Twilight of the Celts

Throughout Europe, the centuries-old Celtic languages are dying out, buried beneath a linguistic form of globalisation. Marcus Tanner reports on a cultural tragedy
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At the village of St Anne la Palud in western Brittany, I followed the Celtic saints as they went down to the sea at the annual religious fete they call the "grand pardon". A mission to find out what remained of Europe's Celtic cultures brought me to this most traditional of Breton folk festivals, and I made a note of the names of the local saints embroidered on to brilliant, red and green banners, hoisted by sturdy Bretons in traditional dress. There they were, St Samson, St Meryadoc, St Pol and a host of other Welsh or Irish men and women, who had brought the Celtic faith and culture to this land about 1500 years before.

At the village of St Anne la Palud in western Brittany, I followed the Celtic saints as they went down to the sea at the annual religious fete they call the "grand pardon". A mission to find out what remained of Europe's Celtic cultures brought me to this most traditional of Breton folk festivals, and I made a note of the names of the local saints embroidered on to brilliant, red and green banners, hoisted by sturdy Bretons in traditional dress. There they were, St Samson, St Meryadoc, St Pol and a host of other Welsh or Irish men and women, who had brought the Celtic faith and culture to this land about 1500 years before.

Their memory is a testament to the faint bonds that tie all these lands together. So is language. As the pilgrims struck up a canticle in Breton. "Intron Santez Anna", "Lady Anne, save your Breton people on land and sea", it struck me how alien it must have sounded to French ears, and how much more familiar to anyone with a knowledge of Welsh, say, for the two are sister tongues. They are part of the family of Celtic languages that stretches from Brittany through Cornwall and Wales to Ireland and Scotland. But the number able to enjoy the connection grows smaller every passing year, for as I found on my journey, the Celtic languages - and much of the cultures that grew from them - are in their death throes. Within a generation they will have virtually died as community languages, except in parts of Wales and a handful of islands off Scotland and Ireland. They will live on, Mark Masson, a Breton activist in Finistere, told me, as "languages of societies, like an internet language, a community of interest - almost like being gay".

Brittany presents an extreme example of Celtic cultural collapse, for until the 1940s Breton remained the mother tongue of a nation, west of the north-south line running roughly from Vannes to St Brieuc. Sustained by the Catholic Church, which cherished the Bretons' resistance to French atheism, this continental Celtic outpost withstood centuries of French assaults. No longer. The million Breton speakers of the 1920s and the 600,000 of the 1960s are down to about 260,000 today, according to the government's own research. As most are over 60, a distinct Breton identity now faces extinction. As a Breton television journalist, Ronan Hirrien, one of the few younger speakers, told me, a culture of self-hatred inculcated by the dominant French had finally succeeded in inducing cultural suicide. "After the war everyone made the switch to French," M. Hirrien told me. "French was the road to modernity and a better life, and schools taught in French and about France."

It was increasingly difficult, M. Hirrien added, to find people able to take part in Breton-language television programmes. "More and more it's becoming like a club," he said, echoing M. Masson's words.

He felt no anger, merely grief. "We are losing a language we have had for 15 centuries. Already, children have no idea how their grandparents lived. They have a new culture."

As I found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, in Nova Scotia and in Welsh Patagonia the solemn and rather awful character of this cultural tragedy is masked by obsessive, tinny talk of a Celtic revival. The debate over the future of these cultures seems to have been appropriated by small groups of self-conscious revivalists who are usually outsiders, often English immigrants, and whose militancy has the somewhat blind quality of a certain type of religious enthusiast.

So, the real, savage decline of the native culture is simply denied. It is also disguised by the almost ubiquitous, sometimes moronic, use of the word "Celt" and "Celtic" to almost every department of life, which again makes many visitors to these lands believe there must be some kind of revival going on. Brittany has daft-sounding bars with mangled names like "O'Keltia", sports tournaments called "Celti-ping" (yes, that's what one table-tennis tournament was called), rows of books on Celtic saints and their "healing" powers, or on "Celtic" herbal and other recipes, besides stacks of CDs of "Celtic" music - much of it from Ireland, and much of it a kind of Celtic "muzak" composed of one part fiddle, and two parts sorrowful ballad, sung in a plaintive high voice and in English.

But while Celticism as a marketing exercise has never been stronger, the culture and languages at the core of it continue silently to shrivel away. Everywhere, I found the Anglophone (or Francophone) town continues to absorb and overcome the Breton, Irish or Gaelic-speaking countryside, pushing the older, weaker, culture further and further north or west, until it has only the cliff and sea to fall back on. The trend looks relentless and one-way. Scottish islands such as Skye, which were firmly Gaelic-speaking some decades ago, are pretty overwhelmingly English-speaking now, leaving only the Outer Hebrides for Gaelic.

What is depressing about the death of these Celtic cultures is that it doesn't seem to matter much if the government is friendly, or not. In France, the centralising Jacobin tradition is frankly hostile to all cultural rivals, but even in Ireland, eight decades of independence have not breathed much life into what looks like a corpse. Even under a leader such as Eamon De Valera, who despised English and promoted Irish, Anglicisation proceeded relentlessly, often via the cinema. Today, for all the innovative programmes and self-conscious youthfulness of the Connemara-based Irish-language television station, TG4, English continues to seep into the last bastion of the Gaeltacht, the mainly west-coast area of Ireland that has been designated as an Irish-speaking zone.

One official in the Udaras na Gaeltachta, the Gaeltacht development board, told me frankly that she thought not more than 50 per cent of local people now ordinarily used Irish at home - well down on the figures of only a few decades ago. Every year the booming, increasingly international, city of Galway encroaches further into the Gaeltacht's fringe, turning the border villages into city dormitory suburbs.

The Udaras official was not exaggerating. When I went to a pub deep in the heart of the Gaeltacht, near the home of the old nationalist icon Padraig Pearse ( a fervent promoter of Irish), I found a teenage crowd of locals shouting non-stop commentaries and in English at a live sports match blaring away from the television in the corner.

There seems little people can do about this cultural globalisation - this steady cultural conquest via the television screen. One teacher in the Connemara Gaeltacht told me that in just 20 years, the language of primary school playgrounds had shifted quietly from Irish to English, though all the classes were in Irish. A local man, with two children, told me a similar story. While his children always spoke Irish to him, he said, "as soon as I go out of the room, I can hear them switching over to English". In Ireland, the state will always prop up Irish, even if, like Breton, it is increasingly a language of urban learners with an impoverished vocabulary.

Nova Scotia offers a far more shocking prospect. There, a strong community of Gaelic-speaking Highlanders, who settled there in the 1820s, has totally disintegrated; the language in the Gaelic stronghold of Cape Breton Island has gone from being the main community language before 1918 to the tongue of a handful of octogenarians. There, Gaelic was ground to pieces by east-coast Canada's bitter language wars, pitting French against English, leaving no room for any others. Interestingly, even the long-crushed native American languages are faring better.

Yet most people on Cape Breton say a Celtic revival is in full swing. They point to the annual "Celtic Colours" music festival, the "Celtic taster" days, the reconstructed "Highland Village", and the "Great Hall of the Clans", where in the adjoining shop, I watched tourists ordering their kilts. The Nova Scotia government has even set aside wonderfully named "Gaelic awareness" months.

I have nothing against any of it, especially the music, which is certainly booming at festivals like "Celtic Colours" as never before. But I found it odd that in and amongst this self-conscious Celtic activism, few people seem even to have clocked the significance of the death of the language that underpins it all.

As in so many parts of the Celtic world, there is a kind of state of denial. Read the tourist literature on Cape Breton and you will come away thinking Gaelic lives on happily in remoter parts, just as the Breton tourist industry connives in perpetuating the false notion that in remoter corners of Brittany, as in Gauguin's time, women still wear the tall lace hats and chat away in Breton on the quays, slitting open fish.

But even in Mabou village, much trumpeted as a kind of Celtic cultural centre for Nova Scotia, I found little evidence of this survival. A school teacher there told me that some local children were learning Gaelic, but she admitted also that they would never even learn a fraction of the vocabulary of the old generation, who were fast dying off. The English cultural avalanche is relatively recent in Cape Breton. A local man, Sandy Morrison, whose interview in 1980 I came across in a library, recalled his surprise on hearing English used for the first time in church, in his youth. He wrote: "I was telling father when we came home 'The Lord will never understand! How will he understand that?'"

John Macdonald, interviewed at much the same time, said there was now no hope for the old language: "It's just going to die and go into the ground with the dead people. That's the end of it, that's it."

By the time I got to Nova Scotia, those people were all dead themselves, and all I found were people who remembered other, older, people speaking Gaelic, like Jim Macdonald. When I asked him if he knew the language, he just laughed. "I can say ciamar atha thu? - How are you? - and that's about it," he guffawed. "My parents spoke Gaelic to each other, but to me and my brother - never! They both felt mocked for their poor English and said they would never let it happen to their children." (I thought immediately of Ronan Hirrien who told me that when he took up Breton his grandfather had been furious, saying the language had brought his generation "nothing but pain".)

Can anything stop the death of the Celtic tongues as living community languages? I don't believe so, except perhaps in Wales, where a critical mass of speakers remains in some parts, though an invasion of English second-home owners is doing its deadly work, even there. For the rest, I cannot see a way through. The people who really inhabit the inside skins of these languages are for the most part old. Many are content for their tongues to "go into the ground with the dead people", as John Macdonald had once put it.

They were like three very elderly farmers I came across in a village bar in Brittany who chatted away in Breton to each other until they realised that I, the foreigner, was listening. Instantly, they switched to French, one assuring me that "Nous aimons la Francaise aussi! - We love French, too!". They did not realise quite how sad I found their subservience before the altar of French culture.

"The Last of the Celts" by Marcus Tanner is published by Yale University Press, £20



1891 : 910,000 speakers out of a population of 1.6m

1921: 920,000 out of 2.4m

1951: 714,000 out of 2.4m

1971: 542,000 out of 2.6m

Patagonia (Welsh)

There are no accurate figures, but it is thought there are around 8,000 speakers in and around Gaiman. The Welsh Assembly is encouraging a revival of Welsh and sending teachers to the area.

Brittany (Breton)

1886; 2m out of 3m

1920: 1m out of 3m

1960: 600,000 out of 3m

2004: 268,000 out of 2.9m (most over 60)


1881: 924,000 out of 5.1m

1926: 540,802 out of 4.2m

1996: 71,000 out of 3.9m (Figures refer to regular speakers in the Irish Republic. Many more claim some knowledge of the language and there are also many learners in Northern Ireland.)


Cornish died out as spoken language in the 18th century. A few hundred revivalists claim to speak it now

Isle of Man

Last native speaker of Manx was Ned Maddrell, who died in 1971. A few hundred learners have revived it.


1881: 250,000 out of 3.7m

1921: 150,000 out of 4.8m

1991: 65,958 out of 5m

2004: 58,000 out of 5m

Cape Breton (Gaelic)

1880: 85,000 out of 100,000

1920: 60,000 out of 100,000

1961: 3,700 out of 100,000

2004: around 500 out of 109,000