Bernard An Nail: Publisher and historian who championed Britanny's language, literature and culture

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Few Bretons have devoted their lives to promoting their culture with the flair and dogged determination shown by Bernard Le Nail. He was a leading member of the cultural movement in Brittany, which struggles to maintain its identity in the face of hostility from the French state and often the indifference of its own people. Nail worked hard for more than 30 years to demonstrate the richness and beauty of Breton literature and, with a patriot's commitment to the Breton language, brought many gems into the light of day which otherwise might have been lost.

From 1979 to 1983, while based in Paris, where he had decided to learn Breton after reading of the appalling loss of some 250,000 Bretons in the First World War, he was Secretary General of the Comité d'Etude et de Liaison des Intérêts Bretons (CELIB), a consultative body created by the journalist Joseph Martray which was concerned primarily with the modernisation of agriculture in Brittany and which was in the forefront of the rural unrest of 1961, when Breton farmers came out to demonstrate on their tractors.

Other organisations with which he worked were groups aiming to bring together the disparate (and often competing) bodies that were trying to put back together the culture that had been shattered during and immediately after the Second World War, especially during l'épuration when Breton patriots and sympathisers were killed or jailed on charges of having collaborated with the German occupiers.

The centre known as Ker Vreizh [House of Brittany] in Paris served as a base for most Breton activity at that time. It was here that Bernard Le Nail – known as Bernez An Nail in Breton circles, his unusual surname deriving perhaps from An Ael [the Angel] – came into his own as an activist who was willing to put his shoulder to the wheel and learn the administrative skills that were to serve him for the rest of his career.

When he moved to become director of l'Institut Cuturel de Bretagne/Skol Uhel ar Vro in 1983, he already had a reputation as a dedicated and highly competent administrator whose talents were at the service of the Breton language and its literature. He remained in that post for 14 years after which, in 2001, he founded the publishing imprint Les Portes du Large, where he brought out beautifully produced books relating to Brittany and its people. He wrote many of them himself, often in collaboration with his wife Jacqueline, a reference librarian in Rennes.

He was also very active with L'association des éditeurs de Bretagne, which represents the publishers of Brittany, and in the work of Le centre régional du livre en Bretagne, which promotes reading and literacy. He was a long-standing member of the International Celtic Congress, which facilitates cultural contacts between the Celtic peoples.

Bernard Le Nail was born in Paris in 1946; his father was French Consul in Mexico and he spent a large part of his adolescence in South America. Educated at Hautes Etudes Commerciales in Paris, for which entry is extremely competitive and where he was awarded the coveted Diploma, he took his first job with the Chamber of Trade and Industry in Nantes. But he was from the first attracted to cultural questions and soon switched tack. He was to spend the rest of his life in the Breton movement, never indicating his political views lest he be charged with wishing to impair French unity, but working hard and single-mindedly to restore in Breton eyes the worth of the language and culture.

He wrote about 250 articles for the website of Agence Bretagne Presse and a number of books for visitors to Brittany, including the prestigious Guide Bleue (1991) and the Guide Gallimard (1997). One of his many interests was toponymy as demonstrated in his masterly book Noms de lieux bretons a travers le monde (2001). His Dictionnaire de la Loire-Atlantique will appear this year. He was a man who happily accepted an extraordinarily heavy workload, often writing several books concurrently and sometimes under the pseudonym Joseph Bréhier, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of Brittany was put at the service of anyone who requested it. Described on the day of his death as "part of our collective memory", he was a historian of uncommon ability, unearthing episodes and personalities in Breton history that had been overlooked by other historians, and becoming an expert on the Breton diaspora.

Although he was not politically active, lest it jeopardise his work, he was nevertheless a man of the centre- left, and a practising Catholic. When in 1999 the French Communist paper L'Humanité accused him of having been a member of a clandestine separatist group, he strenuously denied it, but made no apology for his defence of Breton culture.

He refused the award of the Collier de l'Hermine, the greatest honour Brittany can bestow on those who have served her, saying it was his patriotic duty to research and publish his findings for the sake of Brittany's survival as a bro (country/ region) with its own ancient and distinctive identity.

Meic Stephens

Bernard Le Nail / Bernez an Nail, Breton patriot, publisher and historian: born Paris 1946; Secretary-General, CELIB, 1979-83; Director, Institut culturel de Bretagne / Skol Uhel ar Vro, 1983-2000; married 1990 Jacqueline Hérault (three children); died Rennes 5 January 2010.

Comments