The Last of the Celts, by Marcus Tanner

Lament for a disappearing culture
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Some people are born Celts. Marcus Tanner investigates their lives and revivals in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. Some choose to become Celts. These he finds among Isle of Man immigrants, seeking a whites-only culture, and in Argentina, where a Welsh-speaking homeland settled in 1865 still survives. And some, like Tanner himself, are ripped from their Celtic origins. His Welsh-speaking father moved his family to London when Tanner was a child. He felt out of place, irritated at being thought Irish when only a Welsh optic can make sense of "my personality, my height, my shape, my face".

Some people are born Celts. Marcus Tanner investigates their lives and revivals in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall and Brittany. Some choose to become Celts. These he finds among Isle of Man immigrants, seeking a whites-only culture, and in Argentina, where a Welsh-speaking homeland settled in 1865 still survives. And some, like Tanner himself, are ripped from their Celtic origins. His Welsh-speaking father moved his family to London when Tanner was a child. He felt out of place, irritated at being thought Irish when only a Welsh optic can make sense of "my personality, my height, my shape, my face".

Ostensibly concerned with the erasure of Celtic languages, his book is part-autobiography, part-anthropology. The narrative mixes history, geography and politics, a splash of literature, healthy dollops of interviews, and rather too much Celtic weather. It describes rather than analyses the cultural crises encountered. The tone is elegiac, the data dispiriting. The Last of the Celts is a threnody for a culture Tanner does not expect to survive.

It is a generously motivated book. Tanner's energetic record of the lives and thoughts of marginalised Celtic peoples can only be welcomed. Yet he tilts at some historical windmills. Determined to be disappointed by Irish attitudes to the past, Tanner takes the broadest of brushes to complicated issues. Irish independence was apparently meant to turn the clock back 500 years and recreate a Celtic Ireland "by sheer force". In a Dublin pub, he is made uneasy by any monument to Irish assaults on the British Empire.

He disapproves of sentimental ballads and the false "Celtic" note they strike. Irish music is either "deeply linked to the armed struggle", or bland. Irish political parties have "bizarre" names, a statement I find bizarre. In Belfast, Tanner's description of the Gaelic movement as "a continuation of the armed struggle" by other means is almost irresponsible.

The further he gets from Ireland, the better the book becomes. A masterly chapter on Welsh nonconformism is passionate and moving. The Welsh language survived because it was never the sole index of national "authenticity", while the culture that supported it slowly withered.

Variations on that conundrum are braided throughout the narrative as Tanner explores Cornwall, France and Scotland. Any language at variance with its surrounding social landscape lives under the threat of extinction. Rendering it relevant seems to extinguish the very elements worth preserving.

Tanner offers no programme for action. How could he? Another Welshman, Raymond Williams, reminded us that the only thing certain about organic societies is that they are always dead. Tanner's ambitious synthesis of history, culture and language shows us in rich detail what we are in danger of losing forever.

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK

Comments