- The Coming of the Celts, AD 1860: Celtic Nationalism in Ireland and Wales by Caoimhín De Barra
The myth of a shared Celtic origin in Ireland and Wales during the nineteenth century was a powerful force in the intertwined history of both nations, as Caoimhín De Barra’s beautifully written, deeply researched book, The Coming of the Celts, AD 1860: Celtic Nationalism in Ireland and Wales, brings to light. Using newspaper archives to search for the terms Celt and Celtic, De Barra finds relatively little use of the label prior to the middle of the nineteenth century, when Celtic identity emerges from a hazy origin myth into an ideal vehicle for nationalist aspirations. “Over a twenty-year period, linguistic scholars gave the Celts a sense of prestige, scientists gave them a racial categorization, archaeologists gave them a glorious past, and littérateurs gave them easily identifiable characteristics,” De Barra writes. In response to the repression of the Irish language and the rapid Anglicization of both Wales and Ireland, De Barra argues, Celtic identity “offered a durable foundation upon which to construct a national identity, as well as a sense of a common bond among the other groups in the United Kingdom in the face of England’s growing political, industrial, and demographic might” (28).
The relative success of the Welsh in preserving their language and culture during the nineteenth century inspired Irish cultural nationalists and language revivalists to do the same, and the relationship between the Irish and the Welsh during these years is the primary focus of De Barra’s research. To the Irish, the thriving population of Welsh speakers and vibrant Welsh print culture offered a vision of hope. The Society for the [End Page 661] Preservation of the Irish Language, founded in 1876, and the Gaelic League, in 1893, established ties with similar groups in Wales. As De Barra writes, “Many Irish nationalists were enthralled by the example of the Welsh language because they believed that the circumstances faced by the Irish language at the end of the nineteenth century were identical to those faced by the Welsh a century earlier” (39). De Barra convincingly argues that this vision of Welsh success was inaccurate; Wales had never faced the sort of devastation that the Great Famine brought to Ireland, and the proportion of the population who spoke Welsh decreased substantially throughout the nineteenth century. From the Irish point of view, however, the preservation of the Welsh language, music, and literature was a goal Ireland should strive to match.
While celebrating a shared if largely invented Celtic identity brought Irish and Welsh language enthusiasts and cultural nationalists into an ongoing conversation about what it meant to be Celtic, there were also cross-cultural barriers beyond the mutual incomprehensibility of the two languages. How the Irish read the Welsh and how the Welsh read the Irish is one of the most compelling aspects of De Barra’s work, grounded in his analysis of contemporary periodicals. The largely Nonconformist population of Wales often associated the Irish with criminality, poverty, and Catholicism; the rise of Catholic nationalism in the ranks of the Gaelic League would provoke similar suspicion of the Welsh by the Irish. De Barra traces the concurrent rise of Home Rule movements in both countries from the 1880s onward, from the rise of the Land League in Ireland to its influence on the Cymru Fydd movement in Wales between 1885 and 1896.
De Barra’s central chapters trace the foundation of Pan-Celtic organizations in an era when many pan-nationalist groups were rising out of racial, linguistic, and geographic affinities across Europe, strengthened by the rise of mass literacy throughout the nineteenth century. From the ashes of the short-lived Pan-Celtic Society came Edmund Fournier and Lord Castletown’s Celtic Association, through which Fournier believed “the Celtic love of beauty would save humanity from the soulless excess of the modern world” (115). The Celtic Association promoted regular contact among...