Cornish Celts exist, says Prof Peter Beresford Ellis

The Celtic Nations, 1961- 2011, a Sea Change?

Some personal views, by Professor Peter Beresford Ellis

Below is the text of the presentation about the Celtic League which was prepared by leading Celticist, historian and author, Peter Beresford Ellis and presented on his behalf to the 50th Annual General Meeting of the League in October, 2011 by Professor Kenneth McKinnon, and released today by the League.

In it he comfirms that the Celts existed as a people bound by language and customs, and still exist – the Cornish among them!

Peter Beresford Ellis is a long time member of the Celtic League and was its Convenor for a number of years:

“It is with deep regret that I find myself unable to present this talk in person for if there is one event that I desired to attend it is this, the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of this Celtic League. Alas, a mix-up over dates has prevented me from being with you and so I hand over to the good offices of Professor Kenneth McKinnon who will read this talk on my behalf and probably do a better job of it than I.

It is an honour to be invited to address the Celtic League on this particular anniversary.

I am aware that there are some who have a better right than I to talk to you about the half century of progress that this movement has made. But, alas, with the death of Professor Per Denez in July, I believe that Seamus Filbin remains the only member of that first meeting in Wales in August, 1961.

I am sure most of you will be aware of the history of the League and its campaigns and many successes. Therefore, today, I want to outline my personal journey with the League and whether I feel that, in these fifty years, there has been a sea change for the Celtic nations.

I joined what was then the London Branch of the League in late 1964 when, as a young journalist I had just returned to London from Belfast, where I had been covering the general election for a London daily newspaper. I have remained in membership ever since.

My entry into the League was through a meeting with the late Pádraig Ó Conchuir, Pádraig was a graduate of National University of Ireland, Galway, and he had been a Pan Celticist from the days of An Aimsir Cheilteach, the monthly newspaper for the Celtic peoples which was the central mainspring of the Celtic movement from 1947-1954. Pádraig went on to edit the Celtic League’s little news-sheet Celtic News from 1966-1972 and was chairman of the League for nine years from, 1972-1981.

It was Pádraig who became my mentor on matters Celtic and, I freely admit, gave some order to ideas that had formed during my childhood and youth. My father was from Cork City, my mother was from an old English family from Sussex, but her mother was from a Breton family who had sought refuge in England in the early 19th Century following what became known as the War of the Chouannerie.

I grew up in what I can only describe as a pan-Celtic family – with Irish, Breton, Welsh and Scottish aunts, uncles and cousins to counterbalance the English ones. It was Pádraig who encouraged me to go back to higher education and take my degrees in Celtic Studies.

Now before we go further, and because of the misguided criticisms that have been made of the Celtic League over the years, let me explained what is meant by Celtic. In the Celtic League it is meant to describe one of six historic nationalities which spoke a Celtic language until modern historical times. It’s that simple.

As Professor Eoin Mac Neill pointed out nearly a century ago – there is no such thing as a Celtic race; any more than there is a Latin race, a Teutonic race, nor a Slavic race. We are all branches of the Indo-Europeans linguistic family – so race is largely a delusion. The only accurate way to define Celtic is by language and attendant culture.

A Celt is simply one who speaks, or is known to have spoken within the modern historical period, a Celtic language.

That is why the League has had to consistently reject overtures to recognise Galicia in north-west Spain as a Celtic nation. There are more Celtic loan-words in English and in French than there are in Galician. Galician is a Romance language and closely related to Portuguese. It is not a Celtic language and Celtic has not been spoken in Galician territory since the 10th Century.

In 1992 it fell to me to engage in a debate with the formidable Manuel Fraga Iribarne, who was the 3rd President of the Xunta de Galicia, the head of the Galician government, from 1990-2005. Don Manuel was one of the writers of Spain’s democratic constitution which allowed Galicia self-government and recognition of its language within the Spanish federation. In spite of references to dialect words, folkloric themes, music and so on, Don Manuel had to admit that Galicia failed the linguistic criteria.

I stress this definition as a corrective to the attempts to denigrate the League and its membership over the years by people who do not know the difference between progressive anti-imperialist nationalism and retrograde imperialist or racist nationalism. Racism is contrary to the League’s philosophies.

As a socialist involved in anti-imperialist and anti-racist movements, an admirer of works of James Connolly and John MacLean, there was no contradiction in joining. My pamphlet The Creed of the Celtic Revolution published in 1969 expressed my views at that time; views that I still adhere to, as will be endorsed by any who have followed my writings since then.

Looking back to the 1960s it is amazing to consider the size of the mountain that the League was faced with. Of the six Celtic countries, Ireland was partitioned and in North-East Ulster there was a regime which denied a third of its people civil rights, endorsing the suppression of any trace of the Irish language or culture.

There was a law system in this co-called UK `province’ which, with the Special Powers Act, had been admired by Adolf Hitler as well as the Apartheid Regime in South Africa. In April, 1963, Johannes Vorster, the Justice Minister, who later became president of South Africa, said that he would willingly exchange all the Apartheid legislation for just one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act.

In the Irish Republic, lip service was paid to the national language and culture and, as for economic independence, the popular saying in the 1960s was that if someone in Westminster sneezed, someone in the Dáil blew their nose.

The Isle of Mann had self-government but was more concerned in building up its off-shore tax haven image than saving its language and culture. As regards Scotland and Wales there seemed no likelihood for any form of self-government at that time, nor any real recognition of their national languages.

In Wales, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg was just starting a campaign of civil disobedience to gain status for the national language.

As for Cornwall, to suggest that it was an entity with any separate Celtic identity from England was to be regaled with scorn and laughter. Mebyon Kernow, the nationalist party, was described in the Daily Telegraph as a bunch of dreamers waiting for King Arthur to arise from his slumber to lead them to Camelot.

Brittany was suffering the worst. Since the Breton parliament had been abolished in 1790, the French state had slowly but firmly set out to eliminate the Breton language and cultural identity. The Front for the Liberation of Brittany became active in the 1960s, believing they had been left only physical force to progress the Breton cause. This, of course, brought greater repression on the country.

So, the League came into being at a time when the Celtic nations stood within sight of extinction as Celtic entities. Since 1961 we have witnessed incredible changes in the cultural and political landscape even from an international perspective. In November, 1965, the Celtic League submitted a 62 page memorandum to the United Nations on the situation and today the United Nations now recognises the League as an NGO. (non-government organisation).

There are now parliaments in Scotland and Wales with varying powers; the Manx Parliament have allowed the language to be taught in schools so that 2.2% of the population assert they now have knowledge of it, and there is now a recognition of civil rights in Northern Ireland; you can even speak Irish there and not expect to be beaten up by members of the RUC. There is also some prospect in the distant future of a reunification of the country by osmosis.

The Cornish national movement is no longer the butt of jokes as –The UK Government even had to recognise the Cornish language in October, 2003, as a by-product of the UK signing the European Charter for Regional Minority Languages. Andrew Stunnell, the Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Department of Communities and Local Government, recently announced funding of £360,000 to the Cornish Language Partnership.

In 1997, the UK Local Government Report (p17) had admitted `The continued existence of the Cornish Stannary Parliament encourages the belief that Cornwall has never legally been incorporated into England.’ So we have seen a profound change of attitude there. Mebyon Kernow has achieved election successes in town, parish and district councils as well as having four councillors sitting on the current Cornwall Council, which is the closest Cornwall has to a parliament.

Brittany still suffers from the crushing centralism of the French state – we are all aware of the French Government’s position that the French Constitution allows the recognition of no other language in the French State but French, although France has tried to come into a more civilised position by giving some degree of recognition to `regional languages’ from 2008.

But generally, it is just as impossible today to live one’s life through the Breton language as it was fifty years ago. Even so, bilingual signs, Diwan schools, and other usages of the language are uncomfortable reminders to France that the claims of the Breton nation are not dead.

Changes have been happening and are continuing to happen. But has there truly been a sea change today? I would argue that while the tide of what was once a suffocating imperialism has changed direction, it has certainly not ebbed and is still lapping unabated around the shores of the Celtic peoples.

Someone argued that many of those who started out on the journey with the Celtic League in 1961 would be amazed at the changes that have taken place in the Celtic world. Amazed they might well be, but satisfied … ? Of course not.

So while there has been a tidal shift, there has been no sea change since the League started its voyage. Here in Scotland, while there is now a parliament in Edinburgh, and recognition of the Scottish Gaelic language, that language is still regarded as just a minority language of the Highlands instead of recognition of its true historic position as the national language.

Little emphasis is given to educating Scottish people about the history of the language; that once Gaelic was spoken across all Scotland, language of the monarchy, church and government. There is a mind set against admitting that it was spoken in Galloway as late as the 18th Century. That even in Northumbria, south of the border, there are traces of the language. Its recession to the Highlands was a slow process.

It is right, as we are meeting here in Scotland, to remind you of one of the Scottish pioneers of the League – the late Seumas Mac a’ Ghobhainn whose research and pioneering articles should have left no doubt as to the historic position of the Scottish Gaelic language. In 1969 he inspired students at Glasgow University and helped form Comunn na Cànain Albannaich, a more radical language movement. Seamus’ strength lay in his historical researches clarifying the history of the language. I had the honour to co-author two books with Seumas – The Scottish Insurrection of 1820 in 1970 and The Problem of Language Revival in 1971.

If you have time after this conference, make your way to Sighthill Cemetery, in Glasgow, and pause before the monument to the executed leaders of the 1820 uprising; a rising which had, among its aims, to sever the union with England. That insurrection resulted in 88 trials for High Treason, executions, imprisonments and transportation for life. It was an insurrection that had been written out of Scottish history until our book was published in 1970. And just beside the 1820 monument is a smaller stone inscribed in Scottish Gaelic and English, which commemorates the life of Seumas Mac a `Ghobhainn who died in 1987 and where his ashes were scattered.

Hopefully, you may still be able to get your hands on some of Seamus’ essays. His papers were given to the Scottish Branch of the Celtic League in 2000 and some of them were contained in the booklet Scotland Not Only Free But Gaelic, published that year. Professor Kenneth MacKinnon, author of The Lion’s Tongue, among other works, contributed a foreword to the booklet.

What Comunn na Cànain Albannaich achieved, as Professor MacKinnon has said, was that it raised public awareness about the language and emboldened Gaels to demand and secure their rights and establish Gaelic medium and Gaelic run initiatives in public life. But I know that Seumas would have been the first to declare that there is still a mountain to climb in changing Scottish attitudes towards the language in Scotland today.

In view of the current debate in the League, one of the matters our Celtic League branch in London agreed on during the 1960s was that we stood in need of greater communication and publicity. Communication – not merely to our membership but to the broader public. Needless to say, at this time the Press and Media were no friends to the ideals of the League even when they bothered to notice its existence. It was obvious that the news-sheet Celtic News could not fulfil the task we had in mind.

We needed something that would be entirely professional, something that would be a real successor to An Aimsir Cheilteach – and so we decided to attempt to launch a monthly magazine and call it The New Celt. We had both the talent and the professional expertise in London. We formed a limited company in June, 1968, and directors were appointed representing all the Celtic nations. The chairman of the company was another great pioneer of this League, Coinneach MacDhómhnull, a native of Lewis who taught Gaelic in the London Literary Institute.

Finances began to come in – even the films actors Richard Burton and Hugh Griffith contributed, but it was the Breton branch of the League who raised the most money for the endeavour. The problem was that we had to guarantee to the printers and distributors an entire year’s costs before we could launch the first issue. Frankly, there were too many fence-sitters among the people who had the ability to help, too many `nay-sayers’ who wanted the project fail for various reasons.

One reason, as I recall, was that this Celtic publication was to be launched from London in England – yet London, at that time, was the one city which not only had residents from all six Celtic nations but where all six language were spoken and taught in night schools and higher education institutions and all the Celtic national movements were represented.

Research had found there were some 35,000 Welsh speakers, 30,000 Irish speakers, 1,500 Scots Gaelic speakers, 2-300 Bretons as well as a small mixture of Cornish and Manx speakers. Similar figures were confirmed at a conference at London’s County Hall in 1984. From 1955 there had been Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain, then the only Welsh language medium school, outside of Wales.

Attempting to coordinate all these Celtic educational facilities was the basis for the formation of the London Association for Celtic Education, which was a Celtic League initiative. This was launched in 1989 at a conference of 500 educationalists at London University. But I still believe that The New Celt in the 1960s was a missed opportunity as a means of influence during the years that lay ahead. By 1969, the money had to be returned to those who had invested and the company folded.

It was in 1969 that the AGM of the League was held in Dublin. That was an important year for the League to which I will return in a moment. In June of that year I was writing a fortnightly column called `Celtica Today’ for the bilingual Scottish newspaper Sruth. Unfortunately, I was a wee bit too radical and the financiers informed the editor that he should drop my political comments. The editor was Frang MacThomais, another pioneer of the League, who was also editor of the League annual volumes. Actually, Frang insisted I remain a regular contributor but asked me to write historical articles rather than comment on modern politics.

In spite of The New Celt experience, I still believed that communication was essential if the League was to prosper. At that 1969 AGM I was appointed to chair a League committee to discuss the problem and come up with some less costly plan.

We reported back to the 1970 AGM which was held in Cornwall. The idea of replacing the newssheet Celtic News, and the annual volume, and using the finance to launch a more professional quarterly was finally taken up by the League and in 1972 the League’s quarterly Carn came into being with Frang MacThomais as its first editor. Happily Carn has continued today and has long been under professional editorship of Patricia Bridson.

It would be very worrying if the League did not have a permanent print voice and therefore an archival record of its activities and policies. The need for good communication against the enmity and mischief making in many areas of the press and media, a means of public correction, has been something that the League needs. During my two years as chair-cum convenor of the League, 1988-1990) I acutely became aware of this need.

We were doing very well with newspaper coverage at that time thanks to then General Secretary Bernard Moffatt and his Manx team who had set up a military monitoring programme in 1985. I still have a letter in my files from an old colleague and friend, the late left-wing journalist and author Paul Foot, who was then writing a column for the Daily Mirror. Paul wrote to me in September, 1989: `Certainly, the League has a lot to be proud of, especially in its work over the Irish Sea.’

But success brings enemies. We were soon confronted with, perhaps, the most dangerous period in the history of the League. In 1989 I was approached by someone claiming to represent one of disputing orthographical schools in Cornwall who wanted the League to officially declare its support for that particular orthography. I refused, pointing out that this was a Cornish matter and it was not the policy of the League to take sides in internal affairs.

After a discussion with the then General Secretary, Davyth Fear, and Seamus Ó Coileain, then the League’s Director of Information, we proposed to the League’s Cornish Branch that the League, at the international level, could use its offices as an impartial inter-Celtic umbrella body to convene a meeting between the differing groups to discuss their differences and see if a modus viviendi could be agreed.

As soon as this idea was muted, a vicious campaign against the League and individual members was started. The League was accused of being a cover organisation for English National Front. This was accompanied by some anonymous `phone calls to the homes of Davyth, Seamus and I.

Now most of this tiresome campaign emanated from a one-man run bizarre Cornish publication which had a link to the person who had tried to persuade the League to become a partisan in this internal Cornish matter. The League officers took legal advice from the late Paul Smales, a Cornish barrister and supporter of the League who, sadly, died just a year afterwards. He advised that we had an excellent case for libel but the individual making the accusations had no finances and any action would merely fuel the bad publicity he had been able to generate.

Unfortunately, the publication, Searchlight, which until then had a good reputation in my eyes for researching right-wing extremism, had actually taken up the story without bothering to check anything out with any League official. It was a sad fact that none of the newspapers that ran with the story allowed the Celtic League the courtesy of an official response or statement. Only one magazine, the Peninsular Voice, allowed three pages to be devoted to the aims of the League and explanation of its work by publishing two articles – one written by myself as chair and the other by the late Seamus Ó Coileain as the League’s Director of Information.

However, the accusations continued and, sadly, did succeed in setting some members of the League in conflict with others. Cathal Ó Luain became convenor in 1990 at the Dublin AGM so I was no longer involved. Seamus Ó Coleain had been elected General Secretary of the League but such were the continued accusations and suspicions that he resigned office within the year and Bernard Moffatt returned. We must give all credit to Cathal Ó Luain and Bernard Moffatt for guiding the movement through that turbulent time. However, the need for the League to be able to have its own print voice to set records straight was obvious.

Of course, that was not the only time when the League nearly collapsed but, thankfully, the League learnt from both events. For the second occasion, I’ll take you back to 1969 when the President of the League, the late Gwynfor Evans MP, made his presidential address in Dublin. The problem was that the speech was to be an address from the President of the League. Unfortunately, Gwynfor spoke as Plaid Cymru president and Member of Parliament rather than representing the League. His speech did not reflect the ideals and aspirations of the League. With press and media focussing attention on him as League president, Gwynfor assured his audience that the conflict in Northern Ireland was a just religious one. Remember that troops had gone onto the streets of Belfast and internment without trial had started just a matter of weeks before his speech.

Gwynfor further assured his audience that the mass round up and repression of Breton nationalists that had taken place during 1968/69 was their own fault for engaging in acts of sabotage against the French state. Just to remind you, over 60 Bretons, among them priests, journalists, doctors, teachers, architects, farmers, accountants, students, clerks, railway workers and even Bretons serving in the French military, had been arrested and imprisoned without trial. It was not that they were caught in acts of sabotage but their arrests were because of their links with language or cultural movements. Indeed, many of them were members of the League. Several of these prisoners were badly treated in jail, such as League member Ronan Tremel.

If Gwynfor’s abandonment of these League members was not enough to alienate sections of the League, he went on to describe his dream of a `British Federation of Nations’ in which, of course, there was no room for Brittany – even Cornwall was not mentioned and he seemed unclear what part Ireland would play in this `British Federation’. He seemed to display no understanding that he was contradicting the very aims and objects of the movement that he was then publicly representing as president.

I recall accompanying General Secretary Alan Heussaff back to his home in north Dublin as he threatened to resign. I recall the Breton branch scheduling a meeting to discuss its formal withdrawal from the League. Particularly, I recall Bernadette Devlin, on the steps of the Harcourt Street building where the AGM was being held, expressing the opinion that the League was of no relevance at all.

In November, 1969, having Alan Heussaff `s approval as General Secretary, I accepted an invitation to go to Paris to represent the Celtic League at what was a controversial meeting. A challenge had been thrown down to the French authorities and their campaign of repression in Brittany. This challenge was a public meeting under the name of the Front for the Liberation of Brittany. France claimed the FLB to be a secret, subversive, terrorist organisation, which allowed them to arrest without trial those they claimed associated with it. Now they were going to be faced with a public FLB.

A programme was subscribed to by various Breton movements from the Left to the Centre – from Trade Unions to Student Union groups; from language and cultural groups to political groups. The aim was to stop further repression in Brittany and get the French State to either charge or release the prisoners. Over two thousand people attended that meeting … including the French police of course! The Bretons being held were eventually released without charge. The Breton branch of the League did not split and I would like to modestly think that my short speech at that meeting managed to convince them that Gwynfor was not speaking for the League.

But the presidential address in Dublin was a warning. It was agreed that the office of president of the League should not be held by anyone who would be placed in a position between expressing the conflicting views of their political party and objectives of the League.

At the 1971 AGM in Glasgow the constitution was changed to reflect this. Gwynfor Evans resigned. To the shock of many he admitted `I have no Pan Celtic philosophy’. However, on returning to Wales he tried to set up an alternative Inter Celtic movement which failed. Unfortunately, J.E. Jones, a founder of Plaid Cymru as well as a founder of the League, had died in May, 1970. The loss of J.E.’s stabilizing influences was the main factor which caused the disintegration of the Welsh branch of the League. Branch records were conveniently lost. But the branch was rebuilt again and successfully so.

So the League has weathered attempts to destroy it, both from within and without. The League and its ideals have proved stronger than individuals. Here we are today – weathering those sea storms which are attracted by the League’s successes. The more successful a movement is the more there is criticism of it and attempts to destroy it. You must be prepared for it. That is why good communication is essential.

In one of my books, The Celtic Dawn, a history of Pan Celticism, first published in 1993, and still available from Y Lolfa publishers in Wales, I devoted a chapter on the `Philosophy and Future Developments’ of this movement. The guide to what must be attained in the future is still enshrined in the list of aims and objectives of the League.

The League’s main raison d’etre remains that principal aim to achieve cooperation between the six Celtic countries – and with various forms of government in four out of the six nations, we should be seeing more inter Celtic links on the political, economic as well as cultural platforms. Sadly, those links tend to be left to the endeavours of private citizens and movements instead of at governmental level. We have to ask ourselves why these links are not being put in place.

Many of us, like sirens wailing in the dusk, point out the models of the Nordic Union as the road to progress. But we do not seem to have achieved any meaningful links between the leading politicians of those Celtic nations who have the ability to set in motion the paths to such links. Certainly there has been no sea change in this respect.

Clearly on the list of aims is that of developing the consciousness of the special relationship and solidarity between the Celtic nations. Since the 19th Century that consciousness has been developing. Celtic Studies has been accepted in many universities and we have seen the rise of the Celtic academic, linguistic, cultural and political movements.

We have seen other developments which have saved the Celtic heritage from slipping into oblivion. UNESCO’s Project for the Study and Promotion of Celtic Cultures; Celtic Film and Television Festivals; Scríf Celt – the Celtic languages book fair (another Celtic League initiative); the major exhibitions such as the 1991 exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, which brought together over 2,200 Celtic artefacts from, 200 museums, has been one of many exhibitions.

I have mentioned the London Association for Celtic Education, recently disappeared sadly through lack of funding. There was even a Celtworld park in Waterford and a Celtic Resource Centre remains at Machynlleth.

But during the last decade, we have seen an attack on the very concept of Celtic. An attempt to prevent the idea of any special Celtic relationship. This is coming from an interesting source but one that has had, and is having, a profound affect on public perceptions. The question is – did the ancient Celts exist and, if they did not, surely those claiming to be modern Celts can have no existence? Television documentaries concerning the people that we call the Celts have been increasing but viewers will strain to hear that word `Celtic’ mentioned by presenters or even experts brought onto the programmes.

Instead they will hear about `Iron Age peoples’. Professor Barry Rafftery, who died last year, Ireland’s leading archaeologist and authority on the early Celtic period, once humorously greeted me, at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, with the words `Parlez vous Iron Age?’ He was referring to this phenomenon where his fellow experts wanted `Celts’ to vanish entirely from history and `Iron Age folk’ to replace them.

This campaign started in 1996 when an English archaeologist at Sheffield University, John Collis, expressed himself dissatisfied with the use of the term `Celtic’ to describe the pre-Roman period in Britain. Ruth and Vincent Megaw, the Australian specialists on early Celtic art, published a robust reply to this curious idea.

There was enough evidence to show people at this time spoke a Celtic language. This, as I have explained before, was the very definition of Celtic. This resulted in Collis launching an attack dismissing this definition as `both false and dangerous’.

In the summer of 1997, Dr Simon James in the British Museum Magazine wrote an article in support of John Collis. Dr James was a convert to Collis’ cause because he had previously published a study entitled Exploring the World of the Celts in 1993. Once happy calling a Celt a Celt, he now claimed that they did not exist.

The London Financial Times came out with a blazing headline `The Celts – it was all just a myth’. This was followed by Dr James launching a new attack on the Megaws in the March, 1998 issue of Antiquity. The reason seemed to be that if academia could be persuaded that the ancient Celts had not existed then the idea of modern Celts, indeed the Celtic nations, could be dismissed as a modern invention not to be taken seriously.

Indeed, the Megaws, argued that this new theory was motivated, subliminally if not consciously, by the attitude underlying right wing English politics towards the modern Celtic peoples.

The Independent in London telephoned me and invited me to write an article rebutting the ideas of Collis and James. This was published in January, 1999.

When Dr James’ new book came out entitled The Atlantic Celts: Ancient People or Modern Invention?, BBC Radio 3 invited me to `slug it out’ with Dr James on the airwaves. Sadly, the presenter was not concerned with a serious debate and changed the format of the programme without warning either of us in order to bring in by telephone new age druids that made the programme ridiculous and embarrassing. Luckily, however, The Scotsman invited Dr James and me to exchange a series of short letters debating the point which were then published as one article on March 27, that year.

Dr James presented his main argument as being that `no one in Britain and Ireland called themselves a Celt before 1700′. Ergo – if they didn’t call themselves Celts then no Celt existed. As an historian, I had to remind him of the words of Gaius Julius Caesar … qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur – `in their own language they are called Celts, in our tongue Gauls’.

Of course, I could have become really heavy and thrown Dr Kenneth Jackson’s ground breaking 1953 study Language and History in Early Britain at him. But he would have been equally into denial as he had been in dismissing the fact of Celtic personal names, names recorded on the numerous British Celtic coins, tribal names, place names, and so on, produced centuries before the Romans arrived in Britain. And if we wanted to widen matters to the European mainland, we now have something like 500 pieces of textural evidence written in Continental Celtic forms dating between the 600 BC – 1 BC.

Dr James finally admitted that there were Celtic speaking peoples here in the Iron Age but argued that they were not necessarily Celts. As no Celticist, ancient or modern, has ever defined the Celtic peoples by any means other than the linguistic criteria – a definition incidentally put forward by the Scottish scholar George Buchanan in the 16th Century – how was Dr James defining them? The answer was obvious. In scrabbling about for a definition to contradict the linguistic one he was reaching for a dangerous biological conclusion.

Dr James continued unrepentant. As I wrote in The Irish Democrat later `his book is more concerned with decrying modern Celtic nationalism than debating the points of historical and archaeological discrepancy.’ Sadly, however, this `Celts did not exist’ school has continued to gain adherents most noticeably among programmes such as BBC’s `Time Team’.

Professor John Collis, the man who started it all, has now produced a book The Celts; Origins, Myths, Inventions. Then we had the geneticist, Stephen Oppenheimer, joining in the fun with his book The Origin of the British – A Genetic Detective Story published in 2006. He showed there were no genetic differences between the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons and therefore he, too, confirmed the Celts did not exist.

Well, seeing that we have always used the linguistic criteria to identify Celts from other Indo-European linguistic branches the conclusion based on genes and DNA, should have come as no surprised to anyone. But his arguments were spun to claim political points. Looking at Oppenheimer’s bibliography we find our old friends, Simon James, John Collis, Colin Renfrew and Francis Pryor quoted ad nauseam.

I make no apology for using this particular example to show you that in considering general attitudes towards the Celtic nations, there is still a mountain to climb and much work to be done. After fifty years, members who believe in the ideals and aspirations of those who came together to form this League, cannot afford to sit back with any sense of self-satisfaction.

A parliament in Scotland -yes; an assembly in Wales – yes; degrees of recognition of the languages of both those nations – yes; Irish republicans being allowed to sit in Stormont and even say a few words of Irish – yes; the Dublin Government thinking that all is well when foreign heads of state, on state visits, utter a few words in Irish; Tynwald having finally allowed the Manx language to be taught in schools; and situation in Cornwall and Brittany … do we truly think these are sea changes?

I would venture to suggest that we and our descendants still have much to do during the next fifty years if ever we can hope to see anything remotely looking like sea change that take us significantly along the path to approaching the aims and ideals of this Celtic League.”


Those interested in the history of the Pan-Celtic movements generally and the Celtic League specifically should refer to `THE CELTIC DAWN’ by Peter Beresford Ellis which is now in its second print run:

ISBN-10: 0862436435
ISBN-13: 978-0862436438

General details about Peter Beresford Ellis (on Wiki) here:

Details (including titles) about his prolific work as a historian and popular novelist here:


For comment or clarification on this news item in the first instance contact:

Rhisiart Tal-e-bot, General Secretary, Celtic League:

Tel: 0044 (0)1209 319912
M: 0044 (0)7787318666


Loaded by the Editor to e-magazine on Alantide, or Nos Cala’n Grav, or Celtic New Year  -31 October, 2011