For the Great Gaels of Ireland
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.
G.K. Chesterton’s lines about the Irish, from his epic poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, encapsulate one of the many paradoxes at the heart of the Celtic conundrum. Yet Chesterton’s paradox barely scratches the surface of the enigma that the Celts present to a puzzled world. At the heart of the Celtic conundrum is a contradiction. Indeed, at the many hearts of the conundrum there are many contradictions. Let’s begin by enumerating a few of them.
Ireland’s heroic history of suffering is inseparable from its historic and heroic faith; yet modern Ireland, the so-called Celtic Tiger, is kept afloat by hand-outs from the old enemy, Britain, via payments from the European Union, and has turned its face contemptuously on the heroism and history of its Catholic faith. If Ireland is defined by its historic struggle against persecution, how Irish is the modern Ireland that has sold its soul and its faith for thirty pieces of silver Euros? If Ireland is defined by her faith, the Celtic Tiger is about as Celtic as, well, a tiger.
And if Ireland is defined by her Catholic faith, what about the Protestant North? Are the Ulster Loyalists Irish? What defines an Irishman? His faith; his place of birth? What of the Irish-Americans? Are they Irish? Who is more Irish, a Catholic Irishman such as James Joyce who is trying to escape from his Catholicism and from his Irishness, or a Protestant Irishman like Oscar Wilde who eventually becomes a Catholic? Who is more Irish, someone like Joyce who is walking away from the Catholic faith, or someone like C.S. Lewis, an Ulster Protestant, who is walking towards it, even though he never ultimately crosses the threshold?
Faced with such questions, one is reminded of Chesterton’s discussion of the Irishness of George Bernard Shaw:
Bernard Shaw is not merely an Irishman; he is not even a typical one. He is a certain separated and peculiar kind of Irishman, which is not easy to describe. Some Nationalist Irishmen have referred to him contemptuously as a ‘West Briton’. But this is really unfair; for whatever Mr Shaw’s mental faults may be, the easy adoption of an unmeaning phrase like ‘Briton’ is certainly not one of them. It would be much nearer the truth to put the thing in the bold and bald terms of the old Irish song, and to call him ‘The anti-Irish Irishman’ …
And since Chesterton has raised the thorny subject of the ‘Britons’, what about Britain itself? Isn’t it Celtic? Isn’t that why the Celtic part of France is called Brittany and its inhabitants, Bretons? Britain, historically, was the Celtic nation invaded by the Romans and later by the various Germanic tribes. Britain is Celtic, only England is English! Historically speaking, the Celts are Brits, and the Brits Celts! The modern understanding of the word ‘British’ is, ironically, a construct of English imperialism, which arose after the Reformation and became very popular in the reign of Queen Elizabeth to justify the annexation of the rest of the British Isles. Thus, ‘Britain’ can mean, at one and the same time, the name of the land of the Celts and the name of those who invaded the land of the Celts! No wonder Chesterton referred to the word ‘Briton’ as ‘unmeaning’.
But what of the word ‘Celt’? Is it not as meaningless? After all, we have only scratched the surface of all that is Celtic. We haven’t even mentioned the Scots yet. They are certainly Celtic, whatever that means, but hardly Irish. And what does it mean to be Scottish? Does it mean being a Jacobite, a Catholic rebel? Does it mean following Bonnie Prince Charlie? Yet for every heroic Macdonald in Scottish history there is a treacherous Campbell? And isn’t the Calvinism of John Knox as Celtic as the Catholicism of Bonnie Prince Charlie?
And then there’s the Welsh. The Welsh seem to have lost touch with the richness of their centuries of Catholic history, ignoring it completely and forging a Celtic identity that combines the Protestant non-conformism of its recent history to the druidic mists of its ancient past. And we have hardly mentioned, though we mustn’t forget, the Cornish and the Bretons, and the Celts of Iberia (and beyond).
And what of the new age hijacking and perverting of all things Celtic, from half-baked concepts of druidic paganism to even less-baked concepts of so-called Celtic Christianity?
On a more positive note, we must remember the Celtic dimension to the Catholic cultural revival in the last century: George Mackay Brown (an Orcadian Celt, as distinct from a Scottish Celt), Saunders Lewis, R.S. Thomas, George Scott-Moncrieff, David Jones (a cockney-Celt), Shane Leslie (an anglo-Irish Celt), Compton Mackenzie, and, stretching the Celtic connection to breaking point, Flannery O’Connor (a Georgian Celt!).
Faced with such an array of non-coalescent, conflicting Celts we are tempted to tamper with Chesterton’s famous lines about the Gaels of Ireland:
Are the great Gaels of Ireland
Really meant to make men mad?
For howe’er we pursue them
There’s no answer to be had!
Let’s conclude, however, with an insistence that the Celts represent a real and vibrant part of our living western culture. And, in doing so, let’s not fall into the post-modernist trap of believing that if something is difficult to pin down it doesn’t have any meaningful existence. For the materialist, if something can’t be pinned down it is nebulous; for the rest of us it is merely mysterious. We don’t make the mistake that if something can’t be understood it means that there is nothing to understand; this is the folly of the nihilist. The logical truth is simply that if something can’t be understood it is because we can’t understand it! We might not be able to understand the Celts. They are an enigma. They slip through our fingers. Yet though they are slippery, they are real. Whether the Celts are a mystical coat of many colours, or whether they are many coats of a somewhat similar mystical colour, they are real. Long live the Celts (whoever they are), and may God bless them!