Peter Berresford Ellis,
The Celtic Revolution
(Y Lolfa, 1985)

In the introduction to The Celtic Revolution, Peter Berresford Ellis states up front that he is a pan-Celtic nationalist and a socialist, and he intends to present the facts from that perspective since the other side of the story has been told so often. The prolific and opinionated Ellis believes that the time has come for the Celtic lands to exercise self-determination.

In this slim, readable paperback, Ellis makes a strong but concise case for the integrity of the Celtic lands (for the record, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man, Brittany and Cornwall, plus colonies in Cape Breton and Patagonia) and their languages.

The Celts once inhabited territory from Turkey to Spain, but are now confined to the eight territories listed above. Since there is no Celtic race, he asserts, the basic determiner of Celtic identity is language. When the six Celtic tongues are allowed to die, the Celts will no longer, in his view, exist.

Country by country, he catalogues the centuries of subjugation of the Celts and the suppression of their languages by English and French speakers.

Ellis shows that at one time Scotland was an entirely Celtic country. Gaelic was spoken in the north, while Welsh was spoken in the Edinburgh-Glasgow area and south of there until about 1000 AD. (My lowland ancestors from Perth brought a Gaelic Bible with them to Canada in 1840.) Scotland, he says, was politically absorbed by England in 1707, but only because Daniel Defoe bribed members of the Scottish Parliament.

Brittany, autonomous until about 1500 AD, was forcibly attached to France. By the 20th century, the once-vibrant Breton language has seen its number of speakers decimated. Breton nationalists were so desperate to get out of France that some even mistakenly flirted with the Nazis, Ellis says. As a result, the French Resistance assassinated much of the Breton leadership. Charles de Gaulle's famous 1968 call for Quebec independence is strange, Ellis notes, since De Gaulle, a descendent of Bretons, continued the repression of Bretons in France, denying them rights in education and in law.

In his overview of Welsh history, Ellis spends quite a bit of time on the armed resistance (groups like MAC) of the 1960s and '70s that is often glossed over. Again, majority-language education caused the reduction of speakers of the language from half to one-fifth of the population through the 20th century. (My wife's father, born in the 1920s, never learned Welsh -- his grandparents' only tongue.)

Ellis's take on Ireland is similar to that of Scotland. He says it is historically one country and Irish (Gaelic) is its language. The partitioning of the six counties in the 1920s has its roots in the historical fiction that Ulster is a separate community. The English used divide and rule to set Celts against Celts. Meanwhile, even the Irish Republic does not do enough to promote the use of Irish, nor is Irish an official language of the European Union.

In Cornwall, the last native Cornish speaker died in the 1700s, but students have since revived the language. The language also remains on life support in the Isle of Man, the sixth Celtic country. The two Celtic-speaking colonies, Patagonia in Argentina and Cape Breton in Canada, face the same threats of language extinction.

Although Ellis's book is now 20 years old, not much has changed, even though Wales and Scotland do now have limited self-government. Despite the book's minor flaws and inconsistencies, it remains a politically charged manifesto for Celtic unity and language revival in the six Celtic lands. If this seems far-fetched, look at the Jews, Ellis says. They created a state, revived a long-dead language (Hebrew) and made it an everyday working tongue. Or for a closer example, he says, look at countries like Norway, Finland and the Czech lands (among others), which had also been under foreign control for millennia and had seen their native languages pushed to the brink.

Ellis believes individual liberty and fulfilment is impossible without national freedom. He even goes so far as to say that language loss and lack of national institutions are the cause of social problems in the Celtic world because so many Celts are cut off from their true cultural heritage.

What the Celtic countries have in common, other than language, is an identity crisis. To outsiders Celts are often lumped in with imperialist Anglo-Saxons. To the English and French, Celts are too often seen as either wild-eyed nationalists or ignorant figures of fun, if they exist at all. Still, many Celts (outside of Ireland and the Isle of Man) believe what they have been told -- that they are not worthy of governing themselves. Clearly, they can.

Ellis's lively, non-academic primer points us in the direction of a brighter future for all Celts. For this alone, it's worth a read.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 10 April 2004

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