Celticism and Four Nations History

Celticism and Four Nations History

This week, PhD student Ian Stewart (London School of Economics) discusses the usefulness of a Four Nations approach when deconstructing ideas of Celticism. 

Roy Foster has written that ‘…the study of Irish history registers, like a seismograph, the wave of [contemporary] politics’.[i] ‘Four Nations’ History has followed a similar modus operandi, with conferences and edited collections paralleling the salient political moments of the Union over the past several decades. In this context, the importance of re-assessing points of convergence and divergence among the nations of the British Isles is self-evident.

I study modern ideas of Celticism, an identity that can be used to either highlight or downplay notions of difference amongst the nations. In many ways the study of Celticism has remained trapped within the strictures of national historiography, but, like all national identities, it was born in the context of international cultural transfers and needs to be studied as such. Over the course of the nineteenth century, Celtic identity was increasingly used to unite the Celtic nations, culminating in the Celtic Association (1900-1912), which institutionalised Pan-Celticism as its official operating principle.

Celticism was first and foremost an ethnic identity. The use of the label ‘Keltoi’ can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who used the term to refer to barbarians to their west and north. It was rediscovered by early modern philology and given shape by writers concerned with the emerging idea of national characters. The eighteenth century saw a significant increase in interest with ‘the nation’, with scholars creating typologies of the different nations of Europe, based most frequently on an ethnic core or ethnie.[ii] The ethnie was most often held to be connected by language. Johan Caspar Zeuss’ Grammatica Celtica (1853) demonstrated persuasively that the Celtic languages extended from the same Indo-European root, thereby ‘asserting the internal unity of the Celtic family’.[iii] From this point, international overtures began to be made amongst the Celtic countries, as those who lived in the Celtic countries began to self-identify as Celts and articulate ideas of their Celtic ethnicity.

The ‘land question’ allowed Celtic ideas to be tied to political programmes, as reformers relied on ethnic historicist interpretations of the Celtic people, stressing their ancient rights to the land. While Prime Minister, Gladstone was particularly influenced by this historicist discourse, writing to William Harcourt that it was the ‘historical fact’ which entitled interference from parliament, that tenant-farmers ‘had rights of which they have been surreptitiously deprived…’[iv] At the Highland Land League Conference of 1886, the idea of a ‘Celtic League’ – consisting of Wales, Scotland and Ireland – was floated and received favourably, though it proved quickly ineffectual. The League viewed the land agitation as an issue of Celt against Sassenach, revealing a coalescing idea of Celtic unity.

In the cultural sphere, the international spread of Celtic festivals – relying on the Eisteddfod as a template – led to increased cooperation among Celtic cultural figures and cultural bodies. The Celtic Association, the first sustained Pan-Celtic organisation, emerged out of this situation, in 1900. Oddly, the Association was led by an English physicist named Edmund Edward Fournier d’Albe, with an Irish Liberal-Unionist, Lord Castletown, serving as President. Fournier composed the programme of the Association and made it clear that race was the keystone of the movement, with language revival its main aim. Fournier stated in 1903 that the goal was ‘The establishment of the Celtic languages as the dominant languages in their respective countries’.[v]

While writers had predominantly used Celticism in the context of their own national stories, Pan-Celticism looked back furthest to when the Celtic family was whole. The movement eventually failed, largely as a result of the strength of individual nationalist movements and their unwillingness to adopt a more cosmopolitan view of Celticism. However, the Celtic Association had helped to spur revival in Cornwall and the Isle of Man, and manifestations of Pan-Celticism still exist today, though they are based on language and not race. Just as a parochial inability to move beyond the individual nation precluded the formation of a genuine Pan-Celtic sentiment, so a relatively insular tendency amongst historians of the Celtic nations has hindered the study of Celticism and its international aspects. The utility of a ‘Four-Nations’ approach is obvious in re-examining the development of Celtic thought and creating a more accurate picture of the history of Celtic relations amongst the nations of the Isles.

[i] R.F. Foster, Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in English and Irish History (London, 1993), p. 2.

[ii] Anthony D. Smith, Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A cultural approach (London, 2009), p. 27.

[iii] John O’Donovan, ‘Zeuss’s “Grammatica Celtica”’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vii (1859), pp. 11-32.

[iv] Letter to Sir W. Harcourt, Gladstone Diaries, xi. p. 279.

[v] Celtia, iii (March, 1903), p. 33.

Ian Stewart is completing the first year of his PhD at the LSE. His research combines history with sociological approaches to nationalism. The title of his thesis is Celtic Nationalism and the Pan-Celtic Movement, 1853-1922.


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