23 October 2015


There is a major exhibition in the British Museum about 'Celtic'. I haven't been yet, but I gather from the reviews that it is really about the instability of the way the term 'Celtic' has been used, particularly since, around the year 1700, its present connotations were invented. The book accompanying the Exhibition describes its purpose as being to trace the use of a label; and elegantly suggests that the term 'Celtic' was in fact used to define people seen as 'other', either by outsiders (such as the Romans) or (more recently) by themselves (as modern-day 'Celts' identify themselves under this name and club together in a desire to show how different they are from the rest of us). Readers will probably be aware that an academic study last summer of DNA in the British Isles Atlantic Archipelago yielded no evidence for a common 'racial' fingerprint in the 'Celtic fringes' distinguishing them from the other populations of these islands.

I repeat below a passage which I included in my ORDO in 2007:

Remember those happy heady days when 'Orthodoxy' was the 'sexy' version of Christianity? Eastern Christianity had more romance and less menace and 'rigidity' than Rome ... because it came from further away. Sadly, when we got to know them better, we discovered that the Orthodox were, if anything, distinctly more 'rigid' than Rome, particularly on questions like 'Intercommunion'.

Now, the 'sexy' religious 'thinggy' is 'Celtic'; religious bookshops flaunt sections on 'Celtic' Spirituality and 'Celtic' Prayer. It's safer than Orthodoxy because it's in an even more distant country called 'The Past', so we can all invent our own 'Celtic Christianities' without any risk that some terribly combative Saint like S Columba, or those Irish monks who spread holy hassle all over Europe, will rise from their graves and beat us up. If you are tempted to buy such books, check them out carefully. Does the 'Compiler' give actual sources for his/her material? Is he/she scholarly?

Historians have decisively abandoned the concept of the 'Celtic', and especially of a supposedly distinctive 'Celtic Church'. In the most recent major scholarly work on this subject, Professor Charles-Edwards' Early Christian Ireland (Cambridge, 2000), the distinguished author writes dismissively of 'that entity - beloved of modern sectarians and romantics but unknown to the early Middle Ages - "the Celtic Church"', and surveys in a footnote the scholarly work of the last thirty years which has established this.

If the 'Celtic' enthusiasts were serious, there is a Mass-rite they could revive. The earliest surviving Missal from these islands is the 'Stowe Missal', from the 790s [but copied from texts older than the reforms of S Gregory the Great] and of Southern Irish origin. Its Eucharistic Prayer is almost entirely identical with the current Roman 'First Eucharistic Prayer' except that it includes rather more Saints and describes the Pope as 'thy most blessed servant N our Pope, Bishop of the Apostolic See'. And it has a nice Prayer of Humble Access with phrases like 'I am unworthy because I filthily adhere to the mire of dung and all my good deeds are like a rag used by a menstrual woman'.

Splendid 'Celtic' stuff, mystical and uplifting!

Since writing that, I have noticed one attempt to breathe new life into 'Celtic', although not at all along the lines of the books I reprobated in this piece; and I believe there are groups which have experimented with the Stowe Missal. Fair enough; my only quarrel is with people who simply manufacture stuff themselves, sometimes of an in-tune-with-nature or down-with-Roman-dogma-and-legalism type, and slyly claim that it is 'in the Celtic Spirit'.


Hugh McLoughlin said...

If you are correct and there was no such thing as a "Celtic Church", why, then, was there any need for a Synod of Whitby in 664?

Anonymous said...

Books have nothing on the internet when it comes to wildness and confusion about Celtic spirituality and Celtic religions! I recall doing some trawling a few years ago in the course of Open University study on the Roman Empire and its gods, and was amazed at the weird and wonderful statements that abound.

(To be fair to the OU, I should make it clear that the courses I have taken contain very clear caveats and instructions on evaluating internet sites, including Wikipedia.)

One sees the same factoids repeated from site to site (eg the Goddess Eostre-into-Easter legend) and Frazer and Margaret Murray seem to be rich sources of (mis)information.

Paulusmaximus said...

Well said father! The Church in early Irish saw itself as under Rome. True, for some time they differed from Rome in their adherence to an outdated method for the calculation of Easter - deploying an 84 year cycle. This eccentric practice ceased in the southern part of Ireland in the 630s, and was completely abandoned by the last outpost, Iona, in 716. The Irish who felt they were upholding a tradition that had once been Catholic and Roman were clearly uneasy that their practice diverged from that of Rome. As Bede tells us, in 628 Pope Honorius I wrote to the Irish church pressing for adherence to Gallican and Roman usages. In response, southern Irish clerics convened a synod to discuss the matter, following which a delegation was sent to Rome and the south of Ireland adopted the Roman method of calculaton. In 640 a group of northern Irish churches wrote to Rome seeking papal advice on how to reckon the Easter date for the following year. The Life of St Molua (which I have dated to the 7th century)shows the very high regard in which Gregory the Great was held by the mid-sixth century -- Peritia vol 24-25 2013-4).

Fr. Michael LaRue said...

And I am sure the Celtic penitentials and monastic rules would also provide interesting reading for those into Celtic spirituality.

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

If one is wearing a sweater with County Cork identified as such in one color and the rest of Ireland in another color identified as, Not Cork, one can identify as a Celt

Evangeline said...

Amateur Brain Surgeon, I must ask, since I'm an American whose grandfather was born in Cork. Can you please explain why you said that? Is it just you love Cork? If so, why? I'm dying to know. Thank you in advance.

FrB. said...

Were the Galatians part of the "Celtic Church"? If not, why not?

"Celtic Church" hype sounds to me suspiciously like an excuse for anti-Romanism.

Jacobi said...

This is very close to my heart Father, being a Lowland Scot of a military family, trews only!

My Dad and uncles regarded blokes in short English designed and made skirts with some reservation.

I understand the term "celtic" was Roman and referred to Alpine Germanic people.

Another reason to keep clear of it!

Mick Jagger Gathers No Mosque said...

Dear Fenfrk. One of the boasts of ABS' family is that we had ancestors so incorrigible they were expelled from County Limerick and settled in County Cork and ABS has a daughter who just returned from a Honeymoon in Cork and she presented me with a T shirt that had that image on it.

As an aside, years ago the family went to confession in Bar Harbor, Maine that had a visiting Irish Priest and after Mass the next day we introduced ourselves and he laughed, O, that explains Confession yesterday. Ye Corkies are radicals

Evangeline said...

Haha, that's great Amateur Brain Surgeon. Here's a mystery in our own family. My cousin is a genealogist, who has well documented the family's link to Cork, indeed, we still have family there. He had a DNA comparison done between my brother's son and his own DNA. We should have matched. His resulted in the predictable Irish "lines", and ours came out matching 75% of Somalian males, not his.
I'm stumped, to say the least. I wonder how reliable those types of studies are.
Anyway it's fascinating stuff.

And I'd say, we Corkies are principled. :)

Confitebor said...

OK, scratch " Since Britain and Ireland were geographical and cultural backwaters during the early Middle Ages, . . . ." "Backwaters" is a pejorative and not really accurate term. I was referring to their relative remoteness or isolation from the rest of Europe for that general period of time, and how to helped certain older Catholic customs and disciplines to hold on longer there after other parts of Europe had changed -- not meaning to express any judgment of their culture.

Confitebor said...

fenfrk said: "His resulted in the predictable Irish 'lines', and ours came out matching 75% of Somalian males, not his."

Assuming your DNA test was done correctly, your test has revealed what is euphemistically known in genetic studies as "a non-paternity event." Get a second sample and test again to be sure. If you get the same results, you'll know that somebody somewhere along the line wasn't the son of who he thought (or perhaps claimed) he was.

Mary Kay said...

I've always thought that the lineage of my Waterford-based maternal line and my Finland/Oslo based paternal line were very similar. Although all would insist that we were not in any way related to the Swedes, or the British. (These are now semi-humorous family stories since my parents are no longer here to correct us if we differ...)

Banshee said...

It's not Celtic if it doesn't involve walking barefoot all night on cold rocks.