The Pan-Celtic Movement and the Celtic World

From the Lecture Series : The Celtic World

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

Is it easy to draw a line between ancient Celts and the Celtic fringe of today? Does the Celtic phenomenon necessarily have to be defined as the culture of one particular ethnic group? Can anyone who is politically marginalized, yet inspired by the great art, literature, music connect to the Celtic culture? 

Peel castle constructed by Vikings in the Isle of Man.
The Celtic League recognizes Isle of Man as part of the Celtic region. It is a self-governed region and not part of the parliament of the United Kingdom. (Image: Henryk Sadura/Shutterstock)

The pan-Celtic movement strives to promote the shared heritage of the Celtic nations. The origins of this movement date back to the late 19th century when broader romantic nationalist organizations operating in Ireland and parts of Europe were abundant. The Celts always resisted imperial authority, be it in Britain, France or Spain, which makes it easy for the modern Celts resisting authority to draw an analogy.

The Celtic Association

The Celtic Association was officially formed in 1900 to promote culture through language, art, literature and music of the Celts. Soon, the association began holding pan-Celtic congresses with some of the trappings of Celtic revivalism such as neo-druidic ceremonies.

Photo of delegates at the Celtic Congress of 1904 in Caernarfon.
Delegates at the Pan-Celtic Congress in 1904.
(Image: John Wickens/Public domain)

The first congress had five regions namely the Isle of Man, Brittany, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. In 1904, Cornwall made it to the congress despite initial opposition to the waning status of the Cornish language. However, over the last century the number of areas claiming a Celtic association is on the rise.

The Celtic League

The Celtic League is a non-governmental organization that was found in 1961 to promote pan-Celticism. The idea was to reunite the Celtic realms under a single political authority with emphasis on identity and culture of these nations.

In spite of being one of the radical advocates of pan-Celticism, this league is a United Nations-accredited organization. However, this radicalism is only a fringe position and the odds of forming a unified nation are close to nil.

Learn more about the Celts and the classical world.

The Isle of Man and Cornwall

The Celtic League recognizes Isle of Man, Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland as the Celtic regions. These regions are united by a distinct common culture and linguistic heritage.

The Isle of Man is a self-governed region and not part of the parliament of the United Kingdom. Manx and English are the two official languages of the Isle of Man.

The next largest among these regions is Cornwall. There were occasional demands for autonomy of Cornwall based on the Celtic heritage of the Cornish people. Just as in Isle of Man, there are bilingual streets in Cornwall and attempts to revive the Cornish language started in the 1990s.

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

Brittany

One other prominent regions is Brittany in the northwestern peninsula of France. A rich Celtic tradition, culture, music, literature and distinctive customs make it different from rest of France. Unlike other Celtic languages, the Breton language receives no official support and has undergone a steep decline in the recent past.

Wales, Scotland, and Ireland

Following a narrow referendum, in favor of devolution, the parliament of United Kingdom granted Wales its own legislative assembly in 1998. The nationalist party of Wales, though, never quite managed to seize control of the local politics as there were few takers of their agenda. Wales has the largest number of Celtic language speakers than any other realms, and as per the census of 2011, the number of Welsh speakers was about 19% of the population.

In Scotland, the nationalist sentiment and support for the Gaelic language has increased over the years. However, the second referendum on Scottish independence in September 2014 had failed. The use of tartan to symbolize a pan-Scottish identity shows that the revival of the Scottish identity in the 19th century focused on cultural features rather than the language.

There are hardly any parallels in the Celtic region that can be drawn to Ireland for its complicated nationalist agenda. Though the number of Irish speakers stubbornly refuses to climb up, there have been consistent efforts to push Irish as the everyday language of the people. Even today, huge resources are spent to promote and support the Irish language.

Learn more about Celtic religion and the Druids.

Contentious Relationship with Galicia

For many years now, there have been persistent calls to include the Spanish province of Galicia into the community, and the region continues to aspire for a place within the League. But the absence of a shared linguistic heritage kept Galicia away from the league. In fact, Galicia was accepted to the League in 1986, only to be evicted the very next year as the decision proved to be extremely controversial.

Exploring the Spanish Connection

Recently, there have been attempts to revive the Spanish connection with Ireland, which has been quite popular with tourists as well. 

Several monuments such as a statue of King Breóga and a compass rose of the seven Celtic nations, including Galicia, have now been set up as symbols to assert the status of Galicia as a Celtic region. Galicia also regularly showcases this connection to its tourists. Despite these efforts, Galicia has been given neither the status nor does it get any representation on the Celtic League’s constitution.

Learn more about Celtic Churches

Who Are the Celts?

Modern DNA studies almost conclusively prove that the Celts have been living in these areas for thousands of years. It also showed that there was no connection between these people and central Europe where the Celts arose. Studies also conclude that the hypothesis of a Celtic invasion of Britain and Ireland is wrong.

Nonetheless, though there are no genetic connections between the Celts, there are several things common among the Celts including art, language and culture.

The 2,000-year Celtic phenomenon need not be necessarily defined as the culture of one particular ethnic group. Anyone who is politically marginalized yet inspired by great art, literature, music and has made a disproportionate impact on world culture can connect to the Celtic culture.

Common Questions about the Pan-Celtic Movement and the Celtic World

Q: When was the Celtic Association formed?

The Celtic Association was officially formed in 1900.

Q: What are the regions of the Celtic League?

The Celtic League recognizes Isle of Man, Brittany, Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland as the Celtic regions. 

Q: Which region has the largest number of Celtic language speakers?

Wales has the largest number of Celtic language speakers. As per the census of 2011, the number of Welsh speakers was about 19% of the population.

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