Cornwall & Celtic Studies

Did you know that if a book adds the word celtic to its title, its sales will quadruple? But what does “Celtic” actually mean?

Most people have a vague notion of Celtic as an idyllic Scotch-Irish escape with fairyfolk, pretty music, traditional dance, and gorgeous landscapes.

Pan-Celtic identity is actually a relatively new concept. In the past, residents of Celtic nations saw themselves as members of that one nation rather than part of a unified fringe.

What is lost when the six Celtic nations (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany, Mann) are considered as one?

One fundamental issue, especially in terms of Celtic nationalism, is that in Ireland, Celtic has connotations of “anti-British,” while the Celtic Welsh and Cornish consider themselves the original true Britons.

The London-centric media and academia are often accused of ignoring the individual attributes of each Celtic nation and lumping them together as ‘that which is not English.’

However, leaders within Celtic nations also promote pan-Celticism as a tool for increased recognition. Scotland and Ireland do share some history culture geneology and language; it is to their advantage to exaggerate these similarities to form a larger group that can better resist the homogenizing influence from London. For a smaller nation like Cornwall, pan-Celticism is even more attractive. Cornish people are far more likely to report a kinship with Ireland than vice versa, because Ireland is the largest and most politically independent Celtic nation.

As Cornwall gains recognition as a Celtic nation, the pressure to become like the rest of England is replaced by pressure to become more like the larger, better-knownCeltic nations. The “Cornish tartan” was invented in the 1970s; unlike Scotland and Wales tartan is not part of traditional Cornish dress. Cornwall also instituted a Gorsedd in 1928, modelled after the Welsh.

Equating Celtic with “other” means when the view of England changes, so will the view of Celtic. Originally, “Celtic” had implications of natural and animalistic as opposed to English culture and humanism. Later, people became disillusioned with English industrialization and used “Celtic” to mean something pure and spiritual where the individual can thrive.  Celtic can (and has) been used to represent order or disorder, magic or nature, calm or emotion, whatever metaphor is needed.

The tourism industry in particular markets the Celtic nations as an ‘other’ place where heritage and beautiful nature can be enjoyed away from the stresses of modern urban industrial Europe. This leads to a redesign of culture with the tourist in mind, which is often a homogenizing effect. The culture might be frozen in the past or altered to better suit the casual observer.

Academics are often concered with whether today’s Celtic culture is ‘authentic’  meaning ‘the same as it was in the past.’ But culture does, and should, change over time. If many people in a nation or region do something because it has meaning and expresses their identity, it becomes authentic culture, even if it is a new creation.

Research on Celtic identities has often focused on the disappearing Celtic heritage, particularly literature in the traditional language. With this outlook, Cornwall is not worth much attention. In many academic Celtic Studies publications ignore Cornwall because it has less medieval literature and switched to English earlier than Ireland Scotland and Wales.

However, a new perspective on Celtic studies, which includes how “Celtic” is perceived today and how the Celtic culture is being re-shaped by media and tourism, would find a mine of information in Cornwall.

King Arthur is probably the best known Cornish literary figure, and he has legends tying him to the other Celtic nations as well. Tintagel, the castle of his birth, is in a beautiful location on the north coast, while Tintagel the town is a gaudy tourist trap. Some people feel that this commodification of Arthur’s birthplace is sacrilegious and undermines Cornish pride in their ancient hero. Others feel that this is just the current chapter of Arthur’s and Cornwall’s intertwined history. Now that Cornwall’s economy is largely based on tourism, Arthur continues to help his homeland by attracting many visitors.