The Celtic Fringe: The Identity of Doubly Marginalized Galicia

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

The Celtic identity spanned many regions, but the status of these regions varied, for although some enjoyed importance and prestige, others lay on the fringe. There were also some ‘marginal’ regions, which lay not even on the fringe, but on the ‘fringe of the fringe’ of the Celtic world. Galicia in Spain was one such region.

Distant image of Hercules Tower, A Coruña, Galicia, Spain, which stands as a symbol of the Celtic identity of the region.
Despite being a marginalized region even within the Celtic fringe, Galicia manages to maintain its Celtic identity, with artifacts such as the Hercules Tower standing testimony to its heritage. (Image: Javitouh/Shutterstock)

The Fringe of the Fringe of the Celtic World

While categorizing something as lying on the fringe of a fringe seems odd at first, in this case, it is perhaps the best explanation of the position in which a few parts of the Celtic world, such as Galicia, were located. 

The first layer of marginality that was faced by these areas of the Celtic world was due to the advance of Latin, which later developed into the Romance languages. In Britain, this went a step further with the spread of English, brought by the Anglo-Saxons. Thus, the Celtic fringe was created. But this Celtic fringe itself had a fringe. This came about much later than the first one, around the 19th century, with the newfound interest in the Celtic heritage of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. Ironically, while these places created a ‘Celtic core’, centered around western Britain and Ireland, which could proudly proclaim its Celtic roots, these were also places where the English language had risen to dominance and replaced Celtic languages. In addition, these were the regions ruled by a common power, England. This resulted in a kinship amongst these areas of the Celtic world, which allowed them to discuss the idea of a Celtic fringe, and their oppression by the English, using the English language. 

Other areas, such as Brittany in France, and Galicia in Spain, however, became doubly marginalized as a result of this kinship. Not only were they on the Celtic fringe, but the fact that they did not speak the language of the mainstream Celtic core meant that they even had to work hard to be accepted as part of the modern Celtic world. 

Learn more about the Celts in Scotland.

The History of Galicia 

Galicia is a region in Spain that lies on the fringe of the fringe of the Celtic world. Galicia has had one of the most diverse and varied experiences in comparison to any other Celtic-speaking region, even though its continuity and clarity were not always evident at certain points in the timeline. 

Despite the fact that Galicia has preserved very little of the original Celtic that was spoken there, it has an undeniable Celtic pedigree. The region, which gets its name from the Gallaeci, the Celtic speakers who lived in northwestern Iberia for the first millennium B.C., was conquered by the Romans during the reign of Augustus. Following this, it stayed under Roman rule until A.D. 410. Then, the Germanic Suebi tribe settled there, only to be conquered by another Germanic people, the Visigoths, under whose hegemony Spain remained until the sixth century. 

The Celtic Identity of Galicia

Similar to Brittany, another doubly marginalized part of the Celtic world,  Galicia happened to receive an infusion of Celtic speakers from Britain in the fifth century. This was around the time when other groups from western Britain were making their settlements into Brittany, giving the region its name. In fact, the British incomers in Galicia were so many that in the year A.D. 569, the Church Council of Lugo assigned them their own bishop. 

Unlike Brittany, however, the arrival of the Celtic people in Galicia did not eventually result in a Celtic language becoming the local vernacular. This probably happened because, by the time the British migrations occurred, the Celtic character of Iberia was already severely diminished. The entire Iberian Peninsula was heavily under Roman influence, much more so than in Gaul, which then included Brittany. Furthermore, Spain was not entirely Celtic speaking at the time of the Roman conquest, with a population of both non-Celtic Iberian speakers and Celtic speakers. This linguistic diversity may have accelerated Iberia’s shift towards Latin, later giving way to the modern vernaculars of the Iberian Peninsula, such as Spanish and Portuguese.

Therefore, when the British Celtic speakers arrived in Spain in the fifth century, their Celtic language had a far weaker base to build on, and it ultimately died out. In fact, the language spoken today in Galicia is certainly not Celtic, and lies somewhere on the continuum between Spanish and Portuguese, closer to Portuguese, although with some words that are directly or indirectly associated with Celtic origins.

This makes it significantly harder to trace the Celtic language throughout Galicia, which, in a stricter definition of Celtic identity, would have to technically be classified as post-Celtic. The few surviving artifacts of the Celtic language in Galicia, which were mostly just stone inscriptions, were not enough for the language to be revived.

However, it is not just the Romans and the British people who had ‘Celtic connections’ with Galicia. There was also an intriguing connection between Spain and Ireland.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Celtic Connection Between Galicia and Ireland

The well-documented fact that Irish inhabitants most likely came from Spain has often raised intrigued eyebrows about the actual connection between Spain and Ireland. Although many historians do not believe these stories to have a lot of substance, the theory that the Celtic languages may have arisen on the Atlantic coast of Europe, on the other hand, does seem plausible.

The few linguistic clues to the Galician Celtic language which still survive point to it being a Q-Celtic language. Irish, too, is Q-Celtic, whereas the Celtic languages of Britain, and perhaps Gaulish as well, were P-Celtic. This tends to suggest that it was from Spain that Celtic made it to Ireland. 

Another intriguing aspect of the Irish–Spanish relations is that the Irish origin story that begins in Galicia was known even in the early Middle Ages all over Spain, even though it only began to spread after many centuries, and then becoming a conscious tourism opportunity. 

Learn more about Celtic culture.

The Celtic Revival in Galicia 

Now, Galicia is in the middle of a Celtic revival. This can be seen in older artifacts that are slowly changing to reflect the Celtic roots of the region. For instance, the Tower of Breógan (also referred to today as Hercules Tower), an old Roman lighthouse on the Galician coast of A Coruña, is surrounded by a sculpture garden that references the region’s Celtic past. In fact, Breógan as a character is heavily mentioned in literature as the builder of the tower from which the Isle of Ireland was spotted by his sons. The modern Galician anthem, penned in 1907, explicitly narrates Breógan’s tale, heralding the pinnacle of the period referred to as the Celtic Revival. 

Hercules Tower, also known as the Tower of Breógan, in A Coruña, Galicia, Spain.
The Hercules Tower, and its surrounding sculpture garden, is a reflection of the Galician Celtic identity. (Image: saiko3p/Shutterstock)

Other aspects of culture in Galicia further anchor its Celtic heritage. Galician music, for example, shows clear similarities to music from other parts of the world which were categorized to belong to the ‘Celtic fringe’. 

Despite being on the fringe of the fringe of the Celtic world, Galicia seems to have cemented its Celtic heritage with its Celtic music, and its claims to have created a Celtic colony out of Ireland, without allowing the lack of a viable Celtic language to stand in its path. 

Learn more about the Celts today.

Commonly Asked Questions About Galicia

Q: Why is Galicia classified as ‘the fringe of the fringe’?

When Latin became popular, the Celtic languages became sidelined, and the Celtic fringe was formed. Later, the inhabitants of the ‘Celtic core’ of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland began to discuss their Celtic identity in English, thereby excluding the regions that didn’t speak English, such as Galicia in Spain. These regions then formed the Celtic fringe of the fringe.

Q: How did Celtic speakers arrive in Galicia?

Around the fifth century, Galicia received an infusion of many Celtic speakers from Britain. However, the non-Celtic Iberians were already prevalent here, which stopped the Celtic languages from taking over.

Q: How is Ireland related to Galicia?

There is a well-documented notion that the Celtic languages made it to Ireland through Spain, particularly through Galicia. The fact that both Irish and Galician are Q-Celtic languages further strengthens this notion.

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