the Twentieth Century_.

McDONALD, Maryon. _We Are Not French: Language, Culture and Identity in Brittany_.

MORGAN, O. Kenneth. _Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980_. 1982.

REECE, Jack E. _The Bretons Against France: Ethnic Minority Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Brittany_.

SMITH, David & FRANCIS, Hywel. _The Fed: The History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century_. 1980.

THOMAS, Ned. _The Welsh Extremist_. 1978.

WILLIAMS, David. _A Short History of Modern Wales_. 1966.  

More general national and regional histories that will also be useful:

BLACK, Jeremy. _A New History of Wales_.

BREWER, Paul (Ed.). _Ireland: History, Culture, People_. DAVIES, John. _A History of Wales_.

DAVIES, Norman. _The Isles: A History_.

FOSTER, R.F. (Ed.). _The Oxford History of Ireland_.

HALLIDAY, F.E. _A History of Cornwall_.

HARVIE, Christopher. _Scotland: A Short History_.

HOUSTON, R.A. (Ed.). _The New Penguin History of Scotland: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day_.

HOWE, William. _Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture_.

KINVIG, R.H. _The Isle of Man: A Social, Cultural and Political History_.

MacLEAN, Fitzroy. _Highlanders: A History of the Scottish Clans_.

MacLEAN, Fitzroy & LINKLATER, Magnus. _Scotland: A Concise History_.

MAGNUSSON, Magnus. _Scotland: The Story of a Nation_.

MOODY, T.W. (Ed.). _The Course of Irish History_.

O'BEIRNE RANELAGH, John. _A Short History of Ireland_.

PITTOCK, Murray G. H. _A New History of Scotland_.

WILLIAMS, Gwyn A. _When Was Wales_.  

Other useful sources:

HUMPHREYS, Emyr. _The Taliesin Tradition_. NEWTON, Michael. _Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World_.  


Identify the following and place them in historical context:


Eoin MacNeill

Arthur Griffith

Alasdair Mac Colla

Aneurin Bevan

James Graham of Montrose

The "Bonedo -Ruz"

Richard Trevithick

Yann-Vari Perrot


James Keir Hardie

Michael Davitt

Saunders Lewis

John MacLean

Terence MacSwiney

Iolo Morganwg

"Illiam Dhone"

Gwynfor Evans

The "Whiteboys"

Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg

Roparz Hemon  

Date and describe the significance of the following events: The Battle of Prestonpans

The Betrayal of the Blue Books

The Battle of Aughrim

The Flight of the Earls

The Le Mans massacre

The "Tynghed yr Iaith" Address

The Plogoff protests

The drowning of Tryweryn

The "Prayer Book" Rebellion  

What is the Gwladfa?  

Imagine the case of an emigrant from each one of the six Celtic countries at some point in the nineteenth century. What would have been the most likely cause of emigration in each case? What would have been the most likely destination of each emigrant? What kind of livelihood would they have found in their new homes? And, in each case, what aspects of their culture would they have been most likely to discard, and why? What aspects, if any, might they have retained?  

Who were the Madogwys? What was their impact on the cultural history of the relevant Celtic nation?  

Imagine you were a Catholic Highlander in the middle of the 17th century. What would have been your political and cultural options?  

Compare the United Irishmen of the time of Archibald Wolfe Tone with the Young Irelanders of the mid-19th century. Is there a difference in their respective connections to Celtic Ireland?  

What did the French government do to the Breton cultural establishment at the end of World War II?  

Examine the language-revival movements in each one of the six Celtic nations. When and by whom were they first launched? What kind of response did each one of them get? Evaluate their achievements to the present day.