The Celts – Gathering to Celebrate Life & Culture Heroically

The Celts – Gathering to Celebrate Life & Culture Heroically

The Celt’s aren’t a coming, they have always been here. They are a pretty passionate bunch too, so if you are contemplating getting among them, watch out you might find yourself singing and dancing before you know it. The Celts were, and are, exceedingly fond of gatherings, which is such a lovely word for bringing people together to celebrate a culture, whose origins reach back into the mists of time.

If you have any Celtic connection no matter how small, just get out and get into it and, you will find that celebrating life with the Celts can be an amazing experience. If you grew up with a proud Scottish grandmother as I did then you will know the emotive responses to the words, the legends, the dances, stories and songs of the ancient Celtic race, because they stay with you the whole of your life. It is very hard to stop your foot tapping when you hear Celtic music, or to control your urge to want to sing out loud when traditional songs are sung.

Throughout history the Celtic culture, wherever it found itself, met the challenges of each age heroically, despite many tragic occurrences. Through its deities, mythology and language today it expresses unyielding hope in the song and dance forms that celebrate the richness of its cultural heritage. In antiquity Celtic tribes and groups could be found from the British Isles and Northern Spain as far east as the Black Sea coast and Galatia in Anatolia. Some were absorbed into the Roman Empire as Britons.

The oldest evidence of their existence in archaeological terms comes from Hallstat nearby to Salzburg in Austria, where excavated graves of chieftains have revealed treasures from the Iron Age around 700 BC. This was when the Celts controlled trade along the Rhône, Seine, Rhine and Danube rivers.

While some countries around the world remain Celtic, others are peopled by only pockets of Celts. Today they try to remain individual, while sharing a common ancient Celtic ancestry.

Consequently they have a common musical heritage, although no one is really sure what it is. This is because over a long period of isolated evolution, each community of Celts has developed a distinctive style and characteristics of its own.

Discovering the secrets of iron was of great importance and it pervaded every aspect of their life linking them to the supernatural force watched over by their priestly class, the Druids.

According to Roman author Pliny the Elder nothing was more sacred to the Druids than mistletoe, an ancient symbol of fertility that was also considered an antidote to poison. Kissing under the mistletoe is a tradition that emerged out of early rituals and mythology, although the details remain lost in the mists of time.

The Celtic Cross of Avalon

The Celtic cross, is a powerful symbol of its meeting with Christianity containing an ancient pagan symbol, the wreath a symbol of victory.  Emerging out of central Europe the Celts migrated through Gaul (France) to Britannia, where they laid down solid foundations.

That is until the Romans, Vikings and Normans set out to wipe them out. Those that survived retreated into Wales, Scotland and Ireland, the Isle of Man and Brittany,  where the natural topography of the land allowed them to defend themselves.

In popular legend St Patrick (387 – c493) is said to have introduced the Celtic Cross to the Irish. Although there is no documentary evidence of it at that time. When I was living at Brisbane in the Turret of St Martins House in the precinct of St John’s Cathedral between 2000 and 2005.

Celtic Cross on the facade at St John’s Cathedral Brisbane, blessed by Dean David Thomas

It was wonderful to be on hand to kiss the Celtic cross blessed by the Dean, before it was hoisted into place on top of the facade of the Gothic revival designed St John’s when it was nearing completion after 100 + years of construction

St John’s Cathedral at Brisbane was designed by English architect John Loughborough Pearson late in the nineteenth century.

At that time Celtic symbols were very much part of the Gothic Revival architectural movement in England. It was led by architect/designer Auguste Welby Pugin, who also designed the Houses of Parliament at London.

J.B. Pearson was an avid disciple and follower of Pugin and his work. As the cross was Celtic and also because the Oxford Movement had taken the Anglican church back to its ‘catholic’ roots, it was very appropriate to incorporate it into the design of St John’s.

The design of the cross itself is a combination of a simple Christian cross with a round wreath in memory of Jesus’s sacrifice. The wreath, prior to the birth of Christ, had been given to victorious athletes in the pagan states of ancient Greece and Rome as a prize.  In the Christian world hanging a wreath on a cross at Easter in remembrance gradually, over the centuries came to represent his triumph and victory over death, as well as the promise of a new life to come.

Reynolds, Kelly and O’Connor saying Good Morning, from Singing in the Rain

Life is lovely in Brigadoon…

Whenever I went to visit or stay with my grandmother when I was growing up she always had me sing for her Scottish poet and lyricist Robbie Burns famous song Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon. It, and Danny Boy were her first and foremost favourite songs. That is until 1954 and the Hollywood musical Brigadoon burst onto the big screen.

Although the critics didn’t like it the public did and she and I went together. She loved the musical score and the dancing and didn’t stop talking about it for weeks afterward, even years. Starring Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and Van Johnson her favourite songs included  “I will Go Home with Bonnie Jean” and “Almost Like Being in Love”.

My Nan, as we called her, loved the pipes and if there was a Highland Marching Band playing anywhere we always went to watch and listen. A member of the Clan Campbell, she wore her tartan on special occasions.

When you and I were Young, Maggie was the Scottish song my mother liked to sing and play on the piano about her own mother. Her favoured rendition was by Irish singer John McCormack. The week before she gave up her spirit aged 93 in 1999, my mother sang it for me from her hospital bed one last time. It was a very difficult moment.

Highlander playing the pipes in a glen, shades of Brigadoon

Highlander playing the pipes in a glen, shades of Brigadoon

On my mother’s father’s side they were Scottish, Irish and Spanish and on my father’s families side they were Cornish. So one could say I am a Celt through and through, including that part of Spain some of my mother’s family came from.

In Portugal and Brittany in France (Gaul) pockets of Celtic peoples still celebrate life and their cultural heritage and music festivals are a regular occurrence. When I was in my formative years during the 50’s my family would go to the movies regularly on a Friday night.

My favourite movies were those that included tap dancing, a performance art form that crosses all cultural divides with its influences from the Juba dancing of Africa, English clogging, Irish step dancing, Scottish reel, plus the fire of Spanish flamenco. All these have cultural connections.

It was great in those days as you often got to see old pre-war tap dancing movies as a second feature. So I also remember the outstanding dancing talent of Eleanor Powell tapping up a treat solo, or with Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody 1942.

And how could anyone who saw them dance together could forget Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, as they were dancing and singing in the rain.

After that it was always a Good Morning.

Eighteenth century Jacobite glasses for toasting the king over the water, or sea

Nan used to immerse my brother and I in tales of her mother’s Scottish homeland. We could vividly imagine the highlands covered in the soft flowering lilac coloured heather.

We could see the stone castles and keeps set on the side of lochs and sitting prettily in a glen, just from her vivid description of them.

It was all amazing really because she hadn’t been there herself, such was the power of her own mother’s retelling of the stories that she passed down to us.

We would sit and listen eyes wide open as she told us all about England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-1689, a period of great strife. It had its origins in 1669, when James II, the Roman Catholic son of Charles I of England, fled the throne of England replaced by the Protestant monarchy of William III of Orange and his wife, Mary, James II’s daughter.

The inglorious defeat of James by William was something the Stuarts did not take lying down.  James II’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie failed, despite substantial, if often furtive support from the “Jacobites”, who championed their cause. Jacobite societies had to be secret since they were officially banned.

Nevertheless, they met frequently and, over a bowl of water, toasted “the King,” using glasses engraved with Jacobite symbols. The toast was well understood as a tribute to the “King over the sea,” or James III, as James Edward Stuart styled himself.

God bless the King! (I mean our faith’s defender!)
God bless! (No harm in blessing) the Pretender.
But who Pretender is, and who is King,
God bless us all! That’s quite another thing!

Traquair House, in the borders of Scotland

When I went to Scotland  for the first time I just had to visit Traquair Castle on the banks of the Tweed River in Scotland. It became the home of the Earls of Traquair and is still lived in by their descendants, the Maxwell Stuart family. It is the oldest inhabited and most romantic house in Scotland. By tradition a loyal Jacobite, the Fifth Earl of Traquair, is associated with one of the most romantic episodes in the history of the house; the closing of the Bear Gates.

One late autumn day in 1745 he wishes his guest, Prince Charles Edward Stuart a safe journey and gave him a promise that the gates would not be opened until the Stuarts were restored to the throne of England. That means the gates have remained closed ever since. It was extraordinary to go there and see if for myself after hearing the story for most of my young life. It was a connection to a culture and tradition that transcends both time and space.

Today Wales is considered perhaps the most modern Celtic nation, and their people are renowned for a rich heritage in voice and music. The Welsh eisteddfod, a festival of literature, music and performance still continues at home as it does in many other parts of the world where Celtic people form themselves into societies and interest groups to preserve the very best aspects of their culture.

In Scotland and Ireland the wearing of the kilt, the involvement of children in its step dancing traditions and a sense of fierce national pride is still very much in evidence. Belonging to a clan and attending gatherings is part of a way of life that is both comforting and uplifting.

My Nan (Clan Campbell) died before my children were born between 1968 and 1973. And although my mother tried to give my three sons the sense of their tradition as they grew up, it was a very different world to the immediate post war period I grew up in when people were, understandably revisiting and clinging to tradition. It was all about a sense of security. Whereas our lives had been survival, there’s was to be all about self-expression.

As my sons were growing up we entered a whole new era of world politics and cultural divides. This new world grew to the pulsating  rhythms of rock and roll and a whole new genre of pop music, which inevitably for them growing up with it, won out. In the 90’s when Mel Gibson was at the height of his popularity as an actor his portrayal of William Wallace in Braveheart (1995) wearing blue woad on his face and wearing his kilt riding a horse, helped to bring the Celts back into contention on the world stage.

Wallace’s famous inspiring speech in defiance of tyranny stimulated a desire it seems to know what once was, in order to drive forward the impetus for what is yet to be.

Michael Flatley, Lord of the Dance leading the Celtic charge Photo by Brian McEvoy

My sons were in their early 20’s by then and I was still searching for an opportunity to give them at least some understanding of the beauty and power of the traditional heritage to which they belonged. So it was with some excitement I discovered a pending visit to Sydney by Irish superstar dancer Michael Flatley and his dancing troupe. We all met one evening at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, because by now they were all well out of home forging a life on their own.

They were agog when they found out I was taking them to see a show about Irish dancing, but they didn’t protest too much or for too long, mainly because there we so many pretty red headed girls milling nearby. My family has always admired Titian locks.

When we settled into our seats, at what was to be an incredible concert, we looked out onto a sea of red hair everywhere, a sure sign it was a true Celtic occasion. Then the lights went down, the music thundered out and the Lord of the Dance flew through the air to land tapping his feet at a rate that seemed inconceivable. It was quite literally breathtaking. Flatley and his troupe gave a knockout performance, which for us all is now a treasured family memory.

Flatley  broke his own record for tapping the following year in February 1998, by achieving 35 taps per second and that to me still seems miraculous.  But it is there in black and white on his website. He also received the Guinness Book recognition in both 1999 and 2000 for being the highest paid dancer, earning $1,600,000 per week and for having the highest insurance premium placed on a dancer’s legs at $40,000,000. It was all quite simply CELTIC WOW.

Lovely Brisbane born Australian soprano Mirusia performed in a concert called Scotland the Brave, which is also the title of the unofficial anthem of Scotland, before she left to perform overseas with Andre Rieu.

I was pleased to have been there to see her perform before she left to build her brilliant career. Now she’s home again after five year’s abroad and enjoying a Home Tour.

Duo Diva, Kathleen Procter Moore with Liza Beamish sharing a Celtic heritage

In the decade 1999 – 2009 producing musical events at Brisbane and working with such talented ‘Celtic’ performers as mezzo soprano Kathleen Procter Moore and sensational coloratura Liza Beamish was a joy.

They shared my love of having a Celtic heritage and, when they performed as Duo Diva, there was sure to be a Celtic segment of songs. As a result there was, quite often, not a dry eye in the house. Kathleen, a Scot through and through with a lovely lilt in her voice to match has left her Celtic Footprints everywhere.

In America there is a group of five Irish guys and one Scot call themselves Celtic Thunder. They have gradually taken each state they perform in by storm. Although they are singing popular covers songs as well.

When they appear on stage in customized suited kilts to sing Ireland’s Call the audience goes wild. Check their coming shows on their website

In Wales, the home of the Celts, there is the Queen of Harps herself, Catrin Finch. Her website says that she has an interest in Welsh mythology and traditional Welsh music.

Catrin FinchHer performance playing Palladio on composer Karl Jenkins 60th birthday in 2008 gained world wide acclaim.

Watch the video or check up on Catrin’s whereabouts on her website

Then if we want to bring it into a pop idiom there is Cold Play, whose new single Paradise sounds as if it grew out of a highland gathering.

That incredible man with the feet of flames, Michael Flatley, after a successful return from early retirement on Dancing with the Stars in America in 2008 has made a comeback with his show the Celtic Tiger and you can see that his style of step dancing is certainly destined to make you fit.

Even the Greeks have claimed a connection to the Celts. On Britain’s Got Talent, when Stavros Flatley and his son took to the stage mixing levity with cultural creativity, the audience and judges were left speechless.

All hail the Celts.

In Australia contact Celtic Council of Australia if you want to find out about the next Celtic gathering.

Celtic Countries:
Isle of Man

Celtic Regions:
Cornwall (County of England)
Brittany (Part of France)
Nova Scotia (Province of Canada)

Non-Celtic Countries with pockets of Celts:
United States
New Zealand

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2010, 2011

1 Comment

  • Dale Benezra says:

    I really enjoy examining on this website , it holds fantastic blog posts. “Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.” by Carl Sandburg.

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