Cornwall summary: Nationalism

The study of Cornish culture, and Celtic studies more generally, often leads to discussions of nationalism. Given issues with North Ireland, Corsica, Soviet Union, Zulu, and Burma, ideas about nationhood are extremely important. Because a nation is partly imagined, beyond what history can prove, does not mean it is imaginary or insignificant. When a group is too big for every member to know every other member, the group is defined by shared beliefs, language, or ethnicity. Newcomers are expected to assimilate or remain outsiders.

In a recent survey, only 4.5% of people living in Cornwall identify as English. As the political facet of the 20th century Celtic revival, Mebyn Kernow supports steps toward independence for Cornwall. Cornwall’s recognition as a separate yet subordinate nation in relation to England is an old and a complicated idea. Athelsan King of Wessex in 926 said that the Cornish must either follow Wessex law or live west of the Tamar to keep their relaxed customs. Cornwall is often a footnote is academic and political discussion of “British State” vs “Celtic Nation” though it deserves far more attention, given its unique position of being both English and Celtic.

I anticipated there would be some serendipitous discoveries on my travels, but I encountered an incredible one on my first day in Penryn. The first thing I saw when I walked into the Daphne du Maurier Centre was a sign for their ‘Myths Mysticism and Celtic Nationalism’ exhibit that the campus was currently hosting. I took that as an incredibly good sign. This exhibit featured locals describing how ley lines give Cornwall its atmosphere and connection to the Celtic past. One woman said the ‘real places’ are kept for the locals. because tourists don’t know about them.

Much of the conference was for professional academics, but one evening was open to the public where three local poets read their work. I chatted with a local creative writing student while we waited for the academics to finish their wine and enter the lecture hall. One pamphlet of nature-type poems was available for free, and I purchased a translation of Marie de France’s Lays. I had studied some of those tales in the Arthurian class that first sparked this project and would love to read more. Additionally, this poet said she tried to capture the emotion and spirit of a work rather than technical word for word translation. She read a passage of her in-progress translation of Tristan and Iseulde—and I was captivated. That cycle in all its variations is one of my favorite stories of any genre and the reading was so dramatic I never wanted it to end. I definitely plan to purchase her book when it is finished.

One poet believed that Cornwall had a mysticism that England did not; you had to get far from the border to find inspiration for writing. The second focused on the everchanging nature of weather and sea as the inspiration. She also pointed out that when people, especially artists, talk about Cornwall they mean the western coast, not the inland or eastern parts. Both speakers were emigrants, but what they said seemed widely accepted by the audience who nodded and repeated in stronger phrases the ideas put forth by the speakers. One read a poem about the tourist tea towel that struck a particular chord. It was an incredible opportunity to see academic and popular ideas about Cornish identity merge together in this way.

I saw Cornish flags and bumper stickers everywhere, though never anything for the UK or England. In the National Cornwall Museum, a quote was posted about Cornwall being unique among the Counties of England, and someone had scribbled out the word England. It was incredible to meet real live people who cared passionately about the issues I was researching. I was afraid I’d get stuck in some sort of academic bubble, studying an esoteric topic just because I could. I wondered who made their living doing “Cornish Studies.” When people asked the purpose of my visit and I explained my research,  they responded with national pride and said that the issues I studied were worthwhile. Some wanted a more multifaceted British approach to history teaching in schools; others wanted more economic attention; others wanted a radical change in how Cornwall is treated as a Duchy; some just wanted awareness of and respect for their tiny nation to be spread. One said that building a rugby stadium would help both economy and cultural recognition, presumably because this worked so well for Wales.

I had a long conversation with a man named Roger in Penzance. He seemed amazed that an American knew so much about Cornwall because, according to him, most of the English are apathetic and uninformed about Cornish devolution and the history and the reasons behind it. Roger believed this was because the education system doesn’t teach Cornish history except that it is part of England. I suppose I could have incorporated some journalism into my project, but these were just casual conversations that weren’t officially recorded. But everyone I talked with left me the impression that the Cornish people valued the field of research I was working in, and that meant a lot to me.