Tag Archives: W.B. Yeats

The “Pan Celtic Bug”

(written July 2016)

Who and what are “the Celts”? This is an old question, or debate. A common view in the humanities is that the idea of “Celts” is a cultural construct referring to a primitive pagan and rural people that have not made any contribution to the world. This perspective was rooted in the medieval Italian proverb that “civilisation is inseparable from the city”. It has been reflected in Bill McCormack’s judgement that the invention of an academic discipline called “Celtic Archaeology” is a nonsense because whoever the Celts were, they did not have “the logical or mathematical brains” necessary to construct architectural icons of civilisation such as the classical columns of Greece and Rome (‘the eternal city’). It has also been reflected in the judgement of Sean Connolly of Belfast that Gaelic society in Ulster and Scotland was “barbaric” because it was “Celtic” and rural, not urban.

“Pan Celticism” was an idea that developed in the 1880s in response to the idea that a “Celtic fringe” existed within the United Kingdom: that “fringe” being Scotland, Wales and Ireland. As an example, the English poet Matthew Arnold decided around this time that he was really a “Celt” because, being a poet, he was more interested in nature and rural life than maths or cities. For a time, I grew curious about the writings of a Cork journalist turned mawkish (sentimental) poet named Eugene Davis. He was an only child of a second marriage in an old Catholic family tied in with the local landed gentry and, to this day, I am not entirely sure if it was he, or Michael Davitt, who acted as an intermediary with the Irish College in Rome in Irish politics during the mid-1880s (a curious development, albeit a separate issue to the theme of this “blog”). I remember spotting, however, that Davis wrote in 1877 that he believed that the fact that he had a Welsh surname, like Thomas Davis, was a reason why he identified particularly with Irish sensibilities because he had a natural cultural affinity with “the purely Celtic Cymric [Welsh] race”. Some literary scholars love this type of talk. Historians are more inclined to view it as the type of irrational nonsense that only poets could speak.

Historically, there certainly was a cultural tendency to view the divide between urban and rural as one between the literate and the “not-so-literate” for without the possibility of leisure time that develops from urban dwellers liberation from the 24-7 challenge of subsistence living off the land, nobody would have the time to think about books, let alone read them. What the poets seemed to highlight, by contrast, was the issue (if there indeed is an “issue”) is not one of levels of literacy but one of a preoccupation with “nature” (including sensuality) or “maths” (a non-sensual matter). This philosophy (if it can indeed be called a “philosophy”) was, I think, central to muse of W.B. Yeats, who liked nothing better in his later years than attempt to sum up life in a few lines. His definition of the relevance of Statistics to modern life, for instance, was
‘Those Platonists are a curse’, he said,
‘God’s fire upon the wane,
A diagram hung there instead,
More women born than men.’

In other words, abstract logic (including philosophy) means nothing in the face of the reality that life exists in the realm of the senses more than it does in the realm of maths, and such are the simple truths of life that poets like, even if it causes them to go (according to conventional logic) just a little mad (or even ‘pagan’).

Yeats was led to pursue this type of sensual reasoning not least from his involvement with theosophy, which was the 1880s equivalent in Europe of the 1960s hippie new age/yoga movement in the USA. Eastern mysticism was seen to be at the roots not only of “classical” civilisation but of human civilisation as a whole, and that included, last but certainly not least, “the Celts”. Hence, the druids of poetry were now offering an alternative world vision to that of the priests of Rome (if not, perhaps, to that of the orthodox priests of Byzantium, although somehow I doubt that western European theosophists knew all that much about “that” world, which considered everything west of Constantinople, including the Protestant religious tradition of England, as an outgrowth of Rome).

From the mid-1920s onwards Yeats adopted a public profile of being critical of the Irish state, which has led many a historian to typify him as an antithesis to ‘official Ireland’ but his attitude towards Irish culture was actually very similar to Sean O’Riada, author of Our Musical Heritage and the composer of an anthem of official Ireland (‘Mise Eire’) not too long after Yeats’ death. This was that Irish culture, as reflected in its traditional music, was more ‘Oriental’ than ‘European’ in nature because unlike the European classical music tradition it was not written in the language of maths. Instead, it is “a voice of nature” in the same way as music is considered in the Far East. Was O’Riada, the composer of that old Irish Catholic Hymn ‘Ag Criost an Siol’ (Jesus Christ, The Seed), really a ‘decadent’ sensualist like Yeats? Or was he, quite simply, just an intelligent guy? Let the world decide.

And what has all this to do with the world of history? Should historians, those paragons of logical social science, allow themselves to become infected with the “pan-Celtic bug”? I think not. I think the conclusion that can be drawn from this broad perspective is that the history of humanity and the history of culture is actually quite a different thing from the history of politics, which is based on all those forms of logic that are rooted only in maths (be it architecture, construction, economics and all things monetary, including government). The more historians can perceive that issue of the two separate fields of human endeavour, the better for each, and yet all balanced minds should be able to understand the logic behind each. If there is a “great divide” in life, it is not between nations, or between male and female, or between logic and illogic. It is between the urban and the rural; the commercial and the natural. All students of the arts, no matter how that noun ‘art’ is defined or perceived, perhaps need to perceive this reality, which means an equal reliance upon instinctual as much as abstract reasoning; to be “at home” in the reality of the country as much as in the reality of the city. In truth, this may not be so difficult a challenge.